Ageism, Marketing, and the Validity of Literature
I don't normally write responses to articles. I write responses to books: books that make me laugh and cry, books that make me feel both human and alive. Before I get started on my impassioned defense of said books, I would highly encourage you to read this article and develop your own thoughts on the subject. Plus, it'll serve as a handy reference for what I'm about to say. (I'll likely add more to this later; I'm in school, stressed out over AP Euro, and going through my own valid and thoughtful experiences that define who I am at the moment.)I turn eighteen on Sunday, but I've already found meaning within my life that makes every day a little better. I decided almost five years ago that I wanted to work in book publishing; more specifically, I wanted to work in young-adult book publishing. As a thirteen-year-old, I struggled. Nobody listened to me, or cared that I was passionate about something, simply on the basis of my age. They assumed I had no idea what I was talking about.There's something about the YA genre that encapsulates the best of both worlds. There is childlike delight, and dreaming. There is the sharp honesty and grittiness of adult books dealing with older issues. I want to give stories to people at this age because it's a time of transition. It's a time of experience that defines you, but some people still find a way to look down upon it. Having a purpose, having a passion about this in-between time, makes me a little less lost within it.Without going into full detail, I can simply find a few startling issues with this article.I'd like to start out by saying that the book community has a tendency to attack people based on what they say, and I don't think Kate Axelrod necessarily intends people to make these kinds of assumptions about her beliefs. She very clearly states that, "Not having read much YA myself, I didn’t know what the term meant exactly, but I knew what it didn’t. To me, all YA suggested was that I had failed, in some critical way, to captivate an adult audience. (To be sure, there are lots authors who write intentionally for a younger audience or want to connect specifically with teens, I’m just not one of them)." She goes on to say, "[My agent] then suggested I change college to boarding school so that the book could be marketed to a younger audience. I didn’t want to change the story and I could feel myself bristling against the YA term. I was also annoyed for feeling that way—was I succumbing to some snobby, pretentious prejudice against literature for young people? But the reality of my disappointment was simple: I was deflated by the suggestion that adults wouldn’t want to read the book, that it somehow was not sophisticated or serious enough to appeal to them." She says right off the bat that she does not intend to specifically connect with teens. That's okay. Her writing and her story is just as valid. I think it's perfectly normal for her to feel hurt that she couldn't capture the audience that she wanted. She's not intentionally degrading YA. She says that she doesn't want to be one of those people who looks down at literature for young people, and I wholeheartedly believe and support her. I think she's upset about the marketing for her specific book, not the genre as a whole. Still, I'm choosing to believe that she defends her book's seriousness because she hasn't read YA and doesn't know that so much of it is serious. YA books and adult books are equally capable of tackling complex, difficult issues. What I get from the article as a seventeen-year-old, however, is a very different message that I'm not sure she intends to send.
- She references her novel as a "grown up" novel as though most YA isn't. (I know plenty of teenagers who have grown up and plenty of adults who haven't; again, age is not a factor here.)
- She claims she wanted her novel to be marketed as literary fiction with a teenage protagonist. (You can still market that as YA? YA literary fiction exists and is just as important as adult literary fiction.)
- Part of the reason she wanted to market under adult rather than young adult was due to content. (As we spoke about in my Real YA discussion, there are plenty of kids who know what those terms are and go through sexual/substance/identity issues also. Trust me, high school sees a lot.)
Dismissing the validity of young adult as a genre dismisses the validity of the teenage experience and voice.
You do not have the authority to dismiss something someone likes as lesser on the basis of your own taste.
I see this kind of dismissal in all sorts of genres, and in all sorts of things that aren't exclusive to YA. If you like music, you have to like something just obscure enough to be "authentic" as a fan. God forbid you actually love anything mainstream. If you like movies, you can't like the blockbuster hits that everyone goes to see. Can you appreciate something that everyone else loves to? Does everything have to have a deeper meaning, really?
Liking "chick lit" doesn't make you shallower. Liking erotic romance doesn't make you a bad person. Liking obscure poetry does not make you more intelligent. Liking young adult does not make you invalid.
I can tell you that some of the lightest books I've read have been adult, or middle grade, or YA. The age designation makes little difference in depth.
By saying that young adult lacks the capacity to deal with real, relevant issues - ones spanning from drug addiction to poignant searches for meaning - you're essentially saying that children can't go through these things and articulate them in a manner that's valid to others. As someone who works extensively around children, both through book marketing and through my summer gig at a Christian camp for girls, I can tell you that they have a capacity for love and intelligence that will absolutely stun you. I've seen sacrifice and pain on a level with kids both my age and younger, that cuts me to the core simply because of the intensity of feeling them so purely. One of my favorite middle grade books, Letters from Rapunzel, chronicles the struggle of a girl who learns her dad has clinical depression. It's one of the saddest, most beautiful books I've ever read and I will keep it close to me forever.
What distinguishes an adult book from a young adult book anyways? Darker? The ability for protagonists to pay their own taxes? All that really defines it is a change in scenario. I don't think that my experiences - looking at college for the future, trying to figure out who I'm going to be for the next four years, trying to patch up relationships and loves and sadnesses - are cheapened by my age. As an example, I think that scoffing at a protagonist going through depression on the basis of the book's classification as a young adult title in fact belittles those who actually do go through mental illness or internal struggles as a teenager. I've seen that happen. I have seen friends destroyed, not able to get out of bed in the morning, unable to eat or sleep or think about anything but the futility of their own meaning because they are absolutely paralyzed by their mindsets. It's not angst. It's not because they're teenagers. It's because they are people, complex people who still have stories to tell despite others who will not listen.
Kate Axelrod ends with this quote. "But moving forward as a writer, I will try to continue much in the same way: not writing for any particular audience or age group in mind, but telling a story for anyone who will listen."
Listen to teen readers, and they will listen to you.