Before we begin, listen to this song by Ke$ha (I swear it serves a purpose):
I would've been the first person to condescendingly assume I knew everything about Ke$ha and her music, so I was incredibly amazed to hear how beautiful her real voice is, and how heartfelt she sang this song. The logical question is, why doesn't Ke$ha ditch the auto-tune and sing like this more often? According to a YouTube commenter: "One word: money. Her producers have clearly told her to stick with the drunk slut act, because that's apparently what sells. She could move on to songs like this full time, but it'd be career suicide." Singing a beautiful song equals career suicide? The music business is a harsh place.
Unfortunately, this isn't so different to what happens in the publishing industry. Writers get pegged into categories and it can be difficult to break out. There's this insidious little line drawn in the world of book selling that separates what's "literary" and what's "genre." Literary equals anything of high literary quality (stuff found in the Literature & Fiction section of Barnes and Noble). Genre is everything else, that which is deemed to have less literary quality (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Romance, Westerns, Chick Lit, etc.). Book sellers and publishers like this system because it makes placing books on shelves easy, and also makes it easy for buyers to navigate stores and find the titles they want (some argue that this entire paradigm is shifting with the increase in online sales, but Amazon still categorizes books much the same way physical bookstores do, so I'm not convinced). By all accounts, the literary/genre categorization system is both fallible and unfair. I find the conversation about what's 'literary" really tiresome, likely as a result of my time in an MFA program. Once, I heard one of my fellow student writers say "If it's entertaining, it's not literary." Regardless of what book snobs may tell you, there are no such clear guidelines for what makes something literary or not, which makes the entire conversation crazy-making.
It gets wonderfully complicated when you consider children's literature and YA, in which the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction isn't nearly as significant. Literature for young people isn't categorized in terms of literary merit or genre, but by age group. This means that, within each age group, the author has incredible freedom. This is one of the things I love most about writing YA; the conversation about whether my work is "literary" or "genre" will never occur, for which I am grateful. Children's and YA writers get to explore subjects and themes that cross genres. Take a book like The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede: this book is the first in a middle grade fantasy western historical reimagining series. Phew! This book crosses so many genres that, had it been written for adults, I'm not sure it would've been published at all because it would be almost impossible to categorize (Literary fiction? Fantasy? Western? Historical fiction?).
Take a look at my two favorite Andersons (or Andersons Squared, as I like to call them): MT Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson. Between the two of them, they've explored every region of children's literature: picture books, middle grade series, YA series, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, dystopian. Because they write for young people, they have the freedom to write in so varied a fashion without worrying about their careers suffering.
What other segment of the entertainment industry can claim such artistic freedom as is present in young people's literature? I wish all industries could be so open, so singers like Ke$ha don't have to be stuck in the Tik Tok box for their entire lives, so Jonathan Franzen can write a bodice-ripping romance novel without raising eyebrows, so a soap opera star can transition to Oscar-worthy movies and back again if they want to (OK, besides James Franco). In the mean time, I'm incredibly grateful for having found YA.
What do you think? Is young people's literature really the shiny, happy place I'd like to believe it is? And if you write in middle grade or YA, what originally made you choose it?