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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #78 Young Adult Fiction: Character, character, character (but think again if you’d like to get published)


Naomi Meyer - 2011-08-17

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 Maya Fowler, SA Partridge and Izak de Vries all recently supplied this forum with a wealth of thoughts regarding Young Adult Fiction. Fowler and Partridge respectively wrote about the aspects of pop culture in this genre and De Vries questioned the need for the existence of a distinction between young adult fiction and adult fiction. All three contributions are stimulating material for any reader, regardless of their interest in young adult fiction per se.

With regard to De Vries’s question about the need for young adult fiction and his view that a good story weighs more than writing for a specific genre (to paraphrase): from a personal point of view I agree. Of course a good story is important. But in my opinion (and implicitly De Vries’s opinion too) memorable characters form the backbone of a book. The book One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009) was a sleeper hit and I read it myself only recently. I immediately understood its charm: both characters, the man and the woman, are completely human. I couldn’t put the book down. And neither, evidently, could millions of other readers, judging by the bookselling charts in the Sunday Times (UK) and Sunday Times (Ireland).

From a publisher’s point of view, though, I need to ask De Vries, a publisher himself: Is the need for young adult fiction not inevitable? In this credit-poor time we are living in, would publishers not be looking at publishing a book which fits a specific genre, rather than simply publishing a book which is not really targeting a market, even if it has a good story? Again, I agree with De Vries. The Writers Bureau in Manchester teach their students deliberately to aim their material towards a specific genre. Young adult fiction is a clear market. There is a bookshelf in a bookshop set aside for young adult / teenage fiction (usually decorated with vampires, gothic characters and anything else which would attract 9- to 12-year-olds but maybe not, openly, somebody older than 14). Young Adult Fiction, as a genre, does exist, even if only in the minds of bookshop owners.

Conversely, there now also exists a genre of adult fiction in which the main characters are youthful. Books which immediately spring to mind are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon, 2004), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne, 2008) and Room (Emma Donoghue, 2010). All three of these books are appreciated by grown-ups and I would nearly want to go as far as to say would not be appreciated at all by the readers the real age of any of their characters. All these books are social commentary, in a way, but their characters convince because they really feel like children to the reader. Which brings me back to agreeing with De Vries once again: if the characters weren’t likeable, the genre wouldn’t have mattered.

To divert a little: there are plenty of movies made nowadays which seem to be made for children but are actually more aimed at their parents: Shrek; The Incredibles; Wall-E; Toy Story 3. Many of these movies work really well for young children, but some of the jokes are more appreciated by the parents than the children themselves. Which demonstrates again: character probably is more important than genre – if you like a character, regardless of whether you’re a child or a grown-up, it is not going to matter so much which specific genre of movie you are watching.

I agree with De Vries, although I would emphasise the importance of a book’s characters more than the story. But from a publisher’s point of view, I have to ask: What if any specific genre were to fall away? Would some really great stories and some really memorable characters not be swept away in the big ocean of unpublished manuscripts?