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YA: a market, a genre, or a ghetto?

I don’t think I’m versed in enough of the history of YA to really pull this post off, but I’m charging ahead anyway.

The question beneath this inquiry is this: What would YA authors write if there was no YA market?

On the face of it this sounds like an absurd question. It isn’t as if kids are twelve years old one day reading Roald Dahl and E. L. Konigsburg, the next day they wake up reading David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion. Obviously there is a transition that is made, and that transition has its own market. But that market wasn’t always there, and the idea of being a writer who specialized for that market is also fairly new.

It becomes like one of those Imponderables of David Feldman’s, the question being who are the ur-YA authors and who did they think their audience was when they were writing their books? It wasn’t all that long ago that the chains finally realized they had enough books to actually create a Teen section (and then later did the market research to discover that a teen wouldn’t buy from that section unless it was far enough removed from the rest of the children’s books), and those early sections had a lot of crossover material. One day you found Pullman’s His Dark Materials series only in fantasy/sci-fi and the next there were different cover designs aimed at the YA market. The S.E. Hinton books were on a paperback spinner at the library one spring (the paperback spinner being the in-between step away from middle grade books) and by fall those books were on a shelf marked young adult.

Then over in regular literature you have To Kill a Mocking Bird and Catcher in the Rye. Why? Because they’re considered classics, classics born before the marketing age of YA. Yes, you can occasionally find Salinger in the YA section now, but before that Holden Caufield was just some kid in a book of fiction shelved among the S’s. Somewhere along the way we changed our thinking about audience and in time that influenced how writer’s perceived themselves within a genre based on age instead of subject matter.

Which I find curious. In a recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly Meg Rosoff talks about her identity crisis as her publisher has decided to pull her books from the YA world and throw her into the adult world. The advice she got initially as a writer when questioning how to write for teens was

“Write the best book you can write and I’ll find an audience for it.” In other words, you write. We sell.

which really throws a potential YA writer like myself into a tizzy when I consider the fact that I’m going to school to learn how to write specifically for that audience.

This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the idea of the YA market. I remember pawing through the Gossip Girls books and their ilk and wondered, aloud, where they would be placed in a bookstore if they could be sent back in time 30 years. The answer was, obviously, nowhere because they are a product of their time. But with a little tweaking, and a format change to mass market with tawdry cover illustrations, they could slide in nicely in the romance aisle. Without naming names, there are many fine YA books that would fit into the romance aisle if the character age was bumped up a few years and the settings were job- and not school-based. To that end YA looks like little more than a training ground for genre. Fortunately publishers have taken the gestalt of the situation in hand and made sure that girls can transition from their YA candy into the “serious” world of fiction where shopaholics and Prada-wearing devils can continue to satisfy their habits.

What if — and this might admittedly be a stretch — but what if Phillip Roth were a new author and he just delivered his first manuscript entitled Portnoy’s Complaint to a publisher? And just for giggles lets say the publisher is the MTV imprint of Simon and Schuster who published the likes of teen-friendly Stephen Chbosky. Isn’t it possible the book would find a home in the YA section? After all, it isn’t any more risque than the American Pie movies that teens gobble up at the box office.

So where’s the line, when does a book or an author fall to either side of the teen/adult divide? If we call an author YA are we somehow relegating them to a ghetto of a market that is limited in scope and size? Like Holden Caufield, teens know phonies where they see them, and to them a market aimed specifically to their demographic smells fake, to say nothing of the adults who won’t look twice at YA because, well, it’s for juveniles after all.

Teens like to resist, and they’ll go looking for what resonates with them and against whatever it is they feel like rebelling against. I did it, I ran for the adult books when I was in my early teens, but I did so in an age when the books aimed at a teen market were typically stories about troubled kids. Books that had that Afterschool Special vibe about them. Does anyone remember Kin Platt? Where are his books today?

Don’t think I haven’t pondered the irony that I seriously want to write for this target audience.

Right now, today, my feeling is that we need less marketing and more education about books that are out there. I’m not falling into hand-wringing over the demise of book review sections in newspapers because it’s been clear for a long time that books don’t bring in the same ad revenues as other media (like movies) and that’s the lifeblood of newsprint. Reading about books is often dry and listless, so I’m not even sure that publications devoted to books is the answer either. Book trailers may eventually develop into a formidable marketing experience but I think nothing short of a revolution in the world of publishing akin to the rise of rock-and-roll is going to bring the audiences around. What is necessary is the impossible: authors who can make the act of reading as sexy as a music video with the appeal of American Idol. Let me tell you, it’s going to take a lot more than a poster of Orlando Bloom hanging in a library.

Trying to tap into what kids want or might like isn’t going to work. We need to let adults — young and old — know what is out there and let them decide for themselves. The teenager, as a demographic and a force in the market, did not exist until the 20th century and they were defined for the most crass of reasons: to make money. Teens have become culturally literate enough to recognize this and modern marketing has had a tough time trying to keep their competitive edge while remaining valid and authentic to the market. Eliminate the market altogether, let’s see what happens.

What would YA authors be without the market? What they’ve always been: writers. What would teens be without YA books? The same readers they’ve always been.

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