ACOTAR is NOT YA (and we need to stop pretending it is)

A draft of this post has been sitting on my computer for weeks, and if you ventured into YA book twitter yesterday, you’ve probably guessed why I decided to dig it out today. I think #soapgate is as hilarious as the next person does, but I also agree with many tweets I read that pointed out that the selling of that very NSFW box based on an ostensibly YA series reveals some serious problems in the YA community.

16096824.jpg            Guys, we really need to figure out how to deal with the Sarah J. Maas books as a community. I’m definitely not the only one who feels that the A Court of Thorns and Roses and Throne of Glass books shouldn’t be considered YA. Those books only grow in popularity as the installments keep coming, so it’s time to have a serious conversation about what we consider YA, why the YA designation exists, and how adult readers should interact with books that are ostensibly for teens.

            Arguing about YA classification can get tricky because there’s isn’t a single unified definition. It partially has to do with content, partially with style, and partially with treatment by the publisher and booksellers. Sometimes it seems very arbitrary. (I’ve always been of the opinion that The Book Thief was only designated YA because the characters were children but it couldn’t possibly be children’s lit.)

 

            Let’s say, though, that there are three main avenues through which a book might find its way to the YA designation:

 

  • It is YA in theme: The book deals with coming-of-age and young adult concerns like first love, search for identity, high school or family issues, etc. from a young person’s perspective.
  • It is YA in characters: The protagonist (and usually other major characters) is a teen.
  • It is YA in marketing: The book was written with a teen audience in mind and marketed primarily towards teens. This is a bit of a circular argument: we know it’s YA because the publisher says it’s YA because it’s YA…

 

            I maintain, though, that the ACOTAR trilogy (I know there’s more coming, but I’m just going to consider the main 3-book arc for now) is in no way YA except for the fact that the publisher decided to market it as such, which was a huge mistake.

            Take a look at the second point, a focus on teen characters. The protagonist, Feyre, is the youngest of the primary characters at 20 years old. Yes, 20 is only barely out of the teen years, but there’s a huge difference between 20 and, say, 16/17, where YA tends to focus. There’s no practical reason why the premise requires Feyre to be 20; she could have just as easily been 16, if SJM wanted to tell the story in a teen perspective… which she very much didn’t.

16096824.jpg            Everyone else is older than Feyre. Her sisters have a few years on her, and the rest of the main cast are non-humans with ages in three figures. Feyre’s love interests have centuries on her, though they look young—young as in twenties, though, not as in teen.

            Picture Twilight, but Bella and all the super-old vampires are in college. That’s a fundamentally different story.

            So let’s look at that first of my criteria, that the book be YA “in theme.” This is much harder to define than ages, but I think it’s pretty clear that ACOTAR doesn’t fit this bill either.

            YA is all about a young person’s perspective. If it’s a romance, for example, it’s about young love and first love–romance as a new experience.

            Feyre is already a sexually active adult when she meets Tamlin, her first love interest, and has an emotionally-intense (and super troubling) relationships with him. After the big trauma party that ends the first book, the two become engaged, but Tamlin’s increasingly abusive behavior spells the relationship’s doom. The central romance of the trilogy is, instead, between Feyre and Misunderstood Brooding Bad Boy Rhysand, with whom she gets together by the end of the second book.

17927395-3.jpg            Thematically, this romance is all about the tensions of second love or new love: severing old bonds that you thought would last forever, the guilt and conflicting feelings of finding someone new, understanding your past differently in light of new context, partners recovering from trauma together. Even if Feyre were 18 and having this experience, it’d still be fundamentally an adult perspective.

           The series is dominated by that romance, and nothing else about the books’ themes suggest a YA perspective. Perhaps Feyre’s discovery of her latent magical abilities could have a YA slant, but that aspect of her character, not in play until the second book, is wrapped up in themes of rebirth—distinctly adult. They’re a reason Feyre deviates from many established YA tropes: for example, she’s the youngest of her siblings, not the oldest, and her sisters are terrible and useless, rather than sweet and fragile. She’s being artificially held in a domestic role, not being pushed to grow up and leave too soon. It’s an adult story.

 

            All this to say: I think you can make a full, compelling argument that ACOTAR isn’t YA even before you talk about the sex scenes.

