The divine secrets of the YA sisterhood − How young Irish women conquered the bestseller

Young Adult fiction is the toast of the publishing industry, and whether or not female authors make up a new literary movement, they're definitely having their moment

Young Adult, Louise O'Neill, Catherine Doyle, Claire Hennessy, Asking for It, Only Ever Yours, Blood for Blood, YA fiction, Irish, Books

Irish author Louise O'Neill signs copies of her debut novel 'Only Ever Yours' while at her book launch in Clonakilty in 2015 [Twitter]

Holden Caulfield is a pensioner. The prep-school Peter Pan, a teenage iconoclast who splits the world into adults and phonies, has charmed millions of readers around the world with his world-weary teenage view of life. JD Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, remains a milestone in every teenagers’ reading list, passed on by eager parents, picked up in second-hand bookshops, or pored over with liberal highlighting in classrooms. The book turned 65 this month. Caulfield, one of the greatest literary creations in modern fiction, has lost none of his appeal or potency in the decades since he first emerged in 1951. After all, in 2016, he still manages to sell 685 copies every single day. Even without being marketed to Young Adult readers.

Young Adult, or YA as it is better known, is the buzziest trend in publishing today. The category refers to fiction produced for readers between the ages of 14 and 20, and is one of the most buoyant demographics currently keeping the book industry afloat. While sales in almost every other branch of literature are in decline, stories telling the specific challenges of youth, be they the first pangs of love in the school yard or the first bangs in a bloodthirsty dystopian death match, are very much on the rise. Of the 15 writers named on Forbes’ list of the top earners of 2015, five write YA and another is JK Rowling.

On this side of the Atlantic, while our YA writers may not quite be Rowling in it to the same level as the millions earned by John Green, Veronica Roth or Jeff Kinney, they are quietly cornering the market. Topping bestseller lists, clinching literary awards, a sorority of Irish writers are having their YA moment right now, and almost all of them are women.

“I didn’t set out to write a YA book, no,” says Louise O’Neill, arguably one of the most famous authors to emerge in Ireland over the past 18 months. Her debut, Only Ever Yours, is at first glance a clear YA sell to publishers. Telling the story of an alternative future where girls are raised in a boarding school to meet the needs of men, whether as mothers to their sons or mistresses for their pleasure, the book became an instant best-seller, its sales boosted by brilliant word of mouth spread by the very vocal community of Irish writers and readers.

Louise O'Neill's debut novel, Only Ever Yours, earned her the 'Newcomer of the Year' of the Irish Book Awards and was the winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize in 2015 [Quercus]

“I knew the main character was going to be 16 and it was going to be based in a school, but I didn’t write it with YA in mind. When I’m writing, I don’t really think about who’s going to read it or what section of the book shop it’s going to be based in. I’m just trying to really make the story as clear as possible, to make it authentic and do it justice as much as I can.”

It was only when publishers suggested pitching her book to younger readers that O’Neill considered how it would work for the market. But identifying as a YA author has, in her words, been very gratifying. “While adults are a very receptive audience to my books as well, there is nothing like a teenager who loves your book. The enthusiasm, the level of dedication and the excitement that they have around you and the books themselves... you just won’t see passion like that when you’re writing for adults.”

That is not to say that YA doesn’t have a fierce and loyal following among adults. Despite being a branch of children’s literature, a recent Nielsen Bookscan study revealed that more than 80% of Young Adult fiction is consumed by readers over the age of 25. Attracting adult readers with crossover appeal is no easy feat, but as O’Neill says, grown-up readers can find a kind of purification in the pages of her books.

“A lot of the hang ups and issues most adults deal with today come from their time as teenagers, so reading YA can be cathartic in that way. Adolescence is so fresh in our memories, a time of vivid firsts. The first time you fall in love, the time you learn to drive, the first time you have sex, or have your heart broken. Some of these memories can be sweet, some can be traumatic. So reading YA can be a way of processing those memories through literature.”

