You've spoken out before about how YA fiction isn't taken seriously in charts, the press, even in bookshops. Why do you think this is the case?
I don’t have a problem with identifying books as genre books; it’s useful in some ways to let people know the main thrust of the book. My problem is when these books are treated differently – or not taken seriously. Or removed from bestseller lists. In particular, I don’t understand why you would treat a book differently if its main character is 16 years old than you would if she was 18. The former is a "children’s" book, and will likely not be reviewed in broadsheets, will not appear on bestseller lists, and will be sold at the back of the bookshop. The latter will be treated entirely differently because it's an "adult" book.
There are a lot of theories out there about why things are as they are. My personal theory is it’s a kind of snobbery. It seemed to begin around the time the Harry Potter books became popular. You’d often read articles in the major UK newspapers about how “absurd” it was to see adults reading “children’s books” on the tube. Pundits bemoaned the “dumbing down” of literature. I don’t remember it being an issue before, so I think it really started then. The Potter books broke sales records but were not included on many bestseller lists because they were technically children’s books. In some cases it was the Potter books that made newspapers decide to separate children’s books out from adult books for their bestseller charts – so the sales figures of "real" books weren’t diminished by the presence of children’s books on the list.
And it’s not just in Britain – many of the books on the New York Times list of bestselling YA books would be at the top of the adult charts if they didn’t spin them off into their own, shorter, less useful list. This happens despite the fact that the vast majority of the readers of these books are adults.
Why do you think books like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Never Let Me Go are on the shelf alongside literary and contemporary fiction, but others are shunted into teen/sci-fi/fantasy/children’s?
In most bookshops when you walk in there’s a big section at the front entitled "Fiction". It shouldn’t be; it should be entitled "Literary Fiction". Because most shops have, with the best will in the world, subcategorised every genre they can think of into little ghettos elsewhere in the store. Whether they are trying to help readers find these books or hide the books from them, I cannot decide. At any rate, the delineations may be well intended but seem random.
George R.R. Martin’s hugely popular Game of Thrones series is on the shadowy shelves of ‘fantasy’. On the other hand, Tolkien is often found in Fiction and if The Hobbit isn’t fantasy I don’t know what it is. And Cassandra Clare’s million-selling Mortal Instruments series is in "Teen" or "Children" because the main character is 16 years old. But J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, about an angry 16-year-old boy, is almost always found in fiction.
In the end, what you have is a situation where the most popular books are often on the lowest shelves in the darkest corners, and literary fiction, which sells less, is in the bright lights at the front of the store. A message is being sent there, and not very subtly.
Which books do you think have most memorably broken out of the YA/fantasy category into the mainstream?
Cassandra Clare is the obvious answer – Her Mortal Instruments series sold like crazy and City of Bones has been made into a major motion picture, which comes out this month. Plans are afoot to film her Infernal Devices series as well. These are fantasy books about nephilim – half-angels who fight demons in a constant battle that humans cannot see. They are also YA, because the main characters are 16 and 17 years old. But they are hugely popular with adult and mainstream audiences because the writing is smart, the characters are believable and the stories are complex and absorbing.
John Green has also broken out. His books have young characters in adult situations dealing with real-life situations. In The Fault in our Stars, one of his characters is dying of cancer. His books deal with serious issues of loss, love and mortality in a mature way. He doesn’t pander to the age of his characters. His beautiful writing, and his way of crafting characters you care about, would make him a star in any genre.
Why do you think adults are turning to YA for their romance fix? Is romance too boring in adult fiction?
There are some great adult romance books, and adult romance books are very popular, so I don’t want to imply that most people prefer one over another. But, that said, I find many "adult" romances depressing. It’s always shagging and fighting then shagging again. Where’s the fun in that? Where, actually, is the romance? In the YA genre, romance is all about the thrill of a crush; the unattainable boy (or girl); the exciting and dangerous process of choosing; of being chosen; of discovering love. I see no reason whatsoever why adult books couldn’t address this same thing in the same way. When you stop and think about it, love doesn’t change as you get older. You still get crushes; people still don’t like you back sometimes.
Personally, I find it harder to write artfully about the things closest to me. Maybe the same is true of love. We can write wonderful teen romance because we have the distance we need to look back on it and admire the best parts of it, to laugh at the worst parts. Adult love is too close, too immediate, for most authors to see it for the beautiful thing it is. And maybe some readers feel the same way.
To someone who is new to YA, where do you suggest they start?
Start with the best, so start by reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare – a thrilling, elegant, romantic piece of fiction. This is Not a Test by the Canadian writer Courtney Summers is simply the smartest zombie apocalypse book you’ll ever read at any age. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, is a gorgeous, artistic, dream-like book about demons. Doom Rider, by David Gatward, about one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a piece of hilarious and very dark horror writing.
Start there, and you will be led to amazing places. Along the way, ask yourself why these writers should be treated differently from any other writer solely because of the ages of their main characters.
CJ Daugherty is the author of the Night School series. The third book in the series, Fracture, is out now.