What Is YA? (HTWYA 1)

My next novel, Afterworlds, is about a young writer reworking her first novel after NaNoWriMo. I thought a fun and useful promotion for it would be a series of writing advice posts. I got carried away.

So between now and November, this blog will host excerpts from a non-fiction book I’m releasing next year, called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, because it’s not done, but you can preorder Afterworlds on the bottom of this page. It’s out now.

What Is YA?
Young adult fiction has exploded over the last two decades. Once a small and sleepy corner of publishing, YA has become a major part of the industry, the only category to have grown by double digits every year since the mid-1990s. YA is now a profit center that helps keep the rest of the industry afloat, and the primary engine for creating new readers. The massive sales of YA mega-hits like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have also help kept a lot of bookstores from going out of business.

I have some theories about why this sudden explosion of young adult literature came about, but I’ll come back to those later. First, let me clear up a really important misconception: The genre of YA is not “fiction for teenagers.”

Partly, this is a matter of fact. Studies suggest that about half the YA audience is adult. But more important, the idea that YA is for teenagers is a conceptual error about the definition of genre itself. Genres are sets of practices, techniques, and stylistic conventions. Genres consist of shared assumptions and shared canon. In other words, a genre is not an audience. When someone tells you that they write “novels for men,” or “novels for old people,” or “novels for urban youth,” they aren’t talking about genre.

So what are YA novels, then, if not books for teenagers?

They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.

It’s pretty simple, really. YA is the set of all stories about what it’s like to be a teenager. Not from an adult looking on (or looking back) but from inside the teenage years while they are happening. YA is literature (or movies, TV, comics, video games, ballet, or whatever) that takes us into the hearts, minds, and lives of teenagers.

So how did this particular genre get so huge? Why would so many readers want to inhabit the lives of people who aren’t quite children, nor really adults?

To understand that, you have to know what a teenager is.

What Are Teenagers?
A couple of hundred years ago, there was no such thing as teenagers. The word did not exist, nor did the concept. There were only children and adults.

When people turned thirteen or so, many joined the navy, or got married, or went into the mines and factories. Many young people worked sixty-hour weeks, and child soldiers were common. (Some were rather good at their jobs. In the US Civil War, an eleven-year-old named Willie Johnston won the Medal of Honor, the highest his country bestowed.) I spew these facts not to outrage you, but to make a simple point: teenagers didn’t always exist. We had to invent them.

It happened slowly. Britain, in the throes of industrial revolution, often led the way. There, the workday for eleven through eighteen year-olds was shortened to a mere twelve hours in 1833. (Progress!) In 1844, the age for joining the navy as a midshipman was raised to 14. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929. Over two centuries, a space opened up between the complete dependence of infancy and the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood. We had to give this space a name.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first appearance of the word “teenage” as 1928. The word “teenager” did not appear till 1949. By then, things were changing quickly. In the decades after the Second World War the industrialized world created nothing less than a new stage of life. We invented teenagers.

So what the hell are they?

The legal definitions are too long to list here. In most countries, at some point in the teenage years citizens reach the age where they are allowed vote, consent to sex, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, sign contracts, leave school, drive cars, marry, gamble, join the military, or work at other dangerous jobs. Exactly at what age these all happen depends on geography, and is the subject thousands of pages of law. These laws change all the time, buffeted by social mores, by new technologies, and by moral panics whipped into existence by some of the silliest people on the planet.

In other words, it’s all a bit of a muddle.

The cultural aspects of being a teenager are just as tangled. Whatever teens flock to—skateboards, file sharing, hoodies, rock music, rap music, MySpace—will soon become the subject of a moral panic. This is because teenagers frighten adults.

Five little kids in a store is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s loitering. It’s time for a curfew, or closed-circuit cameras, or a device that emits annoying high-pitched sounds that only teens can hear. (Seriously. Just google “mosquito teens.”) To put it simply, adults see teenagers as big enough to be dangerous, but not old enough to have been civilized yet.

They are uglies, if you will.

Here’s the weird thing: Despite this underlying terror, popular culture celebrates the teen years as carefree and happy, a time of consequence-free exploration. And in our youth-worshipping commercial world, teenagers (those with perfect skin and symmetrical faces, at least) are put on a pedestal. Images of teens are used to sell everything from clothes to food to music.

And let’s not forget the drama of those years—the time of firsts. Somewhere in all this muddle is when most people experience their first sexy kiss, tell their first meaningful lie, and suffer or commit their first real betrayal. Often for the first time, someone close to them dies. Most people drink their first beer, break their first law, and have their first political awakening as teenagers. These years see our first jobs, our first glimpses of independence, and our first life choices so serious that we can never completely undo them. And, of course, our first loves.

So let us recap. We have a global culture inventing an entirely new phase of life, engaged in a messy, noisy conversation about what it means to be an adolescent. We have an oppressed class, whose passions are harassed and banned, whose rights are curtailed, even while their customs are celebrated and their images ever more glorified and sexualized. We have an age of drama and emotion and reversal, where good days are transcendent, and bad days can feel like the end of the world.

Seems like there might be some pretty interesting stories in there.

Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”
Click here to read Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

Click here to read Part 4, “Single Limited Viewpoint.”

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