Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The future of YA

Sophie Masson - who is an astonishingly prolific and talented writer, I was admiring a long line of her books in the Uni Melb library today, and all her books have such great concepts, I think she must have a direct line to some kind of exotic god - sent me a bunch of questions about YA, for an article she's writing for The Australian Author. I thought the questions were so interesting I've posted them here, with my answers. Blog post ready made - contintental cup o' blog.

*Do you think YA as a category is dead? has Older Readers taken that over? Is the field more genre-driven these days?
No way, YA will never die!
I think the beauty of YA is that it encompasses every genre, allows for genre crossing within books and for authors to experiment with genres they might not feel free to write in if they were constrained by marketing issues. I do think YA as a marketing term has become blurred, there is a broader range of ages being lumped together as YA. But I also think there are more books being published for older, literate teenagers (say 16+, who were once perceived as simply graduated to adult books, but who want to read books that reflect their own interior and exterior experience). I still think of YA as relatively new (though there have been YA books around for ages) because it's only in the last 10-15 years that they've had their own section in the bookshop and library. I guess when I was a teenager there was a 'teen' section, but this was dominated by series fiction like Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams and those terribly compulsive Caitlin books. I think Virginia Andrews (who was into incest and mutant babies) was put in the adult section though we all read them in about grade seven.

*How do you think the field has changed over the last 20 years, according to your own experience/observation?
I think more adults read YA now (or openly acknowledge it). I think it's a more distinct marketing category than it was when I was a teenager (not quite 20 years ago). I think there is a lot more quality literature marketed as YA. When I was a teenager YA usually meant books about relationships. The main publisher I recall marketing their books specifically for young adults (apart from series romance books like Sweet Valley High) was Pan Horizons - Forever by Judy Blume was published in this series. I almost got suspended in high school for reading another Horizons book Beginner's Love by Norma Klein, which explored the move of a relationship into sex and the consequences. My mum and dad 100% supported me, and eventually the school let the issue go. Now I think schools and librarians are more supportive of and open to the complexity of themes and issues YA deals with. Puffin Plus was another teen label - they published Robert Westall, John Wyndham, Anne Fine, K.M. Peyton...but that was a real blend of YA and Older Readers. (I read Chocky in grade 2).

*Do you think readers' tastes have changed?
Hmm. Possibly. I certainly think that there are less taboo topics in YA and there is a perception that YA tends to be very dreary and dark - dealing with the gritty side of life. Catharsis is a huge function of YA, but it always has been. I think maybe adult readers and moderators of YA have become more accepting of depicting a real world for adolescents - sex, drugs, homosexuality. Though we obviously still have a long way to go, as David Levithan recently pointed out at Reading Matters (in direct reference to gay and lesbian teenagers not getting the books they need, books reflecting their experience.)

*what about the industry? Are certain kinds of books not being published? If so, what?
I do think there are conventions and issues with the notion of 'crossover' books (books that deal with difficult or complex issues or feature older teens, young twentysomethings) that mean books get edited or marketed in a certain way and often lost in the gap between adult and YA (apparently it is hard to sell adults books with child/teen protagonists). I believe any good book in Australia will be published, but it might not get the support it needs from marketing or booksellers or teachers or librarians. Being published is only the first step on a long, hard road between writing a book and getting it into a reader's hands!

*what do you think is the future for the field? can you identify any trends within it?
I don't think it's very easy for the current generation of writers or publishers to imagine the future. I think delivery of content will be different, I think the paper book will become an artefact of the past. But I find it difficult to imagine what the aesthetics of the 'new literature' will be. I think blogs gives us a clue to what ebooks might end up looking like - I think graphic novels do too. I think imagery and design will become more important. I sometimes wonder if serial fiction might enjoy a resurgence. Verse novels are becoming more popular and they lend themselves well to a different kind of presentation. I think we've stopped saying 'boys aren't reading' and started saying, 'boys are reading, but what are they reading?' They're reading game narratives, they're reading television. I think new literacies won't necessarily look like a computerised version of old literacies, at least for young people.
I think a more immediate future is that a broader range of adults will be drawn to youth lit (thanks in part to Harry Potter). I think adults who have discovered the compulsive storytelling aspect of Harry Potter will find more books in YA to satisfy this new appetite than they will in adult fiction. I think TV shows like Buffy showed that teenagers can be complex characters, dealing in an intense way with issues that never go away in adulthood, rather than a whole other (objectionable) species or a reminder of a past that we don't want to revisit. They say 30 is the new 20, and I think in a lot of ways that's true. This protracted adolescence allows for a different kind of mature YA reader - probably less interested in 'issues' and more interested in action, psychology and complex plots. Looking for the same things though: catharsis, a safe rehearsal of emotions or experiences (grief, love, desire, violence, survival), and entertainment.

*do you think the quality of books has gone up/down/stayed pretty much the same, over the last 20 years?
I think the quality remains high. I couldn't say better without a written apology to writers like Robert Westall, who wrote amazing books for teenagers. And of course, there's a lot of crap out there.

*do you think young readers can handle challenging books(complex structure, vocab or ideas) in the same way as they used to? if not, why not?
Absolutely. I would never 'write down' because I was writing for teenagers. In fact I think their more open to experiments than a lot of adult readers, or to wrestling with tough concepts.


