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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!