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The crossover genre: Myth, reality, or does it matter?

23 August 2010
Posted in: Books, Social issues, Writing | 5 Comments

“Crossover Fiction: Myth or Reality” was the subject of discussion at one of the panels at the Jumpstart conference organized by the German Book Office in Delhi on 20 and 21 August 2010. Moderated by Nilanjana Roy, the panelists were Dipa Chaudhuri, Samit Basu, Paro Anand and myself.

A number of interesting questions arose about what young adults are reading, and why the genre of fiction designated for them attracts adult readers as well. The general consensus was that most adult readers (definitely all those present in the audience) do read children’s books in general and that “crossover” is little more than snappy marketing jargon. What follows are some thoughts on the subjects talked about.

There have always been books that have appealed to a universal audience — Alice in Wonderland, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, the Arabian Nights, authors such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters… heck, this list could run into pages. And right now there is just some really good literature being churned out for young people that adults don’t want to be excluded from. Thus, the burgeoning of terms such as “crossover”.

Crossover or young adult (YA) are, therefore, trendy shortforms that makes it easier to target these books to a particular audience. Is this a good or bad thing? Speaking from the point of view of a reader and an author, I find it pointless. Youngsters — just like adults — generally hate to slotted into easy categories. Do you start picking out books from the YA shelf the day you turn 13 and stop on your 18th birthday? That’s a ridiculous question. If you’re 12 and want to read illustrated and picture books, is that a bad thing? Certainly not.

Children themselves are the best judges of what they ought to read, and if there are books that are addressing their concerns in an honest way, they will automatically be drawn to them. If they’re picking out adult books, then that’s fine too. After all, children live in the same horrible world adults live in. If they can watch the news and read the newspaper and see the mindless violence and hatred, really, why should they not read whatever fiction they choose? In an earlier interaction with Paro Anand, we discussed how we had all grown up reading books for adults, even trash. We are no worse for it.

To get back to the issue of YA fiction, over the past few decades, there has been a surfeit of literature for the pre-teen and adolescent audience that:

  1. Portrays a realistic view of the world as they see it: Instead of treating them like mindless proto-adults who require a distilled view of reality as adults deem fit, children are being addressed as thinking, intelligent individuals, their differences acknowledged, and their problems, fears, dreams and questions given centre stage. Honesty builds trust, and youngsters appreciate it if you talk directly to them without patronizing them. This honesty and freshness is sometimes missing even in grown-up books, and thus adults’ fascination for them as well. Think of the literature we grew up with — Enid Blyton and all her attendant prejudices in my case, with stereotypical characters, no shades of grey, simplistic assumptions of right and wrong/good and evil — and contrast it with what we have available today.
  2. Has lucid narration, at the same time being intellectually challenging: A 15-year-old doesn’t have time for you in her life. As an author you have a small window of opportunity to catch her attention. Thus, you rarely find YA books faffing about, showing off Booker-type writing that you don’t really understand but can’t really admit to. Therefore, “crossover” books typically have great narration — crisp, action-packed and fresh, yet not mind-numbing and childish or simplistic (see point 1!). Paro Anand made another great point related to this: catering to young people does not imply that books need to be dumbed down for them or that creative styles cannot be implemented. Just that if you want to show off your literary artistry, this is not the genre for you. YA writing is about the reader, not you. Altogether, having your work cut out this way makes for good writing, and thus attracts audiences across age groups.
  3. Concerns characters who are stuck between childhood and adulthood: Growing up is hard, and the childhood and teenage years are a never-ending procession of one nightmare after another. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or repressing. When no one understands you, the world is impossible, and every little choice you make threatens to have life-changing repercussions, it is a relief to know that you may have an ally, albeit fictional — someone going through what you’re going through, someone who might understand. This companionship is often what one gets from books. When a reader writes to me to say, “I know exactly what XYZ was going through/feeling/thinking when this/that/whatever happened,” that is the biggest compliment. And as adult readers, it is an opportunity to sail down the river of retrospection and shake our heads about the fact that we actually survived childhood.

