Intention and response
Mohsin asked me to write about age ranges this week. This can be a big concern for both aspiring and published writers. Many agents will only represent novels that fall into certain age brackets; some won't represent YA, some will only represent YA. It can be difficult to establish who your book is aimed at. Agents generally expect you to indicate whether the book is for children, teenagers or adults, and you need to have some idea of it.
When I wrote The Bone Season, I didn't really aim it at a particular age group. I wrote in the initial query to my agent that it was a YA novel (specifically aimed at the upper end of YA, i.e. 17-18), as I wasn't sure Paige was quite old enough for it to be classified as adult, although she was really too old to be a YA heroine. When it reached Bloomsbury, however, it was generally agreed that adult was the most appropriate category. Many of the characters are considerably older than Paige, and I wanted to be able to play with adult themes in the rest of the series. I was afforded the freedom to write what I wanted without having to tone anything down or cut anything out. At no point was I told that a scene was inappropriate for my target audience.
Deciding on your target audience is one of the most important aspects of the writing process, but it can be difficult to make a choice without limiting yourself. Target audience has become a genre in itself; a 'YA novel' tends to have similar themes and characters no matter what the genre. Let's look at a few different categories.
Children: From 0-8, roughly. These books will be very simple, getting progressively more complex as the child grows older. Often they'll be clearly labelled to indicate which age group they're aimed at. At this stage, age is possibly the most important factor in how a child reads: their brains may not be developed enough to read books beyond a certain level of difficulty.
Middle Grade (MG): This kind of book should be suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 12. MG novels tend to be between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. These books generally don't contain violence or sex (although there might be bloodless violence, e.g. punching and kicking), but they may start to broach on topics that might trouble young children: parents divorcing, arguments with friends, bullying, identity, school troubles and death. Jacqueline Wilson's books are a great example of MG. I remember reading The Suitcase Kid when I was eight, after my parents divorced, and really identifying with the main character's experiences.
Teen: Aimed at young people between 12 and about 15, where the category begins to blur with Young Adult. I see this as a bridge genre, linking childhood with the big changes of young adulthood. These books are unlikely to include a lot of swearing or sexual content, but there may be kissing, moderate violence and mild swear words (e.g. Harry Potter uses 'bloody').
Young Adult (YA): Since the Twilight saga, YA has boomed into a big, big market. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18, but YA novels tend to focus on the latter end of this age range, from 16 to 18. These books will usually feature a protagonist of this age group, with themes including sexuality, drugs, family troubles, love, early sexual experiences and peer pressure. Interestingly, around 55% of YA fiction books are purchased by readers over the age of 18. This is one of the reasons why YA is such a successful genre.
New Adult (NA): Also known as post-adolescent literature, New Adult is an emerging genre with multiple definitions. It was first proposed by St Martin's Press in 2009 to acknowledge the changes that come between childhood and adulthood, so it's very new on the literary scene – so new that most bookshops don't yet recognise it as a category. NA books may contain stronger violence, sex and profanity than YA books (some say it's just YA with sex), or simply focus on the challenges that come in your late teens and early twenties. What unites NA books is the age of the protagonist, usually 18 to 25. They may be attending college rather than high school, or starting their first job. There's some debate about whether or not NA will become a legitimate genre, or whether it's simply a passing trend following the success of several self-published NA novels (e.g. Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire). You can find out more about the genre at NA Alley.
Adult: Suitable for, you guessed it, adults. Basically anyone of 20-30 and above. Adult novels may have a more sophisticated or 'literary' prose style and / or deal with different themes to YA and NA novels, e.g. divorce, marriage, work and other things that we young-ish adults don't have to deal with just yet. Adult novels have no real limits in terms of how much explicit sex, bad language and gore they can include, as readers are assumed to be psychologically equipped to cope with it. Genre provides a useful indicator for adults as to the content of the books they read – if they don't like gore, they can stay away from crime; if they don't like sex, they can stay away from erotica.
So how do you know which category your book falls into? Word count isn't always a helpful way to measure. As I said, I originally wrote The Bone Season with a YA audience in mind; it's technically NA, as Paige is 19 years old, but being marketed by Bloomsbury's Adult Fiction division (NA still isn't recognised as a genre by most publishing houses). It's over 130,000 words long, so it's definitely too big for MG, but that's about the only thing word count can help us with – you only have to look at the Harry Potter novels to see that novels within one genre and storyline can have a wide variety of word counts.
Many books for young people have crossover appeal, meaning they may attract readers from more than one category. All readers have different maturity levels; it's impossible to generalise how readers of the same age will respond to a book, making it difficult to put fiction into rigid age categories (which goes back to my post on The boxing of books). Yet as writers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our books keep as much as possible within the limits of appropriacy for each age range. Of course, publishing houses will tell you which category your book will fall into, and how to make it suitable for that category, but the last thing you want to do is write a novel for one age group and then have to edit out a lot of what happens.
One thing to look out for, when you start writing, is SPV: Sex, Profanity and Violence. How explicit is your book? Would you be comfortable with a child reading it? Use your common sense when you think about your audience. Even if you don't have a child of your own, think about how people of certain ages might respond to your book's content.
