A Golden of Age of Paranormal Teen Fiction – A Gender-Based Phenomenon?

Chances are that unless you happen to be living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the popularity of teen fiction. Even those who may not directly read teen fiction are helpless but to at least feel some of its impact on popular culture, and movies are a great example – ranging anywhere from the Twilight series of yesteryear to Vampire Academy and Divergence storming or about to storm the box office in 2014.

It wasn’t too long ago that Barnes&Noble announced teen fiction as one of its fastest growing sales categories. It was so popular that the book store chain went so far as to rearrange its teen book shelves nationwide in an effort to highlight the growing craze of teen fiction subgenres. In the past 6 years, sales in teen fiction have jumped 150%. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

And that gets me to the main point, which is that we seem to be living in the golden age of paranormal teen fiction. It’s about time that paranormal teen fiction received more recognition, but before I get into that, like any good librarian, I should probably first define what exactly I mean when I say ‘paranormal.’

Paranormal fiction is a genre where the story happens in a world with supernatural phenomena or abilities which exist beyond the bounds of scientific knowledge (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paranormal). Paranormal can and often does dip its fingers into half a dozen other genres, frequently blurring lines. Most of us have heard of paranormal romance, and there are strong arguments to be made for paranormal mystery, urban fiction as paranormal fiction, and paranormal historical fiction, to name a few.

What often seems to distinguish paranormal from just straight fantasy or science fiction is this quality of strangeness, a dark twist that makes its mark on whatever supernatural powers are present in the story. Although you could technically make an argument that Superman and a werewolf are both ‘paranormal,’ the reality is that for most readers only the werewolf measures up.

Maybe the best way to put it is this: paranormal has the darker horror-like feel on the surface with the not nearly as grotesque core themes found in traditional horror. A werewolf may be considered completely ‘good’ at heart, but by virtue of being a werewolf he or she can never escape those darker connotations.

Probably no books better represent the massive growth of teen paranormal fiction than Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series. The first book alone has checked out more than 650 times at my library since it plopped onto our bookshelves, and with the resurgence brought on by the recent film it probably won’t be sitting still anytime soon.  And as both a reader and librarian, I’ve found the shift in the competing popularity of teen fiction genres extremely interesting.

In a top 100 teen fiction list formulated by NPR, paranormal teen fiction made an impressive showing, essentially tying for 2nd most popular genre with dystopian teen fiction, sitting right behind general teen fiction and fantasy teen fiction, which were in a statistical dead heat virtually tied for 1st place.

For details on how the top 100 teen books were distributed, by genre, see below:

Genre-stats

See the original analysis of it here:

http://caitspivey.com/2012/08/09/the-stats-of-the-union-100-best-ever-teen-novels/  

This gets me to my last point. With paranormal fiction on the rise, some are bemoaning that it hasn’t reached the level of being understood as ‘serious literature.’ Even more head-scratching, though, is the way I’ve seen some commentators try to make the subject of paranormal (and other genres) of teen fiction into a divisive discussion about gender issues. One recent author, surveying several teen fiction genres (paranormal and others), had this to claim:

“But of course, as the genre becomes more and more popular and more and more lucrative, more and more people question why things are this way. Not why a huge chunk of new female authors choose to write in this genre and not others. But why so many women write this genre, instead of men. Where is the space for male authors? Where are the books for male readers? The answer, of course, is simple: the rest of the bookstore.”

The author goes on to imply that, because all other areas of publishing were male-dominated, YA / teen fiction rose up as this refuge for female authors and readers.

I think there’s a simpler, much more positive explanation for the YA / teen fiction emergence, however: good storytelling and a character-based rather than literary-based focus. Both guys and girls are tired of books which focus more on style or ‘artsy’ substance rather than real substance. More and more teachers are assigning teen / YA fiction whose content speaks to their students’ modern existence better than so-called ‘classics’ written half a century ago or more. There’s a hunger for storytelling which is more relationship-based, and which incorporates intriguing concepts from the whole panoply of subgenres, from fantasy to paranormal.

As ‘high school, but with vampires,’ Vampire Academy speaks to teens today in a way that classics like The Scarlet Letter never will. It’s primarily a cultural shift, not a gender shift, that’s making teen / YA fiction so popular. The more we embrace it, the more we will get guys and girls of all stripes excited about the typed or written word.

Sources:

The Stats of the Union: 100 Best Ever Teen Novels. http://caitspivey.com/2012/08/09/the-stats-of-the-union-100-best-ever-teen-novels/

Feminist Fiction. http://feministfiction.com/2012/08/14/why-do-women-dominate-ya/

2 Comments

  1. Caitlin says:

    Thanks for linking back to my post!

    I definitely agree with your conclusion that teens, teachers, and librarians are way ahead of reviewers and literary writers when it comes to acceptance of YA, and I’m really pleased about it. When I was in high school, the only classic we read that came close to resonating with me was A Separate Peace, which could be considered YA before YA was a thing.

    There’s so much great YA lit out there, and a lot of them deal with the same themes as the classics but, as you say, in a way that speaks to teens’ real lives, and it’s impossible to understate how crucial that is in establishing a habit of loving books.

    I do think there is some gender bias tied up in the literary bias against YA, but it’s increasingly coming from the upper echelons, the “old guard” writers who haven’t read or discussed teen fiction themselves.

  2. kgailm says:

    Though I’m seeing your point about gender basis, I can’t help but think of the late and greatly lamented Buffy the Vampire Slayer–by definition, paranormal and YA, but driven by a (mostly) male creator and writing staff. I think good writers are, first of all, good writers, and secondly male or female. But an excellent overview of the genre!

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