Is YA Only a Sales Label?

At the writer's forum I'm at, YA tends to be a common topic of discussion. It's a polarizing topic, on different fronts, whatever it's of personal taste ("I generally don't like teenage protagonists") or on a more basic level ("I'm opposed to the division of fiction into demographics.").

The latter's worth discussing.

The context

The discussion started with the line: "It's less than an actual genre and more of a marketing ploy."

The first part I agree with. This was a similar topic brought up awhile back, but with New Adult. It's a category, not a genre. I was one of the people who made a racket when the administrator of TV Tropes attempted to tack the name "Genre" onto the "Shonen" page.

Well, there were two people who had a brief debate about whatever this is better or not.

One person argued that YA and NA as categories was a step forward. Instead of having books being classified based on certain rules (and therefore have the awkward situation of where to put "space elves" and other genre benders), using broad strokes allowed flexibility, and therefore less restriction than when you put a book into the Fantasy section.

The person who made the initial statement argued that those categories are a step backwards. Instead of classifying books as "what they are", it's classifying them by "who's supposed to be reading them".

They had a brief exchange which they verbalize their different opinions on which is better.

The point of this post

That argument isn't the main point.

The main point is whatever YA actually exists.

Let's define YA!

The definition I use is "YA is a story targeted toward readers aged 12-18".

I can't define it as "YA is a story with a protagonist aged 12-18", because there are too many YA books that break that rule. With that out of the window, what's the unifying element?

This is why it isn't a genre. Fantasy always has magic--even if the story itself is a dream. Science fiction always has technology. Mysteries always have...a mystery. Romances always have romance.

YA has teenagers--except when it doesn't.

YA is subjective.

That's the problem: genre is objective, but demographics are subjective. Values shift over time. For example, many "YA" books from the 20th century weren't written as such, since the term didn't exist, so they're shelved  there retroactively.

Few people write a fantasy not knowing that they're writing one. Many tales exist out there of writers who write YA not realizing that they're writing one.

The "demographics is a step backwards" person had a point. The YA label isn't a direct reflection of a book's actual content. It's all in a person's mind.

Categories: A necessary evil?

Earlier than that, there was a long debate about whatever YA exists for the sake of selling it.

What I find is that writers at that forum generally tend to be more squeamish when it comes to categorization. A former member is working on what can be considered NA. A few others are genre bending. Quite a few aren't a fan of labels.

Yet, I would say that this isn't a bad thing.

Categories help readers find what they're looking for. That's the entire reason why we have to arrange books based on their content or demographics. It's so a reader knows what to expect when picking up a book. 

You don't want a clean romance reader picking up your erotica, since you'll be only wasting their time. Sure, you should push a readers expectations every once in a while, but jumping barriers without permission will not put your book into the right light.

Argue all you want that genre is a marketing ploy, but I'm not buying it. Publishers may be doing quite that, but at its core, categories are a guide that makes everyone happier, reader and writer, and gatekeepers all around.

Oh, and the parents who don't want their child picking up that steamy erotica because someone decided to not label it.

Is YA really just a label?

Does YA really not exist?

Actually, disregard what I said earlier. YA isn't all in a person's mind.

Instead of being a set of universals, Young Adult literature consists of a set of trends. Most feature a teenage protagonist, but they don't have too be eighteen or under. School might be a major setting, but it doesn't have to. Coming-of-age might be a major plot aspect, but it doesn't have to.

Sure, it's iffy, but it's better than nothing.

It also means that the meaning of YA does change over time, and there will be decategorizations and recategorizations all the time, but YA as a demographic still exists. Many teenage readers are yearning for the same subjects, the same tropes, the same vibe.

Its the vibe that makes YA. It's that essence you can't capture, yet it rules the themes and actions within a story. In the end, it's the little lessons subtly learned, and the experience and escapism granted through the worlds explored and the characters watched.

People are going to disagree with me, but that's the nature of YA.

YOUR TURN: How do you define YA?