Over the past few weeks I have heard several references to the ‘YA genre’. I’ll come back to that nomenclature later. During the same period I have been witnessing a stream of books sent to me to review, or quote for, every single one of which was written in the first person present tense, with a certain breathless intensity of oh-my-weird-little-life. Usually there’s cancer, death, divorce etc. thrown in to the mix. Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing in the first person present in itself. Many good books have been written this way. Well, one or two, at least. But it made me wonder why so many books for young adults are being written in this way.
Many things determine the choice of narrative voice in a book; but I believe it’s of utmost important that whatever narrative voice is chosen, it is selected for what it can do for the book; how it will work technically, as well as the emotional impact it provides. Here’s an example of how the first person can go wrong; the most obvious limitation to it is that since you as the writer only have your protagonist’s voice at your disposal you can only convey to your reader things that the protagonist knows. That’s okay if the plot of your book will work fine that way, but problems ensue as a writer requires their reader to know things that the protagonist doesn’t. A very smart writer can find ways of signalling thing to the reader of which the protagonist themselves is unaware. Sadly the writer of the latest of such books sent to me did not seem to have coped with these limitations. The result was a text in which the protagonist was constantly overhearing things through walls, eavesdropping on phone calls, standing in doorways but remaining somehow unseen, and in the very best case of all declared ‘if I was in a bad movie I would jump into the closet now so I could hear their conversation. So, I jump into the closet.’ I’m actually not kidding.
So what? Well, I’m fearing that the world of YA books is eating itself. That its horizons are diminishing, its ambitions declining. Again, for the sake of clarity, I am not saying there are no adventurous new books for teenagers being published. There clearly are and you can of course tell me what you think they are in the comments, if you wish. That’s not my point. My point is that it feels as if the vast majority of new books for young adults fit into one of two broad types; there is a) what we might call The Twilight Games, and there is b) the breathless first person novel, or BFPN as I have started to call it, as described above.
And that’s why I think using the term YA as if it’s a genre is not helping matters. As anyone who’s ever heard me speak will know I am very wary of age ranging. Yes it’s inevitable, but overall I think it does more harm than good. At most, that’s all ‘YA’ should mean – a way of placing books in shops with a ROUGH idea that the titles may be appropriate for teenagers. What YA most definitely should not be is a genre. Genres exist; Fantasy, Sci Fi, Chick Lit, Dystopia etc etc etc. Fine. YA should not be on this list. Genres are by definition limiting.
For me, the hallmarks of the teenage experience are these: experimentation, rebellion, the thirst for originality. These things are what attracted me to write in the way I have been in the first place, and when I began, the term YA wasn’t really in use; they were just books for teenagers. They went in a certain section in the bookshop, and their breadth and variety was wonderful. Here, a book like Cider with Rosie could be shelved alongside Animal Farm alongside The Outsiders alongside The Chocolate War alongside Red Shift.
I fear that we are now at risk of operating in a ‘YA world’, in which we all; writers, teachers and students of creative writing, editors, agents, publishers are self-defining what a YA book is, and it seems that that definition is narrowing. It seems very hard to see beyond the two dominating behemoths I’ve listed above. As the book industry continues to adjust to a not-so-brave new world of online retailing, and so becomes ever tougher, publishers are under enormous pressure, and thus increasingly are tempted to make ever more timid decisions. As some will know, I worked in publishing for 18 years; I have seen such timidity occur, and breed: ‘We can get this book through acquisitions because it’s a bit like such and such’.
Perhaps I’m worrying about nothing. Perhaps all this just goes to show the validity of that old adage ‘80% of anything is rubbish’. And that that was always so. And if that’s so, then so be it. Let’s just try and ensure that the 80% doesn’t creep up to 95%.
It takes a bold publisher, one who believes in what they are doing, someone with the confidence of experience, or indeed of youth, to champion a book that is utterly unlike everything else that’s flooding the market. But it must be done, above all, in thinking about books that younger minds will respond to, it must be done, because the desire for the original is what the experience of being a teenager is all about.
YA is not a genre. Referring to it as such will only diminish us all.