A bit more on genre and age discrimination…

Great discussion in the comments thread yesterday (that I wasn’t able to participate in because I’ve been running around, trying to get stuff ready for our first ever Christmas Chez Diana). There must have been something in the air, because Jen Hayley was talking about the very same thing on her blog, and then later, I had a conversation with a YA writing friend who admitted that she didn’t want to say the words “young adult” when talking about her book because she was worried it might turn off potential readers. She said that some adults have dismissed her books out of hand when they hear they are “YA.”

I wonder if some of this can be tied to the whole myth of the “reading level.” I am constantly hearing proud parents declaring that their 10 year old reads “at a ninth grade level” and bemoaning the fact that books about 15 year olds are too mature in subject matter to match the “reading level” their children should be engaging in. I’m no educator, but I heard this whole reading level thing is actually describing the ease in which the average ninth grader would read the same material. It’s about phonics, not about books.

These people who are adults now (and dismissive of YA) were told growing up, exactly how old the books they were reading were through the calculation of some voodoo syllable-per-sentence mathematics that really had nothing to do with the book’s actual meat. When I was in middle and high school, we’d brag that we weren’t reading teen books, but adult books. The same group of friends who flocked to see TOY STORY on opening night were shocked that I, the English teacher’s pet, was still re-reading Narnia. They’d go to see SCREAM but would scoff at my Christopher Pike novels (they might, under duress, admit they read Stephen King). Entertainment designed for children or teens was totally appropriate, even cool — unless it was books. Having been trained to look on the back all our lives and press our “reading level” — books couldn’t be for fun. They needed to have bragging rights attached.

I think this attitude has abated somewhat in the face of the worldwide phenomenon that was the Harry Potter novels. I remember seeing fifty-something businessmen with Pentagon employment tags carrying their latest HP around the Metro a few years back. But at the same time time, I lost count of the number of articles saying that reading a chick lit book was rotting your brain. The New York Times was so distressed perplexed by the endless presences of Harry Potter on the bestseller lists that they made a whole new list just for kidlit. The prevailing opinion about books is that they are not supposed ot be fun. They are not supposed to be entertainment. They are supposed to be high art. No one talks down to you if you unwind after a long day by watching Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, or Lost. But if you read a chick lit or a romance or a science fiction novel, you’re clearly low-brow. Stupid. Pathetic.

And you wonder why adult publishing is in grave peril.

Children’s publishing is doing better, perhaps, because kids have not yet been trained to think of reading as something they only do under duress so they can sound erudite at cocktail parties. “Oh, of course I read Proust!” (I don’t know why I’m picking on poor Proust. I’ve never read him. For all I know, I may find his books to be fascinating page-turners.) Kids meet in school yards and talk about how much they love Dumbledore. In kids publishing, it’s okay to be both highbrow and still tell a good yarn. Look at the Prinz winners and the National Book Award Children’s recipients.

One more note: in the comment thread yesterday, katayoun asked why books need to be split into all these different genres. It’s really a marketing concern. If you walked into a bookstore and you saw a huge wall marked “fiction” it might overwhelm you. But you read one book, and you like it. Say it’s a romance. You go to the romance section, where you figure there may be other books like that book, and you’ll like those. Ditto for fantasy. Or books for teens. Or mysteries. or so on and so forth.

And now, the winner of THE HUNGER GAMES is: Tez Miller. (Tez, hon, you are so getting this slow-boat-to-Australia method. I am researching my Amazon options as we speak. Serves me right for including the overseas folk).

Today’s giveaway is Maureen Johnson’s SUITE SCARLETT. Leave a comment here to enter.

Posted in biz, bookaholic, chick lit, eyerolls, giveaway winners, giveaways, rants, snobs, Uncategorized, writing industry, YA

34 Responses to A bit more on genre and age discrimination…

  1. Megan says:

    Surprisingly, everyone I’ve mentioned my book to seems to think it’s completely cool that I write for teens. But come to think of it, they’d probably still think it was odd if they knew how much I *read* books for teens.

