Young Adult Fiction: is it really a "genre" that sells books?

Cover of "The Shadow of the Wind"Cover of The Shadow of the Wind
The publishing industry has always relied on "genre" as a marketing tool to push its wares, and among them, the most bizarre is YA.

How to reach out to Young Adults is of course a legitimate concern but lately, with Rowlands' winning Harry Potter series, everybody from literary agents to editors to publishers just drools about it. YA is growing fast. YA is where money is made. YA is the place to be. Even as an indie: look at Amanda Hocking and how she became a publishing wonder with her YA trilogy published on the Kindle.

So about six month ago, since everybody seemed so excited about it, I thought I should try to "break out" with a YA novel. But first I did some research to try and figure out what YA meant.

First surprise: YA is not a genre as such. It is a cross-cutting genre by definition: it means different things to different people. A YA novel can be a romance, a dystopian fantasy, a historical, a paranormal laden with vampires and werewolves, in short, just about anything, one, several or all of them together.

What makes all these sub-genres (also found in adult fiction) particularly YA? I dug in further and ...

Second surprise: nothing in particular, not even the age of the protagonist. Yet, that's what (according to Wikipedia and all the pundits) is precisely what defines YA: young adults are people between the age of 12 and 18. Thus, characters should be within that age bracket.

How pervasive this view is within the publishing industry was confirmed to me about a month ago in a conversation I had with a savvy literary agent. It was amazing. I was trying to pitch my newly-minted YA trilogy Fear of the Past - by newly minted, I mean I'd just rewritten it for the American market in English (it was originally published in Italian in 2007 and meant as a historical/paranormal romance for the adult market). She asked me the age of my protagonist, and I said my Tony was 19. She shuddered, I thought because he was male (a lot of agents are firm believers that female protags have more market value than male ones because more women than men read fiction). No, I was wrong. She shuddered because he was 19. "That's too old," she said, "for a YA Main Character".

I was astounded. Too old? How old should he be, I asked. "Not over 18", she replied with confidence, "especially if it's going to be a trilogy". Presumably that's because he's going to be older in the next two books, so if you start him at 18, he could be 20 or 22 by the time you finish. I opened my mouth to tell her that my time arc was much shorter than that, that this guy was on a self-quest that resolved itself in the course of a single year: by the end of the trilogy, he'd be just about one year older. Then I shut my mouth again.

What could I say? That some of the most successful  novelists who write for YA audiences in recent years have protagonists that are both young and old?

Actually, their characters begin young and then grow old - damn it, that's life! I won't go down the list, but look at Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's books, starting with that absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Wind, set in a dark, mysterious Barcelona touched by Gaudì craziness and a magical cemetery of Forgotten Books. How I love that book! And all the others he wrote...

I can't see where YA differs from great literature for so-called "adult" audiences. Recently, someone pointed out that Romeo and Juliet was a YA tale. Have you ever thought of Shakespeare as a YA author?! And classified as a YA only because his protags - especially Juliet - are so tender and young, in their teens...

What Carlos Ruiz Zafòn himself has to say about YA is extremely interesting. When asked what he thought were "the most important differences" when writing for adult readers and young adult readers, his answer was an eye-opener and I can't resist quoting him (you'll find the whole interview on his Amazon page):

I don't think they're that many differences, really. You just have to write the best possible story in the most efficient way you are capable of. It is all about the language, the style, the atmosphere, the characters, the plot, the images and textures… If anything, I believe that younger readers are even more demanding and sincere about their feelings about what they're reading, and you have to be honest, never condescending. I don't think younger readers are an ounce less smart than adult ones. I think they are able to understand anything intellectually but perhaps there are emotional elements that they have not experienced in their lives yet, although they will eventually. Because of this, I think it is important to include a perspective in the work that allows them to find an emotional core that they can relate to not just intellectually. Other than that, I think you should work as hard as you can for your audience, respect them and try to bring the best of your craft to the table. My own personal view is that there’s just good writing and bad writing. All other labels are, at least to me, irrelevant.

Do you think he's right? Are young readers more demanding? Do you agree when he says YA is not a genre as such, but only a matter of including "a perspective" that allows Young Adults to find "an emotional core that they can relate to".

Just let me add as a footnote: many people suspect that the Harry Potter series was as much of a success with adults as with young readers. That says something about YA, doesn't it? The best YA novels happen to be damn good stories well told - and a YA classification adds nothing to that. Or does it? What is your view?

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