Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Game of Categories

So, let's talk about SF, F, MG, and YA. And how they're all part and parcel of each other.

I used to be as annoyed as anybody else, back in the 70s, when I was a YA myself and found I had to visit the children's department of the library in order to get my fantasy fix. Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy wasn't written for children, nor was Foundation; nor was most of Ursula K. LeGuin. The Narnia books were; C.S. Lewis's science fiction trilogy wasn't, and neither was my favorite Lewis book, Till We Have Faces. The Hobbit was; LOTR wasn't. If you wanted to buy these books, you didn't go to the children's section of the bookstore, but to Science Fiction (and the absence of a Fantasy section bugged me, too), which was on the adult side of the bookstore. The adult fiction side of the library was often (but not always) divided up into General Fiction, Science Fiction, and Mystery, and if a fantasy happened to be overtly adult enough (like the Gormenghast trilogy, which I read and didn't enjoy) it would be under Science Fiction, but most of the good stuff was all tumbled together in alphabetical order by author on the kid's side.

But you know what was over there with it?

Dickens, or good chunks of him. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen, in whole or at least in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The Turn of the Screw. Gulliver's Travels. Robinson Crusoe. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Willa Cather.

My teen self thought librarians didn't understand fantasy and thought it childish. My mature self knows that librarians know what they're doing, and that they hit the nail on the head here.

What do all these works - fantasy, mystery, science fiction, "classic," juvenile, YA - have in common?

They are written for brains that are mature enough to handle complex concepts and are still growing; not for ones that have stopped forming new synapses and settled down to losing them. In other words, for brains under 25. Yet they are all still accessible for older brains, if those brains have kept limber by thinking of and about new ideas, concepts, and ways to enjoy fiction.

And this is why science fiction writers, and readers, and scholars, should pay attention to the Norton Awards.

Because in important ways, speculative fiction, when it's doing what it does best, is "really" YA/MG insofar as these genre divisions and categorization mean anything at all.

Sure, formula and potboiler and lowest-common-denominator YA/MG exists, which at best teach literary conventions and at worst are written for people who wish their brains would stop growing. These works no more define YA/MG than their equivalents in SF&F (and mystery, and romance, and literary fiction, and...), no matter how much they may leap to the casual and ignorant eye. Any genre repays looking for the good stuff; and I will go so far as to say that the Good Stuff is easier to find in books written for young people than in any other category.

Speculative fiction written for young people is the epitome of speculative fiction. Those who overlook it willfully cut themselves off from the Best Stuff.

That's really all I can usefully say on the subject.

Edited to Add: Silly Peni, forgot to link the rest of the Norton Blog Tour! Happy reading!


  1. The categories are not very useful for a parent, either. In one library I found Laurell K. Hamilton shelved in YA. I informed the librarian that this parent, at least, (who has read a few of them) did not feel that was quite appropriate shelving for books with such graphic sex and violence scenes--not that I would necessarily forbid my teen, when I have one, from reading them, but I would want to have a long (and surely embarrassing) chat about the content. The librarian admitted that none of the librarians had even glanced inside the books and promised to review their placement.
    In our current library, I found books one, three, four, and five in the MG section and book two in the YA section of a series my eight year old is working through. (Which series slips my mind, he's got three or four going-I think it's the one with the pottery dragons but it might be the one with the brownies.)
    A warning type categorization would be much more useful for me--these books discuss sex, these books describe sex, these books have nothing to do with sex. Same for murder/killing and other sorts of violence. I'd have not read Robert Heinlein's Friday as a mid-teen myself if I'd known what I was getting into. My boys are young enough to not want romantic stuff yet, but they're precocious readers (insert standard parental bragging here).

  2. People reading either above or below the reading levels assumed by schools and publishers have a huge problem finding works appropriate both in content and in style for them. Adults with reading disabilities have the same problem you and your boys have, only in reverse. If, like me, you find bookstores and libraries relaxing, welcoming places, so that you're comfortable spending as much time as you need browsing, you can find what you want - but if you're in a hurry, or find all those books intimidating, or hyperventilate when you get deep into the stacks and can't see a horizon anymore, it's frustrating.

    Fortunately, there are publishers specializing in material for both precocious readers and reluctant ones - but unfortunately their presence is more visible to those in the business than to the general public.

    Laurell K. Hamilton shelved in YA is a little surprising, as I doubt the publisher markets it that way or that it gets reviewed as YA. It qualifies in that YAs will read it, certainly! Someone might have placed them there in acknowledgement of the age group that was checking them out most, I suppose. Most library purchases are review-guided (which is why it's so important to authors to get reviewed), though, and librarians don't normally make more work for themselves by reclassifying things once they're shelved.

    What you might do is ask the librarian (make sure you talk to a librarian, not a library clerk) to educate you about the procedure and the rules in your system, so you'll have a better idea what to expect.

    While you're at it, you can ask about the challenge process. They should have a procedure by which, if you feel that a book has been grossly miscategorized, you can formally challenge it, which will prompt a review of the material. Librarians obviously can't read all the books they assign, hence the reliance on reviews; and it's a Bad Thing when random parents can make individual complaints and get books recategorized or banned without due process. That results both in individual rabidly opinionated parents dictating what everybody else's kids can read, and far more work for the library staff than they need added to their underfunded days. (It also happens way too often, especially in school libraries that don't have staff librarians.)

    I'm inclined to think that Hamilton is not YA, not because the books contain so much sex, but because the treatment of sex is not appropriate to the age group. Greater or lesser amounts of sexual content are getting more and more common; and I find that, while I generally skip sex scenes in adult books because they're embarrassing, the ones in YA books are a) more realistic and b) better written. This is probably because the writer knows, first of all, that the bulk of the audience doesn't know as much about the subject as it should (and pretends to!) and second of all, that including it is bound to get the book reviled and spat on by any members of the anti-literary movement in this country who happen upon it, so it absolutely, positively must be justifiable in terms of plot, characterization, theme, and all the literary virtues.

    This may not be so in the trashier regions - it would not surprise me to find that attitudes toward and depictions of sex in series like Gossip Girls partook of the standard mainstream hamhandedness that results from America's weird attitude toward sex, as if it's at once the center of everything and something bad and unnatural - but it's what I find generally in the books I happen to choose for myself.