    I guess this is why I spend so much time online talking to other YA lit lovers. πŸ˜€

    And I am dying to read SUITE SCARLETT. *crosses fingers*

  2. Dan says:

    I’m going to try and not repeat what I wrote over at Jen’s blog, even though it was bloody brilliant.

    When I was in grad school, I got the distinct impression that I was the only person in the English Department who actually read for fun. No one was able to sit down and get lost in a good story; everything had to be dissected and analyzed, which kind of takes the fun out of it, if you ask me. And that is one of the problems facing YA novels (and sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.). Like you said, they’re viewed as escapist reading, which is looked down on by certain segments of the population. Personally, after a long day in the real world, I want an escape.

    And, regarding those “proud parents”: when I worked in a bookstore, we would get folks like that all the time. “I’m looking for a book for my daughter.” We’d walk over towards the Children/YA section. “Oh, no. My Binky is too smart for these books. She’s reading at an advanced level.” I can’t tell you how hard it was fighting the urge to suggest WAR & PEACE, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, or LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. I’m sure the little darling would have loved those books. πŸ™‚

  3. Saundra says:

    I think this dichotomy has always existed, we just keep evolving new and exciting ways to describe it. Back in the day, you had austere works of redeeming literature, and then you had penny dreadfuls. Or you had edifying novels or boys trash. Scholarly letters versus pulp novels… etc., etc., etc..

    Anything that is purely entertaining gets the short end of the stick. Adults are supposed to grow up, give up their childish things, abandon hedonism… read boring books that uplift them rather than exciting books that lure them away from responsibility. It’s a very puritan viewpoint- if you’re enjoying it, my friends, you’re probably doing something WRONG.

    There’s an episode of Spongebob that contains one line that entirely sums it up. Spongebob decides he has to become an adult, and Patrick coaches him, “Now puff out your chest… Say ‘Tax Exemption’… and develop a taste for free-form jazz.”

    Actively calling books YOUNG ADULT is chaos in the mix. Cats and dogs, living together! I especially love those priggish adult genre readers who turn their noses up at YA- because “I didn’t have YA when *I* was a teenager.” Of course, ignoring the fact that they did- half of Stephen King’s body of work could be classified as YA. Catcher in the Rye is YA. The Outsiders. Pern. Xanth. I’d even argue that Gone with the Wind is YA (upper, of course.)

    We’ll have our revenge, though. It’s the serial writer, the pulp writer, the boys adventure trash writer who ends up in the canon. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare- all purveyors of entertaining, low-brow crap in their day.

    ObAside: I swear to all that is unholy, my captcha word today was UNICORN.

  4. Trish says:

    (I already own Suite Scarlett, so don’t put me in the hat for it.)

    As a bookseller by day, the thing that always annoys me is the parents who don’t want to buy their children any books that aren’t on the school’s Accelerated Reader list. One mother recently said it would be a “waste of time” for her child to read something that’s not on the list. WASTE OF TIME?! (cue me having heart failure)

  5. Trish says:

    Also, I get those parents whose 8-year-old is reading at a 9th grade level. I STILL take them to the young readers section of the children’s department, because there are lots and lots of good books that will entertain and enrich them, even if they’re not phonetically challenging.

  6. Fenna says:

    Comment…no time no to discuss my opinons about the categorizations of books, but I guess that it’s made the search at online bookstores a lot easier….X

  7. Diana says:

    Dan, I’ve only got a lowly Lit BA, but I think you can do both. I enjoy books for books sake, and I enjoy analyzing them. the ones I really love, the more I analyze them, the more I love them. I read Frankenstein in three different classes in college. A Unified Theory of The Matrix, Dune, and The Terminator figured largely in my courtship with my husband. You know, because we’re dorks.

    It’s actually really rare that the analysis of a book I love will do anything to diminish the love, and in some cases, the analysis of a book I don’t love will raise its value in my eyes. And sometimes, if I love something but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny at all (Ahem, MIB movie, I’m looking at you) I still love it for its entertainment value alone.

