Some of you may recall that, back in April, A Few Words posted an excerpt from a new YA novel called Sykosa by Justin Ordoñez. I received a lot of feedback on that post, especially on the concept of writing YA for 18+. I went back to Justin and asked him to consider writing more for us on genre. He graciously accepted and so we have two fascinating posts this weekend from an “industry outsider” and his take on why he chose the path that he did. I highly encourage you to come back for the rest of the conversation tomorrow.
by Justin Ordoñez
Before we ask the question of, “Is Sykosa YA (Young Adult)?” I have a disclosure. I’m an industry outsider and I don’t know the lingo, the demographics, or what’s “hot” in the market, and until a few years ago, I had no idea what YA was, or that it sold well, and had no use for the term. I was first introduced to the term by YA author Mindi Scott. (Author of Freefall, and due in the fall, Live Through This—both fantastic novels). By chance, Mindi and I worked at the same company, and during one of our quarterly company-wide meetings, Mindi was honored for something—probably being awesome—and her manager said, “Mindi Scott is a writer and she was recently signed by Pulse, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.” It was maybe 2008 or 2009, so I was still toiling away on Sykosa, and I was already resigned to wasting my entire 20s on an unpublishable novel that would inspire every literary agent alive to say, “Yeah, I read it overnight. I was totally sucked in. What? No, sorry, I can’t represent Sykosa.”
(That’s an entirely different blog post, so I’ll stay on point…)
Anyhow, I decided to write Mindi an email and introduce myself. Over time, I came to learn she was an ambitious and serious writer, and what interested me most is that she had gone the more traditional route—attending school to help her hone her craft and working the social networking angle. It took her 5 years, but she finally got a book deal. (This is nothing I look down on, btw. In fact, I admire it, and often wonder why I can’t ever manage to do the same). Eventually, I told her about Sykosa, and her first reaction was, “Is it YA?” After confessing that I had no idea what she was talking about, I offered to let her read the novel, and although she was busy with Freefall, she said she’d read a few chapters. Upon finishing, she told me without doubt, “This is literary fiction. You’re not YA.” I asked her if she was sure about that, and then what happened is what happens to everyone who reads Sykosa; all of sudden you get this feeling in your stomach like, “Actually, no, I’m not sure… It’s just… Your novel is so…”
Finish the sentence however you like.
It’s “different.” It’s “unique.” It’s “interesting.”
Mindi’s struggle is easy to understand after you read Sykosa. And it came to be a struggle I frequently contemplated as I approached the release date. Sykosa seems tailor-made to YA: The premise for my book is YA, the characters are YA, the majority of the stuff they deal with is YA, but my book becomes for grown-ups because we’re used to categorizing certain subjects, like sex, before we examine context, and the fact that said sex exists, no matter its context, means it is inappropriate. And I don’t mean that in an egocentric, I’m-so-special way. Recently, the documentary Bully fought—and lost, then won, and lost, then won—its battle to have the film rated R instead of NC-17, and then to have the film rated PG-13 instead of R, under the premise of, “Look, kids are doing this stuff, so it can’t be NC-17 if its normalized behavior in society, and your attempt to restrict this content is not done to protect children, but to force a moral hypocrisy on the masses.” To this I agree with the creators, and this battle and many others have shown the hypocrisy of the MPAA, and the devastating effect it’s had on modern movies and their audiences.
(It should be noted, the victory secured by Bully is unique. This rating change is the exception to the rule, but in no way disproves the rule itself.)
There are many ways this relates to Sykosa, but I suppose I’ll choose the example that comes up most frequently. From some of my Amazon and Goodreads reviews, to emails I’ve received from readers, to my Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award reviewer—all of them, at some point, call Sykosa “pornography.” As I somewhat anticipated this response, I purposely added graphic conversations about pornography in Sykosa. For one, by highlighting in no uncertain terms what pornography is, it would hopefully show the reader how wrong it is to call Sykosa such, and it’s wrong if not because it isn’t pornography, then because it—by extension—accuses Sykosa, the woman, of being a “porn star.” (In short, it’s meant to show that by calling Sykosa pornography, one is objectifying Sykosa, the woman, and committing violence against her). Two, I added the conversation because, in our modern world, kids are exposed to pornography—usually online at their own or a friend’s home—at young ages, and you can approach this from any angle you want, from any research perspective you choose, and you’ll reach the same conclusion: (True) pornography in America, since the mid-1990s, has become increasingly graphic, perverted, violent and successful. Whether it is the hardcore pornography shot in the Valley, or it’s your daughter (“your daughter” being a fictional sentiment—just pretend) watching dolled-up fifteen year olds on the Disney Channel, de-humanizing women has, by far and away, become the predominate form of sexual expression in America.
(And I say this without excluding myself. Sadly, often we understand what we do because we are so guilty of it, not vise versa.)
What is the point?
