What the$#$#!@!@!! Is Young Adult Literature, Anyway?

The following is an excerpt from a rejection letter a literary agent recently sent me.  Most rejection letters annoy me, or at least frustrate me, but this one hit me below the belt.  The reason for this is because it has almost nothing to do with my novel, but espouses a philosophy of literature—and YA novels in particular—that is the very antithesis of my own.  In rejecting my novel, the agent explained,

the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds. The characters are almost too old to be considered for YA novels, as it seems the Count is 19 and most YA protagonists' ages cap at 18.

I had to take a long walk outside to recover my equilibrium; then I wrote, deleted, and re-wrote my response to this nonsense.  What bothered me the most about this rejection is the agent’s dogmatic belief that ‘Young Adult’ readers were literally incapable of accepting a protagonist beyond 18—the cap, so to speak.  Reading between the lines, the agent is basically saying, “these readers are so self-absorbed that they can’t relate to anything old, meaning anything beyond their immediate interests, and the greatest imaginative leap they can possibly make is to imagine an eighteen year-old hero or heroine.  Beyond that, they’re fit for the grave, so why bother to write a novel about them?”

Of course, I am a reader of Young Adult literature, so I found the agent’s response offensive both as a reader and a writer.  Is ‘Young Adult’ literature such a fixed, tradition-bound genre?  And how can something written for ‘young adults’ follow tried-and-true laws, when teenagers are, by their very definition, changing the rules and constantly adapting—or dismissing—the past?  Of course, this brings me to my greatest frustration with the rejection letter, and with the genre itself: “the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds.”  In the publishing world, everyone seems to have an idea of what ‘Young Adult’ is, and few of these definitions agree or fail to cancel each other out.  Is Young Adult even a genre?  I mean, when I think of genres, I think of science fiction (which itself has several subcategories and genres), romance, horror, mystery, travel writing, etc.  But Young Adult?  This is an audience, is it not?  Who the hell are Young Adults?  By definition, they are teenagers—young adults, not 8-12 year olds.  I’ve never heard the YA genre as something marketed to pre-teens, since they have other genres for that—Middle Grade Readers, etc.  But no matter which audience we decide to rest on, it remains exactly that, an audience
So the question is, what do teenagers like to read?  What are they interested in?  And perhaps most tellingly, what kind of books do they buy?  For agents and publishers, the answer is easy: they buy YA books.  And YA books, as best as I can tell from my copious rejection letters and reading the self-important babble of agents and editors on websites and in The Writer’s Market, consist of the following elements:

  • Characters that “leap off the page” and are instantly relatable (i.e., they remind the readers of themselves)
  • Language that is similar to what the readers, themselves, use
  • Romance, romance, romance
  • Zombies, vampires, and apocalypse
  • Should be told in first person from a variety of perspectives; that’s the only way to make it “immediate” and “exciting” for the reader
  • Should be a “page turner”: if the first page doesn’t grab them they give up immediately
Agents always talk down to writers as if they’ve never been teenagers themselves (or consider that we, too, read the very books that we aim to write).  Of course, I was a teenager and the kind of books I read ranged from Jane Austen to Splatterpunk to Joseph Campbell.  Sure, I enjoyed reading works whose characters resembled me in some aspect, and who I could personally identify with.  But every book?  I fell in love with Pride and Prejudice because this was a world I didn’t know, full of people who had tremendous wit, life, and character, even though none of it resembled what I could find outside my window—much less what I found staring back at me through a mirror.  And as for page-turners, I often plodded through dense works of history and philosophy that I could scarcely understand for the sheer joy of finally “getting it.”  I read widely, even recklessly, in as many genres and fields as I could since everything interested me.  And I rarely threw down a novel even after the first 50 pages, no matter how obscure or baffling.  I think you’ll find most true readers have a code of reading to the end, a code they break only in the most extreme circumstances (gratuitous violence, objectionable characters, etc.). 