Authors Louise O'Neill and Catherine Doyle, members of the community of formidable female YA writers igniting the Irish literary scene [Instagram]

Addressing head-on social issues is a significant part of O’Neill’s writing, which perhaps explains why it’s struck a chord with adults and teenagers. Living in 2016, regardless of what age you are, means coming face to face with grief, addiction, absent role models, mortality, eating disorders, and mental illness. In Only Ever Yours, anorexia and peer pressure seep through the pages in tense and stark prose, while O’Neill’s follow up, Asking for It, fearlessly tackles the hush hushed hypocrisy of rape culture. The chapters don’t deliberately court controversy, but refuse to shy away from it, with heroines that are often as unlikeable as they are pitiable, but who aren’t invisible.

Transparency and visibility are what makes the difference in the career of the young female YA writer, at least that’s what Catherine Doyle thinks. Now writing the third part of her YA trilogy about a teenage girl who becomes embroiled in a romance with members of the mafia in Chicago, Doyle’s Blood for Blood series came about while she was working on her masters in publishing in Galway. Examining how YA is marketed and how brands are built within an industry infamous for rejection and disappointment, Doyle decided to take the plunge and write her own book.

A long-time friend of Louise O’Neill, both women are cheerful champions of each other. While the casual reader might expect the world of publishing to be cutthroat, there is no sign of an envious each-for-her-own mentality amongst the sisterhood of Irish YA writers. On social media, they promote each others’ work, celebrate each others’ award wins, share selfies from book launches, compose front-cover blurb recommendations, and offer a seemingly never-ending capacity for support.

“There’s this kind of idea or myth that women,” Doyle says, “Might feel threatened by each other. But how I honestly look at it is that a book is not a repeat purchase. No reader is going to go out and buy Only Ever Yours four times in a row. But readers might pick up a book by an Irish author, who’s raising some really interesting issues in her novel, and then look along the bookshelf. And they might pick up one or two others.

“You can look at it two ways: you can feel threatened by all these female YA authors, or you can feel empowered by them. And for me, it’s certainly the latter.”

Inferno, the second novel in Catherine Doyle's trilogy, was published in January, with the final part expected in early 2017 [Instagram]

The tender and empathetic way in which these writers tackle weighty issues is also empowering for a new generation of teenage readers. But while literary skill is an essential part of the writing process, the YA book does not stop here. For Doyle, connecting and engaging with her audience is a fun part of the job, and a necessary one.

“If you’re writing for younger audiences, you have to have a visible platform online, to be in as many places as you can. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat. Writers have to be in these spheres so they can talk to their readers. When I was doing my thesis, it was clear to me that when someone reads a book and becomes a fan, they want to know more about the characters, when the next one is out, what inspired you. Or they might just want to ask something. If you make yourself available online, not just in person, then you can reach a much wider number of people and readers. And that helps you grow your book.”

Growth is the aim of the game. For all the artistry and creativity of writing, publishing is a business, built off the back of back-cover blurbs and cracked spines. Books need to sell, and retailers have embraced YA fiction.

Jacq Murphy is a range planner for Eason & Sons, but earned her stripes on the shop floor of the flagship O’Connell St branch in Dublin. There she oversaw Department 51, the name Eason gives to the sections of its stores that combine teen, YA, science fiction, and graphic novels in one space.

“We host so many events in Department 51 and the range of titles that we’re stocking has expanded enormously in the last five years,” Murphy says. “In 2015, we ran Ireland’s first ever YA literature convention, Deptcon One, and it was phenomenal to see the amount of people who turned up for it and their enthusiasm. There were massive queues for all the signings. It was really good for Eason, as well as for the YA-loving community in Ireland.”

It’s safe to say that Murphy is something of a community leader for YA fans. She’s just returned from a holiday in New York, where she’d dragged a number of books across the Atlantic for a signing event at a convention. And she’s a member of the YA Book Club, a reading group based in the capital set up by writer Claire Hennessy. The club is well known for its cult followers of YA fans from across the publishing industry.

