Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Young Adult

with 2 comments

This morning there was a link up on Arts and Letters Daily to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about fiction, and plots.

There was a lot wrong with this piece–not the least of which was to imply that before this latest book, Thomas Pynchon wasn’t interested in plot; it was practically all he was interested in.  Go read Gravity’s Rainbow sometime, or V–but what struck me the most was this:

While sales of adult novels in hardcover are down more than 17% from a year ago, sales of young adult novels are up over 30%.

Accoding to the author of the op-ed, the reason for this anomaly is that young adult novels aren’t embarrssed to have plots, while adult novels–well.  It’s all the modernism and literary distaste for stories.

But most modern novels are not literary novels.  These days, most novels published her hardcover fit into the genres, and the genres are not known for lack of plot.

The writer of the op-ed–Lev something, I think, I’m sorry, it’s skipped my mind–blows by these with a reference to “supermarket novels” (meaning:  trash that isn’t to be counted as real books) right before he praises Thomas Pynchon for producing–a hard boiled detective novel!

Ah.  Here we are.  I don’t know how long this link will last, but here it is:


and the writer’s name is Lev Grossman.

At least I got the Lev right.

At any rate, I’m not going to go into my standard rant here about literary intellectuals and the hard-boiled detective novel.   Suffice it to say that  think the reason why people like Norman Mailer and your youngish English prof at Yale head straight for the hard-boiled detective when they want to be “commercial” is precisely because the classic hard boiled detective novel represents the worst written fiction in the history of the English language.  Agatha Christie was a better writer than Raymond Chandler, because she was not a fraud.  My cats are better writers than Raymond Chandler, because they know enough to kill their mice and get it over with.

But the real issue for me in here is this–because Mr. Grossman acts as if adult genre novels do not exist, he manages also to miss the issue.  It’s not just sales of contemporary literary adult fiction that are down, it’s the sales of all adult fiction.  The genres are losing readers just as fast–and in some  cases faster–as the literary novel is.

If you actually look at the differences between adult fiction and young adult fiction, what stands out is not that one has plot and the other does not.  There’s more than enough plot in contemporary genre fiction, and it’s still falling off the planet.

The real differences between the two categories are in matters of technique and vocabulary–and, I think, in a result of technique that I don’t quite know how to categorize yet.

First, for the basics:  young adult novels have much more restricted vocabularies than adult novels do.  There are not so many “big words,” and what words are used tend to be used in their commonest senses and not in their precise ones.  Sentences ae shorter.  Paragraphs are shorter.  There’s a lot more dialogue.

In other words, young adult novels are by definition “easier to read.”  And, of course, the easier a novel is to read, the larger the potential audience.

Second, young adult novels are relatively restricted in terms of subject matter.  By that I mean that there are some things that have become common in adult novels that the publishers of young adult novels will not put up with–graphic sex scenes, for instance, and lots of foul language, and the kind of explicit gore than always made it impossible for me to finish any novel by Andrew Vachss.

This is, I think, a bigger issue than most publishers realize.  I don’t know when we began to think that a novel–or a movie, or a television show–was “better” the more clinically explicit it got in the scenes of death and sex, but my guess is that it was only better for some people.  The rest of us do a lot of cringing.  I turn away from the television set when the medical scenes come on in House, and I’ve never made it to the end of a Quentin Tarrantino movie.

I also think that these issues are bigger deals for book readers than they are for moviegoers and television watchers.  At the movies, I can always run out to the concession stand when the stuff I can’t handle comes on.  With television,  I can read a book through any show I’m watching and just not look up at the stuff I can’t stomach.

But the third thing is the most important–young adult novels tend to be the only fiction these days that is written with omniscient narrators.

In one way, this is the same issue as the first one–omniscient narrators make it much easier to understand a book than almost any other kind.   You don’t have to switch points of view and kieep in mind that one person might not have the same ideas or information as another.  You don’t have to ask yourself if the first person narrator is reliable, or worry that he’s going to end up being the murderer.

What you see is what you get.  If, on page six, you’re told that Johnny is a bully, then Johnny is a bully, and that’s the end of it. 

But as well as making a book easier to understand, an omniscient narrator does soemthing else:  he provides a steady, unquestionable, objective moral framework for the story.

