The Venus Flytrap of Fiction: How Women Authors are Being Relegated to YA

Women have not always been welcome in the publishing industry, though the “damned mob of scribbling women,” Nathaniel Hawthorn once referred to have certainly not given up (Frederick 1975). Today, many women stand at the top of literary fiction, making up five of the six 2016 Giller shortlist finalists (Dundas 2016). Yet, these women are the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where women’s fiction is often relegated to categories deemed to have lesser importance, such as romance, fantasy (as opposed to its more scientific counterpart), and children’s books (Thelwall 2016). A newer (and somewhat blurrier) category that has come to be women-dominated is young adult (YA).

 

The YA genre is full of best sellers by women, from Harry Potter to Twilight and the Hunger Games. In recent years, YA titles have been responsible for small surges of life in the sales data of the North American publishing industry (Stampler 2014). And, even more interestingly, this vaguely defined category is read by adults as well as teens, with 55% of buyers being over the age of 18 (Bowker 2012). Still, the genre is often dismissed, with many expressing dismay at it’s popularity among adults. Ruth Graham went as far as to publish a rather abrasive Slate article calling for YA proponents to be “embarrassed if what [they are] reading was written for children” (Graham, 2014).

 

Alternatively, I would argue that not all that is published in YA is written for children. In fact, many authors intend to write adult books, sometimes even literary fiction, but are driven towards YA due to a multitude of publisher biases and market demands. Through a series of case-studies, I will illustrate how each step of the publishing process pressures female authors in particular to fit into the YA category, and how this has led to a highly popular and heavily criticized female-dominated genre.  

 

 

What Is YA anyway?

 

Young adult is a notoriously difficult category to define. It encompasses many wildly different titles, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to The Hunger Games. A pair of YA novels can have almost nothing in common, except the age of the characters. In fact, the only YA rule that seems to exist is that the main character is either a teenager or young adult. This, of course, can quickly become problematic. If all YA novels have young protagonists, do all novels with teenage characters belong in YA?

 

The genre becomes even more convoluted when you add “teen” and “new adult” divisions into the mix. As Imogen Williams discussed in her 2014 article in The Guardian, all three of these categories are often used interchangeably, but many readers report differences between them, mainly in the appropriateness of the subject matter for the age-group. Teen is supposedly for ages 12-14, with young adult for 14 and over (Williams 2014). However, more recently we have seen the rise of “new adult,” featuring characters who are college-aged. Yes, much like a driver’s licence, we now mark our fiction with an “N” to signal stories for consumers still learning to read “real” literature. Personally, I think this came about because even the Erotica section did not want Fifty Shades of Grey.

 

The difficulty of defining the limits of YA can be seen when anyone attempts to create a list of YA novels. For example, in 2012 NPR polled the internet for  the “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” (National Public Radio 2012). After publishing the results, NPR faced so much pushback from YA fans over what was and what was not included that they published a blog post clarifying the process. Petra Mayer explained, “our judges felt that Pride and Prejudice is just not a book teens are lining up to read…. And there were a few books on our list that the judges deemed too mature, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Mayer 2012). Yet, even Mayer acknowledged that she was “personally sad to lose” (2012) these titles.

 

 

The Success of YA

 

Despite being blurry around the edges, YA remains an incredibly popular genre among readers. Comparison between 2013 and 2014 showed children’s and YA sales increasing by 22.4 percent (Dilworth 2014). In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the number of young adult titles published more than doubled (Peterson 2017). Rather than this being a result of a renewed interest in reading among teenagers, the numbers can actually be accredited to adult readers. According to Bowker Market Research, over half of YA sells to adults, and 78 percent of these adults claim to have made the purchase for their personal reading (Bowker 2012). Furthermore, this particular readership is highly attractive from a publishing standpoint. According to Bowker, YA readers are loyal to authors, and “71 percent say that if an e-book of their desired title was unavailable, they would buy the print book instead” (Bowker 2012).  The infographic below was compiled by Blooming Twig, an independent publisher based in New York. Alongside the graphic, the publisher discusses the findings of the American Publishers Association on the success of YA fiction. In 2009, the “YA Rennaissance” began with over 30, 000 titles published that year, “an unheard of number at the time” (Blooming Twig 2015). The publisher goes as far as to argue that “the popularity of YA books is keeping many book publishers afloat in the age of e-readers and self-publishing” (Blooming Twig 2015).

