Thursday, 13 July 2017

On Genre 1: What is Young Adult fiction?

This train of thought was inspired by a Twitter rant, from the Barnes and Noble official account of all places, about people who don't realize that many women write books that are neither YA nor romance. My response was "but women writing YA is why YA is better!". It's not a good response, and here I'm going to figure out why that was my response.

Young Adult fiction (YA) is kind of a two-faced genre. On the one hand, it's known for easily mockable tropes like "the female protagonist who matters because she's Not Like Other Girls," "the popular kid crushed on from a distance who turns out to actually be attracted to the protagonist," Chosen Ones, love triangles, and people refusing to communicate until it's too late. On the other hand, it's the only genre label I've found so far that consistently includes good queer and minority representation, not to mention uplifting stories with happy endings.

Are these the same genre? There's certainly not a gender divide, which is why my first response was inappropriate: Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and J. K. Rowling rely on the cliches just as heavily as John Green (who claims to be parodying the tropes, but it doesn't always show), and Neal Stephenson's coming of age epic Anathem, though not without its problems, somehow avoids almost all the cliches. There might be a generational divide, with most of the good rep being written by people who grew up with the cliches and are sick of them, but I'd like more data before I make that claim.

Now here's where my own perception of genre starts to muddy the issue. A lot of books I think of as YA are actually about adults. Thinking here of Shira Glassman's Mangoverse series and Ruthanna Emrys' Winter Tide. The main characters of both are technically adults, but I've come to associate optimistic fiction so closely with young adult fiction that I find myself calling both YA. To me, Adult Novels are about divorces, court cases, spies trying to overthrow governments, trauma and tragic miscommunication and sex scenes that don't make narrative sense.

How did that happen? Do other people make this association? (Pretty sure Ms. Glassman has tweeted that her books are in fact classified as YA despite being about adults.) How did Fiction For Grownups become so damn depressing, and how did happiness get relegated to the children's section?

Perhaps the writer who best exemplifies this dichotomy is Neil Gaiman, who writes about childhood from the perspective of an adult. The "childlike realms" in his books--like London Below, and the extended flashbacks in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, are full of magic and wonder. Sometimes it's dark magic, but there's always someone who can put things right, and there's always something to marvel at. These realms are contrasted with an extra-gray depiction of adult life, in which nothing happens and all the POV characters leap at the chance to return to some vestige of their lost childhood and its attendant awe.

I think that's what I don't like about Gaiman's work: the implication that when we grow up, the true wonder of the world is lost to us, and that only by abandoning society can we find our way back. This philosophy is not just Gaiman's. It pervades our society and our genre classifications. Hmm, maybe that's why there are so many editorial rants about "millennials" refusing to grow up--because people of my generation and younger (also slightly older) want their adulthood to retain some of the joy of their childhoods, instead of throwing a hard section break in between the stereotypes of one and the stereotypes of the other.

That's a terrible generalization, but that's where you the hypothetical reader come in. What that I have said makes sense? What doesn't, or is just plain wrong? How do we make it more okay for Books For Adults to not be dark and depressing?

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