And, in fact, young adult novels are usually expected to have such a framework.  In a novel for adults, you can play around with things like the possible advantages to smoking cigarettes.  In the real world–our world–the cigarette issue is not cut and drived.   Nicotine tends to be very good at enhancing concentration, for instance, and in providing mood regulators especially in people who are biochemically depressed.   I have a good woman friend who has smoked all her life on the following rationale:  when she’s very depressed her life isn’t worth living and she’s close to suicidal; when she takes anti-depressive drugs they run over her like a truck, wipe out any sex drive she might have and make her completely unable to do creative work: cigarettes get rid of the depression, allow her to work as well as she ever could, and leave her sex drive alone.  She added up both columns and decided that risking lung cancer was worth it.

You would never find a person like this as a character in a young adult novel.  The moral issues are too hazy.  In YA, smoking is bad, period. 

And that, I think, is what YA gives to so many people–fictional worlds without moral relativism of any kind.   Moral frameworks that are clear, absolute, universally valid and largely unquestionable.

I don’t think people are looking for plot when they go to YA.

I think they’re looking for morality.

Written by janeh

August 29th, 2009 at 8:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Young Adult'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Young Adult'.

  1. John W. Campbell Jr also lauded nicotine as a concentration aid. He died relatively young of cancer, but he did legendary work. You pays your money…

    As for the YA, of course the border is hazy, except in the minds of the publishers, who can consult the little labels in case of doubt. Heinlein observed that the “juveniles” he wrote for Scribner’s were for the older juvenile reader–what was sometimes called “cadet” novels in his overseas sales. Our category of “young adult” doesn’t seem to have been around at the time. Most famously, when Scribner’s rejected one, he took STARSHIP TROOPERS across the street to Putnam, and sold it as an adult without changing a word. Heinlein’s description of how to write juvenile SF was “write the best SF you know how, then leave out all the sex.” But of course he wasn’t noted for explicit gore in his adult works, and he was more likely to have an unusual idea than an unusual vocabulary. (Though the first time I read the word “ecology” it was in a Heinlein novel.)

    I’m not convinced of the omniscient narrator. Yes, I DO have YA novels in the Bookcase of Exile. But TUNNEL IN THE SKY is “close third person.” We never see or know anything Rod doesn’t. “Deacon” is described as old, because he’s old to Rod–he may, in fact, be past 40. STARSHIP TROOPER–the Juvenile/adult changeling–is first person. Sutcliff’s excellent EAGLE OF THE NINTH is another close third person. I once saw her RIDER ON A WHITE HORSE described as YA, and it’s close third multiple viewpoints. Conan Doyle’s “Brigadier Gerard” stories are first person. Only THE WHITE COMPANY and SIR NIGEL have omniscient. Sabatini would qualify if one counts him as YA. It is true, as Grossman pointed out, that the story is usually told in a straightforward manner, and that if things are from a particular viewpoint, we generally know whose it is.

    [I’d have to agree that there has been a decline in adult reading ability across the century, by the way. But this cuts both ways. Books written for relatively young readers of WWI vintage have longer sentences and a higher vocabulary than at least much adult genre fiction today. If JOHN CARTER OF MARS is a YA, it’s a YA with a vocabulary and sentence structure more demanding than Chabon’s latest “adult” novel.]

    I don’t know that I would say readers are going to YA for morality, but I may be making a fine distinction. I would say many “adult” novels are deliberately picking a quarrel with the morality of the reader, and that the YA novel does not.

    But there is no reason one cannot write an adult novel–genre or otherwise–with a straightforward narative format and accessible vocabulary. Surely one need not ALWAYS disagree with the morality of the readership? And adult novels were written for three centuries without generally carrying sex and gore to excess.

    Perhaps the great relative strength of the YA is simply that the conventions of the category preclude many of writers’ and editors’ more common mistakes?


    29 Aug 09 at 11:20 am

  2. I checked his statistics, using the same source he did (industry standard). According to the 2008 annual report, adult hardcover sales rose during 2003-2007, fell 13% in 2008 (presumably the economy), and are rising again as of their most recent news release in June (but still down year-to-date 17.8%, the amount Grossman reported.) They don’t break YA hardbacks out in their general report, but lump it in with Juvenile hardbacks, of which I suspect it is a relatively small part, just judging by the number of YA books reviewed compared to children’s books. In the 2008 report, the category is down 12.4%, but the June report says year-to-date sales are up 30.7%. The exact same percentage he reports for YA alone. What a coincidence.

    My guess is that children’s book sales are recovering before adult sales, just because people will buy for their children before they’ll buy for themselves.

    On the other hand, libraries are busier than ever. Our circulation is going through the roof. As usual.

    As Mark Twain put it, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

    Here are the links to the reports:

    Lee B

    29 Aug 09 at 2:05 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 590 access attempts in the last 7 days.