Have you ever gone to look at a book on Goodreads and noticed it’s tagged Young Adult when you were sure it’s Adult? Sometimes you can’t tell what age category it is? Have you ever read a review where someone complains that a story is ‘supposed’ to be Adult, but it ‘reads so much like Young Adult’? Have you ever wondered what that’s supposed to mean? Well here’s a discussion for you!
I’ve wanted to do discussion posts on my blog for a long time, so we’re starting with this one. I’m constantly getting fired up about age categories. On the surface, it’s an easy mistake to make. The thing is, it’s a lot more harmful than people realise, and I’m going to talk about why.
It’s weaponised against marginalised authors.
This is the major reason it annoys me so much to see a book tagged as the wrong age category. Have you noticed it commonly occurs when it’s a book written by a woman? Or queer people? Or BIPOC?
Adult books are more often tagged as Young Adult if they feature a diverse cast. It’s as if Young Adult is the only age category where we can show that the world is a diverse place. Adult books are only allowed marginalised people if they suffer, because suffering is serious, and serious is Adult.
That’s not to say darker Adult books with a lot of diversity are bad. I’m a big fan of nasty, gritty, diverse fantasy, but to say that a happy book isn’t Adult denies the existence of marginalised people’s happiness. A lot of people say that Adult is more realistic, is our happiness not realistic?
You can’t fully appreciate how the Young Adult label has been weaponised without understanding how the genre itself is undervalued. I’m going to say it here: there is nothing wrong with Young Adult. I read both age categories, and they’re both a lot of fun. So why is it undervalued? Maybe it’s because the genre is seen as synonymous with teenage girls, and we all know that society loves to hate on their interests. Young Adult can’t be good literature because it’s for teenagers. I disagree with that statement intensely, and I’m going to talk a little more about that later. Let’s know for now, that when people say an Adult book should be Young Adult, they’re saying it’s not important or good enough.
Is it a surprise that this happens more to marginalised authors then? Is it a surprise that people want to devalue their work? Marketing requires a book be one or the other, by saying it’s not really Adult, you’re pushing it out of the marketplace.
A happy queer person? Unrealistic. Young Adult. A disabled person who hates someone because they’re ableist? Immature. Young Adult. A black person who makes mistakes? Inexperienced. Young Adult. I’m not saying people do this purposefully, but the trend shouldn’t be ignored. Is it Young Adult, or is a multifaceted marginalised person who isn’t suffering too unrealistic for you?
It implies adult books can only be written one way.
Talking about suffering and seriousness leads me to my next point. Marking Adult books as Young Adult implies that Adult books can only be written in a certain way. Often people will mark down specific things they think is a Young Adult trope, that doesn’t belong in an Adult book, and name that as their reason for being disappointed in the read.
Some of my favourite examples I’ve read are: ‘chosen one trope ugh YA’, ‘these character’s don’t get along ugh YA’, ‘the main character is so special ugh YA’, ‘the main character’s a bit immature ugh YA’. You can dislike these tropes all you like, but that doesn’t make the book Young Adult!
These ideas of what Adult books can and can’t include are limiting the age category. Adults should be able to read and write books with messy relationships in, with fun overused tropes explored in new ways (or not!), with immature characters who do stupid things. Adults are not all-knowing serious people who are never ever messy! If my middle-aged uncle can have a Facebook fight with his ex-wife and adult children, digging up loads of family dirt and then blocking everyone, adult books can be immature sometimes. There’s such a huge superiority complex about Adult books, and I hate it! Let adults have fun! Let adult books be campy and trashy and silly without labelling them as something they’re not!
You can have your tastes, you can be disappointed in the level of seriousness or tropes that were included, but why does that mean it’s not Adult? Let adults have fun 2k21!
It’s cheap criticism.
I’m going back to the idea that when people say Young Adult, they mean bad. I’m going to say it again because I think it’s important, I like Young Adult. Even if I didn’t read it, I would still think it’s good. Young Adult books are so hugely varied: they can be simple, or complicated, serious, or silly, about deep real-world issues, or just about fighting demons and kissing hot people. Everything you could say about them is a generalisation, not a rule. They’re fast-paced? Not always. Lacking world-building? Not always. Simplistic? Not always. Character-focused? Not always. School-based? Not always. Easy to read? Not always. Immature characters? Not always. You can appreciate common tropes and writing styles in Young Adult without dismissing the fact that those things aren’t rules.
So what do you mean when you say a book is written like a Young Adult? That means absolutely nothing. You mean it’s simple? Not all Young Adult is simple, so what do you mean? If it’s a criticism that doesn’t mean anything, there’s no point. Instead of saying ‘ugh this is so YA it’s so simple’ you could say ‘I was disappointed with how simple the plot was’. Why are you using it as a criticism, why are you brushing aside a huge and varied category of books; what do you mean?
The phrase Young Adult is not a criticism in itself, and it’s lazy reviewing to use it as such.
It ignores the content of the book that may make it unsuitable for Young Adult readers.
Young Adult is an age category to show that this book is suitable for teenage readers. Some Young Adult books toe the line a bit on keeping within teenage appropriateness, but even so. I’m not saying that teenagers can’t read Adult books, but you’d expect they would be aware that there might be content in it that’s more graphic than they’re used to. I started reading Adult books when I was a child, but my mum would always flick through to make sure there wasn’t content that would be upsetting or inappropriate.
Saying books seem Young Adult impacts how they’re sold, and what people will expect from them. It tells teenagers that this is a safe book to read because it’s in their age category. People who are mislabelling Adult reads often ignore the graphic content in the books. I read a book which had a mildly graphic sex scene, graphic violence, and graphic talk of genocide, and people were tagging it Young Adult. Young Adult readers will then pick up the book without realising it’s actually Adult.
People need to know what age category they’re picking up so they can best prepare for the content. Tagging something wrong because you didn’t like it, or based off of generalisations could lead to harm.