Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘classics’

YA–For Old or For the Young?

There’s a certain demographic out there of people who are the backbone of the publishing industry, its bread and butter, the reason for its continued existence. Without this group of people, the publishing industry might be faring far worse than it is now. This group of people is willing to go out and buy the hardback book the day it hits the shelves, buy the print book over the e-book, stay loyal to an author. This audience is mostly adult women, who buy books for their children and who go in with a list of titles and buy them all without necessarily looking at the price tag. My mother is in this category, although she reads more on her e-reader these days than she used to. I probably will be one day, assuming brick-and-mortar bookstores are still around.

And there’s a certain kind of book that attracts these adult readers (male and female alike): the young adult crossover. Young adult crossover books are those that are written/marketed for young adults but are successfully with adults as well. Some big examples of course would be The Hunger Games series, Harry Potter series, and alas, The Twilight series (or do we call it “saga” these days?) Smaller examples would be Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. These books appeal to ages 10-60, or possibly older depending on the person. A new study (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/53937-new-study-55-of-ya-books-bought-by-adults.html) found that 55% of YA sales are bought and read by adults. And those 55% fall into my category above of the coveted reader demographic. The article says:

The trend is good news for publishers, as these adult consumers of YA books are among the most coveted demographic of book consumers overall. Additional insights from the Bowker study show these readers are:
  • Early adopters: More than 40% read e-books, equivalent to the highest adoption rates of adult genres of mystery and romance
  • Committed: 71% say that if an e-book of their desired title was unavailable, they would buy the print book instead
  • Loyal: Enjoying the author’s previous books has a moderate or major influence over the book choice for more than two-thirds of the respondents
  • Socially active: Although more than half of respondents reported having “no interest” in participating in a reading group, these readers are very active in social networks and often get recommendations from friends.

The popularity of YA can even be seen in how publishers are packaging their books. A few months back I saw an article on the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/business/media/to-lure-twilight-fans-classic-books-get-bold-looks.html?pagewanted=all) that said that publishers are putting young-adult-style covers on old-school classics to lure in those who buy YA books. Publishers realize how important YA is, and they have devoted a lot of energy and resources into publishing more and more YA titles each year, and bookstores have taken the hint. I’m sure we’ve all seen the unfortunate “Teen Paranormal Romance” sections at your local Barnes and Noble.

Publishers realize that those stuffy covers featuring depressed-looking young women in Georgian/Victorian/Edwardian clothing standing in English gardens are not attracting anybody except those who already like the classics. And although these booksellers are appealing to the Twilight teen, it’s possible that adults will buy these books as well, considering how they are already drawn to YA books. And hopefully a teenager might just pick up a classic or two.

I abhor classics worship–classics endure because of how their stories mesh into the overarching human story we are all a part of, not because the writing is flawless. I grit my teeth every time I hear a high school English teacher waxing nostalgic about how amazing every singe word in The Scarlet Letter is. Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t perfect, either. Just because it’s published and it’s endured doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Anyway. Now that I’ve got that off my chest. But I do think classics are important as part of our cultural and literary heritage, so I think we should probably keep them around. I hope both teens and adults alike keep reading, and I certainly pray that we all keep valuing the transformative power of the written word. 

 

 

Beach books and summer indulgences

For four years, my beach books were not so much fun literary treats as vitamins assigned by my teachers. In order to study Pre-AP or AP English, students had to do a summer reading assignment along with a project or essay as an attempt to weed out students who weren’t willing to do extra work. I did my own reading on the side of course, but my summers were dominated by books like Pride and Prejudice and The Merchant of Venice. (Disturbingly, The Merchant of Venice inspired some vehement anti-Semitic rants among my classmates during class discussion. Then again, I went to school in a conservative Southern town, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.) Not all the titles were bad: The House on Mango Street made me fall in love with Sandra Cisneros and How to Read Literature Like a Professor  introduced me to the idea of intertextuality. All in all, these assignments were burdensome and often boring, such as slogging through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Go into any major bookstore during summertime, and you will find a table labeled “Summer Reading” laden with classic titles that teachers have assigned to their students. If you find the table labeled “Summer Favorites,” you’ll get a dose of those titles publishers roll out just in time for beach season. Although I understood the reasoning for giving summer assignments (separating the wheat from the chaff, getting a head start on assignments since there’s so little time to cram everything in, etc.), I disagreed with this approach because it turned reading into a chore. It made students even more resentful toward reading and literature, because they saw the assignments as an infringement on their summer vacation. We don’t need to give high school students any more excuses than they already have for disliking reading literature.

