When it comes to labels, I far prefer inclusive ones versus exclusive. This is why I prefer to think of myself as a fantasy / sci fi writer more than anything else. Anything more specific both sticks me in a smaller box, but also limits what I’m trying to do. I certainly don’t mind the labels in the broadest sense. I write Fantasy. I write with Humor. I write about Weird Stuff. The problem comes when these labels start carrying broader connotations.
Recently, someone referred to one of my books as “Young Adult” fiction. I’m loathe to criticize anything meant in a positive way, but I still cringed at the label. It’s not because I have anything against YA fiction. Far from it. But there’s a catch that comes with it, a chain of logic that leads someplace I don’t want to go. It flows something like this.
YA fiction is for young adults.
Young adults are not as “sophsiticated” or “mature” as adults.
Therefore, YA fiction is not as “sophisticated” or “mature” as adult (i.e. most) fiction.
The problem with this chain of logic is that it just isn’t true. There is plenty of immature adult fiction and plenty of thoughtful YA fiction. There is also every level in-between. Basically, the label doesn’t really work for the nuances of our world, and it annoys me that we live in a world that needs such black-and-white distinctions, however artificial.
YA fiction is an established genre, but this has less to do with the stories being written and everything to do with the audience they’re marketed to. Harry Potter is YA fiction, but it has transcended the label. If you were to call Harry Potter YA fiction, you would most likely get a lot of push back from its fans.
I much prefer the term All Ages fiction. It’s still a bit difficult to pin down, but it basically applies to anything that would be considered “safe” for kids. Although even that idea annoys me, as if children are delicate flowers that will wilt away if they’re exposed to too many swear words or see a naked breast too soon. This is why I often have a hard time knowing whether I can recommend my books to people who ask me if they’re friendly to younger audiences.
What’s especially annoying is that no one is ever asking about the themes or ideas in the stories themselves. It’s always about naughty language or sexual content. Sometimes, rarely, it’s about the level of violence in the story. It’s such a superficial way of looking at the world. As if swearing or sex are the benchmark of whether something is worthy of adult respect or not. It’s nothing new, but it has always been arbitrary and strange to me.
A lot of my books are All-Ages appropriate simply because they lack those controversial elements that might be deemed offensive by certain standards. Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain has no controversial language, no sex. There’s no need for it to be in the story. But even as I wrote it, I pondered whether to insert gratuitous swearing simply to raise the perceived maturity level of the book. In the end, I chose not to because it seemed to be distracting and out-of-tune with what I was writing.
Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, due out this July, is very much All-Ages friendly. There is a little bit of language. There’s some awkward romance. But nothing terribly risque. It even features young protagonists, which will only add to that perception. And I’m okay with that because there’s not much I can do to stop it. I’m not going to alter these default perceptions.
It’s a shame that we don’t live in a culture subtle enough to gauge maturity by the themes and ideas of a story, by its characters, its heart and soul, rather than how many times naughty words are included. But we certainly don’t. This is why my newest project, One of These Doomsdays, has very deliberate swearing and sex throughout. Nothing I would consider too edgy, but enough to be noted. Enough to encourage folks to see it as an “Adult” story.
But I believe good fiction is good fiction. I still say I learned a hell of a lot about characterization and pacing from Duck Tales cartoons, and I freely admit that comic book superheroes taught me how to tell a great story. And they didn’t need to do it by swearing or covering the pages in buckets of red ink. (Don’t get me started on the current industry trends, where comics are divided into All-Ages adventures and gore-soaked “mature” tales. That’s a whole other post, and one I’ve probably already done once or twice before.)
I know I’m probably the wrong guy to have a valid opinion on this. I write about weird stuff, and my favorite video games either involve shape-shifting robots from outer space or little collectible figures aimed at eight-year-olds. But it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. We need to broaden our sense of what is worthy of us, and it takes a heck of a lot more than some foul language and blood to convince me a story is mature. And while I’m always happy when anyone reads and enjoys my stories, I will never be particularly happy about any label that shrinks my audience rather than grows it.
I want a lot of people to read my books. I work hard on them, and my goal isn’t to just appeal to a demographic. I’d like to think I’m a better artist than that. Even if I’m not, I’d hate to stop exploring interesting themes and worlds through my stories simply because doing so would make them easier to categorize and sell. It’s probably a dumb thing to even care about, but there you have it, Action Force.
Thanks for taking the time to read them.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,