Publishers Love Teenage Readers, and Other Party Lines
by Melanie Moyer
I’m sitting at a party, a happy hour, a wedding reception, and cringing as I answer the same question that always follows the one asking me what I do for a living: “So, what’s your book about?” The cringe is reflexive. Partially because talking about my own work gets the same reaction out of me when I’m asked to say my own name out loud. But, more than that, it’s because I feel an inherent sort of personal shame in what I wrote and sold: a YA novel.
I don’t tell it that way. “It’s a coming of age story told from the point of view of an imaginary friend.” It sounds more important there. It’s also true. But I find ways around saying it’s a novel aimed at teens, even worse, teenage girls. That’s not art.
The young adult novel has become the Peeps of the literary world: that sugary, substance-less thing that everyone gets berated for enjoying. Why is that? I wrote a young adult novel, one that I’m proud of outside any qualifiers, so why am I ashamed to tell other people it’s a story meant to be read by teenage girls?
The first modern example of young adult novels go back that novel we were all forced to read in middle school: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. First things first, this novel was written by a 16 year old girl. I said that once to a father buying a copy for his daughter’s summer reading while I worked in the children’s department of a Barnes & Noble. He’d just got done telling me how much he enjoyed the book as a teenager and was excited for his daughter to read it. He was floored by this knowledge. He thought, as her publisher hoped when they insisted she use her genderless first two initials, that it was written by a man. YA’s continued connection to females, and its position as a genre primarily consumed by women, is not a coincidence.
Most people will attribute the cash explosion of the YA genre with The Hunger Games trilogy. It took the dystopian themes of earlier YA novels (Catcher and the Rye, The Long Walk, etc.) and modernized them: famine, bureaucracy, a female lead. Far from perfect, but it was action, it was horrific, it got you thinking. It kicked off the YA genre and invigorated young readers to pick up books written for them in a time in their academic careers when they’ll be forced to read lofty, 19th and 20th century novels that don’t mean a thing to them. Here’s a genre written specifically for the teenage mind, starring teenage characters, in fantastic but often inherently familiar teenage situations. Kids are rushing to bookstores.
What do we do with it?
We turned it into a money printing machine.
Authors tripped over themselves to create the next Hunger Games. Publishers outbid each other to own the material, and every single agent on the web wanted a great dystopian YA story. In 2012, over 10,000 YA titles were published. Over 60% of YA purchases were made by women. Just looking at the big names--Sarah J. Maas, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, Rainbow Rowell, Veronica Roth--it’s a female dominated genre. This is, in large part, to the fact that women read more than men overall. As McEwan said: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” But YA is the most high profile, concentrated genre populated by women in the mainstream. Or is it?
Let’s go back to the story, people ask me what I write and I say my biggest publishing credit at the moment is a young adult novel, about a teenage girl. It feels like a weak thing to respond with, shallow and fluffy. Part of that is on me, an internalized shame. But, part of it is on culture as well, and our tendency to make any media associated with female viewership as inherently less. Romance, a genre objectively about people falling in love, is regarded as the cheap rags of stay-at-home moms. Any film about the friendship between two women is a “chick-flick.” And when a female centric love story gets all sorts of buzz, it gets completely ignored at the Oscars (Carol) which, only years ago, showered a male-centric love story with praise (Brokeback Mountain). It’s no secret to women that society hates women. And the thing that is increasing young readership and driving an industry, is worth less because of its female readership. It gives publishers permission to go fast, to care less, to get out carbon copies of the hot trend of the month because some teenage girl, somewhere, will pick it up.
And then comes something not just cheap and weakly written to get it on the page and at the checkout line as fast as possible, it’s something dangerous.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a 2007 novel written by Jay Asher. It tells the story, through hapless teenager Clay Jensen, of how a teenage girl committed suicide after enduring an upsetting high school experience. She posthumously bequests tapes to Clay to share her titular reasons why she decided to kill herself. It, naturally, was released to mixed reviews about what it said about suicide and mental health. School psychologists were quick to criticize the book for its lack of exploration into mental illness and its portrayal of a young women committing suicide as a result of poor coping mechanisms with stressors. It’s also been accused by educators as a story that glorifies suicide.
Whether or not the reader finds justification in the central event of the novel after learning Hannah’s reasons for what she did, most reviewers agree: the novel glamorizes suicide as a revenge fantasy. As one Goodreads reviewer succinctly points out: “But Hannah Baker kills herself. And it's a dramatic, redemptive, cataclysmic act. Hannah Baker sends the tapes, and she becomes the still point of the turning world. She is Clay's Lost Lenore, the beautiful and romantic and unknowable girl who will live on forever in his memory. Hannah Baker kills herself, and she makes all those people who ever hurt her sorry.”
Think one white man’s lazy writing of a teenage girl’s high school experience and death doesn’t really matter? The National Institutes of Health disagree. In the month after Asher’s misguided money-grab was released on Netflix as a TV show, suicides in teenagers spiked almost 30%. Throughout the rest of the year, there were nearly 200 more suicides than predicted by historical trends. That April, the suicide rate spiked higher than it had in 19 years.
It’s time to talk about YA’s place in our world and its importance to the young readers picking it up. Offering hack written escapist stories of author inserts in fantasy worlds is one thing. Making a teenage suicide the dramatic center of your story is another thing entirely. And it underpins the fundamental fact: authors and publishers don’t appreciate the intelligence and emotional depth of their teenage readers. Stories that do exist, Laurie Halse Anderson wrote one of the most important modern YA Novels (Speak), the book often lauded as the greatest American novel ever written was a young adult story (To Kill a Mockingbird). But they’re not what gets put in corrugated displays at the front of Barnes & Noble. Authors like Jay Asher don’t care what’s in the book his readers pick up. And, as an important aside on the man who decide he was the correct voice for the mind of a teenage girl who is sexually assaulted: he has been dismissed from the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators do to allegations of sexual assault.
YA does not need a new face. It needs decision makers who respect the faces that are already there. And that includes me. I’ll proudly say I wrote a book about a teenage girl going through personal trauma and self discovery. Because it’s important to the people who pick it up. As the great American musical [title of show] tells us “I’d rather be 9 people's’ favorite thing than 100 people’s 9th favorite thing.” And I’d rather have treated all five of my readers as adults with complex emotions and deep thoughts than reached a couple million peddling something arrogant, shallow, and, in Asher’s case, horrifically damaging.
About the Author
Melanie Moyer is a Philadelphia-based writer of short stories and a YA novel in April 2018, The Rules of Me. She works by day as an advertising copywriter and enjoys golfing and pizza-making.