Is the YA Book Bubble Bursting?

Charlie Jane Anders posted a brief but intriguing piece recently at io9 (based on a Wall Street Journal article) that speculates on the possible end of the current young adult book boom. The film and book industry that serves the YA audience seems to be collectively holding its breath in anticipation of Divergent‘s performance this upcoming weekend. In Ms Anders words:

“Studios are hoping it’ll show there are still audiences for young-adult films other than Hunger Games, after the dismal performance of several other films.”

She goes on to cite fatigue over the similarities between different YA books and movies as one of the causes of the seemingly receding YA market.

“…studios are getting wary of novels that feel too much like cookie-cutter copies of other stuff. Especially Twilight clones.”

This argument resonates with me because as a lifelong reader of genre, I’m sensitive to the difference between the artful use of common genre conventions—like a dystopian society under the thumb of an oppressive government—and the recycling of tired clichés because they moved product previously—like the Romeo & Juliet combinations referenced in Ms Anders’ post.

Ms Anders also provides a couple examples of new, more literary sources, as potentially a positive direction for producers, including The Giver, but doesn’t encourage a lot of enthusiasm.

“…the larger problem remains—in books as well as in movies, there’s no ‘mega franchise’ to replace Hunger GamesTwilight and Harry Potter among the tween and teen crowd. At least, not yet. Maybe that book is being written as we speak.”

I really like that last hopeful note. The image of someone toiling away somewhere in—what I imagine to be—a cramped, drafty space, maybe at night after a day job, to produce the next big hit is heartening. Because whatever feelings I might have about the relative literary merit of books like Twilight, any “mega franchise” that drives young people to seek out other reading options is a boon to book culture at large.

During the last book sale we attended, I was surprised at the number of young readers who came to our booth. Several were looking for Twilight and The Hunger Games or something very similar, sure, but also many of them were exploring genre books in different directions, as a result of having read those books already—some of whom even had a more than passing interest in true classics.

I guess my point is that we maybe should all be crossing our fingers that Divergent is successful this weekend, leading more young readers to the book, and hopefully on to other books.

90 Percent of YA is Crap

Malinda Lo has written an articulate blog post on the way the internet continually reengages with the question of why adults read young adult literature. She sets about “unpacking” the various approaches to the question focusing on reception theory and shared cultural interpretations. I find her post both illuminating and well stated, but I’m also slightly irritated by its necessity. I find the question essentially not worth asking.

I am an unwavering proponent of Sturgeon’s Law.

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
—Theodore Sturgeon, March 1958 issue of Venture

But I also believe there is an important idea that should follow his revelation: crap can be fun and fun shouldn’t be taken lightly.

To me, the answer to the question of why an adult reads YA breaks down into two interrelated parts:

  1. 10% of YA is self-evidently as good as any other literature and should therefore be read by pretty much anyone; and
  2. Specific kinds of YA crap might appeal to any adult based on personal taste.

I might personally find Twilight or The Hunger Games derivative or annoying, but I can’t really condemn an adult for enjoying them while I have Battle Royale sitting on my bookshelf next to War and Peace.

At some point in our intellectual development, we all need to embrace the possibility that art can be objectively good* (or at least well executed), or historically important or culturally relevant and still not appeal to us personally.

I can intellectually assess Battle Royale to be a little junky as literature and still vastly prefer it to War and Peace, which is clearly a magnificent work of art, yet bored me senseless.

The concept of adolescence as a stage in human development didn’t really exist prior to the last half of the 19th Century. And I think it’s fair to question how much of the ghettoization of young adult literature as a genre—much like the divisions between science fiction, fantasy and horror—is a product of 20th Century marketing rather than an organic response to the preferences of readers.

That any reader would question the value of reading something like Ursula K. LeGuin‘s masterful Earthsea books because they’re often shelved with the YA is absurd to me. And the Earthsea books resemble something like the YA favourite Harry Potter series in that they are also made of words written down and distributed to readers—but the qualitative similarities thin out past that point despite some rudimentary plotting coincidences [coughschoolforwizardscough].**

As to the question of why cultural groups might embrace certain specific kinds of YA crap, you are more than welcome to explore the interesting ideas contained in reception theory and forms of groupthink. But before we wind down those academic paths, can we not separate out the really good 10% of YA first?

Don’t all genre classifications become immaterial when the quality of a given book rises to a certain level? Do we really care that The Lord of the Rings is so-called high fantasy or Brave New World is dystopian science fiction? Aren’t they both still great books for young adults regardless of where they get shelved?

We—the chattering class—probably need to spend more time trying to critically assess which books, out of the mass of those currently marketed as YA, are going to eventually be recognized as part of that all-important 10%,*** and stop judging people for enjoying crap.

——
*I’m asking the postmodernists and post-structuralists to just roll with me here, but I’m aware you’re out there and I have some sympathy with your point of view—some.
**Try not to bag on me about this point, the Harry Potter books are clearly very entertaining and I’m not really accusing J.K. of ripping off Ursula—being influenced by, maybe.
***Raise your hands if you’ve read The House of the Scorpion.