 

“Young Adult Books by the Numbers.” Blooming Twig 2014.

 

 

Women in YA

 

In the infographic, you will notice the blue bar in the bottom right soaring over the red, suggesting that YA titles written by male authors far outnumber those by female. This is due to the fact that YA has a relatively long history of books that are read for generations after publication. Think Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger. Today, however, female authors are ruling the YA market. Not that it is impossible for male authors to work their way in (John Green is not about to go hungry), but YA has seen the surge of best-selling fiction by women, one after another.

 

Harper Lee, S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth top NPR’s aforementioned list (National Public Radio 2012). In The Atlantic, Meghan Lewit wrote an article on how female authors are dominating young adult fiction. She noted, “As a young reader, I didn’t comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory” (Lewit 2012). But, I have to wonder, is it really a victory if those opportunities are limited to, or even relegated to YA?

 

 

Adult Books Turn YA

 

At some point in time, YA became a genre that not only welcomed, but embraced and celebrated female authors. But, whilst appearing a sanctuary, the genre may actually be more comparable to a Venus flytrap. In an industry that relies heavily on comp titles, the success of women in YA has made it common for publishers to want to shove female authors that direction, especially if the book they have written involves young characters. And thanks to new adult, the bar is raised to include twenty-somethings. Below, I present three examples of women who thought they were writing for adults, but were informed otherwise by members of the publishing industry.

 

In 1989, A.M. Homes’ book Jack was published by Vintage Books. A debut novelist, Homes had created a complex narrative about a teenage boy who discovers that his father is gay. According to the Penguin Random House website, the novel is “the most convincing, funny, and insightful novel about adolescence since The Catcher in the Rye,” and it is listed under general fiction (PRH 2017). However, the publishing history of Jack did not begin that way. The novel was actually first published as young adult. It was not until the paperback edition was released that the publisher instead repositioned the book for adults (Cart 2010, 113). Homes has since received the Women’s Prize for Fiction (Capon 2013). In an interview with The Barcelona Review in 2007, she expressed distaste for her writing being referred to as “for children.” When asked about her children’s books Homes responded, “I don’t think of them as children’s books, but just a different kind of book—a different kind of story—more visual, more expansive when it comes to the imagination. Often we call books that are fun—children’s books; I think I’m just going to call mine—books” (Adams 2007). Jack may be seen as an early hint at what the crossover genre would become.

 

In 2007, Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak was published. A year later, Rabb wrote an article about how she had found out her “literary novel about death and grief, which [she had] worked on for eight years, was a young adult book” (Rabb 2008). Her agent had broken the news. Two editors of adult fiction at Random House had shown interest in the manuscript, but the higher-ups determined the book belonged in young adult fiction instead, and she had received an offer from Random House Children’s Books. In her article, Rabb quotes Michael Cart (a former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association), who argues, “These days, what makes a book [YA] is not so much what makes it as who makes it — and the ‘who’ is the marketing department” (qtd. in Rabb 2008). Whoever determines whether a book should be published for an adult audience, one thing is clear: it is certainly not the author.

 

In 2015, The Law of Loving Others by Kate Axelrod was published. Like Rabb, Axelrod also felt the need to write about the trajectory her book took into the YA section. Her article, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed as Young Adult,” appeared in 2016. The book is about a college student (that awkward, new adult age) who returns home from school to find her mother in the midst of a schizophrenic break. Axelrod explained, “I wanted to explore the toll that mental illness takes on a family, and more generally, what it means to love somebody who is sick” (Axelrod 2016). The author felt strongly, for more reasons than just literary merit, that the book targeted an adult demographic: “the book was peppered with both casual drug use and casual sex” (Axelrod 2016). She passed on agents who suggested the book would be great for new adult, and found someone to represent her who agreed on an adult audience. After facing the strong opinions of major publishing houses, Axelrod eventually bent to pressure and agreed to promoting the book as YA. Penguin’s Razorbill imprint scooped it up within a couple of weeks. Since then, the book has struggled in the market.

