Friday, March 23, 2012

A LITTLE LITE READING--YA, SF AND ROMANCE

As yet another teen-oriented franchise draws throngs to theaters worldwide, allow me my moment as elderly curmudgeon. No, you needn’t run to the fridge for vegetables past their due date. This is not a review of THE HUNGER GAMES. I haven’t seen the film yet. I do plan on seeing it, if only because part of the movie was filmed on my property in North Carolina. (Cool, right?) And I never throw my own rotten veggies without a good look at the target.

In this case I’m heaving tomatoes at a much broader bulls-eye—the whole “Young Adult” phenomenon, especially as it concerns science fiction and romance. In our comments section recently someone wondered whether THE HUNGER GAMES could be considered SF. Would you ask whether TWILIGHT is paranormal romance? In both cases the answer is yes—and no. And the danger is that the public perceives these franchises as primarily science fiction and paranormal romance—to the detriment of writers of adult fiction in both genres.

What everyone can—and should—agree on is that YA fiction, whether in print or on the screen, has its own rules. The protagonist(s) should be young, their concerns should be those of young people “coming of age”—first love, finding themselves and their places in the world, the whole “Romeo and Juliet” thing of bridging different worlds, firsts of all kinds, good and bad. Often the protagonist has been an outsider or misunderstood and is suddenly offered an explanation for this (Harry Potter) or finds a kindred spirit (Bella Swan). The external plot proceeds from there. So far, so good.

Because the protagonists (and the target audience) are so young, most YA fiction is free of the explicit sex, language and violence that are common in other forms of modern genre fiction, including SF and romance. After all, we are not actually talking about “young adults” in most cases; we are talking about children in the case of the early Harry Potter books and many similar books, teenagers in the case of TWILIGHT. Proficient readers can start these books the age of nine or ten—hardly “young adults”.

We’ll leave aside for a moment the slightly icky issue of thirty-something mothers and pre-pubescent daughters both caught up in the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob debate. Or the multitude of apparently mature and intelligent adults who enjoy the occasional escape into the world of Hogwarts. An intricate and well-drawn world, such as the one J.K. Rowling created in her Harry Potter books is appealing for readers of any age, even though her original target audience was children.

The problem comes when a series like The Hunger Games begins to be seen as the standard for science fiction, or when agents and editors feel that the audience for similar kinds of themes can only be “young adults”. A recent reviewer was kind to the initial film in what is slated to be a four-film series, but admitted Suzanne Collins’s books were “science fiction for kids new to the tropes of sci-fi.” (Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

Yeah—like a premise that has been done and re-done since the days of E.E. “Doc” Smith. I’d have to do the research to name the stories, but I can name the onscreen titles without too much thinking: DEATH RACE 2000 (in all its incarnations), TRON, “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, even DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS. But of course the kids don’t know the difference. They might have seen the remake of TRON last year.

Now, the reason the books made it to publication was that the old SF tropes were given a YA twist: the young protagonists, all that teen angst, set in a post-apocalyptic near-future that seems very likely given our current state of affairs. It was a great formula that worked to make the series a terrific commercial prospect. And the folks who invested in that prospect were rewarded when the public responded and made the series a resounding success.

Could you have sold the same story without that YA twist? No. The themes are too outdated and clichéd. But it doesn’t really matter because they are only a framework for the YA part of the story.

So is THE HUNGER GAMES science fiction? Yes, it’s SF lite. Just as TWILIGHT is paranormal romance lite. A recent article in Utne Reader magazine rhapsodized over Stephenie Meyer as the “queen” of paranormal romance. I had to write and set the authors straight. Meyer writes YA, not paranormal romance. The acknowledged queens of paranormal romance are Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon, who almost single-handedly invented the form. But, you see, outside the romance community, who knows that?

And, outside the SF community, who knows that SF is read by thinking adults? Many people, including, unfortunately many agents and editors, have this idea that science fiction is the realm of comic book geeks, TREKKERS and STAR WARS conventioneers and teenagers who will eventually outgrow it. So a YA novel that features SF is great; an adult SF/R novel is a commercial dead end.

Back in the day (yes, I’m still in curmudgeon mode), children and teenagers were encouraged to “read up”. That is, you were encouraged to read beyond the limits of your ability to understand, in hopes that one day all that good language and deep thinking would sink into your pea brain and make you grow up. There were no “young adult” novels, that I can remember. There were “kids’ books” and books. I read my first real SF novel (Rocannon’s World, by Ursula K. LeGuin) when I was about 11. I have no idea what it was about. I just know I was hooked.

But I had already tackled Treasure Island and The Adventures of Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland. Try getting an eleven-year-old to read those now. Their reading skills aren’t up to it; their attention spans aren’t up to it. So the YA genre has risen to meet the demand for books for the smarter kids to read. At least they’re reading something.

