Sunday, 12 April 2015

Limbo

This was originally posted on my Tumblr, in response to a question here



"Oh my God, we've been boxed!"

Age-based categorisation of a books is a topic I find fascinating. From the beginning, there was never any question that The Bone Season would be an Adult book. When my agent was sending it out to publishers, he sent it to the Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury’s Adult division. She was the one who first loved the book and made a passionate offer on it; it was never considered, to my knowledge, for Bloomsbury’s YA and Kids’ division. I’ve spoken about why I think it was the best choice here. However, other opinions differed. I’m published as YA in the vast majority of territories not covered by Bloomsbury, and I’ve seen my books on various YA lists and shelves on Goodreads and other websites.

Personally, I don’t mind how you categorise the books. I am very proud to be a member of either the YA or Adult book communities, and to have people of all ages reading my novels. I seriously doubt that there are many readers out there who strictly adhere to one or the other. So many articles disparaging YA imply that people who read it, especially adults, are reading below their level and are thus missing out on the rich variety of Adult books, which is bullshit for two reasons: [a] reading YA doesn’t mean you only read YA, and [b] quality within YA ranges as much as it does in Adult. There are well-written, challenging, diverse and exciting YA books, and there are terrible Adult books, and vice versa. Age-based marketing should never, ever be used as a measure of quality. 

For the whole of my career so far, I have existed in a strange limbo between Adult and Young Adult. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed this fluidity. I don’t like to say who I do and don’t think should read my books. I like that people of many ages feel perfectly comfortable reading them. I’ve met people in their seventies who’ve loved it, and people in their early teens, and every age between. The one label I didn’t want to give The Bone Season was Children’s or Kids’, as I genuinely don’t believe it would be appropriate to call my books “children’s books”. This isn’t because I have anything against children’s books at all, but because I don’t see how my work fits into that category. There’s swearing, sex and violence, which I have no intention of toning down, and most of the characters are adults. But apart from that, I don’t aim for a particular age demographic.

Sometimes, limbo can feel a little lonely. Books tend to be split crudely into “YA” and “Adult” or “genre” and “literary”. Awards, prizes, literary festivals, and other industry events are often based around these categories. I don’t fit clearly into the YA or Adult category, so I sometimes feel as if I’m not a fully-fledged member of either community; as if I’m too YA for Adult and too Adult for YA. I was invited to speak about YA on the radio late last year, for example, and I saw someone who was baffled by the fact that myself and the other speaker had been invited over “actual YA authors”. I’m not criticising this person at all – it’s true, and there are many YA authors who deserve a lot more coverage – but I admit, it bruised a little, seeing it said so bluntly. It made me realise that I wasn’t considered by some to be a real part of the community. I’m not a YA author in the UK, but I am one in Spain and Italy and various other countries. I love being invited to YA conventions and events, but because I’m not a YA author in the Anglosphere, I sometimes miss out. Meanwhile, in more Adult environments, saying I write dystopian fantasy fiction about clairvoyants in the future occasionally earns me a blank look. Fortunately, the lines between YA and Adult are becoming more and more vague, and many readers and writers glide between both.

I don’t think anybody really knows how to define YA, or distinguish it from Adult. I’ve seen reviews of my books that say the content is YA, but the pace is Adult. I’ve seen reviews saying they’re clearly Adult. I’ve seen reviews criticising Bloomsbury for the Adult categorisation. 

What are the real markers of YA? I found the pace idea particularly interesting. Do YA books have to be very fast, loaded with action? (In which case, aren’t Dan Brown’s books YA?) Do they have to place more emphasis on story than character development? (Are we saying here that YA characters are universally flat and stagnant?) Is the marker of YA simply that the books are about teenagers? (If so, why are John Green’s books sometimes classified as Adult?) Is it to do with some subjective view of the quality of the writing? Does the writing have to be simplistic or economic to be YA, while Adult books are lyrical and use richly descriptive language? (Isn’t Laini Taylor’s work Adult, then, and George Orwell is YA?)

