Young Adult Romance…not just for Kids by Jeff Erno
Would you believe me if I told you that my success as a YA author is purely accidental? It’s true. I never set out to write young adult novels, and when I published my very first book, I didn’t even consider it marketable to the YA audience. To be honest, I really hadn’t given it any thought because to me it was simply a story I had always dreamed of writing, but it just happened to be about a teenager.
I always enjoyed stories that featured young characters, and as a reader I bristled at the negative characterizations assigned to some of the books I loved most. Wizard of Oz, Chronicles of Narnia, The Outsiders, and The Pigman were books I grew up reading, and I never stopped enjoying the genre. More recently I’ve become a fan of Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games.
But to me, a good story is always a good story, no matter what label is placed upon it. Can we honestly say that Harry Potter is children’s literature? Do we really believe that Twilight fans are only teenagers or that The Hunger Games appeals only to a younger audience?
Dumb Jock was a story that I first conceptualized when I was young. I wanted to write about a shy, sensitive central character who fell in love with a larger-than-life hero. It was my personal story—my dream. Although I’ve had a few romances in my life and a couple long-term relationships, my ultimate fantasy was to be swept off my feet by a jock hero like Brett Willson and to find my happily-ever-after. I used several events of my own life, weaving them together. Choosing the most poignant and emotionally impactful experiences of my life, I wrote about what I knew. I basically just shared my feelings.
Initially I promoted the book as a gay romance. I didn’t know much about the YA genre, and I knew even less about m/m fiction. Since my subsequent novels The Landlord and the Puppy Love series also featured young characters, my reputation as a YA author was solidified. And to be honest, I feel at times stifled by being pigeonholed into a single sub-genre. To some readers, I’m afraid, it’s a stigma. And I fear they might overlook some of my stories simply because of the YA label.
Many feel that the writing quality of a YA novel is inferior, immature, and over-simplified. The plots are too predictable. The characters are one-dimensional, and the dialogue is unrealistic. These are books for kids. Their themes are pointedly crafted to reach young people, not adults. In a nutshell, YA novels are beneath many adult readers, and even if the stories themselves would appeal to these readers, they’re not about to lower themselves intellectually.
It’s actually an absurd rationalization when you compare some of the popular m/m romance novels with LGBT YA fiction. Often the writing quality is far superior in the YA genre. The plots and characterization are deeper and the themes of the best YA novels are very poignant and powerful.
Of course the argument can be made that readers are going to gravitate to characters they relate to. Why would a middle-aged woman, for example, want to read about teenagers and college-aged kids? Following this logic, however, would really limit one’s literary intake. If our characters have to be exactly like our readers, then straight people would only care about heterosexual protagonists, women would only want female central characters, and none of us would enjoy reading about wizards, vampires, and beings from other planets.
If I were to be forced to place any label at all upon myself as an author, it would be “gay romance.” Every one of my stories is about love in some form. Most of these stories do feature younger protagonists, but I think this speaks more to the romantic ideal than it does to literary maturity. It is often during our youth that we romanticize life in general. We dream of happily-ever-afters. We are most physically attractive, and let’s be honest, most sexually active when we’re young. During our youth, we’re sorting everything out and thus struggling with the most angst.
I love that my stories have appealed to younger audiences. There is nothing I cherish more than the feedback I receive from gay youth who’ve been touched or affected in a positive way by reading one of my books. But I also have to say that I have only deliberately written one YA novel, and that was Bullied.
I’m proud of the fact that Bullied and several of my other novels have garnered some recognition in the YA genre, and I hope the presence of my books on the YA shelves of readers will not disappoint the true YA fans. At the same time, however, I do not want to limit myself to this specific genre.
There are numerous things that I enjoy about YA. I love writing stories of hope and promise. I love being able to tap into the most intense recesses of my emotions. I cherish the innocence and beauty of young love. I’m fascinated by pubescent characters as they come of age and begin their transition from childhood to adult. Writing about young people has allowed me to relive my youth many times.
I’ve also discovered that the YA genre has afforded me the privilege of giving back in a way I was previously never able to do. When I was young, I craved any and all gay-themed literature I could get my hands on. My literary heroes were Armistead Maupin, Aaron Fricke, Andrew Holleran, and a few others who produced amazing gay fiction during an era when it was not particularly popular. It excites me and even overwhelms me emotionally at times when I consider that now, all these years later; I’m writing books and short stories which just might be helpful to the next generation of gay youth who are discovering themselves.
Yes, the “young adult” label can in some ways be a liability. There will be readers who immediately dismiss all of my work because of preconceptions that are based upon this categorization, but in truth, these readers probably would not be the types who would really care to read my stories in the first place. Ultimately I would prefer to be known as an author who writes meaningful and memorable stories rather than a “YA author,” but the thing that matters most to me is that my work is in some way significant or impactful to those who so graciously give it a try.