Sunday, August 9, 2009

YA out of bounds

This weekend was a big magazine reading weekend for me; I hardly cracked a book. The newest (for our slow overseas transit) SFX and SciFi Now mags came in at work on Friday, as well as SciFi Magazine earlier in the week. I also was given a copy of the latest Entertainment Weekly which features a vampire special.

So it was all genre all weekend for me. The EW vampire special was okay, nothing compared to this month's earlier SFX vampire special, but it had some coverage of the new t.v. show The Vampire Diaries, which I intend to read. But, for me, SciFi Now is always the highlight, and this month's issue has a little article written by sometimes YA author Chris Wooding. His opinion piece wonders if the "young adult category still [has] a purpose?". My initial reaction was a chin wobbling, tentative "yeeeeeesss", and then I finished the article and gave a little cheer for adults who get it; Wooding states "that thin sliver of years between chidlhood and late adolescence is fertile ground for the genre writer" and "a publisher of young adult books doesn't have to deal with the genre prejudice of the adult market".

Genre prejudice, I see it all the time. In adults most often. In teens, I see girls who've read Gossip Girl and E. Lockhart get just as excited about Scott Westerfeld's Peeps. And, just as Wooding explains, it has to do with a lack of boundary in the YA/teen section around literature versus genre, and more of a grouping according to age. Because of this, Wooding's genre novels tend to shelve next to "Jacqueline Wilson's stories for preteen girls". There is a tendency for people who identify as non-genre readers to completely skip over these sections when looking for books. But there is so much variation within this huge thing called genre that much in the way of great stories and great writing gets left behind.

Teen genre fiction covers are also more open to interpretive design than genre fiction specifically for adults. Looking at Justine Larbalestier's new cover for Liar, or Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, you wouldn't know that you were reading something that would be considered a genre read until you were a good halfway into it. And even then, looking back, you would question this label. Whereas SciFi and Fantasy titles marketed for adults are most often pretty obvious, sporting glowing swords, Tolkien-looking landscapes, an air ship on fire; all of which are very cool things but they are too obvious to attract non-genre readers. A good exception to this are George Martin's books. Obvious fantasy covers, to me, give the message that the packaged book will be a safe and comfortable, familiar read if you're into the images depicted on the front. It suggests that people are just looking to read the same book over and over again. Which maybe they are, but let's not make it so easy for them.

I love the packaging of books. It's a very contemporary notion, the use of images to suggest content. In the olden days books came only in cloth bound, embossed hardcovers or a stitched pamphlet (early zines). The title and an expressive subtitle were a book's draw. Also, there were only 15 books in print so you could get to all of them in your lifetime, if you could afford them.

Now, books are commodities and vie against each other for your attention. They call to you from the shelf with their cover art; seriously, looking over at our rows of books I feel they are so chatty about their content and what they promise if you pick them up. Book covers are seductive, the little tarts, and they make me want to read all of them.

But I think ultimately Chris Wooding's article is important because it suggests that YA and teen titles pave the way for future genre readers, or at least make it possible for less genre prejudice in the adult years. And with less of a boundary between lit and genre, cover art may become more diverse and less obvious. However I am still content with glowing swords and air ships on fire.


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