YA – filling a niche

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I just finished reading the latest issue of the British Fantasy Society Journal, which was focussed on young adult (YA) literature. YA’s a big thing at the moment, particularly with the prominence of the Twilight and Hunger Games films. The question of YA’s popularity with adults came up several times in the journal’s interviews and articles, and they touched on some interesting causes. But there was one factor that wasn’t mentioned, and it’s the one that most interests me – niche.

Look in the sections of a bookstore aimed at adults and you’ll see a lot of weighty tomes. It they’re not thick with dense, literary prose then they’re physically thick, proper doorstoppers full of action, adventure and/or romance. And there are commercial reasons for this. Both ways, the buyers feel like they’ve got good value for money, whether through challenging art or the sheer volume of pages. The latter tendency has encouraged publishers to turn popular novels into lengthy novels. Particularly in the realm of adventure stories – thrillers, murder mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on – the adult novel has evolved into a bit of a beast. Go back a few decades and you could pick up slim thrillers and sci-fi pulps clocking in around 200 pages. These days they’re likely to be double that.

This change, this slow evolution of the form, has left a niche. Many adults still want something short and accessible, like the old pulp adventure stories. The YA novel neatly fills that gap. It often focusses on adventure and heightened emotion; while not necessarily shallow it is by necessity accessible; and it’s seldom long.

People talk about YA as if it were a recent phenomenon, and as a market in its own right it is. But it seems to me that the role it plays for adult readers is an old one. A gap opened up and YA grew to fill it. If YA hadn’t then something else would have.