Young Adults: what we talk about when we talk about genre

A writer friend and I were discussing a series of books I am in the process of reading, one with which he is largely unfamiliar. He suggested I consider contacting the author, because we’re working in a similar young adult genre.

I don’t consider myself a young adult writer, outside the fact that I am an adult who is still on the young side who, on occasion, acts in the manner of a writer, and I certainly don’t think of those books as young adult books. I told him the latter.

“Too much sex and drugs and violence.”

“Young adults love those things,” he countered, which I suppose is often true.

When I was in the “young adult” demographic, which I’m going to call roughly 12–16, I was reading some thinner books about characters my age, going to school and experiencing adolescence … but I was also reading chunky Stephen King books about bondage play gone wrong and a modern forensic scientist’s examination of classic cold cases. (I recall a revision of the Lizzie Borden rhyme: “An unknown subject took a hatchet and gave Lizzie Borden’s stepmother nineteen whacks. Ninety minutes after that deed was done, he or she gave Borden’s father ten plus one.”) I may not have been the average reader, but I don’t think I was outside the normal range.

And yet not long ago, when I saw a girl who looked to be in her early teens reading It, I gawked and wondered, condescendingly, what she was doing with a book like that.

Expressly young adult fiction has come under criticism recently for its sometimes edgy content. Last summer, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal, remarking that

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

Some people (according to the WSJ opinion poll, a little over 10%) agreed with her condemnation of such books, or at least sympathized with her concerns, but many others took issue with the assertions. The author of several young adult works with heavy material, Sherman Alexie responded a few days later, saying:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

If there’s one thing to take from the success of the Twilight books across age groups, it’s that the young adult genre and the young adult reader are not a monogamous pairing. Somewhere, there’s a twelve-year-old girl with Thomas Harris on her nightstand and a budding fascination with the charming sociopath, and in another room, her mother is following one of Laurie Halse Anderson’s high school heroines. Books, and readers, can be promiscuous.

It’s interesting what we’re really talking about when we talk about genre labels. When we argue about whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale is science-fiction, we’re often also, below the surface, debating the literary legitimacy of science-fiction as a genre. When we comment on the hypersexual heroines of much urban fantasy, we’re also discussing what it means to be a sexual being today. And I don’t think we can separate worry about the darkness in young adult fiction from worry about the darkness that exists in the world young adults are on the cusp of joining.

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