Joey from Friends:
Me reading ACOTAR for the first time, not knowing there was going to be sexytimes. Except the glee is mixed with a little bit of horror.

            There aren’t many sex scenes, just a few in each very long book, but they are long, and they are graphic, and they are, in all meanings, adult.

            I don’t really want to wade into the murky waters of what is and isn’t porn, but… it’s porn.

Big Mouth 1Big Mouth 2

            Like Justice Stevens, I know it when I see it, and there’s no difference between the ACOMAF sex scenes and straight-up erotica. Those scenes aren’t written to make you feel characters’ emotions, they’re written to be sexy.

            It’s possible to write a scene where characters have sex that isn’t itself sexually exciting, but the ACOTAR scenes are clearly meant to function as erotica. There are reasons booksellers don’t market erotica specifically to teens.

            Picture that aged-up Twilight, but peppered with very graphic sex se- oh wait, I’m describing 50 Shades, aren’t I?

            Okay then, picture 50 Shades of Gray, but it’s shelved in the teen section.

            I’m not saying that teens can’t read erotica, and I’m not saying they can’t read SJM. (On this blog, I try to stay away from age recommendations because every person is different and it’s frankly not my business. Mostly I just point out when a book has content and style that are likely to be more accessible to younger teens or better suited to older teens.) The YA designation doesn’t mean “these are the only books teens can read, and only teens can read these books.” But the designation still means something, and it makes a difference that Bloomsbury has chosen to specifically mark these books for a teen audience.

23766634.jpg            There is absolutely nothing wrong with YA books having a wider adult audience. My blog is called Too Old for YA… and I’m actually 22. I’m only a few years out of being in the target demographic for YA, but I’ve still been told I’m too old to be interested in it—and more importantly, I acknowledge that I’m not the audience these books are primarily written for. I’ll be the first to say there’s no age cap on enjoying YA. The young adult perspective is a great lens through which to look at all kinds of stories and themes. I read YA for the great writing, the inventiveness, the fun, the insight, and the sweet stomach-butterfly-fluttering romance. But I don’t pretend it was written for me. I don’t expect my sensibilities to be taken into account. And I certainly wouldn’t dream of creating content based on those books that isn’t appropriate to be marketed to teens.

            I read the ACOTAR books for the first time this year. My reviews were mixed–I had conflicting feelings about ACOTAR but found myself really enjoying ACOMAF. I found the last book to be very disappointing, but I know others who really enjoyed it. In all of those reviews, though, I pointed out my alarm that the sexual content alone didn’t disqualify the books from the YA label, even without considering style or perspective or, dear lord, length.

            From what I understand, the ACOTAR books were originally sold as New Adult and were pushed by the publisher as YA for reasons that have to do with best marketing strategy. I’m not putting any blame on the author (there’s nothing wrong with writing adult fantasy with sex scenes!) or on the readers. But given that those books are so clearly inappropriate for the YA label, and that the NA designation continues to be not really a thing in the actual reading community, that decision was irresponsible on Bloomsbury’s part, to say the least.

            But it frustrates me that we, as a YA community, have to just accept what Bloomsbury dumped into our community. Treating ACOTAR as YA is bad for YA. It dilutes the meaning of the classification, taking the focus off actual teens. It opens up the legally dubious door of marketing erotica to teenagers. It erodes YA’s ability to be a safe space for teens to not have to worry about the deluge of gratuitous sex they get in their visual entertainment.

            And as we saw this week, it makes adults, like the ones who sold and bought the infamous box, feel entitled to turn the YA “book boyfriend” into a sexual fantasy.

            There’s a lot more to say on this topic, and I encourage you to comment or contact me if you have thoughts about SJM and the YA designation. There will be a lot to unpack about that infamous box—many on Twitter already pointed out that it crosses lines in, um, good hygiene practice as well as in the sale of fanfiction. I truly, truly look forward to watching the publishing world try to respond to the entire thing in professional language.

            Thanks for reading my unnecessarily long take. Please let me know what you think!

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18 comments

  1. I LOVE ACOTAR, but I was surprised to find it in high school library where I used to teach (I’m pretty sure the librarian didn’t read it and only bought it because it was popular and marketed as YA).

