Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Don't let the demographic exclude you"

At the Guardian, Frank Cottrell Boyce praises Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go and offers a serious argument against the category of young adult fiction:
Having a runaway hero whose pursuers can not only see and track him, but can hear his thoughts too, makes for a tense read. It reminded me in some ways of the Bourne films, where the hero has to work in tiny moments - blinks in the eternal eye of the omnipresent CCTV. What else does this book remind me of? Well, the sexual politics and hysterical fundamentalist religion are bound to recall The Handmaid's Tale. The rural setting, the presence of the river and the pursuit will make you think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Night of the Hunter

If I have one quibble, it is that I think it should be sitting proudly on the shelf next to these books, rather than being hidden away in the "young adult" ghetto. There's been a lot of fury among authors recently about the proposal to "age-band" children's books, but in a way they're too late. The real disaster has already happened. It's called "young adult" fiction. It used to be the case that you moved on from children's fiction to adult fiction, from The Owl Service, maybe, to Catcher in the Rye. There were, of course, some adult authors who were more fashionable with teenage readers than others - Salinger, Vonnegut, Maya Angelou. But these were chosen by teenagers themselves from the vast world of books. Some time ago, someone saw that trend and turned it into a demographic. Fortunes were made but something crucial was lost. We have already ghettoised teenagers' tastes in music, in clothes and - God forgive us - in food. Can't we at least let them share our reading? Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a "young adult" bookshelf in the corner of the shop. It's the literary equivalent of the "kids' menu" - something that says "please don't bother the grown-ups". If To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, that's where it would be placed, among the chicken nuggets.

This is not just a question of taste. It seems to me that the real purpose of stories and reading is to take you out of yourself and put you somewhere else. Anything that is made to be sold to a particular demographic, however, will always end up reflecting the superficial concerns of that demographic. I've lived through an era in which demographic-fixation murdered popular cinema and replaced a vibrant art form with a kind of digital holding-pen for teenage boys. I think we're in danger of doing the same to fiction. The best young adult fiction - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, A Swift Pure Cry, Noughts and Crosses and so on - strolls out of its category. I've no doubt at all that The Knife of Never Letting Go will do the same. Don't let the demographic exclude you.


  1. Nothing is preventing teens from sharing 'our reading', and they often do. I'm much more interested in why adults are sharing in theirs.

    That the best literature - or any form of art, for that matter - transcends boundaries is self-evident. I'm not sure this eliminates the need for taxonomies.

  2. I'm mixed on this one. Category borders are so porous. When does a book become adult vs young adult? Or, for that matter, when is it YA vs children's? I struggled quite a bit with that last year, I can tell you!

    I am just sorry that certain books are not as widely read by adults when they are labeled YA. THE BOOK THIEF is one that comes to mine because it was published originally in Australia as adult and YA. I thought that happened as well with CURIOUS INCIDENT.

    I posted this on my blog too as I think it is worth YA advocates seeing and discussing.

  3. from Frank Cottrell Boyce:
    My worry is not about readers. Readers are adventurous creatures. I know that.
    My worry is about what demographics do in the :long term to the writers.
    I really do know about this because I work in the film industry.
    You start by aiming stuff at a demographic. You end up writing for that demographic. And that's very narrowing both for the writer and the audience. Check out your multiplex for a perfect illustration of this

  4. I think lee is already aware that I get all intemperate when I'm reviewing. sorry, it's only because I care.

  5. Frank, I loved your review, already downloaded the first chapter of Ness's novel as a result, and will buy a copy when my credit card is resuscitated, but, equally, I love challenging smart people who care. Blandness is dead boring. In fact, I even like chili pepper in my rice pudding.

  6. I think what's most important in any storytelling is that the reader be able to fall into the story-- the kind of "falling in" where they look up from the pages to find that hours have passed and they didn't feel it a bit.
    Genre & categories? I too would find it sad if engaging storytelling got the shaft because of a label.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!