YA Fiction and Literary Fiction
First let’s attempt to define what I mean by these terms:
YA Fiction, or Young Adult Fiction, is fiction written for teen readers, although certainly adults read YA, too. The main character of a YA novel is usually between the ages of 14 and 19, and the story usually has a teen voice and/or perspective. (In other words, a YA narrator probably isn’t an adult looking back on their teen years.)
The subject matter of YA Fiction is tricky. Though the target reader age is 12-19, there are many adults who read YA. Some people worry this has pushed YA into darker, more mature themes and blurred the lines between YA and Adult. To further complicate matters, there are YA crossover books (YA books that appeal to adult readers), and plenty of adult books feature teen protagonists and coming-of-age themes.
Literary Fiction is even harder to define. Some people say that, unlike genre fiction, which tends to be plot-driven and follow familiar tropes, literary fiction tends to be character-driven and might play around with or simply ignore popular tropes. In my mind, literary fiction pays very close attention to how the story is written — style, language, storytelling techniques –– and tends to be more introspective, observational, and/or experimental.
However, genre fiction can be character-driven with interesting style/language/techniques, and literary fiction can have elements of genre fiction, such as Rebecca Maikkai’s literary mystery novel, I Have Some Questions for You. I would also say Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, though it’s categorized as a psychological thriller, is very much a literary novel. The language is powerful and carefully chosen, and the story structure is unique with an ending that does not follow traditional thriller tropes.
Basically, I’m with Annika Barranti Klein of Book Riot: I’m not sure there IS a good definition of literary fiction or “literary merit.” Perhaps it’s a continuum, with some books being more literary (more emphasis on language, style, and character), and some books being less literary (more emphasis on plot and familiar genre tropes).
A few Literary Fiction Authors:
- Rebecca Makkai
- Sally Rooney
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Donna Tart
- Anthony Doerr
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- the authors of many classic novels we refer to as “literature”
Can YA Fiction be Literary?
Now we get to my original question: can YA Fiction be considered Literary Fiction?
I’m going to pause here to say that I have my MFA in Fiction Writing, and when you get your MFA, you are strongly encouraged to write literary fiction. At least in my program, and I suspect most programs, the instructors emphasized language and style and storytelling techniques, and if someone tried to turn in, say, a detective story or romance novel, it would not have been well-received unless it was super literary and turning all the genre tropes on their heads. (It’s ironic: there are all these MFA programs churning out writers of super-literary short stories when the demand for short literary fiction is… very small.)
Anyway. Let’s rewind to many moons ago when I was getting my MFA in Fiction Writing. I kept writing stories about teenagers, and I began to suspect I wanted to write YA novels.
I won’t say this idea was rejected by my professors… but it certainly wasn’t celebrated. There was a vibe in my program that writing for teens could not be as artistic or as literary as writing for adults. (This was back in 2007-2009, so I hope things have changed since then, but I don’t know how much they have.)
In hindsight, I wish I’d looked into Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, but I didn’t realize I wanted to write YA until I was deep into my MFA program. (And I still think I want to write for adults one day, too.)
There are some who think teens aren’t interested in beautiful language or introspective or experimental stories, but this is absolutely not true. Not only that, it is one hundred percent possible to write literary fiction that is character-driven with a fast-paced plot. Just because a book is beautifully-written doesn’t mean it’s boring.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these three award-winning YA authors prove you can write MFA-level, literary fiction for teens… AND keep them turning pages!
I would also add to this list:
- Jeff Zentner
- Kwame Alexander
- Stephanie Kuehn
- And many more!
Who would you add to this list? Can you think of some YA authors whose writing has “literary merit,” and what exactly does that mean to you?
(For more on this topic, check out my post, Kidlit Genres Explain: Middle Grade, YA, New Adults, & More!)