Allison: Recently, after finishing The Invasion of the Tearling, I shouted at Alyssa (via the internet) “THIS IS NOT YA!” and she gently reminded me that, no, it’s not. This launched a discussion between me, Nicola and Alyssa about the recent blurring of lines between YA and adult novels in a certain subset of the sci-fi/fantasy world. Today, we’d like to share some of that discussion with you.
What is YA, anyway?
Nicola: Part of the issue with the blurred lines between adult fantasy and YA is that it is so difficult to pin down a definition of what YA is. It generally features teenage protagonists, who usually grapple with some kind of coming-of-age theme. It’s often told in a close POV, frequently first-person. You see I’m using lots of generalisations, because YA is a very varied category, even if we just restrict ourselves to fantasy, or even fantasy set in a secondary world.
But if we look at my list of characteristics above, we see that something like Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses has more in common with much of YA fantasy than something like Lord of the Rings, which, in spite of its age, is still what many lay people think of as characteristic fantasy. Maas’ Feyre is a young woman (19), who tells the story in first-person and who discovers that the world is not as black-and-white as she imagined, with the Fae not being the utter monsters of her imagination.
Allison: I think that one of the definitions I would add to “YA” is that it’s often more quickly paced than “adult” fantasy (such as LOTR). I think that’s why ACOTAR, the Tearling books and A Darker Shade of Magic and The Shattered Court are all enjoyable for people who like the subject matter and pace of YA fantasy, but with more adult subject matter.
Alyssa: I agree with everything you’re both saying. YA in general is in a very liminal space between children’s and adult books. In the bookstore where I worked, the YA section used to be in the children’s area. Then Twilight happened. YA (ages 12 & up), now re-categorized as Teen, moved to the adult fiction area and the old YA section in the children’s area became Middle Grade (ages 8-11).
Also, the line between YA and adult is even blurrier for fantasy than for contemporary because their teen protagonists (whether 15 or 19 yrs old) are not typical teens, dealing with what we think of as typical teen issues. The conflicts in fantasy are usually more extreme and demand much greater heroics. To become a hero, teen protagonists must “grow up” and demonstrate physical and mental strength more quickly because there’s usually a greater sense of urgency and emergency. They usually face multiple life-or-death situations and must undergo a more significant self-transformation to not only stay alive but defeat their enemies. Often teens in fantasy (I’m thinking of Celaena) seem more adult than real world teens.
Nicola: That’s a good point, Alyssa, about how the teen protagonists in fantasy tend to be facing much more severe situations than the teens in contemporary novels and the teenage audience. I’d also argue that epic fantasy themes have a lot of crossover with YA themes in general. Kelsea in The Queen of the Tearling and Sophie in The Shattered Court are 19 and 21 respectively; like so many YA protagonists, they’re young women coming to terms with who they are and their place in the world.
Alyssa: Yes. And we experience that intimately and usually from a close (often first-person) POV. Like you mentioned earlier, YA is usually very personable and immediate. Adult fantasy, however, can depict main characters at more of a distance. For example, one of the reasons the Tearling books are adult rather than YA fantasy is that we as readers are distanced from Kelsea as a main POV character and we sometimes have a better grasp of the other characters’ feelings and thoughts than we do Kelsea’s. Also, YA is usually more hopeful than adult fiction–with a trajectory towards a happy ending, a “love conquers all” romance, and a positive message about self-resilience and humanity in general despite all the ways we humans have messed up and perpetuate violence.
Maas’ books, especially ACOTAR, are perfect examples of this blurry line between YA and adult. They are categorized as juvenile fiction for older readers (ages 14 & up), so they are really in that liminal space between most YA (12 & up) and adult fantasy. ACOTAR is for a more mature audience than her Throne of Glass series and has more explicit sex and violence. (See our ACOTAR discussion post where we go into more detail about these series’ differences). ACOTAR has also been considered New Adult, but that label is tricky too, especially for books that are not contemporary romance.
We also can’t ignore how sales and marketing affect how a book is categorized. Will it sell better as YA or adult? Will as many people buy it if it’s say $25 rather than $18? Will it sell better on a YA or adult fantasy/new fiction shelf? Let’s consider Maas’ books again. What later became her Throne of Glass series was not originally written as YA and these books have a lot of crossover appeal. It seems that if ToG had been published as adult fantasy instead, ACOTAR would be considered adult fantasy. But since ToG is such a popular YA series, ACOTAR is also YA.
Nicola: I’m reminded of an article Nicola Morgan wrote a while back on tips for writing for teens. In it she talks about the importance of ‘teenage interest’:
“If teenagers are interested, you can write about it. If they aren’t, you can’t. Things they are not interested in include: menopause, pensions and midlife angst.”
The flip-side to this, of course, is that teenagers are interested in a lot of the same things adults are interested in: romance, friendship, social justice, politics, magic, scientific endeavour, the list goes on.
Allison: I agree. Here’s my concern: in a book like The Invasion of the Tearling, which I know lots of teenagers will read, things like graphic marital rape aren’t (in my opinion) really “YA” topics. While it might not be something that’s such a big deal (as far as appropriateness) for a 17-19 year old to read, it’s a pretty big deal for a 14 year old. I mean, I’m 33 and I kind of freaked out about that aspect of the book because I had misclassified it as YA and really wasn’t expecting that kind of subject matter. I think that both adults and teenagers can be interested in lots of the same kinds of stuff, but when it comes to more sensitive topics like violence or even consensual sex, there’s different levels of interest and I feel like narrative elements should address the audience the book is “meant” for. That gets a little messy in the kinds of liminal books we’re discussing.
