What’s The Deal With Genres?

Genres are incredibly important things. The best books, of course, will transcend genres – I think of my favorites Catch-22 or the Brothers Karamazov when I think of books that transcend genres and become simply ‘great books’. But when we as writers or publishers are in the process of writing and marketing our works, it’s critical that we know what tone of voice to take in order to write to our audience, what themes are acceptable and what aren’t, the mindset your characters are likely to get into. So today, I’m going to talk about age-based genre distinctions: What’s the cutoff between Middle Grade and Young Adult? What differentiates New Adult from Adult? Where did these classifications come from and why are they important?

Middle Grade: Middle Grade fiction is defined as targeted to children ages 8-12, though I often stretch it to 7-13. It’s fiction that deals with themes of good versus evil, the role of the protagonist (usually a child in that age range) in the world at large, and introduces children to the complexities of a world shaped for them by the adults in their lives. Often it features children breaking free of those imposed boundaries to save the world and do things that the adults, blinded by their jaded or pre-determined visions of the world, cannot do or see. Romance – of the sexual variety – is off limits, for obvious reasons, although death is definitely not, so long as it’s done without gore or excessive violence. The world is usually set out in terms of a clear good and evil, with little shading in between. The books ask questions about ethics and morality by putting children in the characters’ shoes and asking, Would you be strong, too? Would you do the right thing? A few examples are: Ender’s Game, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Dark Is Rising series, The Book Thief, and I’d even put Lord of the Rings there (I read it when I was seven, so why not?).

Young Adult: YA fiction is the most popular genre on the market right now, and is often defined as the teenage years, between 13-18 years old. These are often thought of as ‘coming of age’ books. In YA, the protagonists are no longer so bound by their parents’ or adults’ whims. The lines of morality and ethics are blurred in these books, as teens begin to learn that there aren’t always right or wrong answers. Good and evil are still defined, though it’s no longer always clear who belongs in each category. Romance and love is intense in this category, though often still not sexual. Violence is far more acceptable than it was in MG. The fundamental question asked in YA fiction is: How do we define ourselves in a world where identity is in flux? YA fiction teaches us how to identify ourselves, how to be strong in the face of adversity, and how to do the right thing when everyone else seems to be going the other way. A few examples are: the Divergent trilogy, Paper Towns, The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Books 3-5 of the Harry Potter series, Speak.

New Adult: New Adult is an emerging genre, which bills itself as the ‘intermediary’ between Adult and Young Adult. I like to think of it as ‘the college years’, between 18-23, when children are finally becoming adults. Not just children pushed into situations beyond their age, but adults in positions of authority and command. New Adult allows for more sex and grittier violence, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that NA is all about sex and violence. These books push the envelope on questions of morality and ethics, and often the ideas good and evil itself are not well-defined and are highly flexible. The questions asked in NA fiction are Where do we draw the line between right and wrong? What is my role in the world at large and how will I play that role? NA fiction teaches us that the world is not always as it seems, that there is a dark side to everything we do, that complexity is inherent in every action. A few examples are: the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, and … truthfully I couldn’t think of any other examples of books that I’ve read that really fit the NA bill. My own series, The Seeds Trilogy, aims to be NA, but only time will tell if we’ve accomplished that.

Adult: Adult fiction is where the floodgates open. It’s where most authors who aspire to be true ‘literary fiction’ writers place themselves. Nothing is off limits here, and writers can take advantage of the openness of this genre to touch on a range of subjects. But the subjects have to be dealt with in a mature manner appropriate to an older, and perhaps more critical, audience. Because the questions asked here can be so broad and all-encompassing, I’m not going to attempt to constrain this genre by saying what it should or shouldn’t be.

What’s important to note, too, is that these lines can be blurry as well. For example, The Hunger Games is so sterile in its treatment of romance, and so righteously good-versus-evil, that if it weren’t for the violence and occasional blurry-lines characters, I would call it middle-grade fiction. Similarly, Daughter of Smoke and Bone (one of my favorite books) features a protagonist who has already had sex and speaks openly about it, and the themes are complex and nuanced enough to call it NA, but it’s billed as YA in the marketplace. Furthermore, because everyone who has ever been through the experience of being a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old probably remembers what it’s like to be that age, some of these genres are universal. It doesn’t quite apply the other way – a 12-year-old will never understand what it’s like to be 45 – but we can always look back and empathize with our past selves through fictional characters. There’s a lot of crossover, and it’s important to remember that these genres are by no means strict categories.

So why are these categories important? First, because it’s important to know who your target audience is as you write. If you’re writing a NA book, don’t write at the reading level of a third-grader. If you’re writing an MG book, don’t litter your manuscript with words only an English professor would recognize. Second, because marketing demands it. If you want to sell books, you have to sell them to people who will read them. (It seems logical, right?) So if you’re writing a book about a porn star who experiences horrific burns in a car crash while he’s doing cocaine (Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle), you probably don’t want to sell that to a fourth-grader. If you’re writing a book about a six-year-old genius who is sent to a battle school in the sky to train military commanders (Ender’s Game), you want to sell that to the children who will empathize with that character. And finally, categories are important because bookstores and libraries demand them. Whether paper or digital, books require a system of categorization, and your book has to fit into that system somewhere so that readers can find it, and (hopefully) fall in love.

So, what do you think? What are your favorite books in each category? Do you disagree with any of the categorizations?