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Here's the notes I prepared for my presentation at the New England Popular Culture Association conference this year. The event was virtual, and this text doesn't come across half so fun and dynamic as the actual presentation session itself, but this is the gist of what I spoke about. (When you reach the end, you might have a question, and the answer is yes, yes I did actually type a smiley-face icon into my presentation notes...
Good morning! And thank you for being here!
A quick introduction, I’m Raymond Rugg, here under the category of Independent Scholar. I work with quite a bit of genre fiction and non-fiction, often in relationship to issues of identity.
Before I begin, just a quick note about some of the terminology I’ll be using. I’ll use the label of Speculative Fiction or Spec Fic as a catch-all meant to include Science Fiction, Fantasy and Supernatural or Paranormal Horror… anything with a fantastical element that doesn’t exist in our world today as we generally understand it.
When I talk about Adult Fiction, that refers to books or stories written with an adult target audience in mind and which MAY, but which does NOT NECESSARILY, contain the sort of situations that would earn it an ‘R-rating’ (or beyond).
In general terms, this classification is often also just simply identified as Fiction, in contrast to the different and distinct area of literature written specifically for readers in the general age group of teens or high-school students, known as Young Adult, or YA, Fiction and from fiction for even younger readers Children’s Literature. I do recognize that there are other classifications that drill down deeper into age groupings, such as New Adult, Middle Grade and others, but for today I will be discussing the subject in the broad strokes of FICTION and YOUNG ADULT FICTION.
So, today my topic is ‘The Younging Down of Adult Speculative Fiction Literature’ and by that, we don’t mean that adult Spec Fic is being written or re-written at a level more appropriate for younger readers, but instead, that adult Spec Fic is being mis-perceived and mis-shelved as just generally aimed at a younger reading audience.
It is generally acknowledged that genre fiction lacks the regard given to more ‘literary’ fiction. But the stature of Spec Fic is diminished even further by a subtle bias that can often result in the classification of adult speculative fiction genre books as being Young Adult reading material. (And I want to make clear that it’s not that YA is inherently a lesser literature in terms of quality. In fact, I would argue that good YA writing takes more skill than does writing good adult literature. The issue here is more the historical perception by the public at large of Speculative Fiction as a genre that isn’t for adults.)
If you were right now to go browse your bookstore or library--physically or digitally-- there is a good chance that you would find at least one adult speculative fiction title shelved among the YA section, even though the book industry has a subject classification system in place intended to help retailers and librarians correctly shelve books into the proper sections. These Book Industry Standards and Communications subject codes are used by most major publishers and book distributors Ingram and Baker & Talylor. The implementation guidelines call for the book’s editor or a marketing associate to apply subject codes to the book, including a hard division between books written for the general adult reading public and those written for an audience of teen readers.
Yet, despite this classification system, it isn’t unusual to see Speculative Fiction books written for adults shelved as YA Fiction. So the first question is-- How? How does it happen that a book coded as FICTION gets put on the YA FICTION shelf?
The answer is surprisingly simple. The subject classifications aren’t being used. Instead, it comes down to where the person, store or institution thinks is the best place to put it. As one librarian explained, “We tend to think, where is someone going to look for it? We want browsers to find it. We want things to check out.” The same drive exists and is even more imperative in a brick and mortar bookstore. If someone wants to buy this book, where would they look for it?
So perhaps the better question is Why? Why would people look for Speculative Fiction titles in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction section? And Why would people THINK that people would look for Spec Fic in the YA section?
Well, for one thing, Spec Fic has an image problem. Yes, there’s the stigma of being genre fiction, but it goes deeper than that. Even among genre fiction, the speculative fiction sub-genres are often considered to be somewhat childish, or if not childish, then child-like. Speculative Fiction, by definition, is a genre of the imagination and requires a stronger commitment to accepting the unreal than any other genre.
For example--No one would think to classify Louis L’Amour as a Young Adult writer. Nor is Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe stories ever shelved in the YA section. But J.R.R. Tolkien? You bet, it happens all the time.
And it’s not just the Hobbit, which legitimately is for younger readers, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy often gets labeled in the YA category as well, despite having been written for an adult audience,
1954 in the New York Times, W.H.Auden wrote, “Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called “The Hobbit” which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century. [my emphasis.
He goes on to say “ In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues the imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults…” [again my emphasis]. Auden noted that the book was entirely fine for teens to read, but the point was that, unlike The Hobbit, it was not targeted to a young reading audience.
There are a number of contributing factors to this overall tendency to think of Speculative Fiction as being for a younger audience, including the tradition of fairy tales as spec fic literature, the fact of authors like Heinlein writing successfully for the juvenile market, the influence of newspaper comic strips, comic books and more. Among the general public, there is an inclination to consider the genre of Speculative Fiction as not quite appropriate fare for adults.
And when Spec Fic is incorrectly shelved as YA Spec Fic it makes for a self-fulfilling spiral of an inaccurate public perception of just what Speculative Fiction is. It can make for a bad experience on the part of the reader or buyer which is bad for YA Spec Fic and it’s bad for adult Spec Fic.
One way in which it is detrimental to the genre is when books written for adults sometimes include adult situations and graphic scenes. While this isn’t to say that YA literature doesn’t include works with very adult themes, the YA books are written to present these themes to the reader in a different way, a more age-appropriate way, than books written for adults. This also isn’t to say that teen readers should not be reading adult books—many teen readers are absolutely ready for adult literature.