Female authors/protags in adult fantasy classed as YA
Nicola: I think, in a way, the success of women in YA has worked against us, in that I find that fantasy, a traditionally male genre that women have carved out a place for ourselves in in YA, when it’s written by and about women, even when it has explicit sex and adult protagonists, is more likely to be classed as YA than the male counterpart.
I think there’s some unconscious sexism going on here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that librarians and booksellers, who in my experience are lovely people, are part of some vast conspiracy to discredit female authors. Rather, I think that a lot of people have this unconscious association in their minds, that when they see a fantasy book cover/title and a woman’s name, the default assumption is YA, where that same assumption does not apply with male authors.
Allison: I agree. I think that the “confusion” about whether the books we’re talking about are YA or not (even when they clearly are not YA) has to do with who’s authoring the books. It’s sad that it seems like a slam to YA at the same time, because as we’ve established countless times in the past, the three of us firmly believe there’s nothing “low-quality” about YA, any more than there is in any other genre of fiction.
In the case of Victoria Schwab and Sarah J Maas’s work, both have written YA in the past, so I think it’s tempting to say “Well they write YA too and the subject matter is similar, so it’s a natural confusion!” However, I think in the case of Erika Johansen, we see that even debut authors are being lumped into this blurry category, without much thought. For me, it’s hard not to think that there’s a nasty kind of sexism at work here. It reeks of internalized misogyny.
Alyssa: So true. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful that women writers have contributed so much to YA’s success and that the majority of YA authors are women, but it also means that YA is often debased due to sexism.
Success in YA leads to similar work in adult
Allison: At the same time, I think this is a step forward for fantasy, which has been led by predominantly male authors for a long time. I don’t read YA because I identify with teenagers, I read YA mostly because I like female-led fantasy adventures, so I would love it if the success in the YA market leads to more similarly themed adult fantasy novels being published.
Nicola: Yes! In fact, YA has gotten SO MUCH better for female-led fantasy even in the past decade. I remember being annoyed when I was a teenager at the dearth of female protagonists in high fantasy books aimed at people my age. I’m sure it was being written, but it was getting lost somewhere between agent querying and my public library, where the only female-led high fantasy books I remember reading were Tamora Pierce’s. In contrast, the vast majority of the books I’ve read so far this year either have a female protagonist or joint/female protagonists. I’d love for the increased popularity of female-led YA fantasy to lead to greater recognition of the women already writing fantasy aimed at adults.
Alyssa: I agree. YA’s success has had a generally positive influence on adult fantasy–especially in terms of the rise in female protagonists. I think women and men are now more likely to read female-authored and female-led fantasy than ten, or even five, years ago.
I think this Guardian article, by Sarah Hughes, is relevant to our discussion. Even though I’m older than the Harry Potter generation, my passion for such fantasy and dystopian series as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games sparked my interest in YA after decades of reading mostly adult fiction that was rarely fantasy and often male-centric. Probably just as many adults as young adults have read Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games series. And these days more adults than youth are reading YA.
Nicola: I would consider myself part of the Harry Potter generation, but when I was growing up most of my peers, male and female, weren’t all that interested in fantasy. Harry Potter was popular, as were the Lord of the Rings movies, but most of my peers weren’t interested in fantasy beyond that.
It’s really only in the past eight years or so that the popularity of SF/F in YA has really picked up, and for today’s teens fantasy is normal in a way it wasn’t when I was their age. I think the knock-on effect of YA SF/F isn’t so much that the adults raised on it are now expecting more female-led SF/F (I was in university by the time The Hunger Games and Divergent, two of the examples given, were released) as it is that these female-led books were so popular that adult women started picking them up and expect more female-led fantasy, this time about people our own age.
Allison: I have always been a fantasy reader, though I think I’m something of an anomaly in that I never got into most of the male-authored fantasy “canon.” I was 30 when I read my first Neil Gaiman book and authors like Terry Brooks that I’m sure I’d love still elude me. I loved Madeline L’Engle, Tamora Pierce, Meredith Ann Pierce, Susan Cooper, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Monica Furlong, Mary Stewart, Patricia C Wrede, etc. I think that was largely because I was a kid who loved to play pretend and it was hard for me to get into any books that wouldn’t allow me to supplant myself as the main character at a later date.
I read The Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter while I was in college, but not much else in terms of SF/F. College and grad school killed most of my desire to read for fun, so I was thrilled to return to the world as an adult reader and find it rich with new SF/F. I remember the day I got my Kindle I downloaded all of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels and was immediately itching for more. It wasn’t ’til I got my hands on Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches that I really understood that I’d like to read fantasy with adult protagonists that read a bit like the YA books I liked so well. I think we’re just at the beginning of an awesome trend in SF/F, which makes me really happy.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that I hope that all the success in YA fantasy (and SF) recently will lead to more well-written, female-led books for adults! Thanks for joining us today. We’ll be talking about some of these “liminal” books in the upcoming weeks when we discuss Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling series.
Until next time,
Nicola, Alyssa and Allison