by Andrew Karre
The last issue of Hunger Mountain contained two strands of debate that seem separate but are becoming tightly intertwined in an interesting way. Strand one can be called the “YA is too dark” strand, or, as I prefer to call it, the “Think of the children!” strand. Strand two is the navel-gazing strand, or, if you prefer, the “YA is/is not a genre!” strand. I have established positions on both (for the record, barely dark enough and it’s a genre for me), but I think the fact of these coexistent debates is evidence of something much more interesting and important than either debate. I’m going to steal a meme and call that interesting thing #yamatters (thanks @maureenjohnson). Here’s how:
I’ve made the joke several times that there are two sure-fire ways to drive traffic to a blog or newspaper website. Barely informed speculation about a new Apple product is the first. Second is a half-baked analysis of the state of YA literature (“Think of the children!”). Sometimes this joke gets laughs. Sometimes crickets. I believe now, however, that the parallel with Apple is more than superficial and comic. Even if you have no interest in technology (and maybe especially if you have no interest in technology), you’re aware that Apple has done something amazing in the last decade. I’m not talking about any one iDevice; I’m talking about their streak of disruptions. More than any other tech company, Apple thrives on disruptive technology. Remember the music industry before the iPod and iTunes? Remember what your cell phone looked like and what you expected it to do in 2006? Remember netbooks? And the list goes on. In short, a disruptive technology is some device or system that, when it enters an established market, changes everything. (Sometimes at the cost of existing players. Remember when Motorola, Nokia, and RIM were great cellphone companies?)
Disruptive technologies have to be popular, of course—otherwise they wouldn’t disrupt. But popularity isn’t enough. Lots of things are popular without being disruptive (Xbox 360, for example). Disruptions are also necessarily controversial and hard to understand at the moment of introduction. A sure sign that something new is disruptive is people attacking it and debating what it is and what it means—especially people already in the disrupted market. Look at any newspaper tech page or blog in the immediate aftermath of an iP____ announcement and you’ll find these controversies. In the end, the attacking and questioning amount to only one thing: That device matters. The debates themselves were, in hindsight, inconsequential, and the attacks never posed any threat at all.
It’s easy to spot disruption in tech and media. These things happen very fast and concern a lot of people (and their money) on a day-to-day basis. It’s harder to see these disruptions in smaller and slower-moving categories and subcategories. But I believe they’re there, and, as you’ve probably guessed, I believe modern novels for young readers—particularly YA novels—are a disruption in children’s books and maybe in books in general.
Let’s look for evidence of change. Exhibit A: movies. In 1994, ALAN published an interesting article called “Film and the Young Adult Novel.” It is still a fascinating read, especially for quotes like this (emphases mine): “The teenage film market is different from the teenage book market. The book market is relatively splintered; so a single book will probably never connect with the entire market.” And then there’s:
“[…][B]ooks can make money, particularly if a book is accepted by English teachers. Whereas film marketing goes directly to the teenager via television, radio, and word-of-mouth, book marketing targets teachers as agents. The success of Hinton, Blume, and Zindel can at least partially be attributed to the free marketing provided by English and language arts teachers. The book market benefits from free reading assignments, book reports, sustained silent reading, whole language theory, and so on.”
I think this piece was probably dead-on for its time. It accurately captures my experience of YA lit as a teen (I was 16 when the article was published). Now, however, it sounds ridiculous—nearly as ridiculous as an analysis of the cellphone industry from Nokia’s point of view in 2006 (a year before the iPhone) sounds in 2011.
The second quote from the ALAN piece also gets at another bit of evidence: how young readers discover new novels. Ask anyone over thirty if they ever anticipated the release of a YA novel when they were a child or a teenager and the answer will almost invariably be “no.” Book discovery was largely mediated by teachers and librarians, who had no interest in moment-of-release excitement. And so, under that model, “a single book will probably never connect with the entire market.” After Harry Potter, the Twilight saga, Diary of Wimpy Kid, and The Hunger Games, that seems a very quaint notion.
Novels for teens and younger readers are substantially less intermediated and substantially more anticipated in real time. For affluent audiences of avid young adult readers, teachers and librarians no longer act as gatekeepers. They are still there, but now they’re just one of dozens of avenues for discovery. Fifteen years ago, authors were abstractions; today, they’re friends on Facebook, and we stay up until midnight to buy their new books at the moment of release.
Additional evidence of this disruption is abundant: Look at children’s and teen sections in stores and libraries now and fifteen years ago. Look at the sizes of book advances and print runs. Bestselling adult authors are writing YA novels (or feeling the need to deny that they’d ever do so—it’s the same thing really). Etc, etc. YA has disrupted children’s books. YA matters.
And that’s where these two strands of debate from the last issue of Hunger Mountain come from. Their substance isn’t so important, but their existence tells us something very important. Arguing about whether YA is too dark is the literary equivalent of arguing about whether consumers will ever want a cell phone without a physical keyboard. Worrying about whether YA is a genre is the equivalent of agonizing over whether an iPad is a computer or merely a media consumption device (the answer, conveniently, is the same in both cases: It doesn’t matter; it’s whichever you need it to be). The only meaningful outcome of these debates is this: What we’re doing matters.
Take a cue from Apple. Apple knows it has a big opportunity. If it does great and ambitious work in the midst of the upheaval it’s created, the effect will be enormous. And to do this, Apple must not get lost in the debates that are no more than an inevitable symptom of heading in the right direction. It mustn’t get distracted responding to attacks that aren’t truly threatening. It must do good work while that work matters most.
People of the kidlitosphere: These debates are evidence that our moment is now. Do good work. Don’t get distracted. YA matters.