Recently I have read several adult books that touch on the same themes that many YA books focus on, such as life [sic] in a post-apocalyptic world, or characters who are angels (half angels/bad angels/good angels). Sometimes the background plot of the books are almost identical. Yet the books are very different in tone and impact. What makes them so?
I’ve been thinking and thinking about it.
It’s not The Ear Tuck Effect, because this happens in BOTH genres. (Ear Tuck: one character, usually the male, tucks a lose strand of hair behind the hair of a character in whom he or she has a romantic interest. I have a database of Ear Tuck Events which documents the book name, author, quote, and page number. In spite of having only started this database two years ago, I now have forty entries.)
It’s not the subject matter, because this also can be almost identical in both genres, as mentioned in the opening paragraph.
It’s not even the presence of a younger protagonist. Think Dickens. And “coming of age”? To me, that could happen at any age.
Some contend that YA books have more emphasis on appearance, and I agree to some extent, except for the huge exceptions of chick lit fiction and probably romance fiction; huge enough, it seems to me, to negate that theory.
Here are my suggestions about how the two genres somehow manage to be identifiably different, in spite of the similarities:
1. The point of view of each genre is different. This takes several forms.
(a) YA usually is told in first person. If a third person perspective is used, it is not an omniscient narrator third person but just the third person narration of the protagonist (technically known as “third person dramatic narrator.”) This gives a greater sense of immediacy to the story, and allows us to identify better with the main protagonist.
(b) The narrator is very focused on adult caregivers, even if they remain totally in the background.
(c) The narrator is forward-looking to the future, rather than backward-looking to the past and baggage/memories from the past.
2. Style; Tone; Language: The characters in YA speak more plainly, with more slang. With some notable exceptions (like Beth Kephart), YA characters tend to speak in a less “elevated” way and (except for John Green’s books) have less sophisticated vocabularies.
3. Time span: YA novels seem to cover less time. When adult books don’t span years in the plot, memories of the past make up for it.
3b. Outlook: I think that YA protagonists generally have a more optimistic outlook. They think they can change the world, and actually try to do so. Adult protagonists are more resigned. Whereas young protagonists think individuals can actually make a difference, and apply energy and ingenuity to make it happen, I think adult protagonists are more likely to head for the bottle, or the gun. …
4. And last but not least, I would be remiss not to add marketing. Sometimes the way a book is “defined” and what sort of cover it is given, seems to me to be quite determinative of how the book is viewed.
This is a shame in many ways, because I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater, who said on a panel about crossover fiction:
…I have really complicated feelings about this topic. Because when you say something has cross over appeal, it means that you’re saying some things DON’T have cross over appeal, and that means that you’re saying that some books are definitely adult and definitely young adult…
That theory requires you to believe that people only want to read books about people who are like them. Children only want to read about children. Adults about adults. Single women about single women. That’s just not true. Otherwise the market for Silence of the Lambs would be entirely comprised of serial killers.”
Parenthetically, I should add that I don’t think the so-called “new” category of “New Adult” explained here by New York Magazine even applies to this discussion:
Publishers have invented a new category of commercial fiction. It’s called “new adult,” and judging from the titles thus far categorized in the fledgling genre, it seems intended to appeal to women, especially the young women who in recent years have taken to reading books written for teenagers. According to estimates, these not-so-young adult readers comprise a sizable share of the audiences of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter and are a big reason why those books’ reach extended so far beyond their anticipated demographic. Now the industry is betting that there’s another kind of story that they will buy, featuring all the heartfelt crises of identity that affect adolescent characters, only with real-world settings and slightly more adult insight and adult situations (perhaps even sex!).”
But help me out here! What do I have wrong and what right? What do you think?