Make the Box Larger

Book collection

Jennifer Povey offers an interesting perspective on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series:

It’s my opinion that The Hunger Games and its sequels are the best anti-war novels of recent time. They deserve to stand next to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (a different take on the fate of the veteran). I hope that the popularity of the film will pull the books out of the young adult ghetto and put them in the hands of the parents. On the other hand, perhaps it IS the children, the future leaders who need to read it.

So. Why the heck has The Hunger Games been classified as young adult? It’s actually fairly simple. It’s a sad fact of the publishing industry at present, and something I’ve seen myself, that if your protagonist is under 18, the industry classes your work as ‘young adult’. I’ve written pieces not intended as young adult but with teenage protagonists and I inevitably get told ‘send it to a young adult magazine’, so I’ve seen this myself.

And this has to change. Not every book with a young protagonist is suited to teenagers and will be enjoyed by them. I don’t know for sure whether Suzanne Collins did intend the books to be adult fiction and was funneled into YA by industry suspicions…hopefully one day I’ll have an opportunity to ask her. But I’m afraid that is exactly what happened.

I find this interesting because my youngest son, a high school senior who would himself say that he is not an avid reader, devoured those books a couple of years ago. On the basis of that purely unscientific sample of one, I concluded that they are YA titles. I have not read them yet myself and cannot offer my own conclusion. However, Jenna knows literature; I’m more inclined to read the books having read her opinion.

Her other point about the way publishers pigeon-hole certain books is spot on. Worse, the inability to easily classify a book makes publishers less likely to buy it. I don’t know how many writing panels I’ve attended where at least one of the authors mentions that he or she had trouble selling a book because publishers didn’t know where to put it on the shelf.

As a writer who hopes to move beyond self-publishing some day, I find this frustrating. I submitted Purgatory to a lot of agents and publishers, and for the most part I received form letter rejections. Maybe they didn’t like it, but maybe they didn’t know how to classify it. It’s part comedy, part speculative fiction (the time-travel element), part spiritual/religious, and party buddy movie. As I write this, the final episode of the podcast version has been downloaded 3,211 times, so apparently a few thousand people liked it enough to listen to all 12 episodes. That makes me think that its chances with publishers were hurt because it’s not easily classified.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. Publishers are businesses; businesses need efficient ways to market products, ways that assure buyers that they’re getting what they believe they’re paying for. I get that part. However, I also think they probably pass on a lot of good books (and I don’t just mean mine) because they don’t fit the pre-existing mold. I won’t even begin to compare anything I’ve written to Harry Potter, but I have to wonder how many series that are just as enchanting may be languishing on hard drives because editors don’t recognize the potential. J.K. Rowling certainly got more than her share of “thanks-but-no-thanks” letters before Scholastic bought The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Once upon a time, a book about a kid who turns out to be a wizard was too outside the box. I think the lesson here is to make that box a little larger.

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2 Responses to Make the Box Larger

  1. I really do highly recommend The Hunger Games. However, they are a very intense read. A fast read, and easy in vocabulary, but emotionally intense.

    And don’t let me forget to get myself a copy of Purgatory…when I have money again. I spent it all at Small Press Expo, I’m afraid.

  2. Tim Dodge says:

    Thanks! Dragon*Con had the same effect on me…

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