There is a FaceBook group where I post little snippets of my WIPs. Recently I received a comment on one of my sections that took me by surprise.
Someone said that my work sounded like it was meant for a Young Adult audience.
The bit in question was an introduction of two new characters who are the result of Samuel’s vital art–humans who have been surgically modified into living weapons.
“We’ve got more coming in, straight ahead. Brother, can you thin the herd for us?” Agony’s voice came over my phone and Catskinner drew both knives from their sheaths on my thighs.
“my pleasure,” he said and marched my body down the street, past the burning buildings.
“Samuel,” Agony added, “Would you send the twins along with him?”
Samuel nodded to Nimdok and Gorrister and they fell into step behind me, their bodies gliding with the same dangerous grace. I felt Catskinner bristle at their inclusion, but he didn’t say anything. There were a lot of villagers, after all. Plenty of murder for everyone.
The pair of them ditched their coats on the way up the street. The one to my left—gorrister, Catskinner informed me—unfolded two additional arms and spread them. They were attached at his hips, and each ended in a muscular knot of flesh. He flexed them and they opened up, revealing toothed jaws like the heads of a pair of eyeless mastiffs.
Nimdok, I saw, was a woman, and I suddenly recognized her. I had seen her last hanging from a chainlink fence by her arms, with nothing at all below her waist. Now she had legs, a dozen of them, thin and many jointed and armored like a crab. Each ended in a spearhead of polished bone and she clattered as she scrambled up the street.
Samuel’s work, no doubt. They made Luann look positively normal, but they also looked efficient and deadly.
There’s nothing in there that strikes me as being particularly YA. On the other hand, I know the context of the scene and the comment was from someone who had only seen that one section.
Still, I asked him what made him think I was writing for Young Adults and I thought his answer was interesting. It was because I have semi-human characters that felt to him like comic book characters, and he associated comic books with a younger audience.
I personally didn’t read comics until I was well into my twenties, and the titles I tended to read were those that dealt with more mature themes, but I am familiar with the mindset. There is a prevalent idea that media that deals with speculative themes and imagery must be for children.
Those of us who work in the speculative genres have to be aware of this attitude, I feel. I once found a collection of Kafka’s stories in the children’s section of a library. Someone, I feel, must have glanced through it and thought, “A guy turns into a bug in this story–that’s got to be for kids.”
I see it a lot–my roommate and I have taken to seeing movies at the local 5 Star Lounge because while it is more expensive, it’s a 21 and over venue. It’s worth the extra money to be able to see films without small children underfoot. Parents will bring small children to something like Intersteller thinking that because it’s a “space movie” it’s going to be fun for children.
My books are written for adults and, judging from my reviews, seem to be well received by an older audience. I deal with mature themes and frequently my characters are in bad situations and make bad choices. I have some very complex relationships in my stories, some sexual and some not. I have explicitly adult scenes, and also what I consider explicitly grown-up scenes–scenes involving building maintenance and managing employees and dealing with contractors.
Some of my favorite artists deal with grown-up themes using fantastic elements–Terry Gilliam, Neil Gaimen, Tannith Lee, Robert Heinlein, Phillip Dick, Ursula K Le Guin, Ray Bradbury. As I write this Pandora is playing The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”–a happy bouncy pop tune that is written about a fairly disturbing subject. (I recall when it came out and I was the only one of my circle of friends who realized who “the old man in that book by Nabokov” referred to.)
So what do we do? One way is to deliberately include a level of gore and/or erotica that is over the top enough to make the point that this isn’t meant for children. A lot of underground comics went that route, I think. Even then it’s no guarantee–I’ve seen Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat shelved in the children’s section of video stores.
Even Horror, which I think should be the most obviously adult genre, is often considered childish. Many horror icons have spawn kid-friendly versions, from Count Chocula to the modern Monster High dolls.
I don’t know. It’s an issue that bothers me as an author–I feel like I have to prove my work is something to be taken seriously by adults in a way that writers of spy thrillers or courtroom dramas don’t. But then, life’s not fair, is it?