Or is it to do with who buys the books? Does YA have to be bought by young adults? (Yet a recent statistic suggests that 80% of YA books in America are bought by adults.)

So clearly there is no consensus among readers, but age-based categorisation of books is still upheld by both the publishing industry and booksellers. And you can understand the logic behind it, as they need some way to market them. Arguably, genre is one way they can do this, and they do – but then, some books don’t fit into one clear genre. either. I also feel that genre-based categorisation could make aspiring writers feel as if they have to write within the confines of a genre to ensure there’s a place for their book on the shelves – which, in turn, could discourage experimentation. We don’t want to create a world where books are locked into a faction system, or where people feel guilty for enjoying stories that are supposedly too young for them. There has to be room for the Divergent books that tick multiple boxes – the ones that break that system – or they’ll fall between the cracks. And I believe most books are Divergent; that very few books in the world can be easily defined by a label, or an age range.

Age-based categorisation isn’t great, and it’s terribly subjective, but I doubt it’s going away any time soon. Think of it as a guideline, nothing more. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t read. Don’t think you can’t write books that appeal to both adults and teenagers. Basically, we should all do what we can to avoid limiting readership for any book.

3 comments:

  1. These marketing categorizations are marginally useful when shopping for children's birthdays when you don't know the child. Otherwise they are laughably irrelevant.

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    1. That's true. I think they are a lot more relevant in general for children's books. Once you get into teen, YA and adult, the lines become far more blurry.

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  2. I think the age categorization helps a lot when it comes to booksellers (like myself) and teachers and the like trying to figure out a guide for what's appropriate to sell to teens (and by "what's appropriate" I mean "what won't get a parent in the office yelling at administration for selling books with certain content to their kid.") It's STILL subjective even after that, but the YA label generally gives us at least a starting point for figuring out what we should and shouldn't bring to bookfairs, what librarians are okay with selling or having in their libraries, what grades each book is appropriate for (for example: we bring certain YA books to middle schools). Now, it still takes a good bookseller doing his/her research and a librarian who also does research to try to make sure we're only bringing or selling "appropriate" material - and the definition of "appropriate" varies by school, librarian, school system, parish, etc. A good example of that is that the bookstore where I work does bookfairs at public and private schools, and most of these private schools are often religious schools. They have certain ideas about "appropriateness" that aren't often found in public schools, so we have to consider what we bring so that we and the librarians don't end up in trouble because a parent got mad at the book their kid brought home. The YA designation AT LEAST tells us from the off that the books are aimed at and considered by the publisher to be appropriate for teens, and we can go from there and build on that to meet what each individual school seems as "appropriate" for each individual book fair. Without that age categorization, I would be a nearly insurmountable task to figure out which books in the entirety of adult fiction might be a good fit for our school book fairs. We do bring adult titles to the fairs as well, but we separate them as "adult" so that any kid or parent who buys it knows that we're only guaranteeing that it is appropriate for adults and can't get mad if there's something in it that they don't consider appropriate for their teen. Even if it's not what the YA label means, the vast majority of parents (in my experience) seem to believe that a label like YA means it is DEFINITELY appropriate for their teenager (which, since everyone has their own idea of appropriateness, isn't always the case). So in book fairs, we try to make that the case as much as possible. It's unfortunate that the label is being used in this way, but there are many lazy parents or sometimes just parents who don't know any better (often because they aren't readers themselves or perhaps because YA wasn't really around during their teen years) who insist on using not only YA but Middle Grade and Young Readers and other more specific age designations as an end-all-be-all guide to what their kid should or should not be reading. We do our best to subtly discourage this and instead encourage parents to talk to their kids and let their kids buy what interests and challenges them (rather than what the reading level says they should read), though this doesn't always work. Parents, I've found, are CONSTANTLY looking for an age-based recommendation, probably 8 times out of 10, at least.

    So there are definitely pros and cons, though I think in general it helps to have that age-based baseline that people can go off of, even if it is rather arbitrary in reality. It helps those who know better to pay better attention and get the right book in the right reader's hands, and it helps often clueless parents at least not accidentally buy their 15-year-old 50 Shades of Grey.

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