In 2008, American author John Green released a video, I Am Not a Pornographer, on this very topic. His book Looking for Alaska contains a short oral sex scene, during which the narrator, Miles, has his first orgasm. Miles is seventeen, so Looking for Alaska is in YA territory. Parents at a school in New York were asked to sign a permission slip for their children to study the book, but some parents – not necessarily those whose children were in that year – had a problem with the book being taught at all, on the grounds that it was 'pornographic'. Green pointed out that the scene is in no way titillating, and that it was intended to be read as 'awkward, un-fun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic'. He also argues that most teenagers are critically equipped to study these kinds of scenes, and that people often underestimate their ability to distinguish fiction from reality. Varian Johnson wrote an article in response to the controversy, pointing out that Green uses the emotional emptiness of the sex to highlight the next scene, in which there is no physical intimacy, but instead a deep emotional connection. Green summarised his intentions for the scene as follows:
The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails [...] Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.
So the author's intentions have been misread by the parents. Intention and response often become entangled, causing misunderstanding (see What I wrote & what you read by Claire King). This is a particularly big concern when you're writing for young people, and when your book is given a label. Parents trust those labels. When they buy a book for small children, they trust that there will be no mention of sex, drugs or violence – but when you start writing for teens and above, the lines begin to blur. Every reader is different. Some teens are more mature than others. What you have to remember, as the writer, is that your book is not one book: it is many books, with many facets and meanings, because each reader has his or her own vision of it. It's a similar process to translation – in a way, your book speaks to each and every person in a different language. Personally, I agree with John Green: it's okay to include a certain degree of mature content in YA and NA literature, but the way you present it is absolutely critical. It's all about how as well as what.
The same applies to adult novels. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. While millions of readers love the book and consider it harmless, some say it normalises domestic abuse and even paedophilia. Did EL James intend to normalise those things? I highly doubt it. Here's what she said in response to the domestic abuse allegations:
Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse. Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.
So James clearly didn't intend to write a book that trivialises domestic violence, but survivors of domestic abuse did read it that way – one women's charity was so outraged that they called for the book to be burned. James's words spoke to them in a very different language than the one she thought she was speaking.
What people tend to worry about in literature is the message it will give to young readers, who are considered by some to be impressionable and still formulating an idea of their morals. Parents claimed Looking for Alaska would cause 'immoral thoughts' in children. We can't know exactly what they meant by this, but I'll assume they were implying that young people might read Looking for Alaska and want to try oral sex. There seems to be a pervading concern that some young readers might be tempted to imitate what they see in a book. Let's say you write about a girl whose every move is controlled by her boyfriend, or vice versa. A teenager – or, indeed, an adult – might read that book, and because that relationship is presented as an ideal, and because it's popular with other readers, might just start to think that kind of relationship is normal – even desirable. Young men and women might then be encouraged to seek out that kind of relationship and that kind of partner, putting them in an unhealthy or even dangerous situation.
Like any art form, literature is subjective. The same words can be read in millions of ways, just as paintings can be seen in many lights. I've said before that I lean towards to the Death of the Author theory, which was suggested in an essay by Roland Barthes in 1967. The theory suggests that the intentions of the writer are unrelated to the book, which should be viewed as an enclosed object. Barthes says:
[L]iterature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
What he's saying is that there is no agency in a book. The author arranges the words and puts them out there, but from then on out, the book has no single identity. No single opinion on the book, even that of the writer, should be considered right or wrong. This can certainly be frustrating for writers – I'm sure it will be frustrating for me when readers see something in The Bone Season that I don't personally agree with – but if a reviewer sees something in a book, whether good or bad, then they have every right to voice it. Misinterpretation of the author's intentions doesn't invalidate a reader's opinion; it simply provides a different reading of the book. When you publish your book, you accept that. Of course, the book is still 'yours' in that you created it, and I believe authors should have a right to state their intentions for the book if they choose – but like a parent, you don't have sole ownership over your child. That child will be loved, liked and disliked by different people. That's life. That's literature. And at the end of the day, that's why we love it. You can be wrong in maths and science, but you're always right in art.
So let me round this off by bringing the discussion back to age ranges. We've established that a book is a subjective object, and that everyone will react differently to it, no matter what their age – but we still have to be cautious when we write, and do our utmost to give the best messages we can. (Of course, that depends on our personal opinion of what's good and bad. I wouldn't baulk at writing about premarital sex, but other people would have moral objections to doing the same.) If you get stuck on what's considered suitable for each age group, one guideline would be the British Board of Film Classification or a similar film certificate system. Look at the guidelines for Parental Guidance (PG) films. The website says that 'a PG film should not disturb a child aged around eight or over'. Note that all-important word should. The BBFC can't guarantee that a PG film won't upset certain children over the age of eight, but they've made a reasonable assumption, based on the opinions of their board, that the average eight year-old won't be troubled by it. Books don't have these certificates – we can't stop people buying them in the same way we can stop a six year-old seeing Dawn of the Dead at the cinema – but we can use our common sense, and handle our subjects with as much care as we can.
What do you think about age ranges? How do you judge appropriacy when you write?