Understanding the success of the YA genre: erotic fantasy
I previously wrote an article about the logic of safety, an economic strategy where previous commercial successes are duplicated in new forms to minimize financial risk. In the article, I used Young Adult novels and their film adaptations as an example. However, despite the strategy, it still comes with cultural costs, particularly a lack of media diversity. And yet the economic strategy continues to be wielded because clearly, continuous adaptations of this genre still work. To understand this success, we must also understand the overall success of this genre in the publishing industry. Who reads Young-Adult and why? This cannot be easily answered when the genre itself holds several sub-genres, each with its own audience. Therefore, for this article, I will focus on the most rapidly rising sub-genre in popularity: erotic fantasy.
Wait, what? I know what you are thinking, is this genre truly young-adult appropriate? With this new shift in the genre, so has the minimum age recommendation to at least 18 for some authors’ novels, notably Sarah J. Maas and Jennifer L. Armentrout. So, what does this new genre look like? Well, let me guide you through a small introduction into the culture of what is known as ‘smut’ – essentially written sex. Young Adult novels are no stranger to this, however, it is only recently that the smut has become more graphic, appealing to an older age group of young adults, between 16 to around 23. The rise of Wattpad fanfictions has contributed to this, with Anna Todd’s rather racy After series becoming adapted to the silver screen with mixed reviews. With Maas and Armentrout’s novels, however, the written sex scenes are so detailed that are seemingly attracting many young girls to the genre. If you look on Amazon, Armentrout’s Blood and Ash series and Maas’ Throne of Glass/A Court of Thorns and Roses series receive at least 22,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars, and they are notoriously mentioned in the book section of TikTok. That is, where avid young readers share their recommendations for books or partake in TikTok song/dance trends about books. When it comes to smut-related themes, videos, or recommendations, ACOTAR or Blood and Ash typically sit very high on the list. But what makes smut so marketable?
Here is where I will pull on speculation rooted in logic and based on my own experiences reading the genre (also being a huge fan of Maas’ work) to estimate reasons for this interest. A quick media search will tell you the dominant demographic of YA fantasy/smut readers are young girls. Consider that a large majority of young adult writers, spanning all sub-genres, are women. Typically, female authors write stories with female protagonists, whereas male authors typically write stories with male protagonists. This is a simple case of people writing what they know best, with female authors easily relating the experience of womanhood throughout intense fantasy worldbuilding. Therefore, there is no surprise that young girls find the relatability enticing, but why the smut? Well, this also goes back to the difference between female and male authors. The way male authors write about women is either underwhelming or (the other extreme) heavily objectified. Need an example? BoredPanda gives thirty of them.
I wish those examples were satire, but unfortunately, these were genuinely published books. On the other hand, the way female authors write about women is multi-dimensional, with young adult novels often delving into the scary and exciting journey of sexual pleasure for the first time. This newness to sex can often act as a sort of guidance and sex education to young girls who may or may not be experiencing this for the first time. When I was a teenager, I started reading ACOTAR and let me tell you, the spicy scenes certainly appealed to my hormones at the time! Later on, I found out that women are more cerebrally stimulated than men, which explains a potential difference in sexual stimulation where men are more visually stimulated. At such young ages where sex is typically at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it makes sense that young girls turn to written sex for their version of ‘porn consumption.’
In retrospect, this is interesting to me because their appeal not only came from the graphicness of the smut but also from how much I learned concerning sex. Not only do these books represent a game-changer in the genre of how explicit they are becoming, but also because of the sex education they are providing. Many school institutions fail to provide adequate sex education that focuses on pleasure rather than prevention of procreation, and these books are improving this by representing this information engagingly. Moreover, since the protagonists are mainly female, we find more female perspectives regarding sexual pleasure. Young girls will learn the importance of foreplay, which biological triggers occur when a woman is aroused, the equity for both male and female’s pleasure, the importance of consent and the various forms it can take aside from just “no.” Such erotic language, as NSFW as it may be, offers a chance for young girls to learn to be comfortable with their bodies and own their sexual experiences. Therefore, these are empowering pieces of literature, and perhaps an extended branch into the conversation of feminism.