 

[The book’s] categorical ambiguity… was a consistent issue raised by readers, magazine/blog editors, and Goodreads reviewers alike. Given its content and tone, it was too old for a young adult crowd, but its YA branding was off-putting to outlets that may have otherwise been interested. As one blogger succinctly put it: “This isn’t a YA novel for teen readers. While it’ll appeal to teen readers, it’s a YA novel for adult readers or, more realistically, it’s an adult novel with teen main characters” (Axelrod 2016).

 

After an unenthusiastic response from the YA community, Razorbill eventually decided the paperback edition would target an adult audience instead, much like was the case with A.M. Homes over two decades previous.

 

 

So, Why Does This Happen?

 

As discussed earlier, YA is incredibly successful right now. In his New York Times article about getting boys reading again, Lipsyte argued, “The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from [MFA] programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction” (Lipsyte 2011). From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense that publishers would want to find books that could fit into the teen/young adult/new adult market and package them for the hordes of loyal Twilight fans.

 

This affects women writers in particular, because the female market is much larger. As stated in an NPR article, “Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market” (Weiner 2007), and (according to Robert Lipsyte) a Harper executive announced at the 2007 A.L.A. conference that “at least three-quarters of her target [are] girls” (Lipsyte 2011). The reality is that the current fiction market is led by YA, and the YA market is driven by the reading choices and habits of girls and women.

 

However, market factors may be far too easy a scapegoat. There are other issues surrounding women’s fiction that could easily be at play in the choices of agents and publishers to position women’s writing for children. There is still a gender gap in literature, which women are voicing loudly across the internet. In 2010, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner both voiced their opinions about the gender biases of the New York Times Book Review. Other female authors have discussed their choices to use initials or submit manuscripts under male pen names.

 

Author Catherine Nichols shared her story about A/B testing manuscripts with literary agents (Nichols 2015). After having sent out dozens of manuscripts with little success, Nichols began sending out the same manuscript under a traditional masculine name like “George” (she does not share the actual name used). George sent out fifty queries, and received manuscript requests eight times more often than Catherine. The types of feedback George received were also vastly different from Catherine’s:

Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant

everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.” No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty. A few of people sent deeply generous and thoughtful critiques (Nichols 2015).

One agent who received queries from both Catherine and George not only requested George’s manuscript (after having sent Catherine a firm no), but offered to share it with a more senior agent.

 

 

Why Should Publishers Care?

 

Well, we should care about the gender gap in literature because: equality. However, if for some reason that is not enough motivation, there are other considerations to keep in mind when pushing female authors towards young adult literature.

 

Firstly, as we have seen with Kate Axelrod’s The Law of Loving Others, when a book is pushed into YA but contains themes and topics that are clearly more mature, the book becomes precariously positioned and this can damage sales. Furthermore, trying to reposition a book with the paperback edition is not an easy task. Once a book has been sold as YA, it can be difficult to remove the label. As Axelrod noted, “These labels sometimes feel so random and subjective, and yet how and why a publishing company decides to label or market a book, will dictate its future enormously” (Axelrod 2016).

 

Furthermore, the gender biases in the literary community are affecting which books are getting reviewed. In 2010, Slate checked the claims of Picoult and Weiner that the Times is not reviewing women. Looking at 545 titles reviewed between June 2008 and August 2010, Slate found that 63 percent were authored by men (DoubleX 2010). Discussed in The New Republic, VIDA’s 2010 research found similar results with a long list of publications:

The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed…. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by women (14.5 percent) (Franklin 2011).

 

In an industry where reviews are still heavily relied upon to sell books, this is both an ethical and practical concern. If we want our female authors to succeed, and there is no logical reason why we should wish otherwise, then we need to address the biases ingrained in the publishing industry.

 

 

To Conclude

 

When The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 it was both a proud moment for female authors and for young adult as a genre. Of course, the choice received a storm of criticism (Peretz 2017). How could a YA book possibly win a Pulitzer? Although, when Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi, no one seemed to have a problem. So, perhaps the question is better worded: “How could a YA novel by a woman win a Pulitzer?”