  8. Katherine says:

    I write YA and I couldn’t be more proud of that fact. I loved reading as a kid, but from the ages of about 9 or 10 to 15 I didn’t read much. I had trouble finishing books, always got bored in the middle and gave up. Then at 15 a friend gave me my first adult fantasy book and I read the whole thing in one night, finishing just before dawn. I haven’t been able to stop reading since then, devouring everything. The great thing about writing for teens is every YA book has the potential to do for a teen what that fantasy book did for me, enthrall them in a story and leave them so profoundly impacted that they become an avid reader for life. If my stories can ever do that for even one person I’ll know my time spent writing was most definitely worth it.

  9. Dan says:

    Maybe their youthful, spirited fire was extinguished by the time they reached the grad level. But, I agree, you can absolutely do both. However, I think there’s a stigma that certain types of books don’t have a hidden depth to analyze. And that’s why people look down on them–despite the fact that there are about a bazillion college classes taught on Harry Potter (yes, a bazillion, I counted), and that’s just one series in one genre.

  10. Diana says:

    Yes, Saundra, it’s true this is an old old argument, and it’s true in other media too (comedies don’t get oscar consideration like dramas do, and it’s rare for genre pics as well) — but the old highbrow/lowborw battle bothers me less than the fact that it seems to be so much more pervasive for books than for other media. I understand there always have, and always will be a divide, but I don’t understand why books are held to a different standard. People turning up their nose at chick lit while simultaneously watching The Bachelor or Desperate Housewives. They’d read LUCKY and not, say, The Economist, but they would say they couldn’t read chick lit. I don’t get it.

    As for the spam words, I picked them myself, so yeah, unicorn.

  11. Alexa says:

    I love YA books, love reading them and am proud to be attempting to write one. And I gave lots for Christmas to adults because a good book is a good book! I think you’re right about Harry Potter changing the trends rightly. In school though parents are still obsessed with reading levels and it drives me crazy, children aren’t going to love books or become readers if they are always struggling with new words and frankly some really dull stories in reading level books, and see it as work rather than fun!

    I just read my first Maureen Johnson her short story in Let it Snow and loved it, so please enter me!

    Hope you got all your Xmas stuff done!

  12. Anna Jarzab says:

    I think there are always going to be people who are snobby about one thing or another. I have friends that are film snobs and TV snobs and music snobs–no matter what your pleasure is, someone’s going to look down on you for something. I used to be annoyed by that and feel guilty about the things I was purely entertained by, but I try not to be anymore. If I like it, why should I be ashamed of it?

    There are just so many ways for a book to be good, I refuse to be bound by the standards I (as a book snob, I must admit) formerly used to judge a book’s “value”. Sometimes, it’s the delicacy and sumptuousness of the prose. Sometimes it’s the incredible vitality of the story. Sometimes it’s the depth and complexity of the characters. As a member of the YA community, there’s so much to be proud of here, so much creative output with so many points of exceptional quality.

    Luckily, everyone I told about selling my book is just thrilled they know someone who’s going to be published–I’ve never heard a negative word about the book being YA, even when I was writing it as my master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, where snobbery is pumped in through the vents.

  13. Phyllis Towzey says:

    I started reading adult books when I was nine, and was very proud of that. Reading up was a sort of status thing that proved you were smart (maybe because it’s the only thing you learn in school that is also a leisure passtime? I mean, nobody says, well, in school we’re doing multiplication tables, but on the weekends I like to fool around with calculus).

    I don’t think the whole status thing is as true today, based on the reading habits of my kids (13 and 16) and their friends. They all seem to just read what interests them. (Probably thanks to books like HP and Twilight).

    I think you’re right, Diana, that the book snob dynamic is much more prevalent than the TV snob (I only watch masterpiece theater), the radio snob (I only listen to NPR) or the music snob (I only listen to classical music and jazz). Maybe it’s just media saturation, convenience and wanting to fit in, on the TV issue — nobody stands around the water cooler at work talking about what they read last night, because nobody would be on the same page.

