The YA/Adult divide

Samantha Shannon recently responded to an ask on her Tumblr over whether her books are YA or Adult. This is the excerpt that really got me thinking, but it’s certainly worth going over there and reading her entire post:

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.)

This is something I think about a lot, actually (as evidenced by several previous posts on the topic). I read predominantly YA, and while there are a lot of reasons why I gravitate towards these books, I also fundamentally believe that the distinction between YA and adult is fluid and mutable.

YA is most simply described as books aimed at a teen audience. Seems pretty straightforward, right? As Samantha makes clear in the above quotation, though, it’s anything but. The protagonist is usually a teen (except when they’re not). And books with teen protagonists are usually YA (except when they aren’t). They’re usually read by teens (except, again, when they’re not).

And then there are the other characteristics. Samantha mentions some distinctions above, and to that I’d add another: YA novels tend to be told in a deep first-person POV, while adult novels, particularly in fantasy, are more likely to have multiple third-person POVs. Except, again, when they’re not. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series is told in the first person from Phèdre’s perspective, and it is most definitely not YA. Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, on the other hand, is classed as YA although it is narrated by multiple third-person narrators.

Many of these distinctions, especially within a given genre, however, are based more on current trends in the category as a whole than any immutable characteristics. Right now deep first-person POV and a fast-paced plot are fashionable in YA, and this includes YA fantasy, while epic scale and large casts are fashionable in a lot of adult fiction, including adult fantasy. That doesn’t mean you don’t get fast-paced first-person novels in adult fantasy, though (The Dresden Files comes to mind), or slower-paced, third-person novels in YA. I recently read Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, for instance, which is published by a children’s imprint but features not only a third-person narrative with a vast backstory, but also the occasional profanity (another distinction that tends to set YA apart from adult fiction).

While there’s a world of difference between a novel about teenagers in a high school and one about middle-aged men and women in an office, I find that the age-based distinctions for fantasy and other speculative fiction can sometimes be more limiting than descriptive. The stories themselves span far beyond the concerns of a particular age group and I think in many ways SF/F straddles the conventions of not just its genre, but also the category in which it sits. For instance, YA fantasy has things in common with adult fantasy and with YA contemporary, but less so with adult contemporary. As such, an adult who likes fantasy is at least as likely to enjoy a YA fantasy novel as an adult contemporary, and likewise for a teen who likes YA fantasy. By classing these books as “for teens” and “for adults”, though, we’re saying that the supposed age group of the audience is more important than the audience’s interests and likes and dislikes. We are, in effect, defining readers by their age rather than personality.

I don’t habitually read YA because I find 16-year-olds more interesting than 26-year-olds. I do so because I find stories about an individual’s struggle and search for identity amidst a rich fantasy backdrop engaging, and many of these books happen to be found in the YA category. It’s not because these books are for teens, but because they’re for everyone who ever wondered who they are and what they’re doing with their life.


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