A Clog in the YA Drain

For anyone who doesn’t know, I am currently querying a manuscript. I am calling it a YA novel.

But, of course, that’s really not up to me. How books get categorized is largely determined by a marketing team, long after the book has been signed for publication. This is done without the author’s input and it is not uncommon for him to get surprised by the outcome (as an example, Ender’s Game is sometimes marketed as a children’s book; no joke).

Wow, this book doesn’t look one bit like it’s a complex exploration of mankind’s propensity toward genocide.

So I could be wrong about where my book ends up. However, because I have spent so much effort selling it as a YA story. I have had the opportunity to sample a lot of the current YA offerings, to see what the current trends are.

And what I found concerns me. And I must stress the mildness of the term “concerns”. I did not say “It disturbs me”, or “It horrifies me”.

It doesn’t. It merely makes me pensive. A yellow alert, if anything.

So what is this concern that has blipped my radar? Well, it has to do with a kind of excess in this demographic of books. A part of the garden appears to be overgrown, and I wonder if the industry shouldn’t consider pruning it. Or, at the very least, replanting it in a bigger pot.

I am talking about YA’s current obsession with Attention Fantasies.

A Cliche, but also a Hallmark

What do I mean by Attention Fantasies?

I mean a story where part of the drama is focused on the transition of the protagonist from a state of being ignored to a state of being lavished. It’s the dork who suddenly becomes the most popular kid in school. Or the quiet, boring girl who is suddenly courted by the vampire prince and the alpha werewolf at the same time.

*Gasp*

Now, attention fantasies have always been part of the YA demographic. Especially in the “magic school” subgenre. Because everybody knows that the way schools are depicted in TV and movies is a true-to-life, hand-on-the-Bible, documentary of reality, right?

Which means that every teenager EVER has faithfully followed all these cheap stereotypes real behaviors:

  • Belonging to a clique.
  • Caring about fashion (especially the boys, who never just throw on whatever clothes they find in their drawers).
  • Obsessing over prom (Because “It’s the most important night of our lives.”).
  • Never actually going to classes or learning anything (except for the occasional school project that never fails to separate all the students into male/female teams of two).
  • Losing your entire sense of identity when one of your friends switches to a different clique (because it’s not like these kids have homes, families, religions, jobs, or any other foundation on which to build their sense of self).
  • Being on drugs all the time (because every high school student in America does drugs without exception).

And all of these things play into the Attention Fantasy. How the main character is regarded by their peer group becomes a sticking point for the plot.

It can be the entire story…or just a side plot. And it doesn’t have to take place in a school, or even in the modern world. But the message is clear: TEENAGERS WANT EVERYONE TO STOP WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND JUST PAY ATTENTION TO THEM! RAWR!

And that’s not exactly untrue, and that’s not exactly a bad thing for the industry. Attention Fantasies are a tradition in YA.

My issue is with how much we’ve become dependent on them.

Mistaking the Icing for the Cake

Attention Fantasies are a common feature among YA stories. They are not, however, essential. Historically, YA-focused stories have treated them as optional.

Take A Wrinkle in Time. The protagonist is an unpopular girl, yes. But the story is not about her suddenly becoming popular. Her entire arc is about connecting with her family, and giving love to people who are in even worse straits than herself.

Likewise, consider The Sword in the Stone. You might think that the story of an orphan boy becoming king would make the perfect Attention Fantasy. But mostly it’s about Arthur getting thrown into shenanigans by Merlin. As soon as he actually becomes king, the book suddenly ends. And in the sequels, Arthur is already an adult.

Neither of these books could get published today.

A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t devote nearly enough pages to Meg’s interactions with her peer group. She never even goes on a class trip or stands up to the school bully.

Likewise, Arthur goes through his entire first book without a love interest. In fact, there’s no love story whatsoever. No battle of the sexes. No “they hate each other until they love each other”. No “will they or won’t they”. How embarrassing for the author!

Because, from what I can see, the industry now believes that Attention Fantasies are the key ingredient (or even the only ingredient) of YA. These books can only be about how the protagonist interacts with their peer group, and whatever other story of magic, or good vs. evil, or high adventure, or deep mystery, is only allowed to be ancillary to the plot and must never require the characters to abandon their self-centered worldview.

And this is dangerous ground. Because if ALL the books in the YA demographic become mere variations on a single theme, then the genre will stagnate and die.

So how can we address this?

Solution 1: Prune the Plant

Inasmuch as YA books are becoming increasingly homogeneous, you could argue that a filter needs to be placed. If, in one year, you have fifteen YA books come out that are all basically the same Attention Fantasy (just with a different backdrop) then you might have to Sophie’s Choice the most promising of these at the expense of the others.

This is, of course, unfair to authors who have written their books according to current market trends. People are writing lots of Attention Fantasies right now in the hopes that the current fashion will continue forever. And even if it doesn’t, there still needs to be room for some Attention Fantasies, no matter how the YA market changes.

Though I believe it will change.

Solution 2: Move the Plant to a Bigger Pot

Each publisher’s slate can only handle so many books per year (or fiscal quarter—publishing is a business, after all). The same goes for shelf space in bookstores. Only so many aisles can be devoted to YA books.

Still, it is not inconceivable, given YA’s profitability, to perhaps give it a bigger seat at the table, or expand, here and there, the slate.

If you find this idea uncomfortable, think of it instead as a hedge investment. In finance, firms believe in and will bet on the stocks and securities they like best, but they always hedge their bets with a complement of securities—ones that will act inversely to their preferred picks. This way, they are protected against devastating losses if their number 1 horse becomes a bad bet.

I believe the YA sector of the publishing industry should hedge its bets. It can do this by reserving a portion of its slate for stories that break the rules and conventions of their age group. These picks should not be spontaneous or after the fact. Rather, they should have spaces reserved for them, guaranteeing that the industry is constantly experimenting and always hedging against calamity.

Because calamity will strike if the YA landscape keeps homogenizing. Attention Fantasies can be powerful in small doses, but they quickly become boring if they overstay their welcome or if there are simply too many of them. Balance must be restored.

“…as all things should be.”

And whether that balance is brought about by halving the population or creating more resources is entirely up to the top decision-makers in the industry. I’m afraid the rest of us can only watch.

Won’t it be interesting to see what happens?