  14. Jennifer says:

    As a librarian, I see this attitude all the time. But I also see tons of adults browsing in my YA collection and meet little resistance from taking readers there when they ask for a recommendation. Also a major frustration are parents and teachers who won’t let their kids read above what they think is appropriate, which sadly happens pretty frequently. But I do have a few kids who are willing to read anything and everything with no regard to reading level or the gender of the characters, as long as the story seems interesting.

  15. dulce says:

    i worked at BN for 4 years, there was not much that i hated more then recommendations not taken cause it was a teen fic or chick lit, always with some spin on “looking for something more…”

    and its hard for kids cause parents are so concerned w/ “reading level” instead of what the stories about…
    A mistake that starts in schools really, cause there was always a reading project that had to be a certain amt of pages…
    made kids (and parents too) pick the smallest book they can get away with and not something they could enjoy.

    don’t enter me in the drawing- i already won this one! πŸ™‚

  16. Mark says:

    When I was in middle school and started getting into science fiction and fantasy books, our public library made completely arbitrary distinctions for which sf/f books were shelved in the YA section. It had nothing to do with age of protagonist or reading level. Maybe some of those librarians thought that sf/f and YA were semi-overlapping terms for juvenile? Or more charitably, they wanted to encourage us youngsters to read more sf/f (at the risk of confusing us bibliographically).

  17. ILuvLA says:

    Is this the second copy of Suite Scarlett?

  18. Saundra says:

    I think highbrow/lowbrow is so pervasive in books because simply being LITERATE used to signify so much about your class and your station in life. Only the well-to-do could read, only the very wealthy could own books, it was a sign of your class that you could educate your children to read (and even that, well into the 19th century, ladies should not read too much, least it addle their brains with all the power of thinking and learning.)

    Once literacy became open-source, the only way to prove you’re still of the UPPER classes is to read “important” books. TV never quite had that weight or power, so it’s easy to watch American Idol and only read Proust- although speaking as a screenwriter, you do still get a lot of that- ranging from the “Oh, I don’t even OWN a tv” people, to the “Yes, I watch FILM, but not movies” people and “Movies, yes. TV is garbage” people.

    But I really do think we see those schisms between genres, and so violently in books, is because reading itself used to reflect our place in the social world- if you could read, you were simply better. Now that many people can read, you have to find another way to be better in the same activity.

  19. JESSEMS says:

    Due to a total lack of time, this will be short.

    It may be because I’m an over-emotional female, and I let my feelings get in the way of my opinions but it actually SADDENS me that people write reading off (cliche/pun not intended) in such a manner. I have always viewed reading as an escape of some sort. If I’ve had a really horrible or boring day, I always turn to my books. I just find it really saddening that some people, some intellectuals even, cannot fathom that books are such wonderful things. Okay, this is getting a little sappy.
    Also, I REALLY would like to read Suite Scarlet.

  20. steph says:

    i want to be entered!
    also, thank you for the secret story.it was such a delightful little snippet. of course, it was also a total tease, but Γ§a va.

  21. Mandy says:

    It’s funny, because right after I read your post from yesterday, my 16 year old sister was telling me about how her friend wouldn’t read Twilight because it was YA. So, apperently it’s not just some adults who snob YA, some teenagers do to.

  22. Megg says:

    Ohh.. great give away. I read all the other books by that author, but not this new one. Due to my lack of money at the present time (Gosh, collage life sucks), I haven’t been able to buy it in all it hardcover glory (although it may not be in hardcover anymore, I haven’t cheecked in a while).

