“an agent told me that publishers are no longer looking for paranormal or dystopian, but now want contemporary realism. True?”
I’ve heard a few responses on Twitter and Facebook since the PW piece that made me want to revisit something I wrote earlier on subgenres in YA. It’s from 2010, but I don’t think my feelings have changed much. Here’s the piece: “The Rise of the Subs.”
In the PW profile, the interviewer asked me for my thoughts on two much-discussed YA “subgenres” (my term): paranormal and dystopian.
“What does make sense to Karre is the evergreen popularity of dystopian and paranormal YA fiction. Such stories, he argues, provide a prism through which to explore the realities of being a teenager.”
This is absolutely how I see these two subgenres—how I see any subgenre that’s consistently functional in YA. What I don’t intend in my answer is a comment on the market’s taste for these things in any given moment. Do I even need to say that the market doesn’t give a shit what I think about how YA works as art or rhetoric? Yes, paranormal and dystopian will always hold a certain natural attraction for authors who make teenagers their subjects because, I believe, the set pieces, commonplaces, and building blocks of these subgenres resonate so very well with adolescent experience. This does not mean that the business of publishing won’t create peaks and valleys in the market popularity of these subgenres. Dystopian is evergreen in YA—you can find landmark examples across the decades. This doesn’t mean, though, that in any given year, every third dystopian manuscript on submission will sell in a five-publisher auction for six-figures. The market for manuscripts is a speculative economic market—with all the attendant inefficiencies, irrationalities, and blind spots—not a literary salon.
Finally, I’d forgotten that I quoted Elaine Marie Alphin* in my post about subgenres, and I was so glad to re-read her thoughts. I don’t think I have anything to match this in terms of perceptiveness and wisdom:
[…] genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.
This is good insight for writers, but as an editor, I will take it as a mandate from an author I respect and admire.
*As some of you may know, Elaine suffered a serious stroke two years ago, and though she survived, she has not yet recovered the ability to communicate verbally. I worked on one book with Elaine, and had many illuminating conversations with her. Re-discovering her post is one of many available reminders that she was a wise writer and her voice is much missed.