All of these points essentially result in one thing: some great stories told well. However, though young people these days have an embarrassment of riches to choose from, it is mainly Western literature they resort to. Some great boks, but nothing to connect them with their own reality since there are woefully few good YA books coming out in India.

Only a handful of publishers have been brave enough to stride out from the “safe” path, and not many authors are comfortable talking honestly to a young audience. Even those that do take up “difficult issues” are guilty of moralizing, preaching or stereotyping. In our society, where “traditional” is a good word, children are policed at multiple levels — by parents, teachers and librarians, and should we add authors and publishers?

Authors are just as much to blame for not addressing the aforementioned “difficult issues”, including violence, abuse, terrorism, drugs, and especially sex and sexuality, which most Indian parents and teachers would rather believe have no relation to their children. The authors on the Jumpstart panel were agreed that no publishers has ever told them “not to write about something”. This seems to indicate that the ball is in the authors’ courts.

If parents truly believe their 15-year-old is not thinking about sex, they are never going to give her honest answers or pre-empt her needs. Or — let’s give parents a break — they might be hesitant to approach matters (heck, their parents never talked to them about sex, and if they ever mentioned “drugs” a good thrashing might have been the only result). Fiction can be a powerful tool to tackle difficult subjects. It can enable reluctant teens, and their parents and other adults in their life open discussions on matters of concern they have found hard to broach. It also helps them rationalize through what-if scenarios how such questions relate to their own lives.

To sum up (alternatively, to stop going on and on), myth or reality, crossover fiction has been playing a very important role in the lives of young people and adults, apart from giving them some great stories to read. The term crossover itself might be marketing jargon, but it is also enabling authors to fulfil a social responsibility of providing an honest portrayal of the world as young adults see it, and erasing the borders between childhood and adulthood to make for a more informed and hopefully easier transition.

~PD

5 Responses

  1. Excellent analysis. You describe my current project well, though I don’t go into sex, for two reasons: (1) It’s a given (we all know that’s what’s on our minds and books should not belabor the obvious). (2) There is such a surfeit of sex in literature in general that many of us are tired of reading about it. If you want to know more, please visit my blog and I’d love it if you leave a comment.

  2. Payal says:

    Thanks for dropping by, David. You’re right in what you say about sex in literature, but we in India have a different problem. As one of my friends put it, “can’t ‘talk’ [about sex] but can ‘do’ in [the form of] early marriages”! Thus, we have a bunch of kids growing up with very mixed signals. If parents and teachers are uncomfortable talking of various subjects, children are unable to get correct, safe information. What disturbs me more is that we are so matter of fact about violence and let children watch/read about it, but go to great lengths to pretend sex doesn’t exist!

  3. Katie says:

    I can see how important it would be to deal with life changing issues in the genre without patronizing or oversimplifying (which usually just turns readers off the work, no matter their age).

    It sounds like this was a fantastic panel, and I wish I could have hopped on a plane to go check it out (and visit 😛 )!

    I love that you think all genres, no matter the approved age range, should be accessible to kids. You’re so right. They do know what they want to be reading. Well rounded exposure to different forms of literature can never hurt.

  4. Nik says:

    We have that freedom here 🙂 we borrowed erotic art cartoons from the library when I was about 11-12 😀 It took advantage of the relatively free medium and pictured things really hard to do with photos even after the advent of photoshop.

    I don’t think our parents would have approved but the librarian didn’t even comment. So yeah, libraries are clever for things you don’t wanna involve your parents in.

  5. Proteeti says:

    Nice one, PD. I’ve always hated the YA label too, mostly because of the way it compartmentalises books and readers – and some of the supposedly YA books are often very adult in their content – Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series, for instance. And I would say that the points you make with regard to YA fiction should be made to apply to all genres!

    It’s at times like these that I wish Delhi was closer to Cal – would have loved to have attended this session.

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