Like most young-adult fiction writers I know, I spent a good deal of last week thinking about a certain Slate article that claims adults should be embarrassed for reading YA fiction. Hereto that article shall be known as It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked.
Many writers and readers have already pointed out the flaws in the piece, for instance, that the author makes sweeping generalizations about the YA genre. Or that genre-shaming is frequently aimed at books for women and children. (And, for that matter, written by women.) That adults can benefit from reading about teen-age experiences. That marketing, rather than quality, defines what is or isn’t YA. And, of course, that no one should be telling anyone what to read.
And then there’s my favorite response to the idea that adults should be embarrassed by what they read:
It’s not like we haven’t had this dust up before. I can recall at least one heavily publicized tirade against YA books, and chick lit has been getting genre-shamed since Bridget Jones first cracked open her diary. Every few years, someone climbs upon the literary high horse and decrees that we should be reading Real Literature, not Crap.
Of course, what is and isn’t Real Literature is anybody’s guess.
There’s no Real Literature shelf in a bookstore. Believe me, I’ve looked. As a writing graduate student, I was encouraged to read Real Literature. Assigned readings included classic novels and contemporary critical darlings like Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. There didn’t seem to be room for the books I loved and wanted to emulate – Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance. Or any of the women’s fiction that was racking up sales at local Barnes & Noble. I read both the Real Literature and the commercial entertainment. I’ll admit that sometimes the distinction between the two categories was obvious, but most of the time it wasn’t.
I’m no more the wiser when it comes to the YA / Real Literature divide. Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, emotional book with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. Despite her age, or the fact that it’s a coming of age story, you’ll find it on the fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble. Why? Is it the page count? The typography? It *is* kind of small print, honestly, but shouldn’t that mean it’s better for younger eyes?
It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked claims the differentiation between YA and Real Literature lies in the pleasure of reading, the satisfying ending, relatable protagonists. All of these are qualities of the “inferior” young adult novel. They are also the qualities of the not-YA Tell The Wolves I’m Home.
It would be fascinating to go behind the scenes of the publishing houses and get the editors and marketers to explain the distinctions they use to categorize books. I’d love to know why one book ended up in one part of the bookstore while a similar book is in another. But I fear that the answers would be so widely varied so full of caveats and exceptions that the answer would be just as murky as it is now.
Which makes me wonder: why have them at all?
My local independent bookstore, BookPeople, has a large, well curated Teen book section. I’ve been browsing it for years and have watched it grow and change. The teen section is not only stocked with books that are arbitrarily designated by the publisher as Teen or Young Adult. Within it you can find 1984, The House on Mango Street, The Life of Pi, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are cross-shelved in both the teen section and graphic novel section. And it isn’t just that books are cross-shelved into the teen section. As I was browsing the fiction shelves I was pleased to spot a face-out stack of The Book Thief.
Anytime there’s another war of words over which books one should or should not read, I think of BookPeople and how we’d all be much better off if books weren’t judged by what section of the bookstore they’re shelved in. I’m not so radical as to suggest that we do away with labels completely. They’re handy for describing what you like (or what you write, for us writer types) and bookstores would be chaos without them. But many, many books cannot be neatly pigeonholed into just one category. We frequently talk about books that have cross-over appeal — books that appeal to readers of multiple genres. What harm is there in cross-shelving a book in both General Fiction and Teen if it would appeal to both audiences? When books “cross over,” let them actually cross the bookstore.
And then wouldn’t it be interesting if readers like the author of It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Linked got the opportunity to browse those mixed up shelves? She might pick up a book, read the description, and find out it is the critically lauded, experimental piece of Real Literature that she’s always dreamed of reading.
And it might be YA.