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YA or Not YA

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In line with his event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival entitled “The Great YA Debate”, author Anthony McGowan shares his views on Young Adult Literature and its impact on young adults’ reading habits. 

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‘I rewrote [the book], toning down (a little) the filth (and the philosophy). It got published, and I became known as a YA writer.’

© Jerry Bauer

© Jerry Bauer

I’ve had a long, rather complex involvement with Young Adult literature. It’s one of those relationships that began with a misunderstanding, blossomed briefly into love, fell then into complacency, before collapsing with recriminations on both sides. Now we hate each other and only communicate through mutual friends (although I think they’re mainly on her side).

Back in the 1990s I began writing a book about a teenage boy who dies and goes to hell. I’d heard that there was a publishing category termed ‘Young Adult’. I was in my twenties. Was I a young adult? I thought I probably was. The book was aimed at people, like me, in their 20s. It was full of filth and philosophy.

The novel, called Hellbent, was universally rejected, generally with bafflement, occasionally with scorn. But at some stage I realised that YA didn’t actually mean books for young adults (18 to 30, in my rough reckoning), but teenagers. I rewrote it, toning down (a little) the filth (and the philosophy). It got published, and I became known as a YA writer.

My subsequent novels, Henry Tumour, The Knife that Killed Me and Hello Darkness would all be found (if they were to be found at all) on the YA shelves in bookshops. But although I’d occasionally use the term YA, I more often said that my job was writing teenage books, for teenagers, with teenagers in them, doing teenage stuff. Which isn’t to say that my books were easy – on the contrary, I tried to make them intellectually demanding, but also relevant and, to the best of my ability, funny.

‘Of course some adults buy books for teenagers, but combined with my first-hand observation, it did appear strongly to me that the majority of the readers of YA are adults. And not always that young.’

But as time went by, I detected a change in the YA books on the shelves. Along with this grew a sense that something was wrong. Wrong with my books, and wrong with the very concept of YA.  My feeling of unease came to a head a couple of years ago, when I was a speaker at YALC – the Young Adult Literature Convention. In many ways the atmosphere was highly convivial. It was part of the Comi Con at Earl’s Court, an event filled with love and happiness, where the glorious oddballs were no longer odd, just glorious. But YALC was curiously monocultural. The audience was almost exclusively white. At least 90% female. And this is the oddest thing – overwhelmingly grown-up. There were a few kids dotted about, but I’d guess that less than 10% of the audiences for the events were teenagers.

And this made me think that perhaps YA books weren’t really ‘for’ teenagers. Some recent figures from Nielsen Bookscan support this. 80% of YA books, it seems are bought by adults. Of course some adults buy books for teenagers, but combined with my first-hand observation, it did appear strongly to me that the majority of the readers of YA are adults. And not always that young.

‘So why has YA come to mean books aimed at women in their 20s and 30s?’

So why has YA come to mean books aimed at women in their 20s and 30s? Various hypotheses present themselves. Many of the writers are in this category. At a recent YA book event in Birmingham, of the 37 authors appearing, 31 of them were women. They write, naturally enough, the kinds of books they want to read. Many of the editors are part of the same demographic. Brilliant, delightful, dedicated young middle class women. Added to this is the fact that publishing is in thrall to the wonderfully free service supplied by book bloggers – many of whom are, as you’ve guessed, women in their 20s and 30s.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that publishing spews out endless books in theory ‘for’ teenagers, but in practice designed to appeal to older, female readers?

Does it matter? I’m delighted for teenagers to read adult books – it’s what I did.  And it’s also vital that young people read books by and about the opposite sex. The novel is the supreme art form for helping you get into the head of another person. Reading novels hugely enriches our knowledge of the world, and the great struggling sea of humanity, and so it’s great for boys to read books by women, about girls. As a part of a varied diet…

Too much of the rest is dross, presenting watered down, bowdlerised versions of life, selling kitsch ideas and witlessly soft-focus romantic reflections of reality –  and yes, I’m looking at you, John Green. 

So what on earth could I have against kids reading YA, which at least generally includes characters of the ‘right’ age?

Partly, it’s because many of them aren’t, in fact, properly adult books. Of course there are great YA writers – Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness, Mal Peet, Phil Earle, Sarah Crossan, Faye Bird, Jo Nadin and many others, who are among our finest contemporary writers, irrespective of age or genre. But too much of the rest is dross, presenting watered down, bowdlerised versions of life, selling kitsch ideas and witlessly soft-focus romantic reflections of reality –  and yes, I’m looking at you, John Green.

YA genre fiction (SF and fantasy) is particularly anaemic. The endless lazy dystopias, with kick-ass heroines saving the world from some unconvincing mega government, the sexy vampire bullshit, the boringly overdone quirky superhero novel – please, no more. Honestly, the kids would be far better off encountering adult SF and fantasy, where their minds might be stretched, rather than their preconceptions cosily nurtured.

