Andrew Karre on Editing in the "YA Boom" Era

Yesterday on Twitter, I shared a link to an article in the Guardian about a "new" trend in publishing — a genre of books labeled for "New Adults," a.k.a. readers aged 14-35. Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda books, responded with a one-word tweet: "Preposterous." Intrigued, I invited him out to the Fire Escape to explain.

Could you tell us why you think setting up a "New Adult" label is nuts?

It’s nuts because I think it’s a backwards way to make art. Allow me to elaborate further after I answer your last question.

Why do you think the YA genre has boomed recently?

A number of factors have pushed the boom in the past decade. Bear in mind, this is driven more by anecdotal observation and hunch than anything else. I’d actually love to hear somebody who was closer to the action take on the question.
  1. Demographics. I believe the teenage population of the US crested at an all-time high sometime around 2007. I have no idea where I saw that number, but I know I saw it.
  2. My sense of the lasting legacy of Harry Potter is that the series made books and authors something that existed in real time for teens and pre-teens. In other words, kids knew when these books were coming without any intermediation; they wanted to share their experiences (and they could, globally); and they expected the author to be a public figure, preferably one they could interact with. Publishing doesn’t notice much, but we noticed this. I’ve spoken about this at length in Hunger Mountain.
  3. It became possible to walk into a bookstore and buy a YA novel without walking through a section of picture books. I attribute this to B & N, but I don’t know for sure. I bet Joe Monti does. Libraries have wisely followed the trend, it seems to me. (Our own, recently built Minneapolis Central Library placed the teen center in a nook completely separate for most of the rest of the library and as far from children’s section as possible. It’s a perfect bit of design in my opinion.)
  4. And I’m probably forgetting another factor.
How (if at all) has this boom affected your editorial style?

Insofar as the fact of the YA boom has allowed me to have the job I do, it’s affected my editorial style. If publishers hadn’t wanted to add YA lists over the last decade, I’d be doing something entirely different in all likelihood.

Beyond that, though, my style is more inward facing than it is outward looking. Adolescence as a cultural phenomenon is endlessly interesting to me. I see teenage stories everywhere—ask my wife. I firmly believe we--late modern humans--created the teenage years and that those years are one of a handful of roughly universal and largely public experiences humans have in western culture. And I think this makes it a very good subject for art (in much the same way war, parenthood, falling in love, and dying are great subjects for art). This is why I say I think YA is a genre about adolescence rather than a product category for adolescents. The first thing this frees me from is answering the unanswerable question: “What do teens want?” In fact, that teenagers read the majority of YA is kind of coincidental to my editorial style, to be honest. I love teenagers dearly, but I make books for readers, first and foremost. (I get away with it because most teenagers are as curious about themselves as I am about them.) In my utopia, there is no YA section, and authors don’t self-identify as YA novelists, but there are tons of YA novels. I don’t think this is the only approach to YA, the right approach to YA, or even the best. But it’s mine and I’m fond of it.*

So, what does this have to do with "New Adult"? My (admittedly meager) understanding of what’s meant by “new adult” is that it’s an audience description (I’ve seen 14-35, and that is preposterous)—something akin to a TV demographic. This is a great way to sell advertising (I guess), but I think it’s a s***** way to make art. For me, genres are campfires around which artists gather, not ways of understanding an audience for art or entertainment. I think there easily could be a bonfire to be built around the shifting definition of adulthood. I think that’s a real cultural phenomenon, but it needs to come from the writers not the marketers.

* One big caveat: I think it’s important to push myself into less comfortable places as an editor, so it’s not hard to find inconsistencies with this approach among the ostensibly YA books I’ve edited. No Crystal Stair, for example, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the foregoing. It’s just a great book that was a joy to publish.

Thanks, Andrew! As a writer, I resonated with this statement: "The first thing this frees me from is answering the unanswerable question: 'What do teens want?' ... I love teenagers dearly, but I make books for readers, first and foremost.” Fellow writers, check out Carolrhoda's submission policy.


Janet Gurtler said…
I am a fan of Andrew Karre.
beckylevine said…
Wonderful, wonderful conversation. Thanks, both of you!
tanita davis said…
Ooh, some food for thought, here. Thanks.
Hmm ... I'm excited by the idea of "new adult" not as a product or a way to sell any other product, but because the time in life right after high school is exciting and ripe for storytelling. I once tried to write a book about that time of life (I called it TWENTY), though I was not equal to the task at the time. I'm writing and reading YA right now, but I happily fall on books about characters around the age of 20, set in those years where people are often studying or figuring out a career, usually single, and living on a shoestring budget.
Andrew Karre said…
Jennifer: I think it's an exciting time and fertile ground for art. I'd read books about. My objection is to creating creating categories of art that are FOR an age group. said…
Interesting, though I don't quite understand why he thinks his views on YA are so incompatible with NA. It's only recently that I've heard NA refer to 14- to 35-year-olds, and that is absurd. But before that, it was thought up as books generally for and definitely about people in between the YA age and the age most generally seen in grown up novels, which seem to revolve largely around 40somethings. So I thought NA was, like, 18-30ish.

I don't think pasting a label or making a new section in a bookstore is the answer, but having that as something on a publisher's website or media kit would be nice because what IS sorely needed is stories about that post-adolescence time, especially in this day and age when the media is all about man-boys who won't grow up and partying young moms and at the same time is full of mixed messages telling people my age we need to get jobs and move out of our parents' basements but also not providing us with the economic, academic, or social support we need to do it. I think it would be a really compelling category if stories like that were published, even if I share Karre's utopian desire of not needing a YA section and just putting fiction together with fiction.
Christy said…
Mitali and Andrew- Thanks for a cogent post on this topic. As a school librarian I anticipate requests from students for edgier and sexier material. The term New Adult has seemed to focus on more mature and explicit YA fiction. That said, I see no real redeeming qualities in these titles that would merit them taking space on my shelves.