Saturday, July 19, 2008

I'm okay, you're okay, unless you write YA

Today's (er, tomorrow's) New York Times Book Review includes a seriously great article by Margo Rabb, who wrote one of my favorite books of 2007, Cures for Heartbreak: I'm Y.A., and I'm O.K. It's Rabb's account of how she sold Cures for Heartbreak to Random House Children's Books, and the stigma attached to YA literature, not just by readers and the general adult reading public, but by the publishing industry. It's a fascinating look not at what makes a book YA or adult (that's an entire three-volume set in itself), but how a book that sits on the blurry line between YA and adult is marketed. Much of it is left up to publishing houses which...well, I can't blame them. It's their product and therefore their job to decide how to market it best. Publishing houses' decisions aside, it's fascinating and a little revolting to read how not just Rabb but other writers of YA are thought of as lesser beings. Their YA books are not mentioned if they write adult books after YA. Someday this Pain will be Useful to You will be marketed as adult when it comes out in paperback, because Peter Cameron wished it so. Rabb chronicles the stories of other writers whose books they thought were adult but were marketed as YA. Some have embraced this. Others, less so.

That this rift exists in the publishing world is no surprise to me. Writers of literary fiction look down on YA. Many adults who don't know anything about YA look down on YA, too. That's old news. What seems new to me is YA authors looking down on each other. The line about Peter Cameron sparked it, but it made me think of an event I went to a while ago at which James Lecesne spoke on a panel with Eve Ensler and Michael Cunningham, where the three talked about their books and plays. In a very small nutshell, James Lecesne made sure to distinguish himself from the "other" writers of YA, the ones who wrote the dreadlit, the romances, and most especially, Gossip Girl. It was very clear to me as Lecense talked that he had little if any familiarity with the offerings of the YA genre, and although his YA book was great, and so was Sherman Alexie's, maybe, it was important that the audience (who looked to be mostly college-age, maybe a little older) not look down on him for writing YA. He wasn't one of those writers. I thought this was rather tacky of Lecesne to do. Toni Morrison can't ask to be shelved in a different part of a bookstore than Danielle Steel, so James Lecesne doesn't get to ask to be shelved in a different part of a bookstore than the Clique series.

Authors of the world, please. Embrace YA. I know YA lit gets smaller print runs, is less profitable, is appealing to a smaller audience. And I can sympathize with this. After all, I've got bills to pay, too. But writing YA doesn't make you lesser. YA is a place where books that could not thrive in the adult world can become bestsellers. YA is the place to experiment with genre and structure. We welcome all kinds of neat books in YA that probably wouldn't make it too far published as adult. I've found that teens, and adult readers who love teen books, are often open-minded and willing to try experimental books and genre fiction. Best of all? They don't care what other people think. To the open-minded reader, a good story is a good story regardless of who it's written for. What makes for a good story? That's another post altogether.

More and more adults are picking up YA books. This is something Ilene Lefkowitz and I addressed in our "Crash Course in YA Lit for Adult Services Librarians" program we gave in May at NJLA. It's up to us librarians to match the right book to the right reader regardless of age range, but it's up to the writers to embrace the genre and learn to love the YA label. I for one am insanely happy about all these books that were intended for adults getting a YA label. It means more offerings for older teens. It's new perspectives. It's books that maybe, just maybe, parents and teens can agree on. We can have endless debates on what makes a book YA or adult. I have my own theories, which fit most books marketed as YA but not all. Regardless of what my theories do or don't fit, one cannot deny that the quality of YA is only going up, and while acceptance of the genre is an uphill battle for librarians and booksellers who love YA to fight, I think it's one well worth fighting.

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