Sorry, but “you read too much YA” isn’t an insult

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Sooo you know how I’ve come out swinging lately about how not everything is YA? Well, I’m here today to tell you that it doesn’t matter anyway! Because, as much as I like being precise about what is and isn’t YA, I don’t really think it matters in the grand scheme of things. I love YA, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading entirely YA and it most certainly isn’t an insult to say “you read too much YA” (which incidentally is what prompted me to do these posts, so thank you kind stranger for the content!) Aside from making me wonder “how much is too much” and “what even is YA”, I also just don’t think it’s a very valid criticism- and here’s why:

meanBook snobbery ain’t cool– okay, so maybe YA just isn’t for you, maybe you don’t fit into the target demographic and maybe you don’t want to read it- but guess what? No one’s asking you to! At this point, I’m gonna come out and say it: it comes across as incredibly judgemental to tell other people off for their reading tastes. I just think WHOA to the unnecessary shaming, that this is telling of some deep feelings of inadequacy and maybe (just maybe) you’ve got a stick up your butt 😉

yayYA ROCKS! I could wax lyrical about how awesome YA is- in fact, I’ve done it before and I’m gonna do it again! YA is innovative, modern and imaginative! It’s pacey, exciting and entertaining! It’s full of youthful optimism and gives us the *feels*. If you’re looking for heightened emotions and the promise of some intense catharsis, you can’t really go wrong with YA.

that's deepIt’s also much deeper than you think– let’s be real, if you denigrate all of YA, your ignorance is showing. Children’s literature has always been an experimental gateway- from the Hobbit to Phantom Tollbooth to Alice in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time, we’ve understood that children’s stories can be just as important as adult novels. Likewise, YA has cracked fields of fantasy, dystopia and sci fi wide open. Books like Illuminae show us that stories can be told in an alternative format. Books like Northern Lights explore philosophy and theology. Books like Hunger Games help us explore the issues of our time. Books like One Word Kill explore maths and theoretical physics for goodness sakes! To say that it is shallow is simply daft (and, I know I said critics don’t have to read YA, but maybe if you read some, you might actually learn something 😉)

choose booksNot everything is YA– sorry to harp on, but as I discussed recently there’s a lot of misconceptions about what is and isn’t YA. Given that it’s such a broad and all-encompassing category, how could you feasibly say it’s all bad? Which brings me onto…

spaceYA is limitless– it’s not actually a genre, it’s a marketing category. That means it’s not constrained to one type of book. YA is open to readers of all ages, all interests and all personalities. And that’s why I find it so strangely amusing that people will turn their noses up at it. YA doesn’t limit itself- so why should you?

So, what do you think? Would you be insulted if someone said you read too much YA? Do you like reading YA? Let me know in the comments!

No, it’s not YA

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What even is YA? The question comes up over and over- and for those of you experiencing déjà vu, yes, I have talked about this before. Yet recently it came to my attention again when Alix Harrow was talking on twitter about how her book wasn’t YA.

Now I found this interesting on many fronts. Firstly, because I understand this author’s frustration. It’s beginning to irritate me too that there’s this “assumption of YA”. On a personal level, I notice that because I read a lot of YA, somehow all the books I read are assumed to be YA, despite the numbers being closer to 60:40 adult to YA (funnily enough, I even had a list that included Austen, Dostoevsky and Frankl labelled YA!) And anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen countless adult fantasy books- like Circe– end up shelved in the YA section at libraries. Plus, plenty of authors find they have to take to twitter to tell people that no, their book is in fact not YA.

