On being a literary omnivore

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Maybe you’re a bit like me — given a cereal packet, a receipt, a magazine, a leaflet, a poster, a road sign, I’ll start reading and instantly lose myself. During everyday conversations my eyes soon start drifting around, looking for literary matter. Faced with bookshelves my head twists to one side to scan the titles (which, thankfully, these days mostly read vertically one way — unless they’re fat textbooks or foreign language titles). Maybe you’re even trying to scan the book titles in the illustration heading this post.

In addition you may have noticed from my reviews that I’m a literary omnivore, and that my reading — like yours too, perhaps — spans everything from reference to fairytale, non-fiction to fantasy, classics to children’s novels. You may even have landed up here on this blog because, as WordPress helpfully tells us, judicious tagging brings in more readers and followers. But I’ve got a problem, and it’s all to do with these pernicious labels. One label in particular. Young Adult.

Young Adult. Sometimes shortened to YA. What age range does that cover? Nobody seems to agree exactly. Without going into a long history about children’s literature (some time, but not now) I remember a time when children’s sections in libraries indicated a sub-section as Juvenile. It seems to have gone out of fashion — maybe the conjunction of ‘juvenile’ and ‘delinquent’ put paid to the term — and Young Adult or Adolescent or, most often, Teen has replaced it.

Does that mean a rigid 13-19 spread? Maturity varies a lot between twelve and twenty. And a lot of the titles seem to also appeal to pre-teens. Plus book review blogs of YA or teen novels are most likely to be written by 20-somethings or, heaven help us, senior citizens, who supposedly aren’t the target audience.

So, a plague on this particular categorisation. I’m happy to tag reviews according to genre or genres rather than straightjacketing the books according to an age-related ghetto, especially as the latter suggests that it’s inappropriate for me to enjoy something I’m supposed to be too old for. Alan Garner famously refused to acknowledge that the ‘children’s books’ of his early period were for children. And book-voracious children have always read, in the absence of specific children’s titles, whatever was available at hand.

You may also have noticed, if you search using the YA/Young Adult tag, that the label often leads you to a very limited type of subject matter, rather than the very wide range which that audience actually enjoys. But perhaps that’s a topic to follow through in a different post. In the meantime, this may be the only post you read here which will be tagged with the banned tags. For now, anyway.

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6 thoughts on “On being a literary omnivore

  1. My earliest writings were categorised 6 – 106. The trouble is that the 6-year-old started liking my YA ones when she was still 5, and ran out of interest with the ones aimed younger.

  2. I laughed when I read “Maybe you’re even trying to scan the book titles in the illustration heading this post”: It’s exactly what I was trying to do!
    And I agree with you about the YA category. Excellent children’s literature is excellent at and for any age, and the young person who is ready to do so with start reading everything, regardless of the label. composer friend of mine had the same beef with the category of “children’s music.” Surely, he said, good music is good music, whatever age you are.

    1. “Excellent children’s literature is excellent at and for any age.” In one phrase you’ve said exactly what I took half a post to say, Josna! And I’m glad I’m not the only person to look closely at the books in the photo (in this instance not mine, by the way — it’s the background wallpaper for this blog). As a classically trained musician I’ve often been asked what my favourite composer or music genre is. I have three standard replies: 1. Good music in any genre, pop, classical, jazz, folk, whatever, given that 90% of all music is bad or indifferent. 2. “Whatever I choose to be listening to at a given moment.” A great catch-all this. 3. Folk music. I think it was Louis Armstring who said he liked folk music. “Leastways I ain’t heard no horse playing it.” Ditto “children’s music” — in the classroom I played anything and everything to acquaint kids with the huge range of music available

      Another reply that got posted as an unrelated comment, Josna — reposted now so you don’t think I ignored you a year ago!

  3. A few years ago, as part of a reading challenge I went to the local library hoping to find a YA I could stomach. The only exposure I had to this genre was in the local elementary school library where I volunteered. All the YA seem to center on trials and tribulations, that no young person should or would really want to go thru. I shuddered at the thought of reading one of these.

    The librarian was only too happy to help when I told her I had to read a YA. She introduced me to some wonderful titles. Terry Pratchett even had a couple of books sitting among the books. As I recall, I read an interesting thriller titled “The Resurrection Men”. From this experience, I’ve learned to ignore genre listings. If a book is well written it doesn’t matter what shelf it sits on.

    1. I do agree with you. Those trials and tribulations, all that misery and angst — don’t adolescents get enough of that in their own lives without having it reinforced by fiction? Nowadays it seems to be all vampires and werewolves, angels and demons, yet more angst but with a supernatural twist. Perhaps these are the readers who when older head for the sections marked True Life Tragedy.

      When teaching music composition to teenagers I tried to get across the message that it’s not about replicating what already exists or even creating innovative stuff ex nihilo: it’s about putting two or more different, sometimes unexpected, things together in a novel or just individual way that creates innovation and interest. Pratchett for example does it with combining fantasy and humour. This approach sheds new light and creates new perspectives on well worn paths — it’s a bit like treading the same route but in reverse, at a later time of day, so it appears new while partly remaining the same. Good literature, as you say, is good literature whatever shelf it sits on.

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