Thursday, June 28, 2012

In Which Maggie Debates the Meaning of Crossover Fiction


While I was at the ALA conference this past week, I was asked to be on a panel about crossover fiction, i.e., fiction that appeals to both teens and adults. Because this is something that is getting discussed more and more in the YA world, I figured I'd post NOW what I said THEN and see what y'all have to say on the matter. So. Here it is, fairly verbatim from my talk at ALA.
I have really complicated feelings about this topic. Because when you say something has cross over appeal, it means that you’re saying some things DON’T have cross over appeal, and that means that you’re saying that some books are definitely adult and definitely young adult, and that means that really, you need to decide what you think those definitions mean.

Like I said, complicated.

It’s not like you’re deciding if a book is for a child or for an adult, after all. We are not debating whether or not an adult and child would derive equal pleasure from DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS (although I think I know a few adults who might give Thing 2 a run for his money in his Mo Willems fixation). You’re deciding if a book is more interesting to an adult or a young adult, and when you do that, you run the risk, first, of stereotyping, and second, of underestimating teens.

Here’s the thing: some teens are that stereotypical teen. They go to the mall. They are up on celebrity gossip. They know their brands, they have to be persuaded to read something longer than magazines, and they sing Friday Friday!

Here’s the rub, though: some adults are the stereotypical teen, too. They love pop culture, they’re reluctant readers, they love to shop and gossip. I would argue that if you looked at the percentages, the number of those sort of readers are identical for ages 16 and 60. Age has nothing to do with it.
That’s who these readers are.

And on the other side of the coin, you have the readers who love historical fiction, those that love sci-fi, those that love big, dense family sagas, those that love prose poems. I’ll bet your bippy that love was already there when those readers were teens. By the time you’re a teen, you’re becoming the person you’re going to be for the rest of your life.

So what does this mean for crossover titles? Well, I think it means that the real power of a crossover title isn’t a novel’s ability to appeal to both teens and adults. I think the real power of a crossover title is a novel’s ability to appeal to a wide range of humans.

Everyone likes to look at Twilight as an example of a perfect cross-over title. Women and teen girls both like to read Stephenie Meyers’ books. But that fact alone is true of every single young adult book I’ve ever read or written. I’ve always written young adult fiction, and I’ve never had a signing that wasn’t equally split between adults and teens. Adults have been reading children’s books, and vice versa, for much longer than I’ve even been alive. The thing that makes Twilight’s success special is not that both women and teen girls read it. It’s the number of women and teen girls who read it.

OK, this: another example of crossover is the Harry Potter series. This series is impressive because it not only crosses age lines but it also crosses gender lines. To me, the gender divide is a far more impressive one than the age divide. The age divide is crossed all the time. The gender divide is well nigh immutable. And this, I think, is the secret to a cross-over title. The thing is, Harry Potter breaks all the rules for what should commercially viable. The narrator is a boy, and everyone knows girls don’t read boy books. And the narrator is a child, and everyone knows adults won’t read books with child narrators. And it’s set in the UK, and everyone knows Americans only want to read books set in America.

But. Harry Potter’s secret weapon is its world. The depth of the world that Joanne Rowling wrote is stunning, and more importantly, it has something that speaks to nearly everyone. The broader your world, the more nuances you’ve stuffed into it — the more people you’re going to appeal to.

Many folks believe Harry Potter is not just a children’s book because it does not only concern itself with the matters of children. It’s not an adult’s book because it does not only concern itself with the matters of adults. It is, like our real world, concerned with many things, and so therefore, many different sorts of people can be concerned with it. I don’t think that’s it. That theory requires you to believe that people only want to read books about people who are like them. Children only want to read about children. Adults about adults. Single women about single women. That’s just not true. Otherwise the market for Silence of the Lambs would be entirely comprised of serial killers.
As gatekeepers — and every adult in any segment of the book business, from author to librarian to teacher to bookseller is a gatekeeper — we have to give teens the credit they deserve. They are young adults. ADULTS. That means that they are as varied in their reading tastes and abilities as adults are. They don’t need watered down versions of adult books — unless you acknowledge that there are adults, too, that also need watered down versions of those books.

Once you think about it this way, that adults and teens are very often identical readers, the word cross-over becomes a bit useless. I think the real word here is "commercial." And that’s an entirely different debate.
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