Just some examples of the kinds of books that get labelled YA, though they might not necessarily be YA, are:

  • Books written by authors who previously wrote YA (as Jay Kristoff has found).
  • Fantasy by women- especially if they’ve previously written in YA (aka Priory of the Orange Tree).
  • Fantasy in general (cos I don’t know why you’d think Tolkien is YA otherwise!)
  • Books with a female protagonist on the cover (cos that’s the only reason I think you can mistake Book of the Ancestor for YA!)
  • Books read by women- especially if said woman reads YA 😉
  • Books with teen protagonists (like the Farseer series)
  • Middle grade- especially with a hint of romance (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter)

So yeah, none of these are YA:

And that’s by no means an extensive list. I have my theories why this is- anything from genre snobbery to ignorance to misunderstandings. Assuming it’s the latter, the problem I’m increasingly finding is that the term is nebulous to begin with. To take Ten Thousand Doors of January as an example, there are more than a few reasons why people might mistake it for YA: it’s a coming of age story, with a young protagonist, has age-appropriate content, the kind of cover typical of a lot of current YA and was blurbed by some YA authors. Personally, I’d have no problem giving this to a teen. And this is not the only case- if a teen was interested in fantasy, why not give them Sanderson? Or Tolkien? Or Jordan? And I know there’s been debate around this, but regardless of what category it’s in, teens seem comfortable reading Schwab.

Thinking of YA as a marketing category, I can see why it might be expanded as much as possible. To my mind, then, if the audience is there, why not just put as many books into this group, as long as it fits the barometer of “suitable for teens”? What I am finding tricky to get my head round is how often even this isn’t taken into consideration. Because on the flipside of seeing that more books could easily be considered YA, I do still have some confusion that certain books are classed as YA (again, not that teens should be stopped from reading them, just that maybe not everything should be marketed directly to teens). Last year, Serpent and Dove was published by Harper Teen- though to my mind (as much as I enjoyed it) there’s little beyond the age of the protagonist marking it as YA. Likewise, not to sound like a broken record, but I still don’t agree with the classification of ACOTAR as YA. And just to make the point that it’s not just about sexual content, I’m not especially convinced of Queen’s Thief being YA, partly cos that has some X-Rated violence (but also cos there’s legit nothing YA about it except the ages… yet still it ends up in the YA section- someone explain this to me please!). The classification seems so arbitrary that it’s becoming an impossible game of spot-the-difference! I’m not sure, if I didn’t know the answer in advance, that I could pick the YA out of this lineup:

So, I’m finding that I have less of a comfortable answer for “what even is YA” than I did a year ago! Which is a turnout for the books 😉

What do you all think? Do you have a clear grasp of what YA is? Or are you increasingly as lost as I am? Let me know in the comments!

How Much Does My Taste Follow the Crowd? Thoughts on Goodreads Choice Awards

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I’ve been watching the Goodreads Choice Awards from the side-lines for years. Sometimes I vote in a couple of categories, sometimes I pick up the odd book, but mostly I just see it in my periphery as a vague recommendation of books I’ve already heard everyone raving about. When I got to thinking about it this year, I realised that the vast majority I see on there aren’t interesting to me, despite being in categories I read. Since this is a popularity contest, this got me to wondering… does my taste follow the crowd? I decided to do an experiment, looking back on the last 5 years of Goodreads Choice Awards (which correlates with how long I’ve been blogging), putting it into a spreadsheet and calculating how many books I liked/disliked/am uninterested in… because I am just that dorky 😉 And my results were…

goodreads choice awards

Interesting. As you can see, the vast majority, I don’t want to read. And that’s pretty much what I suggested going in. One thing of note was that I found I was less interested the further back I went (going from not interested in 68% of 2019 contenders to 80% of the selection from 2015). This makes sense to me, since blogging has exposed me to a lot more of these books.

goodreads choice awards by genre

Now, of course, the categories I covered were only those I was already interested in- but even among those were huge differences. What I found was that I tend to read a lot more from particular categories, yet ignore others. While I do read general adult fiction, I’m usually as likely to dislike them as to enjoy them, so I don’t pay too much attention to the suggestions. I consistently found I picked up more modern YA, particularly YA fantasy, than any other genre. What’s interesting there is how YA is only 40% of my reading on average… suggesting that the adult books I’m choosing are less popular, older or outside the range of the Goodreads Choice Awards (well, not just suggesting, this is an informed guess based on all the data I’ve gathered over the years 😉) Of course, there were also lots of books in genres I don’t typically read, which I also liked (a few memoirs like Educated and humorous reads like I, Partridge). Plus, I didn’t count graphic novels, because that’s more of a newer interest and I didn’t want to skew the results, but there were *loads* of recent releases I was interested in there.

