How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age

Five questions about literature's hottest genre


Meredith Barnes, a literary agent with Lowenstein Associates, demonstrates superhuman patience while explaining young adult literature to me. I am familiar enough with the basics: that YA is not to the written word as PG is to film. That it is publishing's closest thing to a safe bet in years. That it has seen explosive growth as a result. To wit: 3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997. Twelve years later, that figure hit 30,000 titles--an increase of a full order of magnitude. In 2009, total sales exceeded $3 billion, which is roughly all the money. (McSweeney's has the break down, and an astonishing array of statistics.)

While the purchasing power of young people has certainly increased over the years, such astounding figures and simple observation suggest that it's not just 12-year-olds smashing piggy banks on the counter at Powell's. Adults are buying and reading these books. When I was a teenager, young adults hadn't yet been invented and books aimed at my demographic were uniformly about babysitting. Blame 1 Corinthians 13:11, or the lack of Y to my A, but it no more occurred to me as an adult to browse the YA aisle than to catch a Jonas Brothers concert. The simple weirdness of men and women over the drinking age perusing the children's stacks before general fiction seemed cause for alarm and a fair argument for education reform.

Ms. Barnes offers reassurance that adult interest in YA is not the result of a crisis in the collective level of literacy in the United States. Rather, it's indicative of the quality and enduring themes addressed by young adult. "The fluid demographic barrier speaks to the emotional turmoil that makes contemporary young adult literature unique," she says. "Every decision feels life-changing, and every choice in these books can seem life-or-death. The emotions are no more or less valid than what one might experience at 30, but it's the first time, and thus very powerful."

But if everyone is reading this subset of fiction where seemingly no subject is taboo, why is it corralled as young adult, anyway? Ms. Barnes explains that it's in the genre's unique viewpoints, which are often illuminated with emotion but not informed by experience. She offers a definition by way of an example: "If an adult character has an emotional issue and deals with it through drug abuse, that's probably not his or her first exposure to drugs. Meanwhile in young adult literature, your young protagonist is often simultaneously introduced to and taken in by the drug. It may be the first time they've ever seen heroin, so there's a kind of innocence there. It's the loss of that innocence that makes a young adult character so different."

Teens shooting horse sounded like an exponential improvement over the kid lit of my childhood, and on the advice of basically everyone else in the world, I read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. (My previous YA experience included the excellent Harry Potter series and a few pages of Twilight.) The story of Katniss Everdeen was every bit as satisfying as the early works of Robert Heinlein and E.E. "Doc" Smith, with enough violence to make Paul Verhoeven blush. It's self-evident why teens would devour the books, but not so clear why they would outsell, for example, Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood, both by the luminous Margaret Atwood, both addressing similar themes in a similar post-apocalyptic setting.

This raises the question: Is the crushing popularity of YA the result of a kind of induced phenomenon as described by literary critic Jack Zipes (i.e. adults buy YA because they perceive everyone else as buying YA)? Popularity is, of course, not a metric for quality, yet--jumping art forms for a moment--not a Monday passes without a full accounting of the movie theater box office. This is part of the inducement of phenomena in popular culture. Every week brings The Most Important Movie of the Year, and films which fail to earn out the title of The #1 Movie in America immediately vanish from the radar screen as though in shame. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps the lowest point in the human cultural experience, has grossed $400 million so far. Citizen Kane, by comparison, over its lifetime and adjusted for inflation, has grossed $23 million. Word of mouth did not drive ticket sales of Transformers. (One prays.) Rather, it was the marketing-driven metaphysical imperative to remain one with the zeitgeist.

Cinema and literature are very different forms of art, so it's reductive and disingenuous to draw a 1:1 comparison. Still, the bandwagon is as old as advertising itself, and similar cultural trends are at work when the public demands midnight store openings for a book that is very good, but certainly not that good. (This should not be taken as a criticism of commercial fiction, profit, or Harry Potter. [Save your hate mail.] Nor should it be considered a criticism of the publishing industry, which seems as perplexed as the rest of us when these series take flight.)
In light of this older demography swiping debit cards for younger books, I wondered: do publishers now target adults when buying and marketing ostensibly young adult literature? Elise Howard, Senior Vice President and Associate Publisher for Fiction in the Children's Division of Harper Collins offers a short answer: No. "That is exactly what we don't do. We're always thinking of our core readership of true teenagers and whether a book will be interesting to them. Beyond that, there's no single kind of book that will be interesting to, say, 35- to 45-year-olds."

