Y.A. is all the rage in literature right now. Recent successes of young adult film adaptations have boosted the profile of this rather obscure classification concept even further – and the relationship between film and literature prevails. A recent popcrush.com article reported that “Young Adult Books Dominate Current Best-Selling Books Lists.”
So Y.A. is clearly the way to go for writers, right?
But since when are books defined by their target audience anyway? Unless we’re talking about children’s literature (and then ‘chick lit’ might be another exception – I guess – although admittedly I’m not sure whether that term is used primarily for promotion, or if it’s meant to be derogatory). And it’s not as if YA is any kind of a genre anyway. In fact one has to read through a list of YA books just to get a loose grasp of where the boundaries of the concept lie. Time.com recently featured a YA top 100 list that I’ll refer to for the purpose of this discussion.
What we find on that list is a variety of books, some of which have only retrospectively been granted their Y.A. status. Why, for instance, is To Kill a Mockingbird on the list? Is it because it’s commonly taught at middle school? If that’s the case then the Board of Education, deciding which books are taught, has clearly become some kind of an authority over which books get this coveted YA-label. Has anyone suggested that the newly released sequel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, is YA as well? Then we have various children’s books on the list, and middle grade books, that have suddenly been classified as YA. Is the idea there that children’s books can get the YA-label when it has become socially acceptable for teenagers to read and enjoy them? Why have teenagers become the be-all/end-all entity of literature – that all manner of writing should aspire to appeal to young adults?
Getting back to the relationship between literature and film, classification systems have long been an integral part of the movie industry, all across the globe. Filmmakers have had to compromise their material for the sake of acquiring a practical rating, and presently the census in Hollyood seems to be that the most profitable rating is PG-13: somewhat edgy, yet still tame enough for young adult audience (unless of course the film is specifically aimed at children, in which case getting a PG-13 rating would be a handicap). Studios have often been criticized for going too far in making compromises for the sake of getting a low enough rating: there have been instances where films that were adapted from horror stories ended up being released with a PG-13 rating, and then sequels for films that were R-rated come out with a PG-13 rating. And then, of course, if a film is slapped with a NC-17 rating, its profitability is sliced due to lack of access to advertising, or even screening spaces. The rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America goes back all the way to 1922 and is still applied today.
The comic book industry of America also had its own self-regulatory body, where comic books were rated based on whether their material was considered suitable for the young and suggestible readers. The Comics Magazine Association of America and The Comic Code Authority were founded in 1954, in response to a growing concern over the harmful influences that comic books were having on their readers. From then on, all comics released by the major comic book publishers would have to be approved by the Authority, which would ensure that they didn’t contain any irresponsible material (an example from the comic book code: “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.”) The scare had been fueled by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and his book The Seduction of Innocence, which outlined his research findings on juvenile delinquency, where he came to the conclusion that exposure to comics could lead to deviant behavior in adolescents, such as criminality and homosexuality. This came as a hard blow to the comic book industry, and the top brands found themselves compelled to form the association that would instate regulations over their own material. Wertham’s research has recently been debunked, but the CCA remained in effect, to some degree, up until 2010. For years and decades the code’s restrictions shaped the comic book industry of America.
Is Y.A. heading towards becoming some sort of a functional gatekeeper for books, in the style of PG-13 or ‘Approved by the Comic Code Authority’?
No official self-regulating body exists for books of the magnitude of the CMAA or the MPAA, though we have seen smaller gatekeepers enforcing restrictions on the availability of certain books due to their content. However, the more important Y.A. becomes as a marketing tool for books, the more we can expect it to become utilized for the purpose of influencing content. There has already been a case of a YA book being “banned from high-school reading lists for ‘filthy words’ and anti-Christian content.” The more often it comes up that concerned parents raise issues with the content of books that are labelled as being for young adults, the closer we get to a formal young-adult classification system; and with that, book publishing would drift closer to what films and comic books went through in the fifties. It would be a beginning of the phantom self-regulatory body of Y.A. Once something would have been labelled as Y.A. it could be banned on the basis that some of its material would be unsuitable for young adults.
As was mentioned before, Y.A. is in itself not a genre, but can perhaps rather be seen as sub-genre. At the moment, a couple of prevalent YA sub-genres would be dystopian-YA and vampire-YA. In fact one of the books on the Top 100 YA list of Time.com is the vampire phenomenon Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I don’t have any problem with that book being classified as Y.A. We could apply a simple and clear-cut criteria: a vampire in high school = YA vampire fiction, and furthermore, a vampire in a vampire academy = absolute YA. Vampires are in fact a subject matter that has become permanently marked by a YA makeover that has served to create a stereotype of vampire fiction that has little, if anything, to do with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The original story, about a Romanian count (based on a real historical figure) who lures a solicitor into his castle, to then keep him prisoner there while the former moves on to prey on the man’s fiancee, has left behind it a YA legacy that comes off rather like a spin-off of the episode in the original story where the fiancee, Mina, is being seduced by the Count – only this time we delve into her delirium during that process, where she has started perceiving the vampire-monster as a really swell guy. Anyone writing about vampires today in the style of Bram Stoker should seriously consider finding a way to distance themselves from Y.A., perhaps by announcing the beginning of a Vampire Renaissance, or at least apply a NYA – non-young-adult – label to their work.
And for other writers as well, who want to make a statement against everything gravitating towards young adults; who are not comfortable with the idea of a YA classification system being adopted in the future, should beat the puritans to it and start labeling their work as NYA, with the label provided above (until we get a real graphic designer on board, who can provide us with a better looking label). It could also serve as a part of a more imaginative position, where we could pretend that YA has already become a formal classification system, in the spirit of PG-13 or “Approved by the Comic Code Authority”, and then we could come up with invented reasons for why our work wouldn’t have passed the YA censors. But it’s not as if you’ll be forced to make a case for it, as the NYA label can be applied liberally (as the YA-label is used today). This way maybe we’ll end up steering clear of a future where Y.A. ends up as an actual classification system.