Before I get compared to Martin Amis, let me say that I honestly think that YA is where the real innovation is going on in genre. It might not always be extending the boundaries but it’s pulling new readers in, and more importantly hooking them.
To understand my issue with it though, you have to look back at my reading history. As a kid, I pushed myself with my reading, reading books that really challenged me. I remember reading Watership Down at 7. I didn’t understand all the words, but then I don’t understand all the words of some of the books I read nowadays so I don’t see this as a particular issue. The point was I read… a lot. And as a result, my writing blossomed. At 8 I wrote a fantasy story that the teacher thought so good, he typed all 100 pages of it and put it into the school library.
In 1983, we moved from rural Kent back to Surrey. This meant a new school. At first I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted. I remember picking up Fellowship of the Ring and starting on that. It takes a while to get going so the early parts of it can be quite dry, but I was enjoying it none the less.
Then came the dreaded reading test. I have no idea what went wrong. Maybe I was nervous, maybe I – as I often do now – tripped over my tongue, or maybe I didn’t know how to pronounce some words. Whatever the reason, the result came back that I was reading level 7. The Fellowship of The Ring was reading level 14. I had to stop that book and read a picture book about two monkeys.
And I hated it. I hated that I couldn’t read what I wanted to read. Maybe I wasn’t reading level 14 but I was willing to push myself, yet here I was stuck with shitty picture books.
It damn well nearly killed my reading. The only thing that really saved me was the fact that my mother didn’t believe in restricting access to books and within a few years I’d be reading Clive Barker, letting him subvert my mind.
And this is why I have a problem with YA. Not because the books aren’t cool. Heck, I have no problem with reading YA myself. No my problem is one of branding. I just don’t want anyone to be in my position of being told they can’t read something. “No, that Joe Abercrombie is an adult book, you must choose something from the YA section”.
It also works the other way. How many adults refuse to read YA just because they believe it’s for kids? I don’t have a problem with genre labels, in fact I think they can be helpful, even if books are next to impossible to place under one. But those labels are not ones based on age, and I think that’s where my problem lies.
Either way YA exists and for some people it’s a helpful categorization. I just hope it doesn’t inadvertently restrict young people’s reading.