Adam Roberts’ post calling for more attention to be paid to YA by the Booker Prize has been gaining a fair amount of attention. I was going to comment on it but then, like Matt Cheney, found that I had far more to say than is reasonable, or even polite, to put into a blog comment. So I’m writing something here instead.
Adam’s basic point appears to be that YA is a burgeoning field of literature and that the Booker, as a prize for all literature, should look at it, and reward it if it is good enough, rather than assuming that it is of lesser quality simply because it is “for kids”.
(I note in passing that this is a somewhat different point to the argument for a YA Hugo. The Hugos can and do consider YA, and have voted YA books the Best Novel prize in the past. What we are debating now is whether there should be a Hugo specifically for YA.)
I am certainly reading a lot more YA these days. I do so for a whole range of reasons, one of which is simply that YA books tend to be shorter and more fast-paced than non-YA, and sometimes this is what I want out of a book. Here are some more complex arguments.
1. Because publishers still tend to assume that SF&F is “for kids” it is often easier to get a translation deal for a YA SF&F novel than it is for an adult one. So if I want to read translated SF&F, YA is a good place to look.
2. Equally publishers still tend to assume that YA is less serious than adult fiction, and therefore an appropriate venue for women writers. If I want to look for good new women writers, again YA is one of the places to go.
3. Finally it appears to be easier to address issues of gender and sexuality in YA than it is in adult fiction. I suspect that this is because publishers code YA as being for teenage girls. Adult SF&F they assume is for adult males, whom they think may be offended by QUILTBAG themes, and if they had YA fiction aimed at boys they’d probably worry that the audience would be harmed by such material.
Yes, I know I am making sweeping generalizations here. Not all publishers think in these stereotypical ways, and in part their thinking is constrained by what bookstore chains are prepared to stock. But these marketing considerations do still seem to be important in the industry, and consequently I find YA a good place to go for many of the things I want in a book.
The other interesting thing about YA is how it is defined. Most genre categories are defined by things like plot, setting and tropes. It certainly can be argued that a YA book must contain standard elements about growing up: about coming to terms with sexuality, and with becoming an independent adult rather than someone under parental control. However, YA does also seem to be defined by its audience. It is intended to be read by teenagers.
Consequently, my concern about YA in the Booker is very similar to my concern about YA in the Hugos. If the Booker is to reward YA, it needs to judge it from a teenage perspective, which means having teenage jurors. If it doesn’t have that, then it is just a bunch of adults telling kids what they should be reading. That, of course, has value in its own way, but doesn’t connect properly with the readership of the books, and may end up rewarding books that are poorly written YA, in that they appeal more to adults rather than to the target audience.