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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Not so young

“First-edition books are often worth a small fortune,” the British magazine MoneyWeek reported recently, summarizing research by an insurance company. “Taking the top spot as the biggest literary hidden treasure is Jane Austen’s beloved young adult classic Pride and Prejudice.”

Young adult?

Yes, that sound you hear is the collective splutter of legions of Janeites, who view P&P—not to mention the rest of Austen’s oeuvre—as very much a beloved adult adult classic. And I’m with them; I don’t think Jane Austen is YA. Explaining why, though? Not quite as easy as you’d think.

The definition of young-adult fiction, it turns out, is broad and contested:

* It’s “fiction written for readers from twelve to eighteen years of age,” says Wikipedia.

* “It must have at least one teenage protagonist, usually aged in the upper teens–between fifteen and nineteen years old,” says the Australia-based online literary magazine Writer’s Edit.

* Its characteristics include “fast-paced plot,” “engaging writing that is relatively easy to read,” “relevant, powerful topics explored in depth, but not too heavy or unsettling,” and “romance sub-plots,” argues one book blogger.

* “In YA, characters are discovering and pushing boundaries to discover themselves, in adult lit, characters tend to be constrained by those limits and are living within them,” suggests the library of California State University-Long Beach.

Under some of these definitions, Austen might well qualify as YA: Most of her female protagonists are younger than twenty-three, and several (Catherine Morland, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price) are teenagers. Her plotting is fast-paced; her writing is engaging and accessible (for some of us, anyway); her subject matter is weighty but her touch is light; romance definitely plays a role; and, arguably, her characters do spend time “discovering and pushing boundaries.”

True, Austen didn’t write for a teenage demographic, but the early nineteenth century didn’t think of teenagers as a demographic: A sixteen-year-old Lydia Bennet eloping with a man in his late twenties was just a grown woman getting a slightly early start on matrimony, not the tragic abuse victim we’d consider her today.

And just because Austen didn’t write especially for teenagers doesn’t mean she isn’t read by them. In researching Among the Janeites, I encountered a lot of fans who discovered Austen’s fiction in precisely that age-twelve-to-eighteen sweet spot.

As some of the above sources recognize, “young adult” is more a marketing category for publishers than an accurate genre descriptor: Plenty of beloved classics originally received as regular old adult fiction (Huckleberry Finn, say, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Catcher in the Rye) would probably be pigeonholed as YA were they published today.

I have nothing against the books marketed today as YA; some of them I’ve liked very much. YA can be as thoughtful, well-written, and emotionally resonant as any other genre of fiction.

But still, I don’t think Jane Austen qualifies, and not for the reasons of audience, character, plot, or theme identified by Wikipedia and the rest.

The reason Austen isn’t YA is because her detached, ironic narrative voice is worlds away from the earnest, passionate intensity of adolescence. “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .” The consciousness letting us in on that universal truth belongs to a grownup.


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