We asked Helena to come on the blog today to discuss YA fiction in all its guises – does it suffer from mostly being written by adults? Why are women so central to YA? Why does YA tend to gravitate toward dystopian narratives? All this and more…
What do you think young people can bring to the YA genre that is different to when YA books are written by adults?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because I’m twenty now and my early teens feel like a long time ago. What you forget first, I think, is the sharpness of being thirteen, of judging yourself by the world for the first time. Everyone on TV and billboards has flat stomachs and perfect hair and teeth, and you don’t look like anyone, you need to correct yourself. Everyone in the movies wants a boyfriend and then they get one and they’re happy and the story ends, and that’s so normal no one onscreen remarks on it. It’s like a trapdoor opens under your feet and suddenly you’re wrong, and it’s a constant keen of anxiety in your stomach. No amount of classes about Hollywood stereotypes and female empowerment can make up for the feeling of always being uglier than the world. Being thirteen can feel utterly, utterly powerless, and there’s no way out of that but getting older, and once you have it’s easy to forget, and then you run the risk of writing teenagers as just adults plus stupidity or recklessness or whatever you project onto your own teenage self.
What I am trying to remember most keenly, as I get older, is the frustration of being that age. You have what feels to you a fully-functioning mind, your own life’s worth of memories, and yet you’re told you’re immature and hormonal and not to be trusted; that all you are now is a series of memories your adult self will look back on with scorn and regret. It’s bewildering and aggravating and is again, I think, a lot to do with adult projection. When I was 15 or 16 and on panels with adult authors, people would call me articulate, which is a deeply backhanded compliment, because it starts from an assumption of ineloquence. I have never heard anyone call a thirty-year-old man articulate; it would feel insultingly redundant. I got a lot of credit, at the time, for being able to hold my own in a conversation with an adult, which was flattering – I don’t mean to sound ungracious here – but I also remember thinking, I’m just talking, here. Anyone my age could do this, I’m just the girl in front of you. People tried to read my age into the book in a way that struck me as bizarre. I was always very clear that the book was not a manifesto, that it was separate in both purpose and content from the fact that I was a teenager, and that if people liked it they should buy it, but not because they thought it was a discount On the Road. My point is: teenagers are perfectly capable of writing books, and they are patronised and underrated by their elders, and the books they write do not have to be treatises on adolescence in order to be worth publishing. They should be judged on their own merit like everyone else’s.
Modern YA often features female protagonists – why do you think this is? And why do you think it has shifted from the previous traditional male-led writing?
This is also a fascinating question, and I would like to thank my friend Lara Welch for helping me gather my thoughts on it. She points out that it is impossible to detach what we now know as YA from Twilight, which kicked off paranormal romance, from which ‘young adult’ as a genre spawned. Romance has always been marketed to women, and once a genre has been coded female it very rarely gets out from under that. It’s much more common to see a breakout novel marketed as ‘an X book for women’ and then spawn its own ‘X, but female!’ genre after that (see crime fiction post-Gone Girl) than it is to see women’s fiction get marketed to men. We do not assume that men can relate to women’s experiences; we absolutely do not assume that they can relate to teenage girls’. Novels about male adolescence and love and sexual development and existential crises are considered part of the general human experience. They do not have their own genre. But what it is to be a teenage girl is thought of as niche; we think only people who are directly affected by that, who are living that, would ever want to read about it. Which is to say: young adult fiction is not necessarily female-dominated. There are plenty of books about teenage boys. But we do not call those books YA and market them near-exclusively to young women. We call them literary, or children’s, or crime, or sci-fi, or something else considered ‘general’. The boys are everywhere, but we quarantine the girls.
Dystopia and YA often go hand in hand. What do you think young protagonists bring to the exploration of a dystopian world that would be lost through adult eyes?
It is maybe little more illustrative to ask what dystopia adds to YA rather than the other way around. Dystopia complements YA for the same reasons orphans populate children’s novels: they remove restrictions. Dystopia means Katniss Everdeen can become an archer to feed her family and Tris from Divergent can climb Chicago skyscrapers without anyone calling social services. They are freeing for teenage protagonists, whose authors can then subject them to all manner of physical and emotional turmoil and place the fate of a world on their shoulders. Dystopia, as opposed to high fantasy, is particularly useful for those authors who want to do all of the above whilst still maintaining some relevance to what it means to be a teenager in today’s society. Personally, that was never my angle: I wrote a dystopia because I loved the London I knew, but I realised there were gaps in my understanding of the world as a 13-year-old, and putting it twenty years into a magical future would free me from accuracy concerns. That’s a little glib—later, unfurling a world inside my head was the most gloriously fulfilling part of it, the part that made me look forward to the walk home from school so I could disappear into my own head to think about it—but that was my initial motivation, before I thought there was any chance the story would ever be a book, or that anyone would ever ask me about it.
What are your favourite YA female protagonists?
Everyone’s read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, right? Please tell me they have. That entire series is a lesson in how to write richly- there’s no other way I can describe it— and in 3D minor characters, and just, everything else. Read it if you want to write fantasy. Karou, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, is written as an inexperienced adult rather than a confused hormonal teenager, which is a great approach; she was a steadiness and an inspiration to me at seventeen. That trilogy, by Laini Taylor, became a place of safety for me; I would read it when I was sad or frustrated. I could not recommend it more.
Paige Mahoney from Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is wonderfully empowering; you feel stronger and smarter behind her eyes, which is an invaluable experience for teenage girls. If I’m allowed a guy: Half Bad is a wonderful series which does a lot of experimenting with theme and form, and Nathan is the first YA protagonist I read who was quietly bisexual, without the book being sequestered and sold exclusively as ‘queer fiction’ because of it. He falls in love with a guy, and nobody in the book makes a big deal out of it, and he doesn’t have an existential crisis. It’s a beautifully drawn love story that is not coloured or destroyed by homophobia, which at the time I read it felt rare as a depiction of queerness in YA. Everyone should read it.
Pitch The Orphanage of Gods to our readers!
It is a novel about siblings, and betrayal, and magic, and persecution, and choosing who to love. It has prison-castles on islands in the ocean, and glass cities, and resistances camped beside deep blue lakes, child shapeshifters and mindreaders. It is about power, and whether two people can truly love each other when one could destroy the other on a whim. It is very queer. Read it!
Helena Coggan is an author from London. Her first novel, The Catalyst, published when she was fifteen years old, was named one of the Guardian’s and Amazon’s debuts of the year; she has been called ‘the next JK Rowling’ by NBC’s Today Programme and was on the Guardian’s 2016 list of the world’s most powerful teenagers. She is currently studying for a degree in physics at the University of Cambridge. Her third novel, The Orphanage of Gods, was published in February.