Musings on Young Adult, part 2 (So what is genre anyway?)

Anyone feel like the vertical space between posts is way too big?  I feel like it’s too big.  Working on that.  Actually, the only reason why it hasn’t already been fixed is because it apparently costs $30 to edit blog layouts on wordpress and I’m still nursing the Christmas-sized dent in my bank account.  So far, it’s the only drawback I’ve seen to using WordPress (that and it’s not the most intuitive platform, but like most things, once you learn it, you know it).

Anyhow, I posted some ideas about young adult novels a while back, and one of things I promised I would address is the idea of Young Adult being a genre rather than a categorization.    First, let’s look at what the word “genre” means according to the OED:

A particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work characterized by a particular form, style, or purpose.

So there’s this idea that in order to call something a genre, we should have to assume that whatever falls within said genre should have “a particular form, style, or purpose.”  On a practical level, this means that when you say that something falls within a certain genre, people should have some idea of what to expect.  For example, when you say that something is a “horror film,” people will expect the movie to make some attempt at scaring them (purpose).  You could say that Tarantino films are a genre because people expect a certain style of movie-making when they see a Tarantino film.  Harlequin Romance novels have all three: form, style, and purpose.  And so on.

The “problem” with Young Adult, as some people have mentioned to me before, is that the label tells us nothing more than the protagonists’ general age range (13-18, I believe, is the general consensus, though you could probably stretch a year in either direction and say 12-19).  They have (quite rightly) pointed out that Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Paper Towns, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all categorized as young adult, and that there’s nothing that links all these books together aside from (as mentioned) the general age-range of the protagonists.

That, I think, is a fair criticism, at least on the surface.  Imagine if I said to a student, “Since you liked Speak, you should give Twilight a go… it’s the same genre!  Plus, Kristen Stewart plays the lead role in both films!” (<– yeah, this is a little odd, but true).  That’s not really a thing, right?  So fair enough, anti-YA-as-a-genre crowd.

THAT BEING SAID… the whole “12-19 year old protagonists” thing isn’t just there for convenience.  Protagonists in all novels embark upon a journey of some sort, but there’s always a sense that the change a YA protagonist undergoes throughout the course of the story is more than just “a change.”  There’s something about the idea of “growing up” that’s unique to young adult novels, which is why most of them could be classified as “coming-of-age,” which is what we used to call “books for teens” before “young adult” became a label.

Nowadays, we’re more stringent when it comes to classifying books as coming-of-age, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that most young adult novels do include an element of “youth becoming an adult.”  In some weird twist of fate, this sentiment also includes novels where “youth comes to a deeper understanding of how great being young is,” because that, in itself, tends to be understood as a sign that you’re growing up.  There’s a certain nobility to the idea of coming of age, and it’s something that I’ve found does not translate very well when authors try to replicate the journey with adult protagonists (for reasons I will explore in part three of this series).

To be continued (because I’ve been chipping away at this post for a week now and I feel like I should at least post what I have)…

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