Are Young Adult Books Becoming Too Trend-Driven?
By Brent Hartinger
There is nothing new under the sun, true, but does that mean that every other YA book has to feel so much like last year’s big break-out hit?
You know what I’m talking about: first, it was vampires, then fairytale retellings, then paranormal romance in general, then angels and zombies, then dystopian.
Boy, was there a lot of dystopian! Now I hear tell that thriller/horror is back in style, but I worry the industry will do this to death too.
I’m not dissing individual authors. Those authors that are supposedly “ripping off” some other author who came before? Usually their books were written years before — they had to be, in order to take advance of the trend’s exploding popularity. And let’s face it: a lot of times, these “second wave” books are a lot better than the first break-out hit.
Plus, hey, we all gotta eat.
This is about the industry, and the fact that teen literature is a HUGE business these days.
This is exactly what happens when an entertainment medium becomes wildly popular – when it attracts the attention of huge corporations. Exploiting a trend or a fad until it’s completely tapped out makes for a fantastic business model. And in general, people will always like what they know, what is familiar.
But this is a creative trap. If you want to know what’s at the end of that road, look to the Hollywood movie studio system: virtually everything they now do is a superhero movie, a sequel, a remake, or a reboot.
No, seriously. Of last year’s top ten grossing movies, seven of them are one of those things.
Creativity is literally almost completely dead in the studio system. A lot of the producers and writers who work there are very talented, but they’re now openly discouraged from being interesting or challenging.
Instead, it’s now independent filmmaking — not the six major movie studios — where you now find almost all of the intelligence, originality, and the risk-taking in movies today.
Or look to television. Not to the broadcast networks, which operate a lot like the major movie studios: mostly broad, bland programming that’s meant to appeal to the widest possible audience.
But cable television? That’s a whole different animal, especially “pay” cable television. Writers are encouraged to take wild risks here, to create intelligent, attention-getting shows because their business model requires more passionate and highly motivated audiences.
So where is YA publishing headed? Like the movie studios and broadcast networks, or indie filmmakers and cable networks?
If the corporations get their way — if money is the most important consideration — YA publishing will continue to become more like the studios and networks. And most of us who enjoy YA have already heard all the warning signs: declining advances for debut authors, mid-list authors unceremoniously dumped when their books don’t move tens of thousands of copies in hardcover.
The word has long gone out to agents: give us books that can be turned into movie franchises!
Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls. Make us lots of money, now, or move along.
And yet, despite all the handwringing, the YA genre is still producing more books, and better books, than it ever has. I still think there’s too much groupthink going on, too much cynical bottom-lining. But beyond the lead titles, publishers are giving us some pretty amazing diversity. For the time being, YA publishers are acting more like cable channels than broadcast networks or movie studios.
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot because my latest book, The Elephant of Surprise, is the story of a gay boy who has a passionate romance with a guy he first meets rooting around in a Dumpster. The guy’s a “freegan,” someone who’s voluntarily choosing to be homeless. He and his friends eat roadkill and squat in houses and explore abandoned buildings.
Needless to say, “romance” and “Dumpster diving” are not themes you usually see associated together. This is also a pretty far cry from most other LGBT teen books. But that was exactly the point. I wanted to do something really unusual and attention-getting and different — not like any other YA book you’ve read before.
Did I pull it off? Well, it’s been out for a few months, and so far, so good.
The greater point is I’m just happy to write in genre where writers are still allowed to let their characters be as weird, dorky, and unconventional as they are.
Let’s hope that never changes.
Book 4 in the Lambda Award-winning Russel Middlebrook Series!
People aren’t always what they seem to be. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves.
So discovers seventeen-year-old Russel Middlebrook in The Elephant of Surprise, a stand-alone sequel to Brent Hartinger’s landmark 2003 gay young adult novel Geography Club (which has now been adapted as a feature film co-starring Scott Bakula and Nikki Blonsky).
In this latest book, Russel and his friends Min and Gunnar are laughing about something they call the Elephant of Surprise – the tendency for life to never turn out as expected. Sure enough, Russel soon happens upon a hot but mysterious homeless activist named Wade, even as he’s drawn back to an old flame named Kevin. Meanwhile, Min is learning surprising things about her girlfriend Leah, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest technology obsession.
But the elephant is definitely on the move in all three of their lives. Just who is Wade and what are he and his friends planning? What is Leah hiding? And why is Gunnar taking naked pictures of Kevin in the shower?
The Elephant of Surprise includes Hartinger’s trademark combination of humor and romance, angst and optimism. Before the story is over, Russel and his friends will learn that the Elephant of Surprise really does appear when you least expect him—and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.
Genre - Young Adult/Gay Lit
Rating – PG13
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