Thursday, November 20, 2014

Marketing vs Writing: Where Categories Fall Short

During my daily browsing, I came across a rather rude article about young adult fiction entitled How to Write a Shitty Young Adult Novel. Now, aside from me calling it rude, it is just a satire of many troupes and cliches found in young adult writing. It makes some very solid points, and there's a reason why nearly everything the writer outlined strikes a familiar chord with readers of YA. It left me between a rock and a hard place, because although I was raving mad and spouting my usual "YA is not a descriptor of quality!" I also saw that there was some valid points being made.

I was stuck. What to do. I could have gone to Twitter to post rants squashed down into 140 characters, or I could've ignored it entirely, choked it up to someone else's opinion and moved on with my day. But as I pondered, it occurred to me: why do I feel I have to defend myself? Why do I have to defend YA?

I could scream it until my face turns blue. YA, MG, NA, or adult is not a descriptor of quality. There are bad books everywhere. The title of that article could have been changed to at least a dozen other things. After all, isn't SF/F mocked for being "unrealistic" and "using magic or science to solve problems without difficulty"? Isn't romance and chick lit often thought of as just as wooden and hollow? Isn't literary and contemporary mocked for being dull or pretentious? It doesn't justify it, and mocking any genre or niche of fiction seems like the childish thing to me. Do you really have to elevate yourself above others just to feel good about what you enjoy? Then perhaps you need to reevaluate yourself before you start looking at others.

But why do people feel the need to dictate for others what is appropriate and not? 

We're told to avoid trolls. The internet is full of them, as well as real life, and they only wish to make people angry with whatever fodder they can come up with. Articles like this are no different. Sure, they may be accurate in their criticisms sometimes, but I fail to see what is being gained by shaming others for what they like. Whether its reading YA or MG, or enjoying My Little Pony, or falling in love with 50 Shades of Grey, or playing video games when you've become "too old" for something so silly, we all have or do something others may consider "childish" or "inappropriate" because you are not the target audience.

It comes down to, in my opinion, a lot of marketing bleeding into our perception of what is "normal." The marketing department of a publishing house decides vampires are the new hot ticket and begins to sell them to teenage girls, but when teenage boys begin reading them-- or adults, or even young children-- suddenly there's a societal problem. The books were not made with teenage boys or adults or children in mind, so it's not approrpaite for them. We use different shaming tactics--"Kids shouldn't have access to books with content like that." "Do you feel smart reading that book? Because obviously it's meant for kids and kids are stupid." "Ew, you actually want to read about ponies/vampires/X, isn't that for girls?" At the end of the day, content is content, and people don't fit into neatly made categories. Again, everyone else seems intent on deciding what is right for you.

Yes, there are people with their own opinions, and though they don't have to be wrong, it doesn't make the opinions of people who love, read, and write YA any less valid. Just because someone sets up a blog or works as a journalist does not mean they know what they're talking about. Hell, that includes me. I think it is important to remain aware of the effect categories, trends, marketing, and "target audiences" have on our writing. When we only focus on the idea of categories and what's appropriate for who, we forget that our art needs the freedom to grow and change, just as we do. If we get used to our comfort zones and never try to break boundaries, try something different, try to create something instead of just manufacturing something, then teen fiction has already been left to rot.

Ursula Le Guin said it best in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards:

"Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.


Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art."

 Don't create the "Chosen One" story because you know it will sell. Don't sacrifice the needs of the story because someone else gets squeamish. Create art, then worry about where it fits later. Once you publish something, it's in print and there forever. Would you rather your debut be something you really care about, or an old story repackaged with different names?

If you're practicing art and not producing products, then you'll never have to defend yourself, because if you care about the craft, you'll always intend to improve. In my opinion, it's the beauty of art: it inspires growth, change, and emotion. But products don't inspire anything. They fill a need and are forgotten about when it no longer has use.

Even then, I can't bring myself to mock a book I feel is nothing more than a product. The business is subjective and there are many people who were touched or inspired by books that have put me to sleep. That's the magic in reading and the shortcoming of categorizing. A category only tells us the most basic of information. A shirt may be orange, but there are thousands of shades of orange. We put words like "Sunset orange" or "Urban fantasy" to try and narrow it down, but just as it pales in comparison to actually looking at a colour, a category cannot begin to encompass what's really found between pages.