But fortunately I finished high school, and when summer arrived after my high school graduation, I was free to read whatever I liked–a liberty that felt surprisingly strong and exciting. Rather than having to annotate Sophie’s World hanging over my head for two and a half months, I could read as many murder mysteries as I liked and as much pop culture fiction as I wanted. Granted, I had one small assignment for summer reading for TCU, but it was a tiny booklet with writings on the second amendment that required an accompanying 1,000-word or so essay. And without sounding vain, that was child’s play to me.

The beach book is a big market for those of us not laboring under summer reading assignments. Publishers lay out dozens of summer titles, and magazines and talk shows highlight their favorite choices for summer–fluffy books that require little mental strain while delivering maximum entertainment. These titles are opposed to James Joyce–you can find some other challenging titles at Publisher’s Weekly “The Top 10 Most Difficult Books,” none of which I have read or attempted to read (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/53409-the-top-10-most-difficult-books.html). Pick up this book, head to the beach, and relax listening to the waves while reading. But as Amanda Katz points out in her article “You Call That A Beach Book? Really?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/08/158220698/you-call-that-a-beach-book-really?), more and more we see less books that are literary candy in the hands of readers on beach towels. Why?

Part of me feels a pressure to read more serious books. When a friend and I were waiting in line to be announced as new Phi Beta Kappa members, I told him sheepishly that I had read The Hunger Games over spring break. He gave me a withering look. Since then, among my English and writing peers and professors, I only admit to reading things like The Fate of the Romanovs and poetry by obscure Polish writers. But that hasn’t diminished my desire to read books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’m sure has been ostracized from the high literature pantheon since being handpicked by Oprah, or Tana French’s Broken Harbor, even though Tana French should get some merit for having one the Edgar Allan Poe award for her outstanding first novel, In The Woods.

But enough of me and my secret guilty pleasures of mass market fiction. Maybe we should admire these people who eschew the overwhelming beach book trend and actually read those one or two books they’ve been saving all year. Much as I hate to admit it, I often put aside reading when I want to read because I’m just so busy and overwhelmed. Because my work involves reading and critiquing student writing, and my major is all about reading at least a book a week and writing at least 8-10 pages a week, when I have free time, my brain can’t seem to find reading a pleasurable pastime or escape. So when summer comes, people with normally hectic lives take some time off to finally get around to that pile of books that’s steadily grown over the year or start ticking off some titles on that to-read list that’s only gotten longer. Yes, we all merge on the bestseller list, but there’s nothing wrong with reading those niche books that get shunted to the side for not being in the lowest common denominator. For example, once I get my hands on it, I’ll be reading Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe then moving on to Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel.

Unfortunately, before that I’ll have to read some books (13) for my honors thesis such as A Concise History of the French Revolution by Sylvia Neely, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and The Language of Genes by Steve Jones. There’s a good chance I won’t get to Sharpe or Botton until I graduate in December. Who says I have to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy? I think we’re all just fine reading what we enjoy. Our lives are filled with reading reports for work and squeezing in that extra hour to catch up on e-mail. When we finally take time to ourselves, we should read those books that interest us and engage us, no matter what books are put before us. Good reading is determined by the individual, not the masses. Reading taste as individualized and varied as musical taste; we should feel free to read what we enjoy, not what’s in vogue.

 

 

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