 

While it is true that the scribbling of women has come a long way on the route to being recognized and legitimized, it still has further to go. The fact that YA has become a sanctuary for female authors, “the Garden of Eden of literature,” according to Sherman Alexie (Rabb 2008), suggests that the world of adult fiction has still not accepted female writing as equal. It is time for women’s writing to expand beyond the Garden. It is time to see the world.

 

 


 

References

 

Adams, Jill. “An Interview with A.M. Homes.” The Barcelona Review. August 2007. Accessed March 2017. https://www.barcelonareview.com/59/e_int.htm

 

Axelrod, Kate. “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed as Young Adult.” Literary Hub. January 5, 2016. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://lithub.com/the-time-my-grown-up-novel-was-marketed-as-young-adult/

 

Blooming Twig. “Young Adult Books by the Numbers.” Issues that Matter. June 14, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2017. https://issuesthatmatter.co/young-adult-books-by-the-numbers-ae83f7ec19fb

 

Bowker. “Young Adult Books Attract Growing Numbers of Adult Fans.” Bowker Market Research. September 13, 2012. Accessed March 16, 2017. http://www.bowker.com/news/2012/Young-Adult-Books-Attract-Growing-Numbers-of-Adult-Fans.html

 

Capon, Felicity. “AM Homes, winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, interview.” The Telegraph. June 6, 2013. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10103082/AM-Homes-winner-of-the-2013-Womens-Prize-for-Fiction-interview.html

 

Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: American Library Association, 2010.

 

Dilworth, Dianna. “Book Sales Up 4.9% in First 3/4 of 2014: AAP.” Adweek Network. Dec. 15, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://www.adweek.com/galleycat/book-sales-up-4-9-in-first-34-of-2014-aap/96276?red=as

 

DoubleX. “Fact-Checking the Franzenfreude: Is the New York Times’ book section really a boys’ club?” Slate. September 2, 2010. Accessed March 23, 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2010/09/factchecking_the_franzenfreude.html?from=rss

 

Dundas, Deborah. “Giller Prize short list dominated by women.” The Toronto Star. September 26, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2016/09/26/giller-prize-short-list-dominated-by-women.html

 

Franklin, Ruth. “A Literary Glass Ceiling?” New Republic. February 6, 2011. Accessed March 23, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/82930/vida-women-writers-magazines-book-reviews

 

Frederick, John T. “Hawthorne’s ‘Scribbling Women’” The New England Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1975): 231-40. doi:10.2307/364660.

 

Graham, Ruth. “Against YA.” Slate. June 5, 2014. Accessed March 28, 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/06/against_ya_adults_should_be_embarrassed_to_read_children_s_books.html

 

Lipsyte, Robert. “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?” The New York Times. August 19, 2011. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/books/review/boys-and-reading-is-there-any-hope.html

 

Mayer, Petra. “Best YA Fiction Poll: You Asked, We Answer!” NPR. July 24, 2012. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2012/07/24/157311055/best-ya-fiction-poll-you-asked-we-answer

 

Mead, Rebecca. “Written Off: Jennifer Weiner’s quest for literary respect.” The New Yorker. January 13, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/written-off

 

National Public Radio. “Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.” NPR. August 7, 2012. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/07/157795366/your-favorites-100-best-ever-teen-novels

 

Nichols, Catherine. “Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name.” Jezebel. April 8, 2015. Accessed March 26, 2017. http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627

 

Penguin Random House. “Jack by A.M. Homes.” Accessed 2017. http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/82310/jack-by-a-m-homes/9780679732211/

Stampler, Laura. “Adult Books Sales Are Down and Young Adult Soars in 2014.” Time. December 16, 2014. Accessed March 28, 2017. http://time.com/3636601/young-adult-book-sales-2014/

 

Peretz, Evgenia. “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014. Accessed March 23, 2017. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism

 

Peterson, Valerie. “Young Adult and New Adult Book Markets.” The Balance. March 17, 2017. Accessed March 30, 2017. https://www.thebalance.com/the-young-adult-book-market-2799954

 

Rabb, Margo. “I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.” The New York Times. July 20, 2008. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/books/review/Rabb-t.html?_r=0

 