“A colleague of mine told me about the YA book club back when I was working in Department 51,” Murphy says. “There’re people from everywhere... Hodges Figgis, Dubray Books, different branches of Eason, from our head office. And from publishers as well, Penguin and Hachette. It’s great, it’s such a community. There’re people who just love reading, there’re people who write, who publish, or who aspire to be writers or published authors.”

As readers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the YA Book Club members fall beyond the age demographic for which the books they devour are intended. Claire Hennessy, whose most recent novel Nothing Tastes as Good was published in June, reckons the reason why so many adults are drawn to the books is because of how varied they are.

“It’s a weird one, because YA is not really a genre, it’s a demographic,” says Hennessy. “Obviously, a lot of adult readers pick up a book because a ‘Big Title X’ has been made into a movie and there’s a curiosity there. Then there’s the sense of people relieving those same life lessons that they learned in their teens. But finally, there’s also just some really great storytelling happening. And there’s a freedom in YA for experimentation that can be quite tricky. Say if you’re writing for adults, your books inevitably get categorised. If it’s romance, it goes in the romance section, if it’s crime it goes in crime. Authors have to be conscious of those distinctions. But YA just goes in the YA section. And there you have crime next to romance, beside fantasy, next to anything, next to everything.”

Hennessy is a prolific writer, having published her first novel around the age when YA novels would have been first pitched to her as a reader. Despite only being 30, she is one of the most seasoned Irish YA authors, having published 12 novels since 2000. As an insider of the Irish YA movement, approaching her second decade as one of its biggest champions and most published critics, even she is at a loss to explain just why women are dominating this field.

“I have no idea, to be honest,” she says. “There have always been women writers of teen fiction and children’s fiction. And I think it’s just a case that when one of us does really well, like Louise O’Neill, people start looking around and saying, ‘Right, okay... this is something that actually exists? Amazing!’

“Maybe it’s only when people start crossing over to the mainstream that the public starts to see what’s always been there. Like with this current trend of Irish YA writers, it’s not as if we’ve not had YA fiction in this country before. We had YA writers in the 90s, people like Siobhán Parkinson, Jane Mitchell, Margrit Cruikshank. There were people writing stuff even 30 years ago, it just wasn’t being categorised in the same way. The writing was viewed as a subsection of children’s literature. Today, it’s a huge section all by itself.”

Claire Hennessy's newest novel tells the story of a young woman who has already lost her battle with an eating disorder [ClaireHennessy.com]

But there is little doubt that women do dominate YA. According to a 2013 study by the speculative fiction publisher Tor Books, women outnumber men by 68% to 32% when it comes to submitted manuscripts. This stands in stark contrast to the science fiction and fantasy novels pitched at adult readers, where the exact opposite trend it viewed.

“I am not sure why Irish women are so prolific in this area,” says Dr Julie Anne Stevens, the director of the Centre for Children’s Literature & Culture Studies in the School of English in DCU, based in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. “Women have always succeeded in children’s writing, however, and women tend to make up the numbers in the various masters programmes in the country. And in older children’s literature initiatives. It makes sense that they would write as well.”

But Dr Stevens wouldn’t go so far as to say that the current wave of YA authors in this country forms the basis of new literary movement. “That would be a large claim,” she says. “Perhaps it is more of a popular movement that is responding to the market. And which has been encouraged by some great work by people in children’s literature. In particular, Siobhán Parkinson, but also people such as the recently deceased Robert Dunbar, a celebrated children’s book critic.

“But the quality of YA material emerging in Ireland is mixed, I think, and to see it as a literary movement we would need more high-quality books.”

Quantity is coming, at the very least. Louise O’Neill, Catherine Doyle, and Claire Hennessy are all working on their next books, their readers eagerly anticipating them. And Louise O’Neill is certain that Ireland is the place where excellent quality writing can be created.

“You know, it almost feels to me like everyone in Ireland is a writer,” she says from her family home in Clonakilty, taking a break from the page. “Everyone I know either has a book in them or they’re great storytellers. I know that sounds very clichéd, but there’s definitely a sort of lyrical nature to Hiberno-English that lends itself very well to writing literature. But it is a really exciting time in Irish publishing and for Irish women writers in particular.”

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