The point is that, in America, young women—more than any age group of women—are in a constant war for both the ownership of their sexuality and their soul, and they are unfortunately the least equipped to defend themselves. While I suppose I can sympathize with the conventional attitude, if only because it is conventional, that says, “Sykosa has graphic sex in it, so it’s pornography and a young woman can’t read this until she is over 18,” I would also suggest a deeper examination of what pornography is, and what constitutes it. For while one might negatively label art like Sykosa, which gives Sykosa the freedom and the vocabulary to express herself how she chooses, this person never seems as passionate about something like the PG-13 movie Transformers II, and the now infamous shot of Megan Fox needlessly bent over a motorcycle with her ass in the air, which purposely mimicked the mega-popular style of pornography known as POV (Point of View). To all the teenage boys and girls in the movie theater, the message was clear: Women are porn stars. They don’t think, they don’t feel—they have sex, and that’s all. So when a person says a woman under 18 can’t read Sykosa, the implication is that she can’t read it because we need to protect young women, which (at least for me) begs the question: Is that person really protecting her, or is this young woman already where that person wished she wasn’t, and that person doesn’t want to admit it? I don’t believe there’s anything in Sykosa a young woman doesn’t already know. Sure, maybe she isn’t cogitating it perfectly, or maybe she lacks the vocabulary to fully conceive it, or her experiences have manifested in premises that’re not fully translatable to Sykosa’s—all of these things may be true, yet none of them answer the question of why, it appears, an omnipotent intellect, which is apparently obtained at 18, is the standard for a young woman’s admittance.
In fact, follow these thoughts through to their conclusion and it actually feels cruel to force young women to constantly ingest stuff akin to Transformers II—on tv, billboards, video games, the internet, and at sporting events—and then deny them any language or art to process or cope with it because allowing so feels—incorrectly—like an allowance of pornography itself, and so it’s “too adult.”
That answered, let’s look at the genres themselves.
Is Sykosa, like Mindi said, literary fiction? For some aspects of the book, I agree. For others, I don’t. (It should be noted, Mindi told me recently that she doesn’t think Sykosa is literary fiction because of the sex, it’s because of the writing style—fair point, though no one else has said that). The most important thing to consider when labeling Sykosa genre-wise is that Sykosa is in the midst of a rebellion against all formations of what society deems as “moral” and “good.” Sykosa no longer has faith in convention, nor does she believe that a person’s motives represent what is initially presented, so to put her in “literary fiction,” especially considering the state of modern literature, seems an awkward and uncomfortable fit. Consider it this way: Imagine Sykosa just walked into the school cafeteria. To her left is Holden Caulfield. To her right is Edward Cullen. Does Sykosa sit by Holden or does she look anxiously over her shoulder at Edward and try to stop herself from naming their babies? Would Sykosa associate the values of the literary world as being her own? Probably not. Sykosa feels literature is condescending to women and that it has often been an impediment to genuine female expression. (Not to say that Twilight is empowering to women, but Sykosa thinks Robert Patterson is hot, and she wanted to mention him…) To extend the cafeteria metaphor, does Sykosa fit even amongst the best written of literature’s female characters? No, she doesn’t. In all of Sykosa’s reading, the closest she’s come to really seeing shades of herself in a character is possibly Eliza Wharton, from The Coquette, and how Eliza’s serenely dissected, and how much Sykosa relates to the incentives Eliza receives to disempower herself willfully. That said, Eliza’s world is not Sykosa’s. Because of her friendship to Niko, Sykosa’s parents have enrolled her in the schools Niko attends, and Niko is part of elite America, and the kids in elite America are educated. While Sykosa may not spend the novel gloating about her big brains, if she needed to, she could wipe the floor with just about anybody intellectually, and is probably somewhere in the top 4% of students nationally. This type of intellectual empowerment has given Sykosa an entitled attitude to information, in that she believes she has a right to it. By extension, and this link is often ignored in our culture, the establishment of Sykosa’s intellectual entitlement has lead to her sexual entitlement, and she pursues sexual pleasure, either through masturbation or with Tom, when and if she desires and chooses to do so.
(I know that people’s dream world is a woman where these two aspects are separated, but it’s not possible. Independent women are sexual women—each feeds the other and makes them strong).
For Sykosa, there’s something irreverent about YA fiction that’s simultaneously conforming and punk, or it’s punk that’s “safe,” and Sykosa vibes with that mix, and, if she were a teenager in 2012, she’d get lost in YA Fiction like she gets lost in Friends. Also, Sykosa notes, YA fiction is where all the women are. Sykosa would like to be Hermonine Granger or Katniss Everdeen. She would like to be able to save the world for her friends or fight to the death protecting her family—she sees these things as noble aspirations. The problem? She doesn’t know how, and she’s struggling with figuring it out, and she’s failing sometimes…okay, maybe most times, but she’s trying, she is, and she’d be really, really proud of herself if she one day accomplished it, but she is also suspicious—suspicious that the dice are loaded, that the cards have been stacked against her, and that just when she is on the cusp of that great independence, someone will yank the carpet out from under her and say, “Sorry, we’d love to have you, but you gave your boyfriend a hand job, and we don’t allow that here,” which is just another way of saying, “Bend over that motorcycle, Sykosa—show us your ass,” which is really just a way of saying, “You’re not being a woman correctly.”
Beyond Sykosa herself, the other major issue at play in a genre assignment is that, in my experience, no one knows what YA is. People have told me YA is for middle schoolers only (which having started to met its audience, I must say is preposterous). I’ve also been told it’s for high schoolers only. Someone even told me it’s for 14-21 year olds. I had a literary fiction agent hear me read the beginning of Sykosa at a writers conference and say, kind of bewildered, “I don’t know what it is you just read, but it’s what the market wants right now.” (He then declined to accept the manuscript). Apparently, on the Internet, there’s a blog who’s theme is “YA that’s more A than Y,” since so much YA appeals to people who are not young adults. I can’t make sense of the up or down of it. It’s impossible for me to. I’m not built that way. I’m built to see a phenomena and then figure out the difference between what people say is happening and what is happening.
Part 2 of this post may be found here.
About the author: Sykosa is Justin Ordoñez’s life’s work. He hopes to one day settle down with a nerdy, somewhat introverted woman and own 1 to 4 dogs. Visit Justin on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.