It was the Melbourne Writers Festival; the title of the panel was "Taking Over The Grown-ups Table." Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, champion of youth literature in Australia and former head of the hugely successful Australia Centre for Youth Literature, was chairing. The panelists were Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, and Isobelle Carmody; all accomplished writers of speculative young adult works.
"Is there a link," someone asked, "between science fiction and young adult works?"
"Science fiction's what they used to call the YA section before there was a YA section," Westerfeld said, and effortlessly articulated the feeling I'd had for years.
Not that I was always able to treat the sci-fi/fantasy section as the YA section; I was actually forbidden to borrow The Two Towers from my local library because it was "too old" for a nine-year-old. My parents bought the rest of the series for me anyway, and I read it in breathless gulps, astonished and delighted to find a girl with a sword who decided she no longer wanted to marry a king, and small people of great deeds.
Tolkien's troubling depictions of exotic, proud, dark human races opposed to the pale and stern Men and Elves of the West and the weird class issues passed right over my head. Like many faults of this kind, they taint my memories in retrospect (and really, the less said of Narnia the better) but I was oblivious to them at the time, caught up in deep magic and courageous deeds. Cool stuff was happening, if I skipped all the meetings.
We moved to a new town and a better library, where the children's and SFF sections were side by side, and that neatly set my reading patterns for life. Now I read young adult fiction of all genres and adult speculative fiction—indeed, that's almost all I read for pleasure—and I do so for the same reasons I did when I was nine:
1) The same questions of identity and ethics tend to come up. What's out there? What could be? Who am I? What is good and what evil and how should I behave?
2) Characters usually want things and act to make them happen, or react to events as they occur. During endless university reading lists of dreary and unlikable protagonists aimlessly drifting through non-plots, it was a huge relief to pick up my for-me reading. YA non-genre fiction, incidentally, is proof that literary fiction set in the "real" world isn't required to be pretentious and narrative-free.
3) There are generally things I like to read about in there, full of sensawunda. Explosions! Superpowers! Intrigue! Uploaded intelligences! Road trips! Creatures not of this reality! High school drama productions! I am a sucker for them all.
Young adult fiction and speculative fiction, to me, tend to ask the same eternally fascinating questions about identity and ethics, and often present their researches into those central questions in entertaining packages. It's not that adult literary fiction can't do the same, but my hit rate tends to be higher in those parts of the bookstore. So when I was asked if I wanted to contribute a regular column to Strange Horizons, I said, "Yes!" and then, "Can I do it on YA?"
Don't worry—I won't insist that all of young adult literature is generically identical to spec fic. You won't get my thoughts on the Gossip Girl series (although if you want to talk fantasy . . .) or the works of Sarah Dessen and John Green (although An Abundance of Katherines does have a lot of maths . . .). I'll restrict myself to discussing those YA titles that I feel have a solid claim to being speculative fiction.
As you can imagine, this is going to limit me to a bare handful of topics for future columns, such as the unreliable teen narrator in works of speculative fiction; puberty and adolescence as metaphor for magical transformation; the interesting lack of university-set YA SF; whitewashed covers and why they are gross; the growing number of awesome non-American contemporary and future fantasies; faeries versus zombies versus unicorns versus vampires; the teen SF blogosphere; the magical powers of librarians; the phenomenon of the disappeared parent; the eternal search for "boys" books; the trend of marketing YA sci-fi as "adventure" fiction; SF fan fiction by teens; and the tentative movement of YA publishers into the graphic novel medium.
You know. Just a few things. Plus, mini-reviews, because I like those.
But before I get to the good stuff, there is something I want to address once, and then never again; I read concerns about the graying of SF fandom and the fear that speculative fiction as a genre will fizzle out like unto a damp sparkler on a rainy Guy Fawkes' night. Then I wonder what the hell those worriers are on. Areas of publishing and fandom dedicated to the SF topics that interest increasingly older white men might be dying, I guess, but I fail to see why I should care, since I am so unwelcome in those arenas. My father's Readercon indeed—my dad doesn't even read SF.
However, the worriers are wrong. SF is doing really, really well. Just not where they're looking.
Speculative works aimed at young people don't just dominate young adult literature sales; they dominate fiction sales. The Harry Potter series famously prompted the split of the New York Times bestseller lists into Adult and Children's, and then further split Children's into "series" and "individual" titles. The Twilight saga took four of the top ten positions in most bestseller lists last year, and Stephenie Meyer actually made book tours cool, speaking to lecture halls packed with teenage fans.
SF fandom isn't graying. SF fandom is young. It's writing fanfic, climbing into cosplay, and getting favourite characters and quotes tattooed on its unwrinkled skin. It may come to regret the last, but the sincerity of that devotion cannot be doubted.
So is YA taking over the grown-ups' table? It's a revealing question, steeped in the kind of condescension that assumes books aimed at young people are intrinsically of less cultural value than the real books, speculative or otherwise, that are ostensibly for adult readers. It's also drenched in fear because, oh my lord, the young people are invading! With their depressing music and tight jeans!
It does seem to make many people uneasy, this obvious success. Is it bad? Are YA writers are dumbing down literature and its readers both, making us all unintelligent children, incapable of recognizing and appreciating well-crafted works of real depth?
Of course not. Young adult fiction is certainly a vehicle for banality; it's also a vehicle for works of astonishing ideas, beautiful prose, compelling narrative, and intricate subtlety. And as for dumbing down the readers, I've heard and seen brilliant questions from teenagers at author talks and interviews. (John Green includes representative quotes in a speech he delivered at the 2008 ALAN Conference). Teenagers who read for fun are fantastic; many of them are insightful, careful readers who passionately engage with literature and articulate their passion with clarity and power.
Finally, the "popular automatically equals awful" argument seems not only logically spurious, but is often employed in suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of well-supported objections to the literary and ethical merits of the Twilight series, for example, but I am thoroughly sick of just the fact that it's incredibly popular with teenage girls being held up as a self-evident reason to despise it. Apparently large numbers of young women loving something makes that thing automatically risible. No doubt it's all those cooties.
In my experience, though, YA isn't actually interested in taking over the grown-ups' table. YA is having fun right where it is, making castles out of the mashed kumara, pulling crackers with extra enthusiasm, redesigning the party hats, discussing rocket propulsion and philosophy of magic over dessert, and inviting readers to think about where eggs come from, isn't that awesome and also gross? If the grown-ups want to perform these activities at their tables, that's fine.
The best thing is that the grown-ups are welcome to join the YA table, if they promise to behave. The supremacy in sales of YA speculative fiction isn't the result of a conspiratorial attempt to sit at the big table with the fancy cutlery; it's the result of kids reading, in massive numbers, books that they enjoy, and adults joining them. It's the result of adults realizing they want that sense of wonder that comes from exploring new worlds and questioning old ideas, and flipping the bird to anyone who tells them to be ashamed of it, because joy and awe and excitement are only for children.
SF fans ought to be celebrating that success, not ignoring it as they carp about dying fandom, or resenting YA speculative fiction because, as I've heard someone actually say, it's stealing from the pockets of real SF writers.
So that's my take on the boogeyman in the basement, once and never again. I don't want to use this column to conduct a defense of YA spec fic; it doesn't need defenders. From here on this column is for criticism, examination, and, most definitely, celebration.
Because some really cool stuff is happening.