For a book to succeed, fidelity to its intended audience is paramount. "A few years ago," says Ms. Howard, "I received a manuscript called I Love You Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle. It was a story told from the perspective of a teenage boy who is his school's commencement speaker. He gets to the podium and very early in his speech instead of delivering the text he's supposed to, blurts out: 'I love you Beth Cooper!' Beth Cooper happens to be the most spectacular girl in high school, at least from his point of view. And the novel takes off from there. My take on that novel was that it required more perspective on that situation than a YA reader was going to bring to it. That you needed to be, maybe, in your mid-20s to get the irony and humor of it. I recommended it to a colleague of mine on the adult side and it was published very, very well. To me, that made the book not a YA."

She continues: "It's hard to get a broad young adult readership because there are as many readers as there are individuals, and there are as many types of readers as there are readers. It's long been said that the most prevalent form of research in publishing is to buy a book and publish it and see what happens. And so we know--and more to the point, retailers know--what is working and what is reaching readers. All of us tend to then look for material that will satisfy that readership, whoever that readership may be. And it doesn't get much more scientific than that."

So what's next for YA? It's left to future generations to decide whether Harry Potter is great literature, or very effective event planning, or both, or what. Presently, the first ten-year-olds to discover Hogwarts and practice expecto patronum with toothbrushes are now in college or entering the work force. This post-high school demographic has long been a challenge for publishers to reach. Dan Weiss, the Publisher-at-Large for St. Martin's Press, has a plan. It is called New Adult. Reading trends, economics, and psychology have so aligned as to keep this group of readers in libraries and bookstores. As Mr. Weiss explains, "On some level, New Adult speaks to the large crowd of folks experiencing a lot of the same issues of adolescence at an older age. In other words: issues of separation and attachment; individuation; and romantic, sexual, and economic independence. We think there's an opportunity to provide books that 'bridge the gap,' so to speak."

What would this new umbrella genre look like? He points to books currently on the shelf--Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pressl, and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. Reaching into the new canon, he suggests Couples, by John Updike. "There are going to be some readers who grew up with Harry Potter and are drawn to literary fiction," says Mr. Weiss. "There's a larger group with a passion for reading as entertainment who are drawn to more commercial works. This is an opportunity to develop both avenues of that. My interests are in the commercial rather than the literary, although there's often an overlap, especially among younger folks these days. There isn't quite the divide between high and low culture that there once was, and I hope we find a happy confluence."

For Mr. Weiss, this is about more than money. "When I was in children's books," he says, "I produced several series, to include the Sweet Valley High books and The Vampire Diaries. These books were highly commercial, and in the early days of the '80s we were concerned that the librarian-teacher establishment might turn up their noses. We were pleasantly surprised. They really embraced the books under the theory that any reading is good reading; that the reading habit is one that has to be developed young; that commercial fiction can be educational, instructive, and eye opening; and that a certain subset of that crowd will go on to read more critical and literary works. Prior to this job, I ran a company called SparkNotes, and we saw that interest in the classics is stronger than ever, no question about it."

The most important element in all this, of course, is the author. What the snob who'd sooner read a shampoo bottle than Stephen King and the fierce critic like Megan Cox Gurdon have in common is the opinion that fiction writers are somehow crass or malevolent for reaching large audiences. But I've never met an author who didn't want to write a good book, regardless of genre, regardless of the end result. It takes a supreme artistry to write well, and it takes more than a bag of money to produce The Hunger Games. Erin Kelly, a short fiction writer and novelist, best sums the challenges of YA: "You have to remember a time from your past--the sound of sneakers on the gym floor, the smell of lockers and middle school hallways and, most importantly, the way it felt to be an adolescent. You have to remember the struggle of wanting to be an individual, but needing to fit in, of loving and hating your parents at the same time, of trying to maneuver through the social strata. And you not only have to remember what adolescence feels and looks like, you have to be able to convey it with a believable tone and voice that relates to readers. I'm not sure anyone could call that easy. That there is nothing easy about writing a good book, whether it's a picture book with 50 words or a novel with 50,000."