Young Adult Fiction: Too Sexy or Just Steamy Enough?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Two recent articles look at today’s YA fiction from slightly different yet at the same time complimentary angles.

irresistible liz bankesIn The Sydney Morning Herald, MJ Angel posed the question: Is young adult fiction getting too sexy?

“For those of in our third decade and beyond, we may remember getting much of our sexual education from books like Forever, Puberty Blues and Flowers in the Attic or sneaking-a-peak at one of mum’s Jackie Collins or Mills and Boon collection.”

However, the teens of today (largely thanks to the Fifty Shades phenomenon) now have publishers catering to their curiosity and producing ‘steamies,’ which is essentially erotic literature for teens otherwise referred to as “New Adult” fiction.

Angel points out that while popular series such as Twilight, Hunger Games and Mortal Instruments have strong sexual undertones, they are also “the literary equivalent of having sex with your clothes on…They simply allude, insinuate, tease, and titillate the imagination of hormone fueled curious teens.”

But with “New Adult,” that’s all changing, with companies such as Hot Key Books catering to the demand for teen romance fiction, with authors such as Abbi Glines adding steamier and steamier material to her books as growing sales increasing sales indicate that’s what readers want. “We are seeing a transitional generation,” she said, “they want a good narrative with the emotional intensity of teenagers, but they want sex, too.”

In the UK, author Liz Bankes, whose novel Irresistible, follows the same path, agrees, telling Angel,

“For me, a “steamy” is a story focusing on the feelings you have when you meet someone you like and it’s written at the point where those feelings are confusing, exciting and there to be explored. I wanted to write a story that puts powerful things into an everyday setting.” And when asked about her book’s sexual content she added, “I think as long as what’s written is true to the characters and the feelings building up to it, make sense to the reader, then sex is an important part of the story, just as it is a significant part of teenage life.”

And at Bankes’ publisher, Piccadilly Press, Managing Director Brenda Garber is working with booksellers to find a balance by publishing books that satisfy teen readers’ desire for sexy stories, without going over the top into the more graphic content that’s part of the allure of Fifty Shades and other adult fiction. “It’s not about graphic sex,” she told Angel, “it’s about passion. These books have been designed to offer stories about contemporary teenage life so that young people have something to identify with.”

It’s the lack of stories about “contemporary teen life” that inspired Hillary Busis at Entertainment Weekly, with a YA landscape “glutted with fantastical dystopias, supernatural romances, brand-name-soaked glamoramas, and hyperbolic tragedy,” to look back at the YA novels that she grew up with:

“It wasn’t always this way. In a time when books aimed at the under-18 set hasn’t yet become the most valuable brand in publishing (let’s call the period B.S.M.: Before Stephanie Meyer) — back when “YA” wasn’t even really a thing — young adult and middle grade fiction were ruled by authors like [Judy] Blume, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voight, Rachel Vail, Louis Sachar, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. These writers largely rejected magic, vast governmental conspiracies, and star-crossed melodrama in favor of more accessible material — the difficulties of dealing with a friendship you’ve outgrown, or parents who are divorcing, or being abandoned by your unstable mother in a mall parking lot. Okay, so maybe Voight doesn’t totally belong on the list.”

Busis makes the point that even in earlier sci-fi and fantasy type novels like A Wrinkle in Time, the heroines (and heroes) were ordinary people that helped to keep their stories grounded. Not in 2013 of course. And whatever happened to novels that tell their story short and sweet? Today, “all those saga must be told in multiple sprawling volumes, preferably three.”

Is there hope? Busis is convinced there is.

“Trends, of course, are cyclical. I have no doubt that someday soon, the tides could change, ushering in a new wave of regular kid lit that replaces the Katnisses and Trises with characters who are less flashy but no less fascinating. Until that day, I’ll cling firmly to my copies of Tiger Eyes, and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and A Wrinkle In Time — and remember a time when being ordinary was enough.”

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.