‘Many of the best YA books shouldn’t be published as YA – they should be published simply as “novels”.’

But that takes me on to my main point.  If that 80% figure is anywhere near correct, then a huge chunk of theoretically children’s publishing is in fact not for children at all. It means books that teenagers might actually enjoy are being squeezed out.

Many of the best YA books shouldn’t be published as YA – they should be published simply as ‘novels’.  By all means let teenagers discover them. And many of them are far better than many novels published explicitly for adults. This would then free up room in children’s publishing for a different sort of teenage book.

Is there a solution? I’ve certainly struggled to find one in my own work. When I tried to consider my own early teenage novels objectively, it struck that too often I was showing off:  admire my clever metaphors; marvel at the subtle allusions to James Joyce, or William Shakespeare, or Homer’s Iliad. I wasn’t really engaging with the young minds of my readers. I was trying to impress, not enthral them.

‘A better paradigm for writing for teenagers, is to see the creative process as a communicative act, a conversation.’

Brock by Anthony McGowanSo I began to write a different sort of book for Barrington Stoke. Books which focused on character first, and then plot, putting recognisable teenagers in a grittily realistic setting, and then subjecting them to the intense highs and lows of working class family life. I strove not to impress, but to captivate and move. I cut away the flamboyance from my style, paring it back to the bone. It made me better, I think, at what I do.

And to generalise from this, I think that as authors we’ve too often worked under a particular paradigm of creativity, in which the novel is an egg, a perfect object produced inside us by unfathomable processes. Our job is to lay it, and offer it up to the world for admiration.  What I suggest is that if that’s how you write, the egg will be a homunculus  – a little creature that looks like you. It will be a small adult, not a young adult.

A better paradigm for writing for teenagers, is to see the creative process as a communicative act, a conversation. And in a conversation, you try not to be boring, to be funny, quick, true, weird, silly, sad, happy. Of course you have to ‘be yourself’ but that being is manifest through our social interactions.

And for me perhaps the key idea is ‘funny’. Most books for younger kids are, or try to be funny. For some reason that stops dead with teens. And it’s not as if teenagers don’t love to laugh. Watch them together- all they do is laugh – at and with each other. But being funny is hard. It involved engaging, conversing, understanding. And when did you ever see a funny egg?

I’m going to finish with a completely 100% true scene I witnessed recently in a school library. Or maybe it was a public library. I can’t be expected to remember everything.

A 14-year-old boy approaches the library desk. Most of his friends have already given up on reading, but he’s hanging on in there. A smiling, kindly librarian greets him.

‘Got anything good, Miss?’

‘Have you tried this one, Malachi?’

‘No, Miss, what’s it about?’

‘Well, er, it’s beautifully written. All the right words exactly where they ought to be.’

‘OK, Miss, but what happens in it?’

‘There are two sisters…’

‘Oh. Any boys in it?’

‘Yes, but not really. Anyway, these sisters, they’re conjoined twins.’

‘Oh, you mean like Siamese twins?’

‘Yes, but we don’t say that any more. It’s offensive to the people of, er, Siam. And to the cats.’

‘What?’

‘Siamese cats. Very sensitive to mockery.’

‘OK. Miss, but has it got any action in it?’

‘Well, it’s won many, many awards.’

‘Yeah, but what happens?’

‘Er…’

‘If they’re joined together, how do they go to the toilet?’

‘Well, they, er, I don’t …’

‘Do they go one at a time, while the other one sort of waits around?’

‘I don’t see why…’

‘Or do they have a special double toilet so they can both go at the same time? Or, wait hang on, do they have one, you know, bum to share between them? I’d hate that, me, Miss. I’d just hold it in.’

‘It’s written in verse.’

‘What, you mean like poems?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t mind that. A bit of rhyming, cool.’

‘Er, no, it’s free verse. And don’t you realise that the kids don’t say ‘cool’ anymore?’

‘Oh. So it doesn’t rhyme.’

‘No, but it’s very … poetical.’

‘Have you got the new Cherub?’

One thought on “YA or Not YA

  1. God I recognise that conversation.

    My son (11): “I didn’t like this book.”

    Teacher: “But it won an award.”

    My son: “I generally don’t like books that win awards.” Comes home and reads Cherub and Department 19.

    What I really don’t get is the way the everybody seems to think it’s “crucial” that teenage boys read, but then resolutely refuse to give them books similar to those that adult men read. I mean, sure, stretch them. And some boys and then men acquire literary tastes, or want to read something thoughtful or lyrically written. But most adults read genre fiction of one type or another, and for young men this usually means Thrillers and SF&F.

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