Thoughts on Recent Reading

I’ve been reading for the YALSA Non-fiction Award and for pleasure, and the following thoughts have cropped up.

Non-fiction for Young Adults
I’ve read about 15 books for this committee thus far, on a variety of topics. A few books are what we think of as “normal” size for a paperback or hardback. But most seem to be what publishers think of as appropriate for this genre, 9.4 x 7.4 (or close to that). Those books are an interesting mix of text and photos/timelines/pull quotes, etc., which a smaller size would not serve as well.

Here’s my problem/question: when did the em dash become a major punctuation mark? What’s an em dash? ā€” (in other words, an extended hyphen). In formal writing, it’s pretty rare to see em dash use, unless of course you’re reading something from a previous century, where being coy about names and places and dates was the norm (“Mr. ā€” , of Lā€” , was my host”). Somehow, though, young adult fiction has become em dash happy. One book had at least one per page, and often there were two standing in for parentheses. Parentheses are the rarity, and finding a colon or semi-colon is more difficult than finding the Higgs boson!

Adult Fiction
This trend has yet to trickle down to young adult fiction, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever. Which trend? The “: a novel” subtitle. I’m seeing more and more of them and I’m completely at a loss to understand why. This past January at the Random House Book Brunch, of the 40 books highlighted, 17 were “[title]: a novel” and of the remaining 23, 3 were “[title]: a memoir”, 5 were graphic novels and 10 were non-fiction (often with their own subtitles). That leaves a mere 5 that were not subtitled.


I’m trying to be charitable and not think that this is because stockists are now so illiterate that the only way a book will go in the correct section is if the letters N O V E L tell them that it goes in the section that’s labeled F I C T I O N. Or that people “browsing” an on-line bookstore aren’t savvy enough to look at the plot summary and can’t distinguished between fiction and non-fiction. Subtitling non-fiction makes sense, if only because there’s usually a short, punchy title that needs a description (for example, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World or Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families). But fiction? Not so much.

Oh, I know that was a popular thing in the Olden Days (Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Agnes; or, the Triumph of Principle or The Metropolis; or, a Cure for Gaming). But just think about this: War and Peace: a novel. Better yet, A Tale of Two Cities: not a travelogue but a fictional account of the French Revolution. Because otherwise we might get confused, right?

Back to the books…

1 thought on “Thoughts on Recent Reading”

  1. I just came across this and had to comment on the whole “a novel” thing. I totally agree with you. I was browsing through Goodreads one day and noticed so many books having that and I really don’t get it. Like you said, are we all so ignorant that we can’t tell if a book is a novel without it being told that it is outright? *shakes head*

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