  1. I got that email too, and will copy my response here:

    *Do you think YA as a category is dead? has Ólder Readers taken that over? Is the field more genre-driven these days?

    Absolutely not. I think YA has never been stronger - particularly in the US. Books like Looking for Alaska, Octavian Nothing, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, King Dork and the work of Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson and Holly Black are all pushing YA boundaries in fabulous ways.

    There's a lot of 'genre' books out there - just over half the titles I just mentioned would be considered genre books. But that's the beauty of YA - it can be in any genre, about anything at all. It has no constraints or limitations.

    Although there is a lot of confusion and conflation around the ideas of 'older readers' and 'young adult'.

    *How do you think the field has changed over the last 20 years, according to your own experience/observation?

    Writers and publishers are a lot more willing to take risks - with format, content, style, genre. It's very much a something for everyone approach, rather than a one size fits all approach.
    There's certainly a lot more being published - and that means a lot more crap, as well as a lot more gold.
    Production values have improved dramatically - there's amazing-looking books like Monster Blood Tattoo (although I don't think that's a YA title) and The Arrival and American Born Chinese.

    *Do you think readers'tastes have changed?

    Of course. They always do, in 20 years. We eat differently, listen to different music, wear different clothes. But I think essentially Young Adults are still looking to be challenged (although not necessarily by complicated language), engaged, entertained, and to see themselves in the pages of the books they read (even if, in the book, they are a vampire, a princess or a serial killer).

    *what about the industry? Are certain kinds of books not being published? If so, what?

    I certainly see a difference between the books being published here and the books being published in the US. Our books are more conservative, less willing to take risks. This is probably due to a number of factors - we're a much smaller pond, and one that is very much reliant on the schools market to survive. If a book won't make it into school libraries, it's unlikely to do well. I think it's also a bit of a general climate - because publishers aren't publishing edgier books, writers aren't submitting them, etc. Having said that, I don't see any publishers actively soliciting or commissioning books with, for example, queer themes. I've noticed a lot of gay 'sidekicks' in Australian books over the past few years - but I cannot think of a single Australian YA title with a gay male protagonist.

    *what do you think is the future for the field? can you identify any trends within it?
    I don't know what I think will happen, but I know what I would LIKE to happen: Broader acceptance of YA as a legitimate literary genre (both popularly and critically - why aren't YA titles eligible for the Miles Franklin?). Getting rid of that 'YA is angsty' stigma once and for all. Broader acceptance of verse novels and graphic novels as legitimate literary forms - in fact, of all texts, including television, film, computer games and online content. It's easy to forget that most visual texts are 'written' as well. If all of these different sorts of texts are given the same weighting and status - and judged on their content, rather than their format, then I think we'll see a surge in the amount of young people (and adults) who read for pleasure.
    Also, in a somewhat related note, I'd like to see the way young people are portrayed in the media change. There are way too many "KIDS GONE WILD" stories on the tabloid news. If half the things that the media say about young people were said about black people, jews or women, there'd be a public outcry. And yet young people are the ones who have no voice to be able to stand up for themselves.

    *do you think the quality of books has gone up/down/stayed pretty much the same, over the last 20 years?

    Both. There are plenty of YA titles that are pretty awful, both in terms of their production values and their content. But there are some truly amazing books that I think are much, much better quality than anything we've ever seen before.

    *do you think young readers can handle challenging books (complex structure, vocab or ideas) in the same way as they used to? if not, why not?
    Absolutely. More so. Particularly in the area of structure. I use an example where your average teenager is watching an episode of House on TV, that has multiple storylines, timelines and confusing things like different characters playing different roles. This teenager is following this, while flicking back during the ads to Heroes on Channel 7, which has a whopping 13 protagonists. At the same time, they're texting a friend about geography homework, updating their Facebook page and MSNing someone in Poland.

    I think young people have access to a lot more complicated forms of narrative (in film, tv, literature, online), and are more sophisticated consumers of narrative than any previous generation. Give them a Dostoyevsky and it will probably fail to hold their attention, but if you give them something complex, challenging, engaging and fast-paced, they'll eat it up.

  2. Give me a Dostoyevsky and it won't hold my attention either. Maybe that's why I write YA.

    Thanks so much for pasting your response in Lili - it's fascinating to read the similarities and differences, particularly from another writer who has a different industry perspective.

    I agree with you about graphic novels - I actually talked very vaguely to a publisher about writing a 'script' for one and having someone else illustrate it and basically in Australia the process would simply be too expensive for them to pursue it, unless you had a very enthusiastic illustrator/partner who was willing to split royalties. It's a shame (though I totally understand their reluctance to overcommit to a financially risky project and I'm sure if I was deeply passionate I could find a way to make it happen).

    I also agree that the way that young people interact with narrative is completely different. My kids are already postmodern subjects, encountering and engaging with stories in a fragmented intertextual way - for example a lot of kids - including mine - first experience of certian fairy tales may come through a parody like Shrek or Hoodwinked, they end up piecing together the original story through references, jokes, asides. I think this can cause anxiety in some people who want to regulate children's access to narrative and 'literature' but I think it's extremely exciting that we're raising a generation of critically literate readers who are well versed in metafictions and intertexts.

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