    While your on the sterotype of YA, I so agree. YA books should get more credit. They are (mostly) well written, entertaining, and orginal. Just because they are written for teens, doesn’t mean other people can enjoy them to πŸ™‚

  23. Kaela says:

    Guess I need to read the news about literature more…I had no idea people were becoming allergic to YA novels. I’ve always read exactly what I’ve wanted without worrying what people may think of me. Though I do remember being angry at my second grade teacher when she wouldn’t let me read Redwall, citing the reason as: I should ‘save some books for when I’m older’. We had some weird system at my school where we had to take a reading test and then only read within our level. I didn’t get a low score and I’d been reading for so long I didn’t really think there were such limitations. After the third time she vetoed it I just went to public library instead of the school one. I enjoyed the book very much but for the life of me I still can’t understand why she wouldn’t let me read it…It’s comforting to know that not everybody wants to put such insane restrictions on books and the people that want to read them.

    P.S. I absolutely loved Suite Scarlett and I hope whoever gets it enjoys it as well ;o)

  24. Paradox says:

    I hate book discrimination! YA can be just as good or better than adult fiction. Same goes for middle grade fiction. In fact, I see more creativity and originality in those sections than in most adult books. I also hate when writers try to follow those stereotypes and dumb down their writing or make it sickly sweet with unwanted morals.

    Oh, and I’d love to read Suite Scarlett! πŸ™‚

  25. Zara says:

    I love YA, romance, and chicklit books, and yet my brain seems to be fully functional lol. I really hate when people act as if reading literary fiction and the like, makes them superior to others. Really it is all just a matter of preference. I think we should read what we like, and let others do the same. If a book makes you happy, why is that a bad thing?

    Maureen Johnson is a wonderful author. Thanks for the chance to win Suite Scarlett!

  26. violet says:

    I agree, I think sometimes people forget that we also read for enjoyement, be it a Harry Potter or a chicklit.
    Please enter me (if international)

  27. katayoun says:

    so now i see the need for genres, that would be one very messy bookstore πŸ™‚ though maybe the reading level thing that you say is not so bad either IF they put it in the bookstores, then you have young adult books (which means books about young adult issues) with a reading level of 40 and so everyone would be ok with reading it πŸ™‚ because if what you are saying is true then life of pi would left out of alot of people’s reading list!! though i must admit that young adults also are really pretty cool bunch and i hope usually they don’t worry about were things are stacked and more concerned about what they like!!
    now i can’t type anymore as i am going to keep my fingers crossed for johnson’s suite scarlett!! πŸ™‚ great contests!

  28. Aimee C says:

    Great contest! Count me in!

  29. Jess says:

    I may have missed the contest, don’t know for sure, but I want to comment on the discussion. πŸ™‚

    I was just reading an article by Lilith Saintcrow on how urban fantasy is considered lowbrow and also some of its feminist implications, but the comments thread of the article had some interesting notes about how UF gets a bad rep because it looks like paranormal romance, and all those blasted romance writers are trying to take down the genre. But then you also have commercial fiction writers scoff at literary fiction because it “has no plot”, and all that “navel-gazing”.

    It makes me laugh because everyone has to attach value to their opinions over others’, when the point of an opinion is that it is nonfactual. Sure, Austen and Dickens are classics today, but Austen was her era’s romance writer of today. Dickens? He was serialized.

    There will always be bad, good, better, and best writing, in EVERY genre (or nongenre). I more so feel badly for the people who don’t bother looking for the treasures amid the rest because they’re the ones missing out in their narrow-mindedness.

    I admit to calling literary fiction navel-gazing with no plot, but that is based off the lit-fic I have read that has actually been LIKE that. I don’t not read the entirety of lit-fic because of a few bad experiences. I guess more people go with the “once bitten twice shy” attitude than I do.

  30. Tony Peters says:

    The book that I have written called, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping, is intended for young readers. I am always afraid to inform people that by young readers I mean ages 7-12, because I am afraid that it will turn away potential clients/readers. I have found that by saying young readers I can get teens to read it as well, and have found that they actually enjoy the book. Parents who have read the book to okay it for their kids are also coming back to me saying that they enjoyed it as well, but that they never would have read it didn’t if they didn’t have kids. So many people assume that they will not enjoy books from a different age group, only to find out that they can enjoy the books. These age groups are only suggestions, nt written law saying that if you are this age you will not like the book.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

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  33. Deborah says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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