This question emerged while I was I reading Red Rising, by Pierce Brown (which I really enjoyed, by the way). The book features a sixteen-year-old protagonist, first-person present narration, and a touch of romance, which by my calculations add up to a young adult novel (not to mention a certain indescribable “young adult vibe”). I was surprised to learn, though, that it was published as an adult novel, and that the author himself has described it as an “adult” book. The obvious answer is, of course, that it’s published by Del Rey, an adult imprint of Random House. Del Rey doesn’t specifically do YA, so the book must just be A. But I don’t think that’s a sufficient answer: it does nothing to explain why an adult publisher published a book with so many young adult qualities; or to get at why they insist on its “adultness” while simultaneously cashing in on the profitable young adult audience.
The interesting part of Red Rising is that it’s clearly been marketed towards teens. The cover is reminiscent of a mix of Twilight and Hunger Games; Buzzfeed did a spotlight on it (and just how many literary novels does Buzzfeed cover?); and the book is touted as “the next Hunger Games.” The cover of the book even proclaims, “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.”
Amongst readers, there seems to be no consensus on the book’s classification: various review sites call it “adult,” “YA,” and “a cross over.” Author Pierce Brown did a guest post at Teen Reads explaining that the book is adult but appeals to young adults as well (and the fact that he did a guest post at Teen Reads speaks volumes about the target audience of this book). It’s as if Del Rey wants to cash in on the young adult audience, and they did it by picking a book that they could sort of argue was adult.
You see, although the protagonist, Darrow, is sixteen, he is considered an “adult” in this dystopian society. He is married, he has a full-time job, etc. But despite having these “adult” responsibilities, Darrow acts like a child. He is impetuous; he is guided by the rage one only expects in a sixteen-year-old boy; his love for his wife is the love of children’s fairy tales. He doesn’t behave the way you would expect an adult to behave. Because he’s not. He’s a child; and he acts like one. The book reads like YA to me, despite the publisher and author’s protestations. (To be clear, I don’t see this as a flaw. I absolutely adore YA books.)
One element that impacts the YA classification is the age of the protagonist—generally, it’s a young adult book if the protagonist is a teenager. Using that logic, books like Ender’s Game and Little Women are young adult. Ender’s Game is itself an interesting case study. NPR, for example, decided to cut the book from their Best YA Fiction poll in 2012, claiming the themes were “entirely adult”: “Ender himself is young, but the book's violence isn't appropriate for young readers.” Confusing this argument is the fact that every single one of the Hunger Games books made the list. The Hunger Games—one of the most violent and bloody books I have ever read. Just check out this gem describing a boy being mauled by what can only be described as giant dogs:
The cold would be torture enough, but the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him. After a very short time, I don’t care who he is or what he’s done, all I want is for his suffering to end . . . It goes on and on and on eventually completely consumes my mind, blocking out memories and hopes of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change. There will never by anything but cold and fear and the agonized sounds of the boy dying in the horn.
So you have to ask, what’s really going on here? It seems to me that the main difference is that the protagonist and author of Ender’s Game are male, while the protagonist and author of The Hunger Games are female—but maybe I’m just cynical.
The argument feels like one of quality—not substance. It makes me wonder whether a bunch of old people sat around the table, refusing to add Ender’s Game to the list because they enjoyed it. And I feel like Red Rising is being given a similar treatment. This dude from Barnes and Noble seems to agree, claiming the book has a “decidedly literary undertone” (read: adult) because of its Roman mythology references. Never mind that mythology references are nothing new, even in YA. I guess Rick Riorden’s Heroes of Olympus series is literary? Perhaps I should just move Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series over to my literary shelf as well.
I’ve read literary fiction, and I just don’t think Red Rising belongs in that category. For one thing (and this is a major one), it’s written in first-person present. It lacks the heavy prose of a literary novel, and the book is narrated by a sixteen-year-old boy who isn’t particularly verbose when it comes to details. Unfortunately, it does have one element I notice a lot in literary fiction: a woman is used as an object to send the male hero on his quest. I hope this alone does not qualify it for literary status.
Now, one could argue that the book isn’t literary, just adult science fiction. But then how does it differ from violent, bloody books like Divergent or The Hunger Games? People have pointed to the themes of war, justice, and power as setting it above the rest, and I have to wonder if these people are reading the same books I’m reading. Was I the only one that noticed the war in the Hunger Games and Divergent series? It’s harder to come across a YA dystopian that doesn’t have themes of war and power. So if it isn’t in the prose, and it isn’t in the violence, and it isn’t in the character…the only thing I’m left with is the gender of the protagonist and the gender of the author.
I don’t mind classifying this book as adult, but the publicity and reception of this book hint at something much more upsetting: a double standard. And it’s a double standard that’s frustratingly prevalent in the YA market. It’s quite evident, for example, in YA book covers: books by female authors are given “girly” covers—usually featuring pink, cursive writing, and attractive female models—no matter the content of the book. It can be seen in the way literary commentators talk about YA (a genre dominated by female authors): that it’s silly, vapid, poorly written, and unworthy of critical appreciation. But when a male author publishes a book featuring a male protagonist (such as Red Rising), commentators deem it worthy of critical appreciation, drop the YA label, and ignore the obvious YA influences. I think it’s time we ask the obvious question: why?