When thinking of book genre classification, I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill reputedly said about democracy being “the worst form of government, except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time.”
I’m always banging on about book genre stereotyping, but I see it as the single greatest obstacle for authors today. It’s like a door which only opens one way; and if you find yourself on the other side of the wrong door, you’re fecked, because there’s no going back and changing your mind. Once your book has been classified and marketed within a genre, that’s it. You’re pigeonholed, and that’s where you stay.
Youth Is Wasted On The Young, Etc
One genre which sometimes tries to break free is Young Adult, in that it has the so-called ‘Crossover’ sub-genre, which indicates that it might be read by ordinary old adults as well as the young variety under eighteen. However, there’s still only a certain small section of the adult market which will read Crossover fiction, even if going under cover in new, more adult-looking clothes.
The temperature of my collar went up several degrees on this subject while reading an Irish author called Louise O’Neill. The only thing I’m comfortable categorising Louise O’Neill as is Irish, because that’s what she is, and I’m proud to call myself a compatriot of such an astute writer of devastatingly important fiction. But she’s pounded into narrower categories too.
I read both her books – Only Ever Yours and Asking For It – back-to-back, in two days. They are difficult books which are deceptively easy to read. They are about teenagers, but essential reading for adults. They tackle distasteful realities such as rape culture and gender inequality which nobody can be allowed to ignore. (The only people who should not be reading Louise O’Neill, in fact, are anyone as yet too young to cope with the dark subjects she relates so perfectly.)
Her novels are about imaginary people who really exist. They are contradictions in themselves, and about the hideous contradictions which make our societies so hard sometimes to live in. And they are square-pegged into Young Adult holes, which is just stupid.
For An Industry That Insists On Pigeon-Holing, General Fiction Is A Woeful Cop-Out
It strikes me that General Fiction (into which slots Literary Fiction, Humour, and all those novels about octogenarians who do weird and improbable things) is very often not general at all.
For instance, I have little in common with forty-something failed sports journalists, or commercial salesmen who feel disconnected from their wives; and yet I have read several books about them without ever being told why (or indeed feeling in any way rewarded for it). I don’t identify with the members of affluent families in major capital cities. I have never been in the criminal justice system in Asia, or lived in tropical, post-colonial poverty, either. All classified as general.
Yet we have all at some point been a young adult. We have all had to negotiate the transition into adulthood, or into becoming people who function in whichever way in society. We have all gone through an intense period of learning about the bad things people do, and the good things, and how hard it is to trust, and how impossible it is to be certain about anything.
So how are these so-called young adult matters not classified under General Fiction? What else is General Fiction, but a mirror held up to society which teaches us about how to cope with what we are? And how better to do this, than to look at ourselves while we are becoming what we are?
Suiting The Creaky Publishing Machine
When it comes to Young Adult fiction, pigeon-holing goes to extraordinary lengths. There appears to be some sort of accepted wisdom that we can only read stories about people like us, so minorities are left out in the cold altogether, or alternatively, pushed with patronising smugness when a book appears once a blue moon which has a minority character in the mix.
Most often, we’re told that these books are for girls; specifically for girls between the ages of, say, 13-18 years of age, generally white, straight, and who have the sort of educational or fiscal opportunity which allows them access to limitless supplies of books. Young Adult fiction, for all that it generalises between subject matter, is drilled down into this most squawky of pigeon holes. And it doesn’t matter how relevant, or funny, or important, or insightful the stuff is: according to the industry, when it comes to YA, we’re only interested in reading about people exactly like us.
Could I Get To The Point, Please; Some Of Us Have Cake To Eat
It might seem pointless to get ranty about the way that books are marketed. After all, genre classification is essential for book distribution – how else will it get on to the shelf? How else will we find the good stories, unless we know where they are, in accordance with what they are?
The problem is with the way that clunky genre classification hides great books from people who are quite rightly confused about where to look. And calling something Young Adult has the same effect as designating it as Women’s Fiction just because it deals with love or family (unless, of course, it’s written by a man); or designating it a romance, just because two characters in a novel go on some sort of emotional splurge, even though the rest of it is about war, mental health, bumblebees and sausage-making.
Tell you what. Why don’t we all start reading YA fiction, today. Within two months, we’ll have confused the hell out of the marketers, and they’ll have to start all over again. Aren’t we due a change in this new and fickle economy?
The Old End-A-Post-With-A-Question Question
Would (or do) you read young adult fiction? And if not, why not? Go on, explain yourself (if you dare).