Young Adult fiction: are we confusing marketing with markets?

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2009

teenage readersJoanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum has a post hailing teenagers as being the most enthusiastic readers of all, contrary to media handwringing over declining youth literacy. Her central point is very valid: that teenagers who get into books discover a channel through which they can learn a lot about the world (and the people in it) without having to refer to the usual authority figures. [image by jonfeinstein]

Young people, who learned T9 before long division, have no problem curling up with a good book. Sales of young adult lit remain high even in this economy. Why is it other than teenagers are the most passionate readers?

There are several reasons why so many teenagers are passionate readers. A book is a pathway inside another person’s head. When you are young, you have few deep relationships, maybe no real emotional connections with others at all. You connect in the text. At that age, it is a revelation to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities as you do. Plus, there is a confidence and conviction to a fiction narrative’s voice. You are eager for someone to look up to, but certainly not your parents, not your teachers. A novel is an opportunity to really listen to another human being.

The solitude, the sense of emotional connection, and the guidance of a novel are all appealing to teenagers who might otherwise busy themselves exclusively with videogames and the Internet. And it shows. For the most part, young adult sales continue to rise even while book publishing is experiencing a significant decline.

That certainly aligns with my teenaged experiences of reading, the utterly immersive thrill of which I’m increasingly unable to recapture (though it has been replaced with a different set of appreciations as time has passed).

But the other reason I’ve brought this up is that assumption in the last line of the quote from McNeil. Again:

… young adult sales continue to rise even while book publishing is experiencing a significant decline.

This is a mantra we heard over and over again during the massive YA genre fiction circle-jerk last year, and it’s always backed with the unvoiced assumption that only Young Adults read YA. I’ve worked in a library, and I can assure you that’s an observable falsehood; most genuinely popular YA is successful precisely because so many adult readers with an expendable income enjoy the same titles.

As much as I would love to believe otherwise, I don’t see the rising popularity of YA fiction as an indicator of increased interest in books specifically among the teen demographics (though neither do I think that things are as bad as the doom-sayers would have us believe); what it does indicate is that certain sorts of stories have a wider appeal than others.

How much of this is to do with ‘adult’ genre literature just not flicking the switches for those adult readers? I’m pretty sure that’s a large part of the explosive success of  the urban fantasy subgenre, in that it repackaged classic and familiar horror and fantasy tropes in a way that placed fun and entertainment above more ‘literary’ values. Maybe Jetse really is right; maybe in our hardnosed love for the genres we’re actually keeping them from becoming more accessible, and hence more popular?

But I digress. To be absolutely clear: I have no beef with YA fiction, or with those who choose to write it, or those who choose to read it. What I do have an issue with is the assumption that by marketing certain books as being for young adults we can treat their success as indicators of health in young adult reading specifically. The pedestal-mounting of YA as the saviour of modern fiction is dangerously misguided.

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5 Responses to “Young Adult fiction: are we confusing marketing with markets?”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    What I find interesting is the fact that YA has, up until now, resisted all attempts at critical engagement. It’s effectively useless as an indicator of content.

    If you ask me, it’s just a way of marketing books. It takes a load of genre stories and effectively rebrands them in the same way as Romance novels were rebranded as chicklit.

  2. Darren T says:

    I think you’re right, Paul. In recent years – and particularly in the wake of J.K. Rowling’s global success – a much wider range of authors who previously penned mainly ‘adult’ literature have written for (or have been marketed to – the distinctions can be a bit blurry) a younger audience. As a result, they’ve brought segments of their adult audience across with them, boosting those YA sales figures.

    Take me, for example. In recent years I’ve read the likes of China Mieville’s ‘Un Lun Dun’, Cory Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother’, Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’, Terry Pratchett’s ‘Nation’ and a few other ‘YA’ titles besides – not because I was necessarily looking for a YA book to read at the time, but because I’m a fan of the aforementioned authors and was interested in reading their latest work, whatever the genre or market segment it was being sold in to.

  3. aka dogfish says:

    you’re right. find the latest hot niche demographic, bombard it with reams of lowest-common-denominator pap because success is only in the numbers it’s the business model across the global board. and it doesn’t seem to be “popular” to popularize intelligence, discernment, thoughtfulness, imagination and critical thinking for young adults. try this book out and see what you think. i think it defies everything you describe is wrong with the YA genre right now, including genre-ism in lit itself: Let Slip the Dogs of Love by Eugene Kachmarsky. google the title. it’s on amazon and B&N online. the publisher has a write-up at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/LetSlipTheDogsOfLove.html.

  4. Dave says:

    Great point.

  5. Josie says:

    Outed. I used to read Sweet Valley High at an inappropriately young age and I would read YA still.

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