I bet you came here ready to have a fight. But please, let me assure you that I have no beef with “YA” books. I just think it’s a rating, not a genre.
YA stands for “Young Adult” and was initially used by bookstores and libraries to provide a space for readers who were no longer children looking for picture books or reading levels for single digit age groups, but who might not be ready to read just everything the bookstore might have to offer. The idea is that 10-14 year olds don’t have to go to the children’s section and embarrass themselves among their peers, but their parents can be more or less certain that graphic sex or violence will not be shoved under their kids’ noses.
All well and good. This is a huge portion of the market, not just because so many people in this age group are spending their pocket money on books, but also because so many adults, too, through nostalgia and a similar yearning for books that are just fun and engrossing without being gross, really like to peruse books aimed at this group.
The issue is that through a series of events including mimicry, prolific authors, and reader expectations, people have started to identify this rating system with a genre. There are tropes that are quite common for this age group: coming of age stories, teens conquering the establishment, love triangles, and also writing styles we associate–like flowery or “purple” prose, more “surface level” or simplistic writing styles that are very easily consumed etc.
And this is where things start to go haywire.
Coming of age stories, like Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie? Is that YA?
Teens conquering the establishment, like Red Sister by Mark Lawrence?
Love triangles, like Deathless by Cat Valente?
Purple prose like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber?
Simple writing like Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey?
It is utter tomfoolery to say that things that are remotely similar to those tropes are YA simply because they include those elements. We can think of a name for a subgenre for writing in this style, but boy howdy would it be a mistake to give a lot of books that could qualify to tweens. Even books that check off all the boxes, like RF Kuang’s award nominated Poppy War and Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” are not the sort of thing I’d give to a 12 year old unsupervised, though they are things I think make use of the emotive genre’s writing style.
Simple writing isn’t necessarily bad writing. People drool on themselves looking at Picassos even though I think we all know a few motivated kindergartners who can employ similar use of color and lines. Coming of age stories can be extremely relevant to full adults and not really suitable at all for people who are still in the midst of their transformation. The movie Closer has some of the most notable love triangles I’ve ever seen, but I think I’d have a heart attack if that was enough reason for it to be in the “Teen Drama” section of Netflix that my baby cousin might peruse, alongside My Hero Academia.
So what is it that makes these books feel like they belong to a genre other than some version of adult fantasy?
Like I mentioned earlier, there is a sort of genre-esque element in combinations of attributes, and I’d love for someone to name it. Purple prose fantasy or Emotive fantasy or something might capture it well enough without accidentally shocking the hell out of some 11 year olds (and let’s be honest, more so their parents.) There is a sort of style to this, like there’s a style including graphic body horror in grimdark books. There are rhythms, like we have with the rise and fall of the story in a quest fantasy. And it makes sense that we’d see those similarities and label a box for them.
I think a lot of this is perception, not just of the style of writing, but about the people who read stories like this, and I think a lot of that has to do with sexism, racism, and homophobia. We think of twitterpated girls reading Twilight, and the unsophisticated reader (who in our imagination might again be a woman) who just “doesn’t know better” who might prefer Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. But liking a certain type of story, or having a certain type of identity certainly isn’t indicative of actual quality (or lack thereof), right? It would be asinine to say that things women and girls like are bad just because they’re liked by women and girls, right? It would make no sense to condemn someone for liking 1980s cult classic movies more than JJ Abrams works, would it?
But that sure is the sentiment. That is the perception of people who can find enjoyment in things that are less literary, or books which might indulge a bit in more emotive descriptions. Unless, of course, the work is by a man for men and boys. And then it’s just your run of the mill superhero or quest fantasy. Then the prose is beautiful, the love interests romantic, and any failings in quality hearken back to an earlier time which we apparently must just allow because “things were different.” There seems to be a rather obvious gap between what is a classic, and what is for a child.
This might feel like a hard pill to swallow. But name me a man whose works are definitely considered YA who did not actively say that he was writing for children or teens. The magical realism and mythical based works from African and South American authors, how many of them are considered “serious” or “adult” fiction?
This is not to say that people who don’t like these books, or who would give anything like this to their tween family and friends are bad people. And possibly it’s just because we don’t have a good subgenre name available for this sort of book, so we lump it with things that are similar. But there’s a lot of bias against “YA” for adults, which makes it difficult for those books to win awards, become selected for book clubs, and generally to find audiences perhaps better suited to them than 10-14 year olds, which then condemns the author to needing a pen name, needing to actually write for that age group, thereby fulfilling the prophecy, or content themselves with mediocre careers lacking a solid audience.
And that’s a bullshit choice.
I urge you all to help me think of an appropriate subgenre name that allows us to move away from shelving books about war atrocity or baser aspects of human interactions as “YA”, and to think through what it is that you would actually feel confident giving to teens for their reading pleasure, versus a writing style you just don’t personally enjoy. How does that change a book’s classifications, if at all?