Book Discussion: Is YA a Genre or Demographic?

About a week and a half ago, I posted about age in YA & NA. While researching for that post, I found a delightful(ly hilarious) and informative post that addressed 25 (actually 28, now) Things You Should Know About Young Adult Fiction. The first point—young adult is a demographic, not a genre—got me thinking about what would eventually become this post:.

Huh? I thought. This is interesting. Interesting, because I had never really considered the distinction. But let's think about it. According OED, a genre is "a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter." A demographic (noun) is "a particular sector of a population." You write in a genre, and for a demographic. When I started thinking about it this way, a lot of the problems I had with definitions of young adult suddenly seemed solved, or at least less of an issue.

My biggest problem, as I discussed in the age in YA post, is the age range privileged as a primary identifying mark of "the YA genre" is arbitrary. Young adults are those between 12 and 18. Says who? There is a huge difference between a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old, and the issues that affect or concern them are generally completely different. What's more, I would argue that 12-18 isn't even young adult; a likelier candidate would be the 18-25 age bracket, and the 12-18 bracket should be split: 12-15 and 15-19. Those categories should then, respectively, be called preteen and teen. But this all becomes less of an issue when you approach using the idea that YA is that which is written for the young adult demographic. Then 12-18 as the selected defining bracket makes a little more sense, because it is an age range already defined socially by the physical, mental, emotional, and physiological changes going on in the young human body. It can be easily identified as the period after childhood, a period called "adolescence," marked by that mind-blowingly fun process called "puberty." Therefore, young adult fiction would be that which would appeal to members of this 12-18 age bracket, which mostly would encompasses teenagers, their lived experiences and their life problems, but would occasionally venture into slightly younger or older territory.

This demographic would then dictate the overall writing styles for this subset of literature, more out of a necessity to relate or appeal to the chosen age group and their lived experiences than to follow any seemingly arbitrarily decided rules such as first person perspective is the norm, 70,000-80,000 words, one or two main characters and the rest are supporting, the presence of a certain kind of relationship, etc. Recall Amanda Ritter's definition of YA quoted in the "What's in an age?" post:

Middle grade is very much about the external, in my opinion. The protagonist reacts to external situations and events, which leads to adventurous stories, and there is little time spent in the characters’ heads. Think books like Percy Jackson and Skulduggery Pleasant. On the other hand, YA is often much more introspective, and the protagonist exerts their influence on the events in the novel. Think first person perspective and lots of use of the word ‘I’ (emphasis mine).

Harry Potter perfectly exemplifies this trend, right? Books 1 and 2 are more about the wonders and amazing happenings of this new, magical world we enter into simultaneously with Harry. The plot is fairly straightforward, and the subplot tends to center around friendship—making good ones, avoiding the bad ones, and having fun all the while. Starting around book 3 though, things start to change. Harry spends a bit more time soliloquizing about his feelings and his family (or lack thereof). But we get the sense that good friends and having fun is still really important, and look there's one more thing we haven't really gotten to see in this fantastic new world: Hogsmeade! By book 4, however, we are securely in Harry's head, where we stay for the remaining books of the series. The story takes a dark turn, our villain officially makes his appearance in all his serpentine glory, and Harry starts taking an active role (as active as the adults will let him, anyway, and then some) in the war against Voldemort.

Finally, by thinking of young adult literature as that which is aimed at a certain age group, we eliminate the issue of the young adult "genre," which actually spans most all of the fiction genres found in adult literature. Writing for a demographic opens the floor up to more variety in the texts, because while there are certain general experiences, concerns, and interests common to most teenagers, all teens are definitely not alike, and some teens may have completely different experiences from the "normal teenage experience." You escape the issue of needing to adhere to specified rules, which a genre must have since it is identified through "similarities between form, style, and subject matter," and can thus write literature that spans several genres, or even bucks the notion all together.

All this being the case, I think I do prefer the "young adult demographic" to the "young adult genre." However, isn't it fair to say that in writing for the young adult demographic, you build the strictures for a genre, the foundation of a certain form or style, which becomes so distinct it can be identified even when the label "young adult" is missing? Couldn't the genres of fantasy or sci-fi or romance that appeals to young adults just be referred to as "the Young Adult Fantasy genre" or "the Young Adult Sci-Fi genre"? Sure, it's a mouthful, but it could be technically correct, right? And then of course, there's the meta question: are genres even really necessary? The author of the "25 Things" article argues against their existence, but what do you guys think?

Is it possible for literature written for "the young adult demographic" to not constitute "the young adult genre"? Should the genres in Young Adult be reconstructed to reflect the distinction between the two phrases, or should genre be done away with altogether?


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