The most significant find was that when I do pick up these books, I tend to like them more often than not (15% liked as opposed to 6% disliked). Again, there’s a difference in which genres I like more- I’m far more likely to enjoy the fantasy or YA fantasy picks than the fiction category… which, again, tells you why I keep picking those up. It seems like I’m largely choosing the right ones for me from the selection.

And that’s my biggest takeaway from this (perhaps very random) experiment. If you do choose to read books from the Goodreads choice award, then try to be specific. And if you do choose less popular books or just don’t want to read any of these, then that’s great too! The important thing is to read what you want- regardless of what everyone else is reading.

So, what do you think of my results? Do you have a similar reaction to the Goodreads Choice Awards? Let me know in the comments!

How historically accurate does historical fiction have to be?

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Well, the short answer is it depends! I know, that’s a satisfying conclusion to any debate 😉 But it really is the sort of thing that’s up to the reader.

Because some people will be happy for historical fiction to be graphic and authentic and hard-hitting… others are looking for light entertainment. And that’s okay. A lot of readers are looking for a little escape from reality and history can be a little grim.

And I have to admit, even I’m not always into hard-hitting historical realism. I’ve mentioned before that everyone has their limit and I can’t pretend to always be down for some skull-bashing war drama.

Buuuut… Sometimes I feel like the historical setting is entirely lacking. Recently, I’ve had this problem with a some popular alternative history books, like Bringing Down the Duke, Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and Ransom My Heart, where the modern twist is so prominent that the history sinks into the backdrop. In Gentleman’s Guide and Bringing Down the Duke in particular, it was the characters that felt out of place- so much so that I wondered why they were not just written for a modern context. All the characters either thought like people from the 21st century… or they were a moustache twirling villain. And that’s a little frustrating- because, more than getting the setting right, it’s got to feel like the people come alive.

Though perhaps this is just an issue that stories like these stretch the bounds of reality a bit too far for me (which is a shocker, given I’m a massive fantasy nerd 😉). For some reason, if I know the history or I’m thinking of real people, it’s just going to be that much harder to suspend my disbelief (which is why I’ve never got on well with Philippa Gregory books for instance). It’s not so easy to switch off that sceptical part of my brain snapping out “yes but the real Anne Boleyn probably didn’t commit adultery… least of all with her brother!” (okay, I have good reason not to like Philippa Gregory- what is with her and incest plotlines!)

What I’ve come to realise is that this is a world building problem- just as much as it would be in fantasy if everyone started breaking the rules of the magic system. I can suspend my disbelief… but only so far. I have to be able to buy the way the world works- and in historical fiction it’s that much harder to change things up.

what the wind knowsOf course, it’s hard to draw a definitive line here. Many of you will know, I’m all about *exceptions* and I’ve read my share of great alternative fiction. For instance, it’s not like time travelling to Ireland before its independence is a realistic plotline- but I still enjoyed the hell out of that book! So, I really can’t be the one to judge what is “too far”- what works for me could easily not work for you, and vice versa!

Which is why I wanna pass the question over to you- where do you draw the line? How accurate does historical fiction have to be for you? Let me know in the comments!

What even is literary fiction?

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Ahh isn’t this just the perennial question? Every time I have conversations about literary fiction, it seems to me no one can quite decide what it is or what it should be or how to define it. And if you try to get a definitive answer, you’re going to have a hard time pinning it down. Google it and you’ll find tons of opinions. Go on Goodreads and you’ll find a plethora of books described as literary fiction (…some of which probably aren’t, but we’ll get to that).

What got me thinking about this recently was watching a video by Alexa Donne pitting literary fiction against commercial fiction, which was an interesting point… but not one I entirely agree with. Because I’d say the whole point of calling something literary fiction is to place it in a specific marketing category. And if it doesn’t have broad appeal, that’s not for want of trying (the same could be said for any book that doesn’t take off and become a bestseller).

