Charting the meteoric rise of the young adult genre


TIME Magazine Best Fiction Novel of 2012: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

By Ali Zayaan

The Fault In Our Stars, a young adult novel by John Green about the star-crossed romance of cancer patient Hazel and the boy she meets at support group, Augustus, was named TIME Magazine’s Best Fiction Novel of 2012 earlier this week.

I have read the book and it is a genuinely brilliant novel, worthy of the critical acclaim it’s gotten- it received rave reviews upon publication and also ended up in several other top ten lists of fiction, including, notably, the Amazon end-of-year fiction list. Such recognition for a ‘genre’ novel (young adult, science-fiction, fantasy or romance) from a notoriously elitist literary establishment is stunning; in fact, it would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

But the young adult (YA) genre has been surging in recent years. Sles have remained healthy and actually continued to increase, even while book sales as a whole flagged and the audience of young adult novels have been diversifying, with a majority of sales in the genre being among adults over the age of eighteen, including large audiences of adults in their thirties or forties. As the young adult novel became a major economic player in the books market, it has gotten increasing media and popular attention, and this increased spotlight seems to have pushed critics towards taking them seriously.

This can be pinned to some extent on a confluence of two things that I find rather individually depressing: the teen vampire romance novel Twilight, and the 2008 global financial crisis.

Twilight was an enormous success, selling over eighty million copies and spawning a hit movie franchise starting 2008 that has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. The expression that we vote with our dollar applies here- things that make lots of money are the things that get invested in, marketed, promoted, and produced. The success of Twilight brought to light the potential of franchises aimed at teens to bring in the big bucks (as a formula; something like Harry Potter being seen as a one-off once in a generation cultural phenomenon).

The economic climate also played a part. Firstly, in making Twilight and young adult fiction in general appealing, bringing in the large older audience that has helped drive the success of the genre. In times of uncertainty and gloom adults sought escapism, and found it in the YA genre. Also, movies based off popular young adults were seen as returns-guaranteed investments because of both the loyalty and interest generated by a book fan-base and the fact that at least a big chunk of movie-goers will be teens, and thus not likely skimping on luxuries to make limited money go further in tough economic times- and during a downturn, something with guaranteed returns is particularly valuable. (This also partly accounts for the large numbers of sequels, reboots, and remakes in Hollywood over the past half-decade). Later movies based on popular young adult novel series such as Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief also performed strongly in the box office, while the film adaptation of the first novel from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian YA trilogy The Hunger Games, released earlier this year, was an enormous commercial success. These series have benefited from being seen as a proven formula for huge revenues, with the path for these being cleared with these no longer seen as a risk and not a ‘safe’ investment for being different from convention like they would likely have been otherwise.

With this confluence of factors, the young adult genre has become a major player in the entertainment market- which means it gets invested in, marketed, promoted, that it gets a spotlight and media attention, which further increases public interest in the genre and so on. (Other entertainments aimed at teens have followed similar trajectories. For example, with the trend decline in physical music sales, exacerbated by the economic downturn, most physical sales of records or albums has been by teens or tweens, especially young girls, while adults continue to pirate or stream music or buy individual singles off places like the iTunes Store- and this has led to music aimed at that demographic being invested in, promoted, and produced heavily, with artists like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and One Direction among the biggest and best-selling artists in the music world.)

This focus has also led to the young adult genre getting more serious critical consideration, and the kind of great young adult literature by brilliant authors such as The Fault In Our Stars and John Green getting the kind of serious critical treatment by literary establishment that young adult novels could have hardly hoped for just a few years ago. The Fault In Our Stars was a genuinely brilliant novel that stands up to any ‘literary fiction’ I’ve read over lately and deserves the acclaim, and it is a positive sign in regards to the democratization of critical praise that a ‘genre’ novel would be honoured so highly in a field that has always been notoriously elitist.

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