    Anyway, I would have never recommended this book to one of my students purely because of the sexual content. I still see it as a coming of age story because I think moving past your first love is part of growing up, and I liked that the book incorporated that. But there are also a lot of YA novels I wouldn’t recommend because of content, and not always sexual content. It always depended on the student.

    ACOTAR was just a little too graphic to have a place in school, and for me, that’s where that distinction between YA and NA comes in. The Hunger Games is young adult; A Court of Thorns and Roses is New Adult. So essentially, is it something you’d put in a high school or classroom library? If not, it isn’t young adult.

    But I also wouldn’t say that classifying ACOTAR is “bad” for YA. I think YA is a genre that’s still figuring itself out, especially since adults and teens both like reading it. Obviously, the definition of what is YA needs to be figured out. After all, there’s a huge difference between a thirteen-year-old, fifteen-year-old, and seventeen-year-old. And obviously, there’s also a bigger audience for New Adult than publishers seem to realize, so maybe that’s where the problem lies. You’ve got 20 something “new adults” who don’t really fit into the young adult audience, but aren’t relating to the books with MCs who are in their 30s/40s, so young adult almost began to include them as well.

    I feel like I just jumped all over the place and now I’m confused by my own thought process haha. Oops. I’m not really sure what I’m getting at, but yeah.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply! I agree that publishers don’t seem to be taking advantage of the possibilities of NA marketing. I read a lot of YA (mostly for this blog) but I’m also always looking for books that fit my stage of life, and they can be weirdle​ hard to find!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can totally make weirdle a thing. I like it! haha.

      But yeah, I’ve had that struggle too. New Adult is kind of like what Young Adult used to be pre-Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc. I’m so ready for it to grow. It’s sad because ACOTAR could’ve been that “game changer” book for new adult lit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree so much with this! Sometimes I pick up older YA titles and they don’t *feel* like what we think of as YA titles now. I always hear people say there’s no “place” for NA in bookstores, libraries, etc., but that’s what they said about YA once, too. People tend to forget that YA being widely accepted as an age range isn’t all that old, either; it wasn’t so long ago that it went straight from “children’s” to “adult”.

        On a similar note, I would also really like to see people act a bit more open-minded towards the whole thing and start working to remove some of the stigma against NA. I see a lot of people (especially reviewers, sadly) say NA is “just YA with sex”, but it’s so much more than that. I believe that mindset tends to make people think NA is somehow less important or serious than YA or adult.

        Sorry to rant in your reply here, I got a little carried away haha.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I understand, but I totally agree! Sometimes it feels like “YA” has tried to “grow up” with its audience because people are starting to realize that there isn’t really much aimed at that 20-something crowd.

        I agree that there’s a damaging stigma against NA. It’s definitely similar to what had once existed with YA because it used to be “YA is just crap”. Anyway, I think its there because there isn’t much in the NA genre yet, just like there hadn’t been much in the YA genre before the explosion of titles in the 2000s. Hopefully, that will happen for NA soon because I think it could be a really great market (and because I want to read more of it!).

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Agreed! You’re right, it is honestly so similar to how people used to treat YA. I mean, I know there are still some people who are like that, but I feel like they’re much less vocal than they used to be! Hopefully we will see the same progression as NA expands, but I think the publishers and bookstores are going to have to be willing to commit to this a little bit before any big changes are made.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree with you on this! I don’t read books with graphic, explicit sex scenes (hence why I haven’t read ACOTAR) but before I knew just how far YA could go, I’d pick up random books from the library. If twelve year old fantasy lover me had picked this one up, there’s really no telling what might have happened.

    Sometimes I genuinely think that YA is too broad nowadays, which isn’t a bad thing but it’s hard when you’re trying to cater to the younger side of it or the older side.

    My main complaint with Throne of Glass is that there WAS sex in Crown of Midnight but it wasn’t graphic, which led me to believe the rest of the series would be fine. I feel like Sarah originally started out as a YA author, and has sorta changed her style into New Adult. Haha Idk if any of this made sense but anyway, great post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was JUST talking to a friend about how Throne of Glass changed when it came to sexual content and how it irritated me because she’s reading the series for the first time. I told her that I felt like the way the scenes in Crown of Midnight were written fit the tone and style of the series, but the way they were written in QoS and EoS doesn’t fit that.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’d definitely classify ACOTAR as NA rather than YA. Unfortunately, the line between what constitutes YA and what constitutes NA is blurred, and bookstores and booklists etc. usually lump YA/NA together and don’t bother separating them out!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!

