Monday, July 9, 2012

It's the Story, Stupid

The New York Times excels in hand-wringing about non-issues.  That's not a slam; it's just how I see things.  Doesn't stop me from reading, but sometimes you just gotta shake your head.  One recent eye-roller focused on the "power" of YA lit, an exercise in silliness  that tried to answer the question: how come so many adults seem to be reading YA lit?  (Although I did get a chuckle out of the guy who declared that adults should read adult books, you slackers.)

Frankly, I think all this navel-gazing goes back to the uneasiness many adults felt when they were captivated by Harry Potter.  Remember how they had different covers for adults so they could read in public and not be embarrassed?  (And, yes, they put all the books in plain brown paper bags, like bottles of booze.)  This whole thing about adults reading YA is one of those non-issue hand-wringers that have people moaning over cocktails: Why aren't we reading Ulysses?  (Really, they ought to be saying: But I just don't get it.  What the hell's Joyce talking about?  Say, remember when reading used to be fun and it was all about the story?)  

Still, adults reading YA is an interesting question.  Yet, in some ways, who cares?  I don't recall anyone getting all hot and bothered that adults might have liked, say, Watership Down (all those cute, furry, warlike little bunnies out to find females) or Lord of the Flies or . . . well, you get my drift.   If adults like YA, more power to ya, that's what I say.  If you pick up one of my books, I'd be ecstatic.

But I'm not convinced that SO MANY adults are turning to YA lit.  Rather, I think that certain YA books succeed is telling a story many or only certain  adults like (more on that in a sec), and that those few books are both marketed quite cannily and turned into media events (as, for example, the recent Hunger Games movie and campaign; really some interesting reading there on the power of marketing to generate buzz where none might have existed).

YA lit may also be appealing to some adults for other reasons, too.  Most YA books are frequently much easier reads than more highly self-conscious, literary fiction which calls so much attention to the crafting of each sentence (and don't just take my word for it; this has been pointed out before).  Although I know I'm going to get a lot of howling about that because there is just as much beautifully written literary YA, too.  Believe me, I know that; in fact, I'd like to think that, every now and again, I manage to pull that off myself.  But the reality is that YA lit is a tad easier; the action is much more direct; the pacing faster (closer to thriller pacing, frequently); POV is frequently limited to first-person which means that identification with the primary protagonist is much more rapid.  It's easier to slip into the story--and story-telling is the primary focus.  A lot of YA is out to tell a great story.

Really, it's not that YA lit is so much more powerful.  I mean, honestly, do you really think a ton of adults are all that interested in reading about kids fretting over the various indignities you suffer in high school?  (Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.)  Or what happens when your boyfriend goes off to summer camp and you have to stay home?  I'm not making fun; I'm really not; what I'm suggesting is that the "power" of YA lit is a specious argument just as what constitutes a YA novel is pretty tough to define.  I'll bet there are YA books you've read that made you take a step back and think, "Whoa, that's not YA."  The book may be marketed as YA, but it's not.  Just because a protagonist is supposed to be 16 or 17, for example, doesn't mean that the story feels authentic as a teenage/YA voice or narrative.  (I remember a few where I was . . . huh?  I don't think so . . . )  But because YA is so hot--a genre that seems to be highly marketable and attractive to tons of cross-over authors--I can see the temptation in marketing a book as YA when it isn't, and you know it when you read it.  You just do.

So what I do think we're talking about here are a) a few stories that captivate adult audiences because the story's got enough complexity to reach beyond teenage concerns and b) readers--and predominantly young women--for whom a very, very large number of YA books focus on things that still concern them even when they've left high school and moved off into college and beyond: namely, relationships.  Love.  Romance.

