No Going Back — Young Adult Novel?

A somewhat different version of this column, oriented more toward broader questions related to the YA literature genre in the Mormon market, is posted at A Motley Vision website under the title “Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction.”

Who’s the intended audience of No Going Back? In particular, does No Going Back fit the definition of a young adult (YA) novel? That’s proved to be a tricky question.

First, a point of definitions. As I’m sure most of you know, “young adult” novels are not, in fact, novels written for adults (young or old), but rather for teenagers — often stretching down to middle schoolers in practical application. For the most part, it’s a category used by publishers and librarians (as best I can figure out) in trying to target books to a specific clientele, whether that’s teenagers themselves or the adults who buy, recommend, and/or assign books for them to read. There’s also a general perception (whether justified or not) that such books tend to be shorter, focused on teen protagonists dealing with teen issues, and often written in a simpler style, compared to novels labeled as adult fiction.

Chris Bigelow (my publisher) and I didn’t label No Going Back as a YA book, for reasons that made sense to us at the time. Evidence continues to accumulate, however, that many readers — including some who almost certainly know better than Chris and I — see it as a YA novel. For instance, there’s the review in the spring 2010 newsletter of the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Round Table, which evaluates No Going Back as an example of Mormon YA literature. If librarians see this as a YA novel, who am I to argue?

The easy answer, of course, is that I’m happy with people buying and reading my book, whatever they choose to call it. And there’s some truth to that answer. Let’s pretend for a moment, though, that this question of definitions has some importance, and look at some arguments each way.

First, reasons why No Going Back is a YA novel:

  • Most of the action centers on a teenage protagonist, his best friend, and their agemates at school and Church.
  • The central story arc is about growing up.
  • The central issue is how the teenage protagonist will deal with his increasing awareness of the conflict between his homosexual attractions and the religious beliefs he’s been raised with, together with a large side helping of questions about popularity and peer group loyalties — classic teen issues, just the sort of stuff you might have seen in those much-dreaded After School Specials of yesteryear.
  • Much of the story is taken up with details of teenage life, from lunch-table conversation to video games.
  • The style is relatively simple and straightforward, with a lot of space devoted to dialogue and internal monologue.

On the other hand:

  • Not all of the characters are teenagers. One of the three characters who gets a lot of air space is an adult, the protagonist’s bishop and father of his best friend.
  • There’s a major subplot (seen as irrelevant by some readers, but praised by others) about that adult character and his relationship with his wife, which has been strained by the demands of his calling as bishop.
  • The book is grittier and more realistic in areas such as teenage language than titles that are sold as standard Mormon YA fiction.
  • Although it reads quickly, the book is actually longer than typical size for a regular novel, let alone a YA novel, weighing in at about 110,000 words (standard adult novel size is considered 80,000-100,000).
  • Perhaps most important, the book wasn’t written with a teenage audience in mind. So far, in fact, the only teenager I’m aware of who’s read it is my own daughter. (No, I didn’t twist her arm.) To be honest, I don’t think it’s a story that would interest many teenagers (unless they’re dealing with this issue personally) or that they would enjoy.

Our way around this was to label No Going Back a “coming-of-age” novel within the broad label of adult fiction. That’s the category under which it was a finalist for the 2009 Whitney Awards. In our latest flyer for libraries, I’ve suggested broadening the classification to read “Adult/YA Fiction.” We wouldn’t want to lose any potential sales…

A criticism some readers have made (both from a faithful LDS perspective and from a gay perspective, interestingly) is that the book could easily be depressing for teenage readers who are themselves same-sex attracted (SSA) and Mormon. Certainly it doesn’t spell out any easy answers for them. And the main character gets hit with a lot of hard things, partly as a result of choices he makes but largely as a result of things that are completely out of his control. When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’d want a same-sex attracted teenage Mormon kid to read this book. (Though I think it might be good if his bishop had read it.)

There’s a key definitional question that centers, I think, on differences between the Mormon YA market and the category of YA fiction in the larger non-Mormon world. Mormon YA titles are expected to be pretty much squeaky clean as regards language and what is considered inappropriate behavior, especially sexual behavior. You might have a (pretty daring) YA Mormon novel where a character or a character’s friend slips and falls morally, but all of the inappropriate behavior — and the feelings leading up to that behavior — would happen offstage. You could never (for example) allude to a straight teenage boy’s physical reaction to being next to a pretty girl — at least, that’s my perception — let alone a SSA teenage boy’s physical reaction to seeing a cute guy, as No Going Back does.

This is far from true as regards YA fiction nationally. In fact, YA fiction in general takes a certain pride in tackling the issues that are most relevant (if often embarrassing) for teenagers, like unwanted and socially distressing physical reactions. The very scenes in my book that would horrify buyers and editors of Mormon YA fiction actually increase its qualifications as YA fiction, judged by a national standard.

I think part of the reason for this — on top of a general prudishness in what’s usually referred to as the Mormon market — is that YA Mormon fiction, unlike YA fiction nationally, is a category that’s been created largely by publishers and booksellers, not librarians. Furthermore, it’s being sold largely to parents, grandparents, etc., not directly to teenagers themselves. The primary marketing niche for Mormon YA fiction, as I see it, is as an alternative to mainstream YA fiction, for those who are horrified by the very realism that mainstream YA fiction is so proud of. Marketing No Going Back as a YA novel in a Mormon market would have targeted it at precisely those buyers least likely to like it, while guaranteeing that it would have been overlooked by many who might have liked it but who know what the code of “Mormon YA fiction” generally means.

Which leaves all that other stuff: the fact that even though it may look and smell like a YA novel (in many respects), it wasn’t written for teenage readers and there isn’t much evidence to suggest they’ll like it if they read it. In contrast, there’s a fair amount of evidence that readers from my main intended audience — believing adult Mormons with a tolerance for realism in their reading, without a particular investment in the issue of same-sex attraction but willing to consider how we as Church members can be more supportive in this area — may like No Going Back very much. One such reader, a friend from graduate school, wrote as follows:

As you may recall I rarely read fiction. However, I just finished reading your book earlier today…. This is an incredible story that I will never forget….

I love the theme about how the struggle to be good, to resist temptation and overcome our weaknesses is key to bringing the Holy Ghost into our lives, bringing us comfort, insight and testimony. I was impressed with how each of the main characters developed and became more Christ-like as they wrestled with their weaknesses.

I was also impressed with the range of character flaws…. I also noted your depiction of how our struggle against the idiots in the church exposes us in that process to truly remarkable saints that help us and love us and give us wonderful experiences with the spirit that confirm the truthfulness of the church….

My reason for quoting this (aside from simply putting a smile on my own face) was because it illustrates a level at which I would hope that believing Mormons can identify with the main characters and their experiences, even if they don’t have any personal knowledge of same-sex attraction. Labeling No Going Back as a YA novel completely misses that demographic.

But then, I’m pretty much missing every demographic at the moment anyway (except those like my friend who get their copies directly from me). So I’m not going to complain if someone wants to call No Going Back a YA novel, particularly if (as in the case of the ALA GLBTRT review) they’re also encouraging readers to think about buying my book. It’s all good to me.

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