I’m not one to brag (much), but when I wrote my post onpredictions for the YA industry in 2013, I theorised that erotica would be playing a huge part on the scene, be it through YA authors dipping their toes into the genre, so-called “New Adult” creating a nice stop-gap for adult YA readers wanting some more slap-and-tickle, or just a good old fashioned cash-in. Now, we have publishers running to the scene to beat an already dying horse into the ground before the year’s even over. Self-published YA author Abbi Glines is adding 10,000 words of “naughty” content to her book “The Vincent Boys” (thus making it “New adult” apparently, although Amazon still sells it as teen), and now we have “Irresistable” by Liz Bankes. The Independent describes this book as “Judy Blume for the Fifty Shades of Grey” generation, which is a late contender for the most depressing sentence ever written in the English language.
I firmly believe in good sex. Calm down there, dears. I firmly believe in the need for portrayals of accurate, responsible and serious depictions of teenage sexual relationships in young adult fiction. I think it’s important for the genre to reflect the concerns and desires of its targeted audience, and to show a little accountability in this area. Given that accurate portrayals of sex for surprisingly hard to come by in any form of entertainment, I’m not shocked that YA has as few depictions as it does. The scene is still highly conservative in many ways, as evidenced by the abstinence porn of the paranormal romance craze of the past few years, a topic I have previously discussed. Young adult fiction is also regularly challenged and banned for what is referred to as “explicit sexual content”, although the reality of a book’s content in comparison to what the banners claim is its content are often wildly different. As sex education in the so-called developed world regresses back to the sex-shaming days, we have to take responsible and accurate portrayals of sex where we can get it. Of course, it’s ridiculous to claim that literature should take the place of education on issues such as sex, but if we are shaped by the media we consume, then it would be the right thing to do for the genre and industry to take some responsibility for its content, and not just in matters of sex.
Then again, I don’t think responsibility is quite what they’re aiming for.
Brenda Gardner, managing director at Irresistible’s publisher Piccadilly Press, said: “Young Adult publishers have been looking with envy at Fifty Shades knowing we couldn’t do anything like that. Everybody was trying to work out what would be the next big thing.”
The publishing industry discussed the issue over the summer amongst themselves and with booksellers. “We thought there would be a way of doing it. But it’s not about graphic sex, it’s about passion,” Ms Gardner said.
Frankly, I think that word there says it all. “Envy”. This is all about business, as most things are. The publishing industry will do whatever it takes to stay alive, although I’m not sure their current business model of buying up self-published works that were often fan-fiction is a particularly effective one. Indeed, this feels like a trend that is rooted in fan-fiction. The insertion of sexual content into the story for purposes of “passion” rings a little hollow to me. Many of the defences of the burgeoning New Adult genre is that it would allow for the depiction of situations more common to older, college aged characters, yet so far what we’ve mainly seen the genre present to us is lots of sex. This would be somewhat more acceptable if the characters were in any way as mature as the content. One of my big issues with romance in contemporary young adult literature has been the utter failure of the genre to depict mature and respectful romantic relationships. The mould for the past few years has mainly involved a meek, passive heroine or a “strong female character” instantly falling for the utterly gorgeous and mysterious hero, often a “bad boy” or even worse. While sex has seldom been on the table for such relationships, sexuality has been at the forefront, mainly in the form of a very traditional gender balance. The man looks after the woman, his woman, and nobody else is allowed to touch her. I don’t think this is a particularly healthy dynamic to promote as romantic when it’s chaste, let alone when sex comes into the equation. Judy Blume’s “Forever” is a well written, sensitive and mature work that doesn’t tackle its subject matter for purposes of titillation.
I’m sure this will lead to accusations of pearl clutching prudery, but I worry about when the line will be crossed with this sudden craze for “sexy YA”. At what point does it go from being an honest depiction of teen sex to being pornography? Teenagers will always be interested in sex and will find media to entertain themselves in that field, be it literature, film, fan-fiction, and so on. However, they’re not so consumed by their hormones that they need to read about it 24/7. There’s something quite sad about the assumption that any romantic relationship is defined by sex, and that adding these scenes to YA makes them more identifiable for teens. It’s a strange U-turn from publishers lauding the appeal of the supposed innocence of YA romances such as “Twilight”, which in reality are as sex obsessed as anything else in the world. Apparently there is no middle ground between abstinence and porn.
Another thing that really bugs me about this bourgeoning genre is that once again we have YA/NA focusing almost entirely on the default mode of romance – pretty skinny straight white couples. The number of YA books with LGBTQ content remains shockingly low. If publishers are going to use the defence of realism for publishing their steamy teen books, then why remain so heteronormative? Queer teens have sex too. Don’t they need realistic and passionate depictions in fiction as well? My serious hope for the meteoric rise of self-publishing was that it would smash apart gender and sexuality depictions – there would be no need to appeal to what the traditional publishers and their conservative market demanded if the market was open to everyone. Sadly, everything remains as expected. The same level of slut-shaming and problematic content still exists in these works – “Beautiful Disaster” treats every woman that isn’t the protagonist as STD ridden slutty idiots, while Nicole Williams’s “Crash” series includes violence, threats and the romantic hero referring to a man he sees as a sexual threat as a “tight wearing fairy”. The industry may claim maturity, but in reality we’re still stuck in archaic roles and expectations.
I remain in doubt that this is actually a real craze, since I cling to my belief that such things are created organically and not by dying publishers. However, it’s still a strange and terrifying prospect. I’m also not entirely sure publishers understand what they’re dealing with here. They didn’t know what they were doing with “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sexist, damaging misrepresentation of the BDSM lifestyle. They just wanted money. It’s the same principle here. There’s no accountability for the content they pay for and publish here, and there’s no respect for its intended audience, but I would argue that the intended audience is probably more adult than anything else. With as many adults reading YA as actual young adults, it’s not surprising to see the industry giving into those demands rather than that of the audience the genre’s named after. Presenting a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences in young adult fiction is important and crucial to the genre. The audience deserves this. It doesn’t deserve to be pandered to, based on vague assumptions.
You can’t copy the “Fifty Shades” mould and just sell it under a teen label. The themes won’t work for that audience and it also sends a really worrying message about sexual agency. If teenagers want to read those books then that’s one thing. Hell, we’ve all done that. However, if a teenager wants to read something that is intended for their age group, that is intended to match their own experiences and realistically depict their lives, then they’re not going to get it through these so-called steamy passionate romances. I don’t know about you but my teenage years weren’t taken from the pages of Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins. These experiences are weird, scary, awkward, funny, often extremely confusing, and the whole gamut of emotions that I haven’t the words to describe. They’re seldom all-consuming and passionate affairs, and they’re very rarely erotic. They certainly don’t fall under the label of “explicit sexual content”.