“Prep,” “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” and YA fiction

This fall I read Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep (2005), which is about Lee Fiora's four years at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. Beginning when Lee is 14 years old, Prep chronicles each of her years at Ault. Prep was a bestseller and has been widely compared to Catcher in the Rye for its memorable, detailed and true portrait of a young person. It was published by Random House as an adult novel, although the author (who is a woman, by the way) said in an interview with the New York Times that at first several publishers rejected it because they thought it was a young adult novel. I also recently read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008) by E. Lockhart. It is also set in a prep school, Alabaster Preparatory Academy, and follows a girl (Frankie) beginning at age 14. Disreputable History was recently nominated for the National Book Award -- in the Young People's Literature category.

Both books deal with class in complex and fascinating detail. Both books deal with sex, although there is somewhat more sex in Prep, which also incorporates race into the mix. Disreputable History deals with power and sexism partly by incorporating a discussion of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which I didn't read until graduate school. Why, then, is one book a young adult novel while the other is not?

Last month I went to a panel on YA fantasy at Book Passage, and the panelists agreed that YA is a publisher's construct meant to sell books. The only thread that ties together YA fiction is the age of the protagonists, who tend to be teenagers. But Prep is full of teens, and it was published as an adult novel.

I think Prep might be considered "adult" because there is more sex in it -- it's not exactly sexy sex, but it is clear what's going on, and there's also a key scene involving lesbian sexuality (yay!). But more importantly, Disreputable History is YA partly because the author, E. Lockhart, writes YA fiction. That's where her niche is, and that's where it was published.

I think it shows that the line between adult and young adult fiction can be extremely blurred these days, and crossover is more possible than ever. Not for all YA books, of course -- some of them are written for teens, and adults might have little interest in them whatsoever. But I do think that the periodic grumbling that erupts across the book world about how YA fiction is so subpar (read this essay, "I'm Y. A., and I'm O. K." for a brief overview, or check out this recent example from the "YA fiction usually sucks" category), is really yesterday's news. It's the same crap that's been thrown at all "genre" fiction through the ages, when in reality it boils down to this: Some books are good. Some books are not.

I really enjoyed both Prep and Disreputable History. The main character in Prep isn't as likeable (for most people) as Frankie Landau-Banks, but to me she was just as compelling, and she frankly reminded me of myself as a teenager. Frankie is prettier and more popular, which was not like me as a teen, but she has an intelligence and deviousness that I relished.

Reading these books in close succession was fascinating. I recommend them to anyone who is a girl or used to be one, and likes her fiction sharp and smart.