*** ask how to cite this:

Thelwall, Mike. “Book genre and author gender: romance>paranormal-romance to autobiography>memoir.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. Prepress (2016). http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/ReviewerGenreGenderGoodreadsPreprint.pdf

 

Weiner, Eric. “Why Women Read More Than Men.” NPR. September 5, 2007. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14175229

 

Williams, Imogen Russell. “What are YA books? And who is reading them?” The Guardian. July 31, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/jul/31/ya-books-reads-young-adult-teen-new-adult-books

2 Responses to The Venus Flytrap of Fiction: How Women Authors are Being Relegated to YA

  1. jlkey says:

    Having just written an essay about literary snobbism, it was so interesting to be peer-reviewing an article about women writers being directed towards YA. With the abundance of think pieces and reviews floating around the internet deriding YA as a less serious or even unimportant genre, it is necessary to consider why female authors are being pushed towards it at a much higher rate than men–whether or not you agree with those assessments of YA.

    The case studies that the author provided as examples throughout the piece were well-deployed, and helpful to illustrate her points. The example of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult taking on the New York Times Book Review over “Franzenfreude” was notable here. Although neither author is writing YA, they spoke about the critical opinion of so-called commercial fiction as well as the likelihood of male writers to be more reviewed. In an interview with Huffington Post, Weiner said:

    “Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls…all of these guys write what I’d call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationships and romance and families. All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls. But they’re not, so they get reviewed (not always positively, but still), and they sell. If Nick and Jon and Carl don’t have to choose between a slot on the review page and a space on the bestseller list, why should Jen and Sophie and Emily?”

    While Weiner is at least lucky enough to be able to “go weep into [her] royalty statement” she is also operating in a market that allows authors far higher sales–the United States. In Canada, however, we have heard anecdotally that 5,000 in sales is considered great, and with royalties staying steady between 8-12%, authors may be doing an entirely different kind of weeping into their cheques. Unless, of course, they get nominated for a large prize, such as the Scotiabank Giller, or our beloved televised book club death match: Canada Reads. However, these aren’t areas where YA novels are being recognized, and therefore the women working within that genre are not being recognized either.

    I was very interested to learn about the “New Adult” category of publishing that has been recently created. The book publishing house I had interned at prior to starting the program made distinctions between children’s, YA, and “Young Readers” which were ages 9-12. We did not have a particular name for books that were about college-aged protagonists, but we definitely had many debates about appropriate age recommendations for some of our YA books.

    While I by no means agree with the snobbery against YA and other women-dominated areas of publishing, I think it is important to acknowledge that that snobbery exists and to unpack its effects on those female authors. Further, as the author concludes her essay, it is high time to recognize the work of female authors who are working outside of those aforementioned genres. The 2016 Giller shortlist seems like a move in the right direction, and hopefully publishing will be able to keep up that momentum.

  2. JMax says:

    Interesting issue, interesting discussion, but there’s a lot going on here: There is the well-documented phenomenon where a majority of female authors still somehow get a minority of attention. There is a glaring lack of gender balance among mainstream book reviewers. There is the YA phenomenon (whether or not we subdivide it into teen and ‘new adult’). And there are cases where authors feel miscategorized. How do these things add up? Critically, how do they fit together?

    One of the key drivers, for publishers, I suspect, is that YA provides access to marketing channels that “General Fiction” doesn’t. For instance: the school library market, which has an organized system of review magazines (high volume!), plus the word-of-mouth that librarians can give… I see this happening with my kids; the YA titles they’re reading are school- and librarian-pushed. So, even Richard Nash’s hypothetical ‘Lorem ipsum’ novel will immediately get more marketing life if categorized as a YA, if for not other reason that these extra channels.

    One thing we don’t know is what publishers might have a sense of: whether books are performing better as YA. We have the very public author’s commentary on this, but we don’t hear the counterargument from the publisher’s side. An author complaining that miscategorization resulted in poor sales doesn’t say much… as with the current Christie Blatchford “Pronoun Professor” nonsense; maybe the guy’s grant just wasn’t that great.

    It would be interesting to see some comparative info about male YA authors. Are they really in decline relative to women in the YA category, but not in General Fiction? Are male authors facing categorization against their own inclinations too?

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