What does it say about our society that so many of the kids’ parents and aunts and uncles want to read what they’re reading, too? How do we interpret the fact that the easier reading level, the more familiar themes, the blander taste is more appealing to a great many people? And what does it say for those of us who would prefer to write full-bodied, highly-flavored SF/R that so many folks prefer SF lite?

Cheers, Donna

7 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your rant and I think you make some good points. However. Yes, kids DO read up - but adults read down, too. I'm well past the heady days of childhood and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books. One glance at Twilight was more than enough for me and I do not understand mature women in a glee club for the two young men. (Even though Edward is over 100 years old - I always wonder what possessed him to go to high school at that age.)

    Personally, I'm happy if kids read anything. It's a bit sad if publishers think the adult versions of the kids stuff is the same. After all, the 'Famous Five' isn't seen as the more for detective stories. Maybe the girls who read Twilight will move on to more adult fare later in life.

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  2. That was interesting, Donna. There was no YA fiction around in my childhood. The move from Edid Blyton to Ian Fleming came over night for me! I've read a small amount of YA stuff - out of interest for why they are loved so much. Some have been brilliantly written - others not so much. I hope it does lead to more meatier reading as these young adults grow older. I wonder if the film industry merely sees younger people as their main audience and are playing to them. Afterall, if you can go to see the film as a family, you double your audience from just mum and dad.
    I'd never pay to see the Hunger games but I would watch it on a plane. Same with the Twilight ones. I saw part of one and then changed channel - not for me. But Super Eight - I think that's the name - a YA film - was great.

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  3. I'm almost afraid to admit to reading Harry Potter (although I started reading those in my 20's) but then, I started reading Tolkien, Arthur C Clarke and James Bond novels at a young age, so I guess it's what appeals to you at the time. I haven't read any of the Twilight books and don't intend to - there's nothing in it that appeals to me. Anne Rice gave me the vampire stories I wanted to read.
    This reminds me of something from a couple of months back where I finally told peeps I'm an author when they asked what I did. And the woman who, when I told her I write science fiction romance came out with 'oh, so like Twilight?' >.< The fact that a mature adult (older than me) compares science fiction romance to a paranormal YA is disheartening.
    Currently I have my seven year old son reading and enjoying The Chronicles of Narnia, yet he's never been much of a reader. Daughter is addicted to Michael Morporgo (who, apparently, is a huge hit with her ten year old classmates, along with Roadl Dahl). They like the CS Lewis films but not Harry Potter or Star Wars so much. I pray that daughter will never be interested in Twilight.

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  4. Excellent post, Donna.

    I don't remember there being any YA when I was a kid either. There were kids' books and adult books. I started reading classic SF at age 11 and continued through my twenties, because they were the closest thing to the books I wanted to read. When I finally found Dragonriders of Pern I was in heaven.

    I, too, have had many suggestions that if I want to pen SFR that's marketable to NY, I should think about YA. (Thanks, but that's not what I write.) (And Sharon proved it isn't true!)

    I do see one huge upside to the current YA SFR trend. As those YA readers age, they're going to start looking for more adult versions of the genre they love. Hello, target audience. :)

    Didn't read the novel, but I'll be heading out to see The Hunger Games tonight.

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  5. Interesting that several of y'all mentioned Ian Fleming--I was a huge fan of 007, too. I found my first Fleming novel outside the window of the girl's restroom at my junior high school--someone had apparently ditched it when a teacher came in and found her skimming the good parts! My mom later caught me reading my fourth or fifth James Bond and started to censor me, but thought better of it. Glad she was so forward thinking!

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  6. Saw it last night. IMHO, it was a good--but not great--movie. But the theatre was packed, even when we arrived almost 40 minutes before the feature. The parking lot for this big 24-plex theatre is massive and it took us 15 minutes just to find a parking spot. From what we experienced, it seems it may hit it's big first weekend box office predictions.

    And Donna, I just found out we have a HG connection too. The young actress who played Primrose, the younger sister of the protagonist, was from our tiny little cow town of Edgewood.

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  7. Love your rant, Donna. I've been reading adult fiction (mysteries, sf, historical) since I was about ten. My mother, a voracious reader all her life, figured if I wanted to read something, I was old enough. There really wasn't any YA then, and I don't read a lot of it now, but I just finished Catching Fire and I will read ,Mockingjay to find out how it winds up. I did enjoy Harry Potter (although I've never gotten around to the last volume), never touched Twilight. These books are not quite romance, not quite sf, and they seem to repeat themselves, but if they've got teens reading, that's a good thing.

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