But when something like Stephen King’s “It”—A novel with scenes of racism-driven mass murder, with a cannibalistic clown and child dismemberment, when this gets shelved in YA based on the fact that Stephen King is a writer of ghost stories and thus his work probably more or less okay for younger readers--this real-life online example is a detrimental mis-classification. (YABooksCentral.com)
The other side of the coin is when people are looking for ‘clean teen’ YA books and end up lumpimg any adult Spec Fic that ISN’T R-rated into that group. That’s how something like Douglas Adams “Hitch-hiker’s Guide” can end up on the YA shelf. And it’s how an adult reader looking for Speculative Fiction to read and not thinking to check in the YA section can overlook what might be their next great book.
Another answer to the question of how and why an Adult Fiction book can end up on the YA Fiction shelf is one that isn’t limited to the SF genre.
YA lit is literature written to be read by teens. But some people make the mistake of thinking that when a book is written ABOUT teens, it also means that it is FOR teens. This results in situations in which the YA label gets applied to a story that has a protagonist or characters who are in their teens or early 20s, even if written for adults. This also applies to practically any coming of age story. Or--any larger story that contains a coming of age component.
Take for example, Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti.’ Published in 2015, it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best Novella, and was a nominee for the Locus Award. A highly regarded story in the Speculative Fiction world, it also includes scenes of graphic violence. But it is also a story about a young woman going off to college. And so over 300 people have shelved it as a Young-Adult book on Goodreads.
Or Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, published in 2018 and nominated for a wide selection of awards, such as the Hugo, the Nebula, the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award for First Novel. An action-filled adventure about a monster hunter in a post-climate collapse world, it’s an adult book with adult scenes and situations in the contemporary tradition of Urban Fantasy. But the monster hunter is a young Native woman. Nearly twice as many Goodreads users have shelved it as Young Adult than have shelved it as Adult, even though Tor.com notes that “Domestic abuse, sexual/verbal/physical assault, PTSD, the patriarchy, and state-sanctioned violence all make appearances.” Not that YA can’t or shouldn’t address these issues, but this book is not written, and does not discuss these topics, with a teen readership in mind.
Or to swing back around to Stephen King, Amazon.com lists Carrie as its #2 book under Books: Teen & Young Adult: Stephen King. It’s the tale of a 16-year-old girl who uses her newfound telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who have bullied her. King’s first published novel, it is also one of his most frequently banned books, due in part to scenes of underage sex and violence. And given that the novel grew from a short story that he was hoping to pitch to Cavalier, a men’s magazine along the lines of Playboy, it’s a safe bet that he didn’t write it with the YA market in mind.
As noted, the issue of classifying books ABOUT teens to the YA category FOR teens is not a problem that is limited strictly to the genre of speculative fiction. But when it occurs in Spec Fic, there are larger implications, in that it serves to reinforce that erroneous mindset to which Spec Fic is already particularly susceptible, that Speculative Fiction isn’t really appropriate for as a genre for adults.
To summarize-- Although there is a classification system in place designed to differentiate adult Speculative Fiction literature from Young Adult Speculative Fiction literature, it is often not utilized. For a number of reasons, adult Spec Fic books can be mis-shelved as YA Speculative Fiction which can result in poor reading experiences detrimental both to adult Spec Fic and YA Spec Fic literature, and can also reinforce inaccurate stereotypes and biases about the genre as a whole as being ‘kid stuff.’
And where do we go from here? This has been just a 10-minute intro to the subject, and there are two paths of inquiry that jump out from it.
The first is the impact of big data on book retailers. The BISAC subject codes--remember the ones that divide books into Fiction or YA Fiction--are intended to also help online book sellers correctly categorize their inventory and are said to be in use by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But what is going on the the background? How much weight is really given to them versus the number crunching that drive the ‘Also Boughts’ and ‘Suggested for Yous’ that they promote in their quest to hyper-personalize your purchasing experience and ultimately, sell you more product?
Secondly, but more importantly, is the need for further exploration and examination of the fact that this mis-categorization, this ‘youngification’ of adult speculative literature is applied disproportionately to books by WOMEN, particularly WOMEN of COLOR. I’m obviously not suggesting that it happens only to these books—the examples I’ve presented show that that isn’t the case—but I would argue that we need to see more hard data on the statistically significantly higher chance for miscategorization of these books.
Nnedi Okorafor, who I referred to earlier, holds a PhD, is a Nigerian-American writer, and has had the Binti books misclassified to the point where she felt she needed to state, “The Binti Novella Trilogy is not a YA series”… “Kids being able to read and enjoy a book does NOT therefore make it YA.”
Rebbeca Roanhorse is a lawyer and writer of Native American and African American heritage. Her debut novel is thought of as YA so often that an interviewer asked her, “Do you think of Trail of Lightning as Young Adult?” and her answer was, “No, Trail of Lightning is adult science fiction and fantasy.”
Both of these authors have written other works that ARE Young Adult. That may be influencing the public’s perception of these adult Spec Fic works.
But Silvia Moreno-Garcia—Mexican-Canadian publisher, editor, journalist and best-selling author—has not. And yet, her latest book, Mexican Gothic, is subject to the same sort of mis-classification, to the point that just earlier this month, she was compelled to announce--
“MEXICAN GOTHIC is a horror novel. … No, it’s not YA either.” … “For God’s sake, stop assuming that by default women only write romance and YA.”
And that’s where we’ll wrap this up for today. Thank you very much. 😊