Until recently it never occurred to me to think about realistic YA as a genre in trouble. Then the ever-marginally important Barnes & Noble decided to “break out” YA into Paranormal, Extra-Crunchy, Unleaded, and a catch-all for the genre that isn’t, Realistic Contemporary. It was apparently a big deal because I kept running into it all over the place on the tubes and wires.
But one chain’s marketing and displays do not a trend define. At least not directly.
Anyone remember the Fearless series, the story of a girl “born without the fear gene?” Francine Pascal? Well, I remember it because one day ten years ago I was asked to make sure the series got its own designated shelf in the YA section. You would think that if a series merited an entire shelf to itself then it must have been the crest of a YA tsunami i girl-based action-adventure stories. You might also think that the sales figures would have justified that one-eighth of the YA section (these were the early days of the YA breakout) but no, we strip-returned this series through at least two cover design changes.
Okay, I’m not being dense. I recognize that there’s a lot more interest in YA romance and fantasy and whatever you define paranormal to be, and that it seems that contemporary realistic fiction is waning, but I think the reason why has more to do with what is going on elsewhere rather than in fiction. Specifically, I think Reality TV has poisoned the well of realistic fiction because that has become the new cultural measure of what constitutes realism.
Coming of age stories? If they don’t look like Jersey Shore, then how realistic can they be? Humor? Can a contemporary YA story truly be as inappropriately funny as 30 Rock or The Office, shows teens watch and enjoy? Of course not, because the raunch and political incorrectness of TV are not what fiction (and, dare I say, literature) are all about, but it does raise the level of expectation in the reader.
So while those of us in the kidlit community are discussing the merits of realistic contemporary fiction for YA – questions of voice and character and how to include a romantic elements without leaning too far into the void of the romance genre – the question I keep asking myself is: do YA readers even care? If the growing genres/trends are in high-concept escapism, and the realistic is drifting further from “reality” and more toward the literary archaic, is there really such a thing as realistic fiction for YA?
If Contemporary YA quietly disappeared tomorrow would teens even notice?
And it would be a quiet disappearance, because what was the last non-media marketed (like Alloy Entertainment products) piece of realistic fiction has done as well as Twilight or Hunger Games? I know it isn’t and shouldn’t be about commercial success, but for a market that deals with teens commercial success is what they know and what drives their interest. Teens are incredibly savvy consumers, and social status isn’t measured by this great little piece of writing that might one day be a classic as much as it is by being one of the first who saw the movie on the weekend it opened with the largest box office receipts in history. They didn’t see the movie for the money, they just helped the film earn it, and I guarantee you that film wasn’t the teen equivalent of Eat Pray Love.
So in acknowledging the rise of certain YA genres, B&N has inadvertently defined the negative space around teen reading which has become the realistic contemporary graveyard.
Don’t get me wrong, I write realistic contemporary fiction for middle grade and YA, but I am constantly asking myself if it’s enough to write the stories I want to tell. Are these stories based on characters in contemporary, realistic settings really the sort of thing a kid wants to read? When they can flit around on the internet in their free time, play video games on their phones, and prefer to watch television shows with grown adults who are as old as (and older than) their parents behaving like immature idiots, is there really any room for books that portray characters their own age, behaving normally in familiar settings, told with care and craft?
No, seriously, I’m asking.