A million years ago, I worked in the housing sector, managing services for homeless young people and working on policy and advocacy. One thing I learned very quickly was that young people hated being called ‘kids’ or ‘teens’ – we are people, who happen to be young. Anything else was patronising. Nobody used the term ‘youths’ because it’s so ugly, and it’s like a police descriptor: “two youths were apprehended this morning…” In policy, in talking to government, in working with young people, we always said ‘young people.’
Now, I know things have changed, the word ‘teen’ has become much more widespread with the globalisation of US language usage, and young people around 13 in particular don’t mind being called ‘teenagers’ because they’ve aspired to be just that for several years. Then they aspire to be young adults and then adults. ‘Teens,’ not so much. It feels like a marketing term, and this is especially true in publishing for children and young adults. The age range of teens is much more limited than the age range of young adults, too, and there’s a fair bit of slippage between the concepts.
So now we have all these debates in the industry and even in the mainstream media about teen and young adult (YA) fiction: what it is, who it’s for, what it’s doing (or not doing) to its readers. Is it too dark? Does it help young people come to terms with the world? Should adults be ashamed of reading it? Or should they embrace its possibilities? Are books for children or young adults less worthy as literature, or as recreational reading? Or a glorious new form invented by [insert current best-seller name here]?
I’d like to take two steps back.
First, let’s clarify that a lot of the debate is around realist fiction, usually set in cities – it’s called ‘contemporary’ in the trade, sometimes ‘urban contemporary.’ When pundits ask whether YA is too dark or morbid, that’s usually what they mean. They don’t really mean the rest of the world of YA, which is actually a lot of books - fantasy, romance, adventures of different sorts, and even historical fiction. They mean realist books with violence or drugs or sex or swearing – maybe death – or all of the above.
It’s not that you don’t get those things in genre fiction, because of course you do, just that in urban contemporary they are often problematised, either by the author (it’s a book about a teen being homeless or dealing with grief or racism or coming out or self-esteem), or by the commentary on the book. It is written, in one sense, in acknowledgement of issues faced by young people, to tell their stories, which are our stories too, and some of these books are the most beautifully written, engaging, and moving stories you could ever read.
So that’s what many people think YA is, that’s what many people in libraries and the industry think YA is, and indeed that’s what many readers love to read.
(We go through phases when it’s all about a specific genre because some book or film is on the wider public radar, for example dystopian or paranormal fiction, but the issues that inflame debate are often dealt with in quite a realist manner, albeit set in a built world, as in Hunger Games.)
I think it’s also clear that, for a young person, getting your hands on the right book at the right time can change your life. If you believe you are the only queer person in the world, or the only person being beaten or abused, or hating school and everyone in it, or feeling like shit, then reading about similar experiences - feeling that in-depth, close connection you can feel with a character in long-form fiction - can sometimes even save your life. We know that. Readers tell us that.
And that’s the other step back I want to take.
That whole James Dean/Montgomery Clift troubled teen thing is partly true – we’ve all lived it – and partly a social and cultural construct of Western society in the twentieth century. YA fiction arose after the development of that trope.
Those of us who write historical fiction have to deal with this tension all the time, or at least we should. When you’re writing about a time before there was such a thing as ‘teenagers’*, how do you capture the timeless clash of generations, the age-old process of finding your way in the world, without referencing the teenager concept? What do you do when writing out of a specific cultural context, perhaps where the relationship between generations is completely different? How do you enact it within the traditions of fantasy?
Can I suggest that the idea that all YA literature is teen lit, that all books are about that problematised cultural identity, underlies the commentary about the books themselves?
I worry that talking about readers of a certain age range as teens slots them into a category – a constructed social category as much as a market segment – that says to them you are like this, you need to read these books. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see a disconnect between the books that are bought for young people and the books they buy for themselves.
People who happen to be young, like everyone else, want books of all sorts, about all kinds of things, at different times. They ask for books that offer hope. They ask for books that provide context for the task of coming into adulthood, of understanding the way the world works, of explaining the inexplicable or creating the utterly fantastical. Sometimes they just want a good laugh or a bit of a day-dream.
And don’t we all?
But there’s something about the trope of the troubled teen and the language we use around it that, in turn, troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it feels like the term teen categorises both people and books in ways that may not be entirely helpful. And that’s weird, because everyone I know in the field cares passionately about young people who read – or don’t read – and the stories that are written for them, and would never in a million years want to be part of a process that was unhelpful. If it exists, it has grown organically, culturally, perhaps without us seeing it.
This isn’t about the stories themselves, you understand, but about all the stuff around the stories – the discourse and the marketing and the language.
It’s not so much about all those newspaper articles. I don’t expect someone who hardly reads any YA and is writing a one-off feature to understand the complexity involved. I also know, as a journalist, that often you have to write a story on a topic on which you need to become an “expert” in a week and you only ever skim the surface. That’s all it is and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that YA is just one of those things on which everyone feels like an expert, because they were once young and read books. Whatever. So I have a new policy of not reading dumb-ass articles.
(It’s like race-walking. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in a family of race-walkers, have spent more hours by the track than I’ve spent almost anywhere else, and every four years when the Olympic Games roll around, I have to listen to whole lot of people who haven’t seen a race since the last Games and only ever watch the highlights hotly debating whether or not some competitor should be disqualified.
Mind you, I do get cranky when I read articles by YA authors or children’s authors that are also based on nothing, because it tells me they have no idea of the technical requirements of writing for certain age groups and haven’t bothered to do any research or read many other authors in the field; like, famously, Caitlin Moran’s recent statement that there are no strong female characters in YA, which led to the depressing situation of seeing a whole lot of people whose work I adore hopping into one another on Twitter).
So let’s just acknowledge that there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of crap, written about YA at present.
What I wonder is if people who think about – worry about – and debate these issues need to reconsider a few concepts. This is a question, not an answer. Other wiser people may already have those answers.
Maybe we do mean teen fiction when we discuss contemporary YA - and maybe we need a better term. What if it limits perceptions of the books? Or does it need to be reclaimed?
What if calling our readers teens doesn’t empower them after all? Is it a term applied to them, or something they claim for themselves?
I don’t know. What do you think? What terms do you use, and how do you define them? Does it matter?
Does that troubled teen trope still influence the way we or others perceive YA fiction now?
* From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
teen (n.) “teen-aged person,” 1818 (but rare before 20c.), from -teen. As an adjective meaning “of or for teen-agers,” from 1947.
teens (n.) 1670s (plural), “teen-age years of a person,” formed from -teen taken as a separate word. As “decade of years comprising numbers ending in -teen,” from 1889.
teenager (n.) also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean “teen-aged person” in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.
teenage (adj.) also teen age, teen-age; 1911, from teen + age (n.). Originally in reference to Sunday School classes. Teen-aged (adj.) is from 1922.