This month, I’d like to talk about the phenomenon of ‘crossover’ novels. But what exactly is meant by that? And why do some critics get so annoyed by the fact they seem to be a growing trend?
First, a definition: crossover doesn’t mean adult novels crossing over to young people’s reading: that’s taken as a desirable given, whether those are of classic or modern authors, literary or popular writers. No, what is meant here is the traffic going the other way: children’s and young adult novels being read by adults. And in a subset of that, novels which appear to be directly aimed at readers in that ‘crossover” time of life, here often taken to mean from about 18-25, or even up to 30.
I’d like to look at both things separately, because I think they’re separate things. First of all, it seems to me that despite the huffing and puffing of killjoy critics like Harold Bloom and Frank Furedi, fulminating over, say, adult readers’ embrace of Harry Potter, the love of adults, young or otherwise, for certain evergreen young people’s stories has always been with us. These critics don’t have much of a sense of history, it seems to me.
Most of the ‘crossover”children’s titles are fantasy and adventure, as these are the classic crossover genres, with traffic going both ways. In classic ‘golden age’ literature, think of The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Books, Treasure Island and Kidnapped(in fact anything by RL Stevenson), Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, The Princess and the Goblin, the Tintin books, Lord of the Rings–and lots, lots more. All these books have not only nourished children’s and teenagers’ imaginations, but plenty of adults too. Written with a beautiful simplicity and clarity, they also have a core of great profundity, with multiple layers of meaning. Nobody seems to think it odd that plenty of adults love these classic books and still get a lot out of them and even write learned books and articles on them; so why the panic now? Why shouldn’t adults of whatever age enjoy the writers of the new golden age of young people’s literature? Not only JK Rowling, but Philip Pullman, MT Anderson, Mark Haddon, Neil Gaiman, Marcus Zusak, Sonya Hartnett and many, many more.
Why do adult readers want to read these books? It’s pretty simple–their authors are damn good writers and they tell a damn good story, often in surprising ways. They haven’t forgotten the central importance of story, even though their prose style is often elegant, even beautiful. They haven’t forgotten you need to care about the characters, and that you need some sort of point to the whole thing. And that above all you need pleasure in the reading experience too–pleasure which includes not only losing yourself in a work, but being stimulated and sometimes challenged as well.
I don’t find any of that surprising at all–what doesn’t exactly surprise me but rather dismays me is the reaction of some critics who act as if this means that adults are becoming ‘infantilised”and that this means the end of civilisation as we know it or something.
Absolute rubbish! I think it was CS Lewis who , paraphrasing the Bible, said something like, ‘when I was a man I put away childish things, including the fear of not being thought grown-up’. That about encapsulates it for me. As to the end of civilisation stuff, well, it seems to me that in fact the opposite is happening: that the great surging sparkling stream of children’s and young adult literature pushing up into adult reading means renewal and refreshment, or as Tolkien put it in his great essay ‘On fairy tales’, recovery, escape and consolation.
But what of the other aspect, the notion that the publishing category of ”young adult’ is being deliberately moved up to include a supposed new generational band, ‘twixters’ or ”emerging adults” as some people are calling it—people from 18–30? Or to create a completely new category for people in that age range? Is it a problem? It’s certainly true to say that there have been attemps by publishers to do just that, market certain books and writers as being specifically appropriate for people in that age band, whether that’s literary writers like, in Australia, say, Sonya Hartnett, to mass market writers like, say Matthew Reilly. I’m not sure just how well it works in reality, as I’ve heard mixed reports about it. Certainly I think it’s fair to say that Reilly’s readership is generally young men in their teens and twenties, but I don’t think that’s the case for Hartnett, who has a wider range of readership age.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to market books specifically to out-of-school young men and women. Quite the reverse! But I’m not sure if it actually works. And it can become a real problem if a writer falls between two stools–not becoming crossover, but rather disappearing into a never-never land of failed marketing.
What do readers think?
Image by joopmilder.