Are Teen Novels ‘Genre’ Fiction? by Elizabeth Wein
Are teen novels ‘genre’ fiction? I’d really like to argue ‘NO.’ The beauty of Young Adult fiction (YA) is its chameleon-like nature. Science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, mystery, thriller, historical, sports, romance, graphic novel – these are all ‘genre’ fiction and yet YA includes them all.
I think that while a person is developing as a reader, that person will read everything. The developing reader is still trying to figure out what he or she most enjoys. Let me throw a couple of names at you: Robert Westall and K.M. Peyton. As a young reader, I adored these writers not because they wrote in a genre I liked, but because they wrote books that I liked. And those books were all over the map. Westall wrote war stories, motorbike stories, mysteries, ghost stories, horror stories, and contemporary problem novels. Peyton wrote horse stories, historical fiction, ghost stories, contemporary mysteries, thrillers, and just for the heck of it, a couple of books about a thug who was also a hugely talented pianist. Where’s the genre?
I’ve heard it said that ‘genre’ fiction is plot driven – one of its defining characteristics, as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. I think that one of the reasons YA fiction suggests itself as a ‘genre’ is because it, too, is often plot driven. The one thing that seems to connect most teen fiction is that it is dedicated to a good story, and that applies across the board, whether you’re writing a vampire romance or a spy thriller.
The YA category is also sometimes self-defeating. My novel Code Name Verity was ineligible for one award because it was published by a children’s publisher; it was ineligible for a different award because the subject matter (or the narrator, I’m not sure which) was considered too mature for a children’s book. So books for and about people in their late teens or early twenties exist in a kind of genre purgatory. The term ‘crossover,’ applied to books which can be enjoyed by teens or children and adults, seems forced and false to me (and very modern). Surely a good book is a good book? I’m thinking of some of the books we consider ‘classic’ children’s or teen fiction, which were published simply as books. Huckleberry Finn. National Velvet. The Sword in the Stone. The Hobbit. Charlotte’s Web.
No, I don’t like labeling – especially for books intended for young people. It seems to me that adult readers are more likely to stick to mysteries or romances or action thrillers, and limit themselves to one particular type of book. Teen readers are more eclectic, possibly just because they haven’t yet settled on what they enjoy the most, but I think that it does everyone a disservice to apply strict limits on who should read what and how old they have to be in order to enjoy it. The same goes for so-called girls’ and boys’ books.
I like to think that Young Adult fiction, in its inability to be classified in any way, can offer both the writer and the reader an entire world of possibilities.
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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