Don't believe me?  Think about it a second.  Go to any bookstore.  Go to this FANTASTIC blog post on various YA covers and take a long look; then go over to the adult romance section and compare. Go on; I dare you.  Think about the YA stories out there.  Yes, yes, there are all types and subgenres; I'm not arguing that.  But I think we can all agree that a high number focus on romance and love relationships.  This isn't anything to be ashamed about; love and sex and relationships are things adolescents think about, a lot.  But many of the more successful YA books incorporate romance as central to the plot, and I think that only goes to show that the demographic toward whom the vast majority of YA lit is pitched is still concerned with that well into adulthood.  Women read more than men; women also read more romance; romance still makes up the largest market share of the reading public and romance e-books are big sellers, no matter which way you slice that pie.   So the idea that the same girls grow into the women who will still pick up a YA novel that's heavy on the romance--and we all know which books we're talking about here--isn't so much an indication of YA's power as much as it speaks to YA's ability to continue to tap into the same concerns these girls carry into adulthood.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I love writing YA; it's hard work for me and I think I deal with some pretty heavy things.  I anguish over every single sentence, and I'm not kidding.  I'm not demeaning YA or suggesting that it's somehow a "lesser" literature.  Far from it; what I take issue with is the idea that YA is more "powerful."  I don't even know what that means, frankly, unless "power" is a synonym for "some YA books are bestsellers for adults and kids."

Really, what it comes down to?  It's the story.  YA or not, if the story sucks, people won't read it.  If the story is great and just happens to be YA, people will.

End of story.


Jordan Dane said...

I "discovered" YA through the dark side. The WSJ did an article on dark YA & I read every book. Hunger Games, Thirteen Reasons Why, What If I Stay, The Book Thief. I loved the gravity of these books, their daring attempt to shed light on dark social issues or their exploration into a bleak future world of our own making or the darkside of human behavior. YA stories are cross genre & more focused on telling the whole story, regardless of "the rules" on how a book must be shelved. They are imaginative in plot & character. And yes, they remind me of the innocence of that first crush. Very relatable.

As an author, I spend more time layering in relatable emotions & subtle themes. While I'm writing for teens, I find my YA stories are harder to write because of those layers. Plus writing an age that I'm not makes for a unique challenge. I not only have to get the physical kid right. I have to nail the way that kid might think & feel in unusual circumstances (in the paranormal stories I create). I suppose I could bring these revelations back to my adult stories, but I wonder if that would be as much fun as tapping into my inner child when I write for teens.

I still read & write crime fiction (a comfort read for me), but when I read & write YA, I feel like I'm going on a true adventure---with fireworks & cute boys. YA has flipped a creative switch in me that has sparked my imagination too. I get pumped seeing the excitement in a kid's eyes when they tell you at a signing how much they love your books, and I love reading their amazing emails (especially the ones written in the wee hours). Their reactions remind me not only why I write, but why I became a reader in the first place.

I think YA books have also become a way for mom to connect with daughter through the mutual love of reading. It can open subject matter for discussion in a unique way too.

Nice thought provoking post, Ilsa. Being a child psychiatrist, is that a help or hindrance in your writing for kids? I've wondered how the science fits in with your creative side.

Ilsa said...

And nice comment, Jordan ;-) As a denizen of the dark side--you can't be a shrink and not be hip-deep--I gravitate toward that kind of struggle all the time.

Being a child shrink is such second nature for me, I don't think about it much. That is, I'm much more interested in characters in extreme circumstances, which is a lot of what I did in the office because no matter the problem, walking into a shrink's office is a) a big deal and b) sometimes the last resort. As a writer, I tend to try to layer my character in and with the same complexity as I saw in kids. Books that work for me, both as a writer and reader, usually focus on basic issues (good versus evil is a good one), but the answers are rarely clear-cut. Because that's the way life is and the (thinking) mind works, and kids are continually confronted with that as they mature.

I love writing YA and the freedom the genre allows. I love reading it. Wouldn't dream of doing anything else.

Jordan Dane said...

I love Good v Evil themes & the gray of it. Complex characters with elements of both black & white intrigue me too--for both my adult & YA books. Really wonderful post. Thank you.