Often called a “modern classic”, the idea is that these are the books that will stand the test of time, these are the books worthy of specific prizes, these are the books you can feel smart discussing around the dinner table… which to me is a marketing tactic. And perhaps this is distasteful to admit- it’s a very powerful one. As much as I (and many others) may chafe at the ploy, it certainly gets people’s attention. Merely labelling a book “highbrow” is enough to give it an aura of prestige- which can help propel it into commercial success.

Muddying the waters even more, literary fiction tends to exclude genre fiction… whilst also including it under different names (yes, it is that muddled). Mysteries and thrillers and historical fiction in this category will often play down those elements in the marketing. Likewise, sci fi and fantasy gets the (much more acceptable in the literary world) label of “speculative fiction”.

*Even more confusing*, there are outside this category, which later find their way under the literary fiction umbrella. If you go to Goodreads, you’ll find a huge range of books with this label (many of which I really don’t agree with). Firstly, there’s a tendency to put classics in there… which is weird, cos those are already classics. Secondly, any book with a modicum of success often ends up there (somehow frothy thrillers like Girl on the Train count?!) And I wouldn’t just blame this on users of the site getting trigger happy with the term. Books that were never pitched as literary fiction can easily be pivoted into the category if they’re deemed beautiful enough (the occasional Gaiman book ends up on the Goodreads list- despite the fact his books are consistently magical realism- and I’ve never seen them marketed in literary fiction). Maybe I’m wrong (and this is not to say anything about the quality of these books) but I’m not convinced any of these are literary fiction:

Apart from showing that you can’t trust everything you see on Goodreads, this suggests some serious genre snobbery. To my mind, genre fiction can be beautifully written, meaningful and potentially a future classic. Shoving a book post-publication into this category just adds to the snob value of this already bloated category. It’s an attempt to say ah now it is worthy. To bolster up the idea that the literati have magical foresight into what will live on (when, truth is, we can make guesses, yet never know for sure).

None of this is to say that I hate literary fiction or think it’s automatically pretentious or that this is the fault of the books themselves. Every category or genre has its downfalls- and unfortunately this snob-value seems to be part of the appeal. And, while I cling to the genre fiction labels, I’ll still (grudgingly) use the term. There’s a certain amount of sense to it- in spite of how tough it may be to figure out what literary fiction even is.

Well, I wonder if you agree with my assessment? What do you define as literary fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Are Classics Relevant?

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Short answer is yes.

But unfortunately, I recently saw yet another video bashing classics as irrelevant- sooo… I guess this is going to be another obligatory post defending classics 😉 In this video, gatsby what gatsbysomeone was saying that Gatsby was “not relevant” today and that it shouldn’t be given to young children, as it will stop them becoming lifelong readers. Now this is daft on a number of levels- not least that no one (and I mean no one) is teaching Fitzgerald to little ones (I can say on good authority that Gatsby is only ever found on A Level syllabuses, ergo for people that have decided they want to study English, making it kind of irrelevant in the “I want to get kids into reading” debate).

TheGreatGatsby_1925jacket.jpegThat aside, as much as I’ve always been fair about how not everyone has to like Gatsby (perhaps I should stop trying to make fetch happen and not mention my theory about the Hemmingway-Fitzgerald divide… but oops did it again 😉), I do think it’s good to see its value regardless. Because, to me, Gatsby is fundamentally relevant. It is a study of human desire and a discussion of the American Dream (or any dream really). It explores the Faustian fall, the tragedy of human endeavour, the knowledge that an aristeia must lead to destruction (or to go super classics geek: hubris => kleos => atē). It is about the struggle of man, through suffering, to find meaning. These are themes as old as time. And the story of Gatsby does them justice, not giving comfortable answers. All of this Fitzgerald achieves with an exquisite command of the English language. Like I said, you don’t have to like it, but to call it irrelevant is to deny the human condition.

