Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be at WorldCon in London, which ran a Young Adult track for the first time. And in that track's panels, I learned about the movement to create a new Hugo Award category for Best Young Adult novel. The idea has been raised and rejected multiple times in the past, and now a committee has been created to investigate the idea once again. And as I sat in YA panels, listening to Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J Maas, I couldn't stop wondering: is a YA Hugo category a good idea?
Because after thinking on it for a good long while, I still really don't know.
YA sci-fi/fantasy can be of Hugo-winning quality
I read four out of the five nominees for the Best Novel Hugo this year, and with the exception of the winner, Ancillary Justice, I saw nothing that you can't find in YA genre fiction. No superiority in prose, no superiority in ideas, nothing more challenging or engaging or inventive. Ancilliary Justice is a little different, since its exploration of gender might be considered a bit too conceptual for YA, but just because that sort of thing hasn't been done yet in YA doesn't mean it never will, and Hugo winners most years are not as conceptual either.
Some suggestions: The Diviners by Libba Bray, a gorgeously written supernatural horror story set in 1920s New York, with a fantastically imagined world, amazing characters, genuine terror, an intricate plot and great exploration of racial and socio-economic tensions of the time. Or The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski, a Roman empire-inspired second world fantasy about slavery. Or The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, which is a fantastic exploration of power.
But YA sci-fi/fantasy doesn't get recognition
"Young adult" is still something of a dirty word in genre fiction circles. It's marketed for teenage girls, and therefore, like romance and "chick lit," is trash for people with no brains or taste. With that kind of (clearly false) mainstream attitude, it can be difficult for great YA novels to get recognition outside of the YA sphere -- and even harder for great genre fiction to be recognized, as it has the double difficulty of not being "serious" and "literary" (like The Fault in Our Stars) and usually not being written by a man (like The Fault in Our Stars). If Young Adult had its own category in the Hugos, five YA novels each year would have to be nominated and disseminated to WorldCon members, and one YA novel would have to win. It would prevent a lot of great books being overlooked simply because of their target audience.
YA genre fiction is mostly written by women
I lack stats on this one, but my experience in bookstores, talking to other authors, and looking at the series NYT bestseller list, the majority of YA sci-fi/fantasy writers are women. Meanwhile, here's a look at the percentage of female writers on the Hugo ballots each year. Female writers were 53%, 52% and 61% of nominees in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but only 39% this year, a number that's much more representative of the typical percentage of female nominees. From 2000 to 2009, the number hovered around 20% -- three years where women were more than 50% can't really change the fact that they are almost always less than 40%, and only made up 5% of the ballot as recent as 2007. A YA Hugo would have to increase the percentage of female nominees and winners, by the very nature of the genre.
And it mostly stars women
The vast majority of protagonists in YA are young women, and increased support for female-led genre fiction can only be a good thing.
It could mark YA novels as "lesser" instead of encouraging people to accept them
A separate category doesn't say "these novels are worthy of a Hugo." It says "these novels couldn't win a real Hugo." No new categories have been made for other genres, like fantasy or horror. They're just included in the main Best Novel category. A separate category for YA novels would therefore mark the nominees as lesser books that couldn't compete with the proper leaders of the genre. And if the category existed, YA authors would never be nominated for or win the Hugo for Best Novel, the top prize in the awards.
It could create a category for female authors
Since so much of YA genre fiction is written by women, I could imagine a YA Hugo becoming the "girls'" category, the one that women are allowed to win. I could see it being renamed as "girls' genre fiction" in people's minds, and non-YA fiction being nominated simply by virtue of being written by a woman. If nominations reflected the gender split of YA authors, it could also create the illusion that the Hugos are more gender-balanced than they are, without actually addressing the percentage of female nominees for categories like Best Novel and Best Novella.
Hugo voters may not actually nominate the best of the bunch
Lack of familiarity with the genre could mean nominating and voting for YA novels written by mainstream adult sci-fi/fantasy authors... most of whom are men. I'm thinking Terry Pratchett, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman and their ilk. If people voted for familiar names, rather than reading more widely, the nominees and winners could be very unrepresentative of the genre as a whole and reward adult writers who branch into YA over full-time YA authors who would benefit more from the nomination or award.
So... I genuinely don't know. A YA Hugo could bring more attention to YA genre fiction and its authors, and in turn show that it contains quality fiction that is worthy of recognition. It could especially benefit female authors and show that "teenage girl books" are not a bad thing. Once that perception has been changed, YA novels could be streamed back into the main Best Novel category. But then, people might see that as a sign that the books are "not worthy." A separate category could do even more damage to the genre's reputation as "not real genre fiction," and might not even lead to the showcasing of YA authors when so many more well-known names also dabble in the genre.
I really hope the committee will look not only at the quality of the genre itself, but on how people would react to such a category. Who would be nominating books? Teens and other readers of YA? Would this be a temporary measure or a permanent fixture? And would WFSA members take seriously any book that appeared in the category?