Last year my first novel hit the bookstores, a story about a boy in his final year of high school dealing with small town life, his crazy parents, and a painful crush on his homophobic best friend. I thought there might be a few wrinkles involved in marketing it, but I assumed it would be the gay content that would cause the confusion. I was so wrong. Nobody seemed to care if my main character was gay or straight. The problem was that he was young. ‘Is this really general fiction?’ people would ask me. ‘Isn’t it YA?’
‘No way!’ I’d answer, and my reasons for this were fairly simple.
YA (Young Adult) is an umbrella term for any book written for a teenage audience, and I didn’t write the book for teenagers. I didn’t write it for anybody; I never thought it would be published. So with no audience in mind besides myself and my writing buddy Brendan (both of us post-40 oldsters), I made no adjustments to vocabulary, length or subject matter beyond what I thought would work. The first time someone asked me about genre, I just shrugged. ‘It’s a story,’ I said. ‘Does it really need a genre?’
The answer is yes. When I met with publishers and agents at the 2012 Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre, certain questions kept popping up. What’s the genre? Where do you see it in the bookstore? What other novels is it like? (If you’re a writer, you know this is about as easy to answer as ‘What other people are you like?’) Consumers are easily overwhelmed by choice, and the first thing they seem to want to do when confronted with variety is to start shutting doors and setting up categories. Booksellers have to offer them categories they’ll feel comfortable with.
So what is YA anyway? Well, besides being written for teenagers, YA novels have a reputation for being fast moving, concise, and entertaining. Or as librarian Angela Reynolds told me, ‘the books take off right from the get-go – none of this lollygagging about describing feelings ad infinitum, they get right to the action.’ Maybe this means YA has turned into the Pixar of the literary world, ostensibly meant for a young audience but attracting anyone who prefers a good story over page-long metaphors. In that case, why would anyone object to being labeled YA?
Well, beyond the loss of the adult share of the reading public, there is the fear that your book won’t be taken seriously. YA novels usually don’t get to sit at the awards tables with the grown-ups, no matter how good they are. And there are other problems. The idea of writing for young people makes me come over all mom-like. I probably wouldn’t have had everyone in the book swearing so much if I’d set out to write for teenagers. Or smoking dope on a regular basis, or jumping into awkward sexual encounters at the first opportunity, or driving under the influence, or any of the unwise behaviour the characters in Cinnamon Toast get up to. I would have wanted to protect my innocent young readers – who in reality would probably know a lot more about risky behaviour than I do.
But there’s another, simpler, reason why I’m reluctant to have my book taken for YA. The truth is, I’m afraid of teenagers.
No offence, young people. I was afraid of them when I was a teenager. Especially then. There was nothing more terrifying than walking past a group of the cool kids hanging out by the water fountain back in Junior High. ‘Please don’t notice me’, I’d silently pray. ‘Or at least don’t say anything to make me feel horrible.’ Nobody excels at scorn and ridicule like a teenager. Would I want to see my poor little book in the crosshairs of all that youthful contempt? Would you?
But to be fair, I’m only thinking about faceless groups and not individuals here. In reality, a serious conversation with a teenager seldom feels any different to me than a conversation with an adult, although the latter are less likely to react with horror when I tell them my age. When I was in my late teens I was lucky enough to have several friends who were adults. What made them my friends? I knew that they saw me as an equal rather than some kid. Maybe we should be treating teenage literature the same way.
I’ve read loads of YA books and enjoyed them. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was reading YA. I’d found the books second hand or as ebooks and read them with no preconceptions – I didn’t assume a young protagonist meant a separate genre. After all,The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared was never marketed as OA (Old Adult?). I’m happy to read about characters of all ages and backgrounds, and most people I know feel the same. In a perfect world, YA is a genre boundary I’d like to see erased. Or if we want to signal that a book is an entertaining page turner with a young perspective, I suppose we could keep the YA tag but make the letters stand for something else, something completely arbitrary. Yelling Apples? It might work.
Genres exist, and readers should feel free to use them or ignore them as they see fit. I count myself lucky if anyone at all reads my work. And if you want to call my book a Yelling Apple novel, well that would be just fine.
(c) Janet E Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com