Cool Geeks

April 5, 2012

When I first read Joel Stein’s dismissive of YA literature I admittedly bristled, much like Alyssa’s reaction at Think Progress.

But then I looked a little closer as research for this post.

First of all, this is part of a discussion by The New York Times on YA fiction, so while Stein is entitled to his opinion, I judge him a little less harshly knowing he’s reacting to a given topic rather than idly slamming a genre. And I have to admit that the majority of that discussion is about the virtues of young adult fiction with various authors saying it is powerful – focused on storytelling rather than narrative and not boring, it’s emotional, and that YA authors are more daring and take creative risks.

That being said, what bothered me most about Stein’s article wasn’t that he dislikes YA fiction. It was his admittedly ignorant disdain. But then I looked at Stein’s website to learn a little more about his experience as a writer and a critic and I suspect he’s trying to be funny about his disdain; using vitriol for comic effect.

But let’s not dwell. I could counter his argument with all sorts of reasons YA fiction is awesome, but I think there’s something more interesting to look at from all these ideas about why YA fiction is so popular. Because as I was reading through the articles I realized something.

YA fiction isn’t really popular.

Fantasy / Sci-fi / Paranormal YA fiction is popular.

And I think that’s an important distinction that I don’t hear a lot of people making. Because there are books out there written about teenagers and high school experience that are perfectly contemporary and normal and all about falling in love and finding your identity and making mistakes in life that you grow from and experiencing the world. And they aren’t international best sellers. In all of the hugely popular books and franchises, there is a supernatural element to it somewhere.

That supernatural element seems to be a necessary ingredient in widespread popularity.

It’s not the only thing because there are a ton of YA books out there about angels and vampires and mermaids and all sorts of super powers and fantasy creatures that aren’t bestsellers. And there’s also a lot of adult fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal written that only geeks have heard of.

It’s the combination of these two genres, each undervalued by the mass populace, that seems to strike a chord.

Naming names, we’re pretty much talking about Harry Potter (but only kind of – it’s popularity has its own very unique causes), Twilight, Hunger Games… those are the ones that have been turned into movies; the ones everyone knows about.

Now, if you’re like me and you LOVE reading YA fiction there’s about 100 other titles I know and about 15-20 of them I would call popular. A few even that are bestsellers. But I wouldn’t except anyone to have heard of them or read them without also being a YA reader. And we’re not the mass populace. We’re a subset, a niche market. So, I think outside of the names I named we’re not talking about popularity, we’re talking about respect.

Those who like YA literature don’t feel the contempt of literary critics anymore. The general populace will casually pick up a mass market YA title without disdain, though mostly only the titles they find on airport bookshelves. The media can make it seem like it’s a more popular genre because a lot of people in the media are now among those who read YA fiction. And they don’t want it to seem like they are the only ones who know the difference between Divergent and Incarceron.

Much like the geek.

However much you try to claim that the mainstream audience is embracing geekdom, it’s really not true. But thanks to the internet and geeks in influential place in the media, geeks have moved up in the food chain which brings with it respect. Where only a few years ago geeks would be mocked for loving Battlestar Galactica, now people like Felicia Day and Zachary Levi can make geeks seem like rock stars. Geeks are smart and producing some of the most interesting content on tv shows and in movies. The product, as much as geeks being in power, make being a geek kind of cool. But you have to admit Chuck’s constant struggle to stay on the air and Serenity’s sad box office constantly remind us that not everyone knows who Felicia Day is.

In a bit of serendipity, Felicia Day and The Guild released their new video this week where they actually are rock stars and while it fits exactly with everything I’m saying, I promise the two were unconnected. Until I started writing this paragraph…

Both YA fiction and sci-fi/fantasy stories have their individual strengths. But when you combine the fresh voice and point of view of YA fiction, the visceral emotion that’s part and parcel of the genre with the wider themes and possibilities of the paranormal and the escape of our commonplace lives you have something that draws people in and entices a fervent, irrational, undeniable love.

That’s why people love supernatural YA fiction.

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