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December 3, 2016

The YA (young adult) novel is a relatively new phenomenon. It dates originally, I’d say, from the 1970s, when American authors such as Judy Blume and Paul Zindel began writing novels specifically for teenagers (they weren’t called young adults then). But the YA novel as we currently know it is of more recent date; its foundational text, I should say, is Melvin Burgess’s Junk, a novel about drug addiction, homelessness and prostitution, with teenage protagonists, published in 1997. Here we see the emergence of the three most distinctive features of the contemporary YA novel: the dark and pessimistic content, the rebarbative character of the typical teen protagonist, and the bleak, harsh, cynical style in which these kind of books are written.

For an example of this typical YA style, look at a more recent flowering of the genre, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Here is a selection of adjectives from the first couple of pages: “rough, bad, beaten-down, ugliest, mashed-in, rotting, muddy, scrawny, swollen, crawling, hungry, hunched, swollen, sunken, squat, grey, closed, scruffy…” I am being selective, but not very. I’ve missed out the positive adjectives, but there were only a handful, and most of those were predceded by not.

Now, I do think Hunger Games is a good book. I’ve got nothing against either bleak social realism or dystopian fantasy. But when that is all that’s offered to young adults as reading material, I think we’ve gone wrong.

The YA novel is supposed to be edgy – an epithet tirelessly flogged by publishers and reviewers, so that it appears on the back of almost every YA novel written since the late 90s. Edginess, indeed, is so much the norm that there no longer feels anything very edgy at all about being edgy.

But I should confess that I have an axe to grind. Some years ago I wrote a YA novel – The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – which was not edgy in the slightest. It was a comic fantasy, funny and in its way rather sweet. And I discovered that, although many publishers said they liked it, none liked it quite enough to publish it. I’m assuming that was because it wasn’t edgy. Anyway, I am now planning to give this book another chance through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound. Here is a little video I put together to give a taste of it:

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Edgy as a description of all fiction has become largely meaningless through overuse and in any case is too subjective a concept. Is Hubert Selby edgy? Is Chuck Palahniuk? Bret Easton Ellis? Any Splatterpunk? When does edgy crossover into gratuitous territory? One man’s meat, etc.
    The question of when edginess first appeared in YA fiction is interesting; the themes of rape, incest and racial intolerance in To Kill a Mockingbird (maybe not specifically YA but widely taught in schools) could be described as edgy but weren’t at the time.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Why has this trend become so dominant? The element of escapism seems largely to be missing from lots of YA,or at least YA accessible fiction, except in light hearted SF/fantasy with Terry Pratchett, Toby Frost, Tom Holland and quite a few others following Douglas Adams’ lead. Is it because the premise of these books in inherently escapist that the authors have more leeway?
    The appeal of “edgy” fiction can only be a vicarious thrill because anyone experiencing the lives often documented is unlikely to want to read about others in the same situation. There may be some identification or even validation but hardly enjoyment.
    Is it simply a question of publishers rather than writers wanting to appear cutting edge?

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