The Rise and Triumph of YA Fiction

Publisher’s Weekly has an article on the sudden rise and resurgence of YA (Young Adult) fiction in our culture. It notes that not just young adults are buying YA fiction, but that it is grabbing the attention of older adults too. Beginning with the success of Harry Potter and progressing to Twilight (as a strictly cultural and not literary phenomena) through to the much more intelligent and literary The Hunger Games, YA has come to dominate, and conquer most of the book-buying market these days. Further, we can follow the progression of genre interests over the last few years. After Potter there was a surge of fantasy work. Then Twilight came along and shifted the market towards paranormal romance; vampires and werewolves, in love and passion. Then the shift moved into deeper paranormal romance, romance with angels, with demons, with fairies. The Hunger Games mark the shift into yet another trend; the dystopian future. We’re also seeing the growing market for zombie fiction.

Now, some Christian cultural critics would have us believe that the reason our culture is drawn to these creatures and this sort of fiction is because we’re gradually progressing in a New Age/Occultic direction. From this position, all this sort of fiction is bad, evil, and corrupting. It also fails to appreciate what is really going on in these trends.

The real scoop is that people are yearning for New Creation. For a world made new, a world without end. Since I have taken work writing reviews for YA fiction, I have been exposed to more of the contemporary YA trends and story tropes than I had before and what I find is that certain themes predominate in all of these stories, themes that transcend genre and convention to reach into the pulse, the heartbeat of the younger generations.

The truth is that people, particularly younger people – teens and recently-post-teen – are drawn to these works because of what they express about us. About our world and how they see it. They seek community and belonging, and all of this new fiction deals with that very issue. The classic YA trope is of the ordinary kid who discovers secret powers or hidden gifts or purposes, oftentimes forced to confront and internalize the past in the process. Often the protagonist is the key that will resolve the conflicts of the old order and bring about the beginnings of a new order. Where fantasy paints us with a picture of this New Creation in a positive light, dystopian fiction gives us a dark picture of what the world may become if we cannot break free of the place we now reside. We are the generations of those living in the death throes of the old world and the birth pangs of the new.

Similarly, the reason the supernatural character is the center of such stories, the vampire, the werewolf, the wizard, the “freak,” is that most of us feel that we don’t fit in the structures of the society in which we live. We feel like we are alone, alienated, that we don’t fit anywhere. We exist in the “between” places, our true, authentic selves defying and grating against the strictures of the current order, unable to “fit in” and be “normal.” The popular genres in YA give us expression to these fears and concerns, and provides some catharsis for remaining true to one’s self rather than caving to the demands of a world we can no longer live in. Typically this “outsider” character is the key, or whose existence provides the key, to resolve the conflicts and tensions of the old order and draw the world into the new world where all of these problems are resolved. It presents to us a new way to live, and a new “race” of humanity with which to live in this new world. One of the most common tropes in dystopian fiction is of a highly ordered society of rules and laws, typically harsh, and often harsh out of necessity for survival. Different sorts of people are separated according to class, ability or personality traits or inclinations, and the boundaries of this old order are strictly enforced. Into this highly ordered world comes a character or set of characters who do not fit any of the established categories but rather who dwell in the “between” places of this law. They are the “uncategorizable.” They come into conflict with the old system and it is destroyed – most commonly through the resolution of the old contraries. The “outsider” character draws the fragmented world back together into a unified whole, and people must learn the live, then, in this new world and this new society. They must quite literally learn a new way to be human. The rising popularity of zombie fiction also expresses the deepest fear of our generation – mindless living, mindless conformity to society – expressed in the graphic literalizing of zombies, the classic metaphor for materialistic consumerism.

Thus, the long and the short of recent fiction trends in YA fiction are not bad at all. They use the supernatural, the paranormal, the strange and alien, to express the deepest longings of our time. Entirely to the contrary of the Christian cultural naysayers who want us to withdraw from the world, these trends actually permit Christians to engage with our culture on a deep and profound level. It provides us an opportunity not merely to interact with our culture, but to contribute to it. Christian authors can speak to the deepest needs of our time in their fiction by using, subverting and transforming the tropes of our current YA genre climates in a way that reveals the Kingdom of God as the ultimate fulfillment of its desires for New Creation, a new humanity, a new way of living as human beings, a new community. A place of belonging.

I think we have wasted enough of our opportunities. I say this is one we take.

  3 comments for “The Rise and Triumph of YA Fiction

  1. October 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    That’s so true Adam! Thanks for writing this absolutely insightful article into what makes all these stories (including LOTR, in my opinion) tick. By reading your analysis, I was able to better understand where my own story, Wolf’s Bard, comes from. Like your ‘outsider’, my main character, Tiwyr, is a total outcast and has to overcome despite it to indeed change the problems in his world. That’s a very interesting point you bring out.

    ~Adele

  2. October 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks, Adele! Glad it helped you understand your work a bit better! Realizing it sure helped me understand mine!

  3. Alex
    October 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Good post. Two observations:
    1) I notice that Mormons have a big presence in this arena: Examples are James Dashner with The Maze Runner, Stephanie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, and Brandon Mull.
    2) Leaving the supernatural aside, I also notice that many succesful authors are also entering YA. For instance, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, James Patterson. have you read Shelter by Harlan Coben? I found it very entertaining YA lit, though it wasn’t supernatural (just entertaining suspense).

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