On YA and genredom

I just finished a marathon of book events that started way back in August: a writing retreat in the Tennessee mountains, YALL Fest, librarian and bookseller conferences, a jaunt to the UK, bookstore events with fellow authors. I'm exhausted. And happy. It was marvelous to see so many of you in person, and marvelous to to come home to this guy:

A common refrain kept surfacing at most of these events that goes something like this: YA isn't a genre, it's an age range. You've probably heard it, too. On twitter. At conferences. I once saw an aspiring writer cry because a publishing professional told her only newbies who hadn't done their research called it a genre. People feel VERY STRONGLY about this, it seems, and I get it. It's trying to define the murky language used to describe books and writing, which is often generalized, and hard to put a pin on, because it's a big world of literature out there. I've said the same refrain a lot, while giving writing workshops. But once, a student raised his hand and asked, "You said YA is for everyone, not just teens. So what do you mean by saying it is an age range?" 

And I thought he had a good point, and it made me think harder about this distinction. What does it mean, exactly, to be an "age range"? That YA is intended for a 12-18 year old audience? I don't think that's really true, except for some oversimplified but necessary marketing labels, and I think most authors would agree. Nick Hornby has a great quote about this: I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal. Truly, YA books are for anyone, regardless of their age. So maybe the "age range" designation refers to the age of the protagonist, not the reader. And for sure, the vast majority of YA has a teen protagonist, but not all. (THE BOOK THIEF, for example, is commonly called YA but the protagonist is 9.)

So sure, the protagonist's age is important, and a key trait of YA literature. But I'm not sure I agree that YA isn't also--primarily--a genre. A genre is a set of literature that shares core common elements. For sci-fi, it's advanced technology or outer space. For thrillers, it's murder or crime. While YA novels can contain any of these elements, I think its core trait as a genre supersedes all of that: that YA books are, at their core, coming of age stories. They all deal with discovering who you are, and where you fit into the world. Whether it's a dystopia thriller, a quirky romance, or a historical ghost story, they all revolve around this central YA theme. 

My next book after The Madman's Daughter series has clear sci-fi elements: there are aliens, space stations, and questions over scientific experimentation. But I see it more as a YA novel set in space, than pure science fiction. It's an important distinction. That's because, when I really think about the themes and core message of the book, it isn't (primarily) about the consequences of future science, as sci-fi often is. It's about teenagers trying to fit into a new world, which is pure YA through-and-through.

I wonder if we are doing YA a disservice by insisting it isn't a genre. These books--the quirky romances and the dystopian thrillers--DO have a lot in common. There's a reason they're together on a bookshelf that goes beyond the protagonist's age or the reader's age. Publishers create imprints for YA because they clearly see strong commonalities. People come to YA festivals because they love the feel of YA books, regardless of those books' subgenres. And what creates a genre, if not the love and dedication of readers?

So I wonder, why do people insist so strongly that YA isn't a genre? Why are the common traits of YA not "enough" for it to stand as its own genre? Genre-blending happens a lot in YA, which is one of the reasons I love both reading and writing it, but it happens in all genres. I've heard the Madman's Daughter series called all of these genres, or a mix: thriller, historical, sci-fi, romance, horror. And I think the reason why it's hard to put it into a clear category is because it ISN'T any one (or two) of those. Its genre is YA. And in YA, it can be all of those things at once.