Monday, April 2, 2007


The Wall Street Journal has an article on the YA market. It's behind the usual WSJ subscriber-only wall, but you can sign up for a free trial (or probably find it elsewhere online, since I suspect lots of people will blog about this).

It's an interesting article, by and large, though it has some semi-odd generalizations about who reads what and when. "Older teen boys, for instance, read books by mainstream writers such as Carl Hiaasen . . ." Yeah, too bad there are no Carl Hiaasen novels aimed directly at younger b-- Oh wait. Shoot.

I think this most quotable bit is toward the end though, from Larry Doyle the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper, a novel that apparently bounced between YA and adult imprints before landing with Prep editor Lee Boudreaux at an adult imprint. Now, I haven't read this author and this is the only time I've seen him interviewed, but I hope he didn't mean this like it sounds (italics are mine):

"Mr. Doyle is happy with his choice. He thinks there's a stigma attached to young-adult books, as there is with 'chick lit' aimed at women readers. 'If 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'The Catcher in the Rye' were published today, they'd almost certainly be young-adult titles,' he says. 'But then they wouldn't become classics, except in the sense that Judy Blume books are classics.'"

Um, huh? So, where the book gets shelved is the final arbiter of literary merit? And in what-- apparently lesser--"sense" exactly are Blume's books classics, then? Are they class-b classics? Is this something like being an AM-radio superstar? And is there a little merit-by-association implied in this quote? (Essentially, "Class me not with Blume, for I belong with Salinger and Lee," says the former sitcom writer).

I also find it interesting that the Wall Street Journal manages to overlook the dollars-and-cents angle at play in this issue. Doyle's book would have cost $16.95 at most at a YA imprint. With an adult house, it's $19.95 for the same paper, ink, and cardboard. Oh, maybe that's the what he meant by "the sense that Judy Blume books are classics."


The author had this to say on GalleyCat:

"Larry Doyle writes in to clarify some of the things in this post, as well as the original article. 'I have no disdain for children's literature, or literature read by young adults. I was wary of the prepackaged marketing of same, as a genre with specific conventions, then sold into a narrow channel of readership. That's why I brought up MOCKING BIRD and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. They are both clearly children's and young adult books, but both were published as general fiction. As was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. It was an adult best-seller and shipped routinely to servicemen.'" He also says he went out of his way to say that he wasn't suggesting that his book was a classic.

Fair enough, but I don't think he's quite got a handle on YA. He says he mentioned Frank Portman's King Dork "as an example of a book that I thought deserved wider recognition but didn't get it because of the marketing label." I think this is not only wrong but possibly backward. I think YA might have saved King Dork. King Dork is a wonderful novel, but it is also a novel by a first-time novelist and it features a young teenager as its protagonist. It doesn't feel like Mark Haddon-type crossover to me. So I'm not seeing what makes him think a book that has sold over 20,000 copies and has been featured in Time Magazine (among others, no doubt) is underappreciated and underperforming because it's in YA not adult. (I'll provide my own counterexample, though. Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess is brisk-selling, highly promoted, adult-section-dwelling debute novel that is pretty clearly YA to my eye.) Interesting question.


literaticat said...

I saw this in Publisher's Lunch and tried to sign up for a free trial at wsj ... but couldn't figure it out. I was wearing my pre-coffee stupid cap this morning.

But I will have a response later, if I can read the whole thing.

(And I would much rather be like Judy Blume than like a crazy old hermit. There, I said it.)

Liz B said...

I think that "what is YA" is a great, almost unaswerable question; and ultimately, the WSJ did a poor job of answering the question. I also think that there is a question right now as to where to publish for those readers from 15 to 21. Is YA just to 16? Or to 18? Or to 21? I've heard it argued to mid 20s. Wow! Working in a library, I can't help but think, what, books for 12 years olds next to books for 22 years olds?

My initial reaction to Doyle's additional comments is that only makes the whole thing worse. "It's not YA, it's the marketing! it's the genre! it's the narrow readership!". Aside from YA not being a genre, and aside from the increasing crossover reading of YA by adults, and aside from Doyle having a MySpace so those crazy YA authors must be doing something right for marketing, it strikes me as Doyle just not knowing much about current YA. That said, I am interested in reading his book to see where I'd put it: YA or adult.