    I have not been bugging me, but this has been an issue for me ever since I read the Throne of Glass series last summer. While the first two books in that series are probably fine to designate as YA, she REALLY diverged as the series went on. And no, putting a mature content disclaimer on them is NOT GOOD ENOUGH. There is no problem with teens reading these books, but marketing them directly at them is not acceptable, and I don’t know why more people aren’t raising a stink about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, are you me? lol I’m 23 and aside from classics, I pretty much only read YA.

    I read the ACOTAR series for the first time this year after reading the first 4 Throne of Glass novels while waiting for Empire of Storms and Tower of Dawn to come in at my library, and I was not prepared at all for the sexual content in these books (there were no content warnings on the copies of ACOTAR and ACOMAF I had, but ACOWAR was actually shelved in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section of my library). Like you, I was just kind of “meh” about ACOTAR, but found that I really enjoyed the character development in ACOMAF (it’s kinda my kryptonite), and was pretty disappointed in ACOWAR (DON’T BE AFRAID TO KILL YOUR CHARACTERS DAMMIT. I definitely consider the books to be NA and wish the genre was more widely known and accepted because there is definitely an audience for it. I would LOVE to have novels with 20-something year old characters that are as fierce and dynamic as the characters in the YA novels I’ve read. (So if you have any recommendations of books that meet this criteria, let me know)

    And as for #soapgate, while I’m not really okay with the box including the soap (I rolled my eyes because mostly I just don’t get why anyone would want that), I’m more concerned with the inclusion of fanfic and a profit being made off of someone else’s intellectual property. That is not okay, and it needs to be addressed.

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  7. I’ve always seen this series listed and labeled as NA, which is why I originally decided to pick it up, but it is concerning when you see it in the YA sections at bookstores. I definitely think there is room and need for sex in YA but not necessarily erotic scenes like you said. Also there’s issues with NA being labeled as such a sexual genre when that’s not always the case with the books under it’s umbrella and shouldn’t be. It’s a shame NA as a genre is so underdeveloped on a large scale – there are tons of books just waiting for their appropriate heading and designation in bookstores!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Omggg I agree with this post SO MUCH!! I’m so beyond disgusted by the soapgate thing. As a high school senior I’m pretty much the oldest in the “target audience” for YA and I feel really uncomfortable reading the sex scenes in the ACOTAR series. Since I’ve been reading YA since I was 12 and SJM is shelved with all the other YA in my library, I could have so easily read this book back in middle school, and I feel like I would have been so traumatized lol. I feel like it’s only being sold as YA because that’s more popular/to make more money, and it’s expected that all the adults who read YA will be the ones reading it and that’s so disgusting to me?? I have no problem with adults reading YA, but YA books should definitely be written FOR TEENS, not adults. And in my personal experience, most other teens I’ve talked to in person have VASTLY different opinions about SJM than many adult book bloggers who heap praise on her.

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  9. I thought I left a comment on the main thread before leaving my reply about Throne of Glass, but I guess when I signed in it was deleted? I guess I’ll try again, but there’s no guarantee it will be worded as well as it was the first time *insert eye roll emoji here*

    Wow are you me? lol

    I picked up ACOTAR for the first time this year after reading the first four Throne of Glass novels while waiting on Empire of Storms and Tower of Dawn to come in at my library. I was NOT prepared for the explicit content that was in the series (though I guess Queen of Shadows should’ve given me some hints), but I did enjoy the plot, character, and world development throughout the series. I had many of the same opinions as you regarding how I enjoyed the three books, especially ACOWAR (just kill them dammit!). I definitely consider the books to be NA (my library actually had ACOWAR in the adult sci-fi and fantasy section) and think that had Bloomsbury marketed them as such, it could have been a big game changer for NA literature.

    I’m 23, and aside from classics, I pretty much only read YA novels because I think they have been and still are leading the charge when it comes to fierce, dynamic female characters, diversity, and plots that hit on the most pressing issues facing us today. That being said, it would be nice to find books with these same qualities where the characters are my age (I welcome any recommendations you have), so I sincerely hope that publishers, bookstores, and libraries will start to recognize NA as a legitimate genre because there is definitely an audience for it!

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