Still, let’s say you couldn’t find any relevance to your own life in all that- does that matter? I’m not convinced. Because not everything is supposed to be #relatable. Unrelatable content has a purpose. Art exists to transport us, to make us feel differently, to take us beyond ourselves. Its job isn’t always to make us comfortable in our own skin- sometimes it has to make us feel out of sorts. We often read to experience other people’s experience. That’s how we learn. Not everything should be viewed through the prism of “what can *I* get out of this?” Or, to put it in less fluffy terms, it’s not all about MEMEMEMEME!

Ultimately, even if classics aren’t relevant to you, that doesn’t negate their worth. Classics can open up worlds of understanding; they can be the bridge to some of the greatest human thoughts. And they are #relatable to many people across history. If they’re not for you, that’s okay, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of study.

Also, next time you shit talk Gatsby, you’d better make damn sure you can back it up, or this ape’s coming for you 😉

gatsby

What do you think? Are classics irrelevant? Or are they still worthy of study? Let me know in the comments!

The Obsession with Making Writing Real

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One thing I have to make clear before I get started is that I’m not saying “realism sucks”. Every genre or style has its time and place. As much as I love fantasy, I’m open to all forms of the genre and I also adore classics/literary/contemporary fiction etc (not to mention the fact I like my historical fiction as realistic as possible). So, let’s just begin by saying yes, realism rocks just as hard as fantasy. Glad we could get that out of the way 😉

What I do mean, however, is that sometimes striving for realism takes over. While glaring errors can take you out of a story, sometimes criticism of contemporaries can get a little nitpicky (like, whether or not a particular school has a netball team or whatever). And I’ve written at length about why I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for fantasy. More recently, there’s even been a particular obsession with real experience. Which, you know, can be a problem since not every book is (or should be) an autobiography.

atticus finch quoteFor starters, writing is often about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s kind of impossible if you’re never allowed to think outside your own bubble. And while I’m not saying poach anything you like, or that everyone is capable of doing this, some people really are amazing at putting themselves in the mind’s eye of someone totally unlike them (one of the best examples being Rowling’s depiction of abuse, when, as far as I know, she hasn’t experienced this herself).

The other huge problem is how subjective this can be. While one reader might give you the go ahead, another might say you got it totally wrong. This can be even more troubling when you consider the fact that even if you have the same experience, it doesn’t mean you relate to it the same way. It’s frankly horrifying to see authors attacked for writing about their own experiences- which happened to Leigh Bardugo recently over Ninth House. I’m gonna be real: I lean heavily on my own experience in my writing, so it strikes a nerve to see people lashing out at writers over this.frieda-norris-quote-sisterhood I shouldn’t have to point this out, because it is fairly obvious, but here we go: you can’t make claims about someone’s experience without knowing the individual intimately (and even then, it’s pretty rude).  In fact, I’ve had people do the “ugh you don’t know about this, so shut up!” routine to me over things I *definitely* do know about (though, of course, they don’t know that). I’d say it’s safer not to assume you know a stranger’s life story, but that’s just me 😉

What’s more, even if I’ve been critical of a book for being unrelatable, I find it really helpful to hear why other people got something out of it. Not everything can be relatable for everybody– so it’s cool if you disagree with me on something. It gives me a chance to hear another perspective.

Plus, a huge amount of this simply comes down to personal taste. That’s what I tried to get across when I wrote the post “Don’t Write X”- it’s just not possible to appeal to everyone- and that’s okay! I can accept, for instance, that some readers are into fantasy for the world building and complex systems- ergo hyper-realism is important to them. Just because it isn’t the case for me, doesn’t mean I get to rain on their parade and decide all books should be super fantastical. There’s room for both hard and soft magic systems! Similarly, I’ve heard one writer say they find it pulls them out of a contemporary if the names don’t match up to modern trends… whereas I’m all for the quirky names! Barring huge illogical inconsistencies and glaring errors, these things will always be hit or miss. It’s about finding the right readers for a particular book.

For me, books aren’t all about how precise they are; they’re about the endless possibilities they contain. And so I’m not going to obsess over the realism (especially cos even complex magic systems basically come down to *because magic* anyway 😉).

because magic.gif

So, what do you think? Is realism the be-all and end-all for you? If not, where do you draw the line? Let me know in the comments!