Brian said...

Haven't books like LIFE OF PI, ENDER'S GAME, and Pullman's Dark Materials proven that the YA designation is a myth aimed at targeting a demographic?

These are all books that were successful in the 'adult' section of the bookstore and then, to captialize on the younger audience, were given YA releases.

Craft is craft. Writing is writing. Where a book ends up depends on how the publisher decides to market it. If you write with the idea that you're writing to a teen, you'll only fail. Don't talk down to the teenagers. They hate that.

Larry Doyle said...

I stand by my contention that the current marketing of YA books as a genre will prevent many books of quality from entering the canon of classics. Yes, King Dork did quite well. But it was not even reviewed in the NYTBR, which kept it off many end-of-the-year lists. Given the author's backstory (hipster rock n' roller), an adult publisher could have easily outdone the publicity the book got as YA.

As to the WSJ article itself, it should be self-evident that these type of newspaper pieces do not have the luxury to cover topics as expansively or completely as some would like. Obviously I talked much more about the issues involved and my experience, but the writer and his editor needed to cover a lot of bases, and did quite well, I thought.

I know plenty about YA, by the by. In addition to being a "former sitcom writer" (which is a nice glib insult, except I worked in a room with Phds in math, physics, philosophy, two lawyers and one former DA -- you?) I was also a long time journalist in New York with a number of friends in publishing. I did my homework. And yes, I know that plenty of great books are published under YA imprints. And a lot of prefab crap. My point was the genre is not taken seriously by the general reading public, or -- and crucially in my case -- by older teens or twenty-somethings who might like my book. All this talk about "increased cross-over" reminds of my days in comic book publishing, how we kept talking about how "Watchmen" or "Dark Knight" was finally going to make it respectable for guys to give She-Hulk comics to prospective dates.

And yes, Judy Blume is indeed a lesser classic than "To Kill a Mockingbird."

zeelibrarian said...

Thanks for posting this article. This is an important issue to me, being a ya librarian. This genre is changing so much. At the libraray, I have thought several times we almost need multiple sections for YA (older and younger). In the past, at the library, we defined YA as age 12-18. That is such a wide scope. Yesterday, I had a mom come up and complain that the books on display weren't appropriate for her 12 year old. Well does she expect us to keep only the "clean reads" on display? I wasn't sure what she was expecting me to do. I am going to review King Dork today. I almost wasn't sure who the audience was. I mean, the protag was a teen, but I feel like his voice was a Generation-Xer one. This is a great discussion

I think we have to remember that YA has come a long way from what it was. It may be true that YA is not respected in the publishing community. It is up to the YA authors and books to prove it is worth a look. I think that is being done and will continue to be done. YA circs have tripled in the past couple years. It is because the amount of YA has tripled. As the amount goes, the quality will improve. The bigger pool of things you have, the more diverse the scale of quality.

alexgirl said...

Wow. Interesting article, and very interesting post. Looks like you irked Mr. Doyle a bit!
I think you can argue and counter argue this point till the cows come home. It is like any philosophical "what is art" debate. The YA label definitely has the power to pigeon hole a book, but it shouldn't be considered a stigma either.
I also agree with zeelibrarian, in that YA has come a long way. More YA writers=more YA books, and more chance for the genre to be recognized & respected.
Great post.

Holden Caufield isn't Mary Sue enough for YA readers said...

Ha ha, the guy is right so stop debating. YA readers want to insert themselves in fanfiction romance (i.e Twilight). Catcher In The Rye, The Outsiders, and Lord Of The Flies are better off left to the '40's because they're too intelligent for YA readers. These readers (which represent 100% of young adults) scream that Twilight is AMAZING for making the female lead in Twilight a blank slate Mary Sue so they could insert themselves in the story! Creating a character only described as having brown hair & ivory skin, and no other traits is genious to YA readers. A book like Catcher wouldn't appeal to YA because Holden Caufield is not a Mary Sue they insert themselves in, so no they wouldn't be interested in that:-) This whole post made me laugh.