I am, as we know, a voracious reader of young adult fiction. I find it deeply enjoyable. My collection of young adult at this point outstrips my adult shelves, and we haven’t even gotten into my growing assortment of middle grade books. I love books for young readers. I love reading about them, I love writing about them, and I love that I am able to do that for work as well as pleasure. And I am also aware that some of my fellow adults don’t have a taste for YA, and that instead of just saying ‘eh, not my bag,’ they feel a need to trash other adults who read them, as well as teens. That’s not how I roll. You read what you read, I’ll read what I read, and everybody can be happy.
But there’s a trend I’m noticing in a lot of 2016 titles — and no, I am not naming any names, because this is about a larger publishing phenomenon, not individual books — that is disturbing me. It’s the tendency to write YA For Readers of A Certain Age, i.e., targeting what should ostensibly be YA at adult readers. This is not ‘new adult,’ a sort of nebulous phenomenon all its own. These are books allegedly written for teens, marketed to teens, sold to teens, but they really aren’t, at their heart, designed for teens. Will teens enjoy them? Sure, lots will! But that’s not the point.
Here’s the thing: I am spotting a growing number of cultural references in YA, which can be a no-no in writing in general, because it will make things feel dated and clunky in the future. If you reference whatever was hot for three minutes, people in a few years either won’t know what you’re talking about, or will be a bit disdainful. Timeless books use a variety of tactics to get around this issue — as for example if a character needs to get on social media or wants to talk about a pop song she really loves. Editors should be helping their authors with this, because a good book can withstand the test of time rather than being dependent on a very brief era.
But more and more, I’m reading books that are littered with pop culture references, in particular references to film, television, music, and books from the late 1990s and early 2000s. In other words, the generation of authors that grew up consuming these media are writing books now, and the generation of editors that loved them are starting to come up in the ranks, and consequently, tons of books are coming out littered with references to things that are beloved to an older generation, but not necessarily relevant to a younger one, and certainly not to others further down the line. The occasional hat tip is okay, but I’ve read a few books already this year where it’s been almost every other page, sometimes to the point of impeding the plot, on occasion using a pop culture reference that not everyone will get to convey an idea, and this is a problem.
I’m glad to see so many adults taking up young adult, but at its heart, it is not a genre for adults. It is a genre for children and teens and it needs to be written with them in mind — part of the reason new adult exists is to fill the desire among adults to get something with YA flavour that’s aged up a bit. I read young adult for a lot of reasons, but I’m not its target audience, and I shouldn’t be. These are books that should focus on issues relevant to children and teens, whether I’m on a fantastical adventure or facing down a contemporary protagonist. And that includes some attention to details like pop culture references and hat tips, because they can become extremely ostentatious.
People joke about the teenage character who mysteriously listens to all the songs the author loved in the ’80s or ’90s, but this is becoming a real problem. Some of these kids today undoubtedly are listening to ’80s music, because let’s face it, it was a pretty great era in pop and punk. Lots of them aren’t, though, and are listening to entirely new music. Authors need to find out what that music is, to find a way to pull it into their works and reference it — but again without making it feel dated. A Miley Cyrus song might feel on point, but will it still in 20 years?
We see a difference with texts like Eleanor and Park, which are explicitly and conscientiously set in a given era. That setting includes a rich exploration of the media kids were consuming at the time because it’s relevant (critical, in fact), to the plot. In historical fiction, we expect to see characters drawing upon what the pop culture landscape looked like at the time, but otherwise, it’s really jarring to encounter anachronistic cute pop culture references every which way. And I say this as a lover of Buffy, Harry Potter, Ace of Base, and the Hunger Games, all of which I’ve seen unsubtly namechecked in YA lately.
I get that we love these media, but when people are writing literature for children and teens, they need to be thinking about that audience. Unless there’s a specific reason, within the text, for a character to be relating to individual works of media, it’s a good idea to shy away from that. And that also goes for sly textual comments — descriptions of scenes and settings that draw upon quotes from pop culture, for example, or Battlestar Galactica quotes used in section headings. Decide who you’re writing for, and write appropriately.
Image: A Tea Party!, Helga Weber, Flickr