Why YA Fiction Is More Diverse Than Adult Genre Fiction
Something I've noticed as an adult who enjoys reading young adult and genre fiction is how much more diverse YA books are than their adult counterparts. With YA books, many more examples of prominent characters with a range of sexualities can be found, and many more leading women.
To provide just a few examples: big YA hits like The Raven Cycle series, The Foxhole Court, or Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe all include LGBTQ characters in major roles, and female protagonists are practically de rigueur, as seen in The Hunger Games, Cinder, and even Twilight. The offerings of beloved adult genre writers like George R.R. Martin, Michael Crichton, or Stephen King seem distinctly unrepresentative by comparison.
However, an exception to this increased diversity is race – YA books, like adult literature, focus overwhelmingly on white characters. There is a long way to go until readers of color can see themselves adequately represented in the fiction that they read.
So why is it that YA fiction is more diverse in terms of gender and sexuality than adult fiction? Let's consider this question by taking a look first at the readers and the authors of YA, and then by examining what YA means as a label.
About YA Readers
According to a study by GLAAD, 20% of millennials identify as LGBTQ, more than twice as many as the boomer generation (of whom just 7% identify as LGBTQ). The increasing acceptance of LGBTQ identities has led to more millennials feeling comfortable using these labels for themselves. Similarly, the US is becoming more racially diverse, with a new high of 14-15% of children born being identified as multiracial or multi-ethnic. With this increase in non-white and non-straight identification among young people comes a desire to see themselves represented in the books that they read.
Indeed, as actor and musician Riz Ahmed summed up his speech to the UK parliament, people are no longer satisfied by treating diversity as “an optional extra”. Rather, “Representation is fundamental to what [we] expect from our culture.”
In previous years, it may have been enough for film makers, TV producers, or authors to include a token character of color or LGBTQ character in order to be deemed progressive or diverse. But now, such platitudes are insufficient to win over young people.
Another factor related to this is the growth of online, interactive fandoms, in which young people make their opinions known about the shows, books, and movies they are consuming. The demand for diversity can be seen here too, as one of the most frequent complaints to be heard in fandoms is regarding the focus on straight white male characters and the poor treatment of women, characters of color, or LGBTQ people.
About YA Authors
This desire for diverse books among young people has created an opportunity for authors. While the traditional book publishing model put much of the power over which books would be available in the hands of a few large publishing houses, this is changing. Now authors can share their writing online through sites like Tumblr or Facebook and build up a fan base that way, outside of the publishing structure. Even self-publishing, which used to be looked down on, is being acknowledged more and more as a legitimate way for authors to share their work.
This openness for authors is good for diversity in two ways: firstly, there are few barriers for authors or color or queer authors, who are more likely to write diverse books, and secondly, it allows readers to find those writers who do prioritize diversity and support them directly.
Defining the Category
One relevant facet of this discussion is the way in which “young adult” books are defined. Although the loose definition of a young adult book is one which is written for teenagers, this does not accurately describe some books, such as The Lord of the Rings, which are considered adult literature but are frequently read by young people. Nor does it describe some phenomena such as the Harry Potter books, which were originally intended for children but gained a huge adult following.
Indeed, look at books like The Secret History or The Book Thief, both of which feature young people as the main characters and could be called YA but tend to be considered as adult literature. It seems that books which fit better within the literary canon – that is, the canon of majority straight white male authors – are more likely to be called adult literature. One could even say that young adult is what is left of the fiction that young people enjoy once you have taken out all of the 'traditional' literature.
You see the same effect in the classification of adult literature. A book featuring a lesbian protagonist, such as Tipping the Velvet, is usually categorized as gay literature rather than, say, historical literature, and is rarely presented to a straight audience as something that they might like to read. You can see a similar effect in movies: other than the occasional breakout such as Brokeback Mountain, any movie with significant LGBTQ characters tend to be ghettoized into the category of gay cinema.
Young adult encompasses all of those stories which do not fit the mold of what (adult) writers, reviewers, and publishers think that literature should be. This leaves YA fiction as both less seriously regarded but conversely less constrained by the assumptions of what a book should be. After all, those less beholden to a tradition of the straight, white, and male will be more comfortable in including the diverse.
For young people living in an interconnected world, diversity is their reality, and they are waiting for their fiction to reflect that.