My problem with this agent’s response is how it stereotypes an entire field of literature and those who read it.  Bottom line, publishers and agents want to make money.  Few of them believe in YA literature or those who read/write it; they simply want to understand why it works so they can crank out one bestseller after another.  And while some ‘truths’ might connect one work to another, it can never be universal and unshakeable.  Otherwise we wouldn’t read books or need to be young again.  Isn’t the whole point of being a teenager (in reality or spirit) to challenge the status quo and remake the world in your own image?  And yet this agent said, “oh, we know what’s best for them, we know what they like, and it’s only X, Y, and Z.”  Of course, time and again, some book comes out of nowhere and surprises the hell out of everyone, since it breaks the rules or defies some eternal truth of a publisher’s existence.  Before Harry Potter, it was chapter and verse that teenagers would never read a book over 200 pages.  So much for that!  Now it’s “teenagers only want to read about themselves and their Facebook, Twitter, Instragram generation.”  Never mind the continuing popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has characters that do not “leap off the page,” many of whom are mere archetypes, speaking stilted (yet inspiring) language, all from the mind and imagination of a man who didn’t give a damn what teenagers wanted to read. 

And here the two loves of my life—reading and education—come violently crashing together.  Publishers/agents want young people to tell us how to write, what to read, how to think about things.  True, it’s a double standard: they tell us what teenagers want to read but back it up with studies and market research: the readers have spoken!  We see the exact same thing in higher education, where universities terrified about losing students are kowtowing slavishly to student expectations.  Being “student centered” is now the norm, which translates to de-emphasizing the classroom experience for the “outside” experience: field trips, study abroad, community activities, intermural sports, on-line classrooms, etc, etc.  In essence, many in higher education are asking students “how should we teach you?  What do you want in a university?  How can we do our jobs better?”  If someone had asked me that as a teenager (and remember, I was one once) I would have responded, somewhat abashed, “how the hell should I know?  I came here for you to teach me!”  This was the very response I got in one of my recent student evaluations, where one of the last questions asks, “list ways that the teacher could improve his/her performance in the classroom.”  An anonymous student responded, “wouldn’t know, I’m not a teacher.” 

Lest I sound arrogant here, my point is simply this: the job of teachers is to educate since they spent 10+ years specializing in their chosen fields.  The same is true of writers; let them write the stories that they, themselves, find inspiring and interesting.  If readers don’t like them, so be it.  But to slavishly decide what readers want—and writers should deliver—is a sure recipe for mediocre claptrap.  It’s the very reason why the shelves of so-called Young Adult literature are clotted with endless variations on the apocalyptic theme.  Many of these works are exciting and new—but they will quickly cease to be so if that’s all we find on the bookshelves.  Just because one story—and one approach to a specific story—is successful doesn’t mean the alchemic blueprint has been discovered.  Let writers write and find themselves in writing.  Don’t tell us what sells or what ages or characters need to be.  Have more faith in your readers and in the power of literature itself, which is designed to go beyond the limitations of our limited ego and connect to something much more profound and universal.  As a reader, I found myself by reading works that were often over my head from wildly different cultures and languages.  Far from turning me off reading, it made me a better reader—and a more intelligent person to boot.  Should we deny that to our children in the interest of making a buck? 

I’ll close with the observation—obvious to anyone who reads YA literature—that the audience of this literature is as diverse as its content. Most people I know who read YA literature are not teenagers (hell, I’m 39).  And most of these people don’t just read YA literature.  I don’t even regard it as such myself; to me, literature is literature, no matter what form it takes or who reads it.  In the end, it either makes you think or it doesn’t; it either makes you dream or it doesn’t; it either makes you want to take up a pen (or a word processor) and write your own story or it doesn’t.  We can divvy up the readers or the genres as much as we like, but what really matters is the story and everything that goes into it.  Even if the characters are (gasp!) 89.  When I was a child the character I most idolized was Obi Wan Kenobi.  The man did not speak like me or share anything I could remotely relate to.  On the contrary, I wanted to be like him—not make him in my image.  And isn’t that the power of literature, to remake ourselves in someone else’s life and thoughts?  When literature is reduced to one endlessly FB selfie, then perhaps the publishers and agents will finally crack the philosopher’s stone.  But until then, they need to throw up their hands and admit that art can’t be predicted or prescribed; teenagers will read whatever interests them, and writers should be encouraged to remember the dreams they had when they were young.  No easy task, when piles of rejection letters make one feel very old indeed...