Edward Cullen, the vampire corner of the love triangle on which the Twilight series revolves, was born at the beginning of the 20th century — June 20th, 1901 to be exact. It’s a facet of the story that detractors have seized upon as a brand of creepiness that author Stephanie Meyer presumably did not intend. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that he’s a vampire with a tortured conscience and a tendency to fall off of the wagon, it’s almost possible to see his soul-consuming romance with Bella Swann as a typically hyperbolic teen romance. But while he looks perpetually seventeen, Edward is actually more than a century old. Given that math, one wonders how the Twilight die-hards would react to a more overt spring-autumn romance, like the altogether more wholesome pairing depicted in Harold & Maude.
But I digress. I mention Edward not to mock Twilight, or even to criticize the ethics of its premise, but to mark his misleading appearance as an analogy for something that may be happening to the young adult fiction market as a whole.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that the adaptation of Breaking Dawn: Part 2, which opens this Friday, initially received an R-rating from the MPAA over the film’s multiple decapitations. Ostensibly, that would have barred entry to the majority of the film’s ostensible audience — though ostensible doesn’t carry much weight in either case. Chances are, minors who had already flocked to the four preceding movies wouldn’t have let the MPAA deny them their richly deserved closure. More to the point, though, a not wholly insignificant portion of Twilight‘s audience is made up of fans who were old enough to legally buy their own R-rated tickets even before the series began four years ago. Demographically, that was to be expected, since the Twilight books rose to the bestseller lists in large part on the strength of sales to adult readers.
Back in September, I noted that adults are reading YA fiction in increasing droves. It might not overstate the case to say that the YA market would suffer significant losses were adults to go cold turkey. Culture mavens have suggested a number of explanations for the growth of that ancillary market, many of them backhanded or outright patronizing; part of the purpose of “Remedial Lit” was to suggest an explanation that connected the phenomenon to the need for occasionally reviving our sense of the potential of literature. But even if that’s the case, it’s worth considering the possibility that the net impact on YA itself has been negative.
Chips Off the Ol’ Block
For adult fans of the category, that may be a hard pill to swallow. Why, after all, would fans do something to harm a category of fiction they love? The answer is that none of them would — at least, not on their own. But markets deal with economies of scale. While the damage done by a single tourist chipping a souvenir from Stonehenge might be negligible, several million such tourists would make quick work of the monument. Similarly, the millions of adults buying YA novels can do with their accumulated sales what no single reader could do on their own: shape the market.
That’s the thought that occurred to me after reading a pair of recent tweets by Sarah LaPolla, who handles YA fiction for the Curtis Brown agency and writes about the agency at her blog, Glass Cases. “Agents/editors want realistic fiction,” LaPolla wrote,
but our paranormal phase raised readers’ expectations. “Quiet, coming-of-age” isn’t enough anymore.
Sorry to disappoint writers who thought publishing would “go back” to what it was, but we can’t ignore the impact trends had on the market.
The operative question is: what happens when that market is shaped in part by an audience it wasn’t intended to serve? The awareness that a growing share of the profits for YA fiction come from the pockets of adult readers may not directly influence the sort of books that authors write, but writers are the small end of the wedge. Unless they’re willing to roll the dice by self-publishing, their reach is in no small part a function of the work put in by a small host of professionals.
Whether or not the writer thinks about the market, those professionals do. That’s true at the level of author representation, as LaPolla shows, but also applies for publishers and retail outlets. Of course, there will be decision-makers at every level of the market who are willing to buck the trends and champion books they believe in, regardless of genre. But on the whole, agencies, publishers and retailers survive by tailoring their offerings to the market, meaning that every bet the industry makes on someone’s personal project must be balanced by purchases made in line with the prevailing logic.
That is to say, demand for certain narrative features necessarily factor in the decision-making process that determines the publishing landscape of any given year. LaPolla’s comments implicitly make the point that YA is not so much a category as an audience, defined not by narrative conventions but by the readership it attracts. As adults come to make a larger portion of the market share, then, it seems inevitable that the narrative demands made by those adults will start to factor into the decision-making process that moves the market, even — and this is the important part — when they diverge from the narrative demands that the intended YA audience might make without them.
That’s what allows a trend to change the expectations, such that narrative elements that once seemed to define the category no longer apply. “Quiet, coming-of-age” stories are out; paranormal romance and decapitation are in.
On their own, those shifts in the YA market may not be a bad thing. If nothing else, opening the market to an older demographic increases the potential profitability of the books. The shifts in genre may also encourage the development of a market catering to an often ignored age group, what LaPolla calls “New Adult.”
When you think about it, the only potential losers are, well, young adults. It is, after all, entirely possible that portions of the intended YA market respond to those quiet, coming-of-age stories more favorably than they do to decapitated vampires and sublimated spring-autumn romances. It might not be overstating the case to say that some teens need those stories, or that, without them, their lives would be impoverished the same way we would feel our lives to have been impoverished were sometime to go back and erase The Outsiders or Jacob I Have Loved from our own teen years.
For adult fans of teen fiction, that may be the least palatable part of the argument. We want some mutually beneficial middle-ground, but that may not be entirely realistic. The historical fact that a YA market arose in the first place suggests the need for books that belong exclusively to teens, that appeal to them because they reflect concerns specific to their particular moment and context. A market divided between their demands and the demands of readers who have survived that context and moved on to another is a market caught in a love triangle of its own.
Which brings us back to the Twilight-based analogy I suggested at the outset. From the viewpoint of the market, the Young Adult label is liable to create the same sort of confusion that arises when 100-year-old Edward looks young enough to enroll in high school courses. Authors who intend to write for a high school-aged audience end up being beholden, often against their best intentions, to the demands of a market split between actual teens and fully matriculated adults who may be more attracted by the trappings of genre than by issues that matter most to teens.
In that regard, Twilight‘s influence goes far beyond the neo-Victorian conventions it popularized. It’s still something of a mystery how as series so vulnerable to the criticisms and disdain of adults nevertheless managed to attract so many readers from the same age group, but in doing so it changed the shape of what it meant for a YA novel to succeed. One marker of that change is the way that book stores shelve YA fiction in the post-Twilight market. As Mandy Hubbard pointed out to me, the market for YA novels in the supernatural romance genre have grown so popular that booksellers like Barnes & Noble now shelves them separately from other YA novels.
Nevertheless, Hubbard, who handles YA fiction for the D4EO agency and also blogs about the industry at her own site, disagrees with my larger suggestion about the effect of the paranormal trend. “I don’t think trends sideline other topics,” she told me via email. “Realistic YA has always had a place, it just didn’t get all the attention.”
The mitosis of store shelves into separate YA and supernatural romance sections, she suggests, will lead to increased visibility for the sort of YA that doesn’t generally pull double duty with adult audiences. If that makes it easier for teens to find the books that speak to their experience, then let’s hope she’s right.
1: Update — LaPolla reminds me, paranormal and dystopian YA fiction is an oversaturated market. Whether or not that transition has yet filtered down to bookstore shelves or the box office, agents have “moved on to finding what’s next.”