Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Industry View - Imogen Russell Williams

Imogen is an arts journalist and critic, writing on trends in children’s and YA publishing for The Guardian and reviewing and writing round-ups for The Metro. She has a current understanding of the market and comprehensive knowledge of both classic and contemporary children’s literature to draw on.
She has worked as an editorial consultant, both freelance and with the Andrew Nurnberg Agency, for four years, and also reads and reports on manuscripts for The Literary Consultancy.


What did you read as a teen?


Pretty much anything going. I loved dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, like Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, or Jan Mark’s Ennead; for the past few years I’ve been revelling in the vogue for dystopian YA novels, although even I think the market is a bit saturated now! Teen fiction was looked down on then by teachers, which was a shame – I loved Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, but I kept those tastes under wraps. I also read "adult" horror, like Stephen King, canonical literature like the Bront√ęs, a lot of gloomy Russians, Greek tragedy, poetry, and graphic novels – I was horribly hooked on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and his collaborations with Dave McKean.

In the past ten years, the border between adult and children’s fiction has cracked open to offer many new sub-genres: YA, teen, NA – are these simply marketing labels or lures to specific readerships?

Sometimes these labels can be useful shorthand; a book marketed as YA, for instance, might be harder-hitting, with stronger language and more explicit sexual content, than a teen title. The idea of New Adult is that these titles focus on the first stages of independent life - living away from home, at university or college, and dealing with increased freedom, increased responsibility, loneliness – a very specific period in a ‘new adult’s’ life, which arguably deserves its own label.

However, author Non Pratt has pithily described NA as "YA with sexytimes", and there's definitely a tendency to focus squarely on sex in many New Adult books, as they aren’t vulnerable to being challenged by parents and librarians in the same way as books marketed as teen or YA. There’s a lot of potential overlap between the categories, but an easy rule of thumb at present is probably to assume that there’ll be more raunch in NA than in YA, and more in YA than in teen.

Why is there such a strong tendency to believe YA is a particularly female phenomenon as both consumers and creators?

In part, I think, there’s an element of snobbery – the idea that something popular, widely-read and passionately loved must be just for indiscriminate girls (even though male authors, like John Green, still tend to dominate the bestseller list, and to command the lion's share of reviews.) YA is also often seen as focused on ‘the feels’, emotion, romance; qualities seen as intrinsically feminine. Boys are less likely to be seen reading in public – and less likely to read young adult novels in their teens, full stop. But there are definitely male YA readers every bit as devoted and passionate as the girls. YA fandoms can often be a much-needed ‘safe space’ for LGBTQ teenagers, too.

How does YA differ from the classic ‘coming of age’ label?


There’s a lot of overlap – most YA novels feature growth and change in their protagonists – but a character doesn’t necessarily come out of a YA novel an adult, or even necessarily having a lot more of the answers than they did when they went in. Anything goes in YA, basically – it leaps genre boundaries with cheerful disregard (see Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, for instance, which is part sexual-curiosity-coming-of-age story and part mutated-carnivorous-locust-apocalypse) – and YA books are often part of trilogies or series, which have a different shape to a stand-alone coming-of-age novel.

In an interview in this magazine, Judy Blume saw censorship as coming from the gatekeepers, not the readers. What’s your view?

I’d definitely agree with that. Teenagers will read anything (I also read the Marquis de Sade when I was a teenager, mainly to shock people on the tube), and are usually well able to put a book down if they don’t feel it’s right for them, or doesn’t appeal to them. It’s adults who are trying to put the genie back in the bottle – it seems particularly futile to object to sexually explicit content in a book, for instance, in an age when teenagers have unfettered access to the internet. I feel very strongly that books can and should be one of the main sources of support for adolescents who feel freakish, alone, wrong, abnormal – and they build empathy, too, among those who haven’t ever had to feel like the outsider.

And how do you see the future of this burgeoning genre?

I’m going to nitpick here and insist that YA is not a genre – it’s an age category (sometimes, coming back to marketing labels, I think it’s just a font size, or another way of saying ‘double-spaced’!) But readers’ yen for (generally) swift-moving, lean, non-indulgent narrative, which plays merry hell with genre boundaries, as YA does at its best, is not going anywhere. My one concern is that so much gets published now that it’s hard for the best stuff to get the attention it deserves.

Which authors, books or series got you most excited this year?


Soon-to-be-published titles I’ve read and loved recently include Sarah Crossan’s One – a verse novel about conjoined twins (only she could pull this off); The Big Lie, by Julie Mayhew – an alternate history set in Nazi-controlled Britain; and Patrick Ness’ latest, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, about the kids who aren’t the chosen ones; the ones who do their maths homework, don’t get wooed by vampires, but still have compelling stories that need to be told.

And which trends and writers should we watch out for the future?


Horror. Well-written YA horror has definitely come into vogue– see James Dawson’s work, and the new Red Eye series from Stripes.

I’m also hoping to see more YA (and, indeed, middle grade) featuring transsexual characters – Lisa Williams’ superb The Art of Being Normal got 2015 off to a great start – but I don’t want this to be a ‘trend’ that dies out.

I think we’re also starting to see more YA novels engage unflinchingly with mental health conditions, like Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss, and David Owen’s Panther.


Interview by JJ Marsh

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