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Why the Word EDGY Has Lost Its Meaning

When it comes to young adult fiction, the word "edgy" is widespread. Edgy fiction, edgy characters, edgy plots, edgy writing. Aspiring authors spend a ton of time agonizing over it. Is my book edgy? they wonder. Or worse, how can I make my book edgy?

It's a plague of edgy. A pestilence. A pandemic. And I have a proposal:

We should retire the word edgy.

Not because I have a problem with young adult fiction that takes risks. Are you kidding? I adore it. I write it. I think daring subject matter is one of the main catalysts for today's YA renaissance. For the first time, authors are really, truly speaking to teens, and writing what teens want to read.

I just have a problem with "edgy".

Let's take a look at what "edgy" is supposed to mean, as it pertains to young adult fiction. Historically, it's been used to refer to books that push the envelope regarding promiscuity, drugs, drinking, pregnancy and abortion, emotional problems, and other issues that can afflict teens. It's been used to describe books about rape, abuse, incest and violence. It's also been used to describe books with gay or bisexual characters*. Books with more than a couple swear words, with characters who think about sex.

That's quite a variation.

Now you see my first problem with the word "edgy": What's edgy is utterly relative.

It's relative to what you've seen. Who you know. What you've experienced in real life. But most of all, it's relative to what you've already read.

If you've only read Meg Cabot and your next book is Wicked Lovely, certainly the latter feels edgy in comparison. But if you come at Wicked Lovely after a bout of Ellen Hopkins, Melissa Marr's book might seem pretty tame. Some readers might consider Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak edgy—until they read Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl. The unapologetic drinking in John Green's Looking for Alaska might seem edgy to you—until you pick up Melvin Burgess's Smack. Not to mention psychologically edgy books, like Chris Lynch's Inexcusable and Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which reach inside our minds and tangle up our brains.

In different contexts, "edgy" has been used as a compliment. An insult. Even as a slur. In marketing speak to sell books. As reason to ban them.

The word has been applied to so many books, on so many different topics, with so many different shades of controversy and content, it's become meaningless.

So why are we still using it?

My second problem with edgy is probably a result of its popularity. Many aspiring authors have this idea a book needs to be edgy to sell. But because the word's so overused—and misused—writers are sometimes ill-advised to pack their books with profanity and provocative subject matter, to compete with what's already out there.

While I think almost nothing should be off limits in YA, I also think as YA authors, we need to be extra accountable. That means there needs to a reason for every F-bomb, every choice our characters make, positive or negative, and the repercussions of these choices. Our books shouldn't contain a single aspect that's gratuitous, unnecessary or untrue to our characters.

Good authors don't write just to shock. Though that doesn't mean their books aren't shocking. Take Living Dead Girl, or Laura Wiess's Such a Pretty Girl, or Julia Hoban's Willow, or Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. All are great books with unflinching takes on some of the edgiest issues teens can face.

But their subject matter isn't sensationalized—it's nuanced, three-dimensional, and absolutely accountable. The books weren't written to rank high on some arbitrary edge-o-meter. Their authors simply wrote the stories they needed to tell.

Maybe at one point, edgy had meaning. But those days are over.

So let's retire the word!

That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue pushing that envelope. In fact, I propose we should do the opposite: write and read books that are provocative and honest, rich and real, lighthearted and humorous and disturbing and downright dangerous. We should strive for the most transcendent adjectives literature can possibly reach.

Edgy not being one of them.


~Kirsten Hubbard


*Don't get me started on the word "edgy" being applied to books with gay characters. Homosexuality does not signify edginess, any more than heterosexuality does.
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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20 comments:

  1. Great post, Kirsten! I've never really been bothered by the word, but I definitely get your point of view. It's a case of overuse resulting in dilution... and misuse.

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  2. Trying this again.

    YES.

    Seriously. The word has become meaningless. "Edginess" is being forced into stories. You said it - just write a story that is true to itself. I hear/say the F-bomb all the time, but reading it REPEATEDLY when it's just there to be there is annoying, like a kid who just figured out he can cuss in front of his parents and insists on doing so in every single sentence.

    THANK YOU, Kirsten! Great post!

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  3. I agree with you. Retire the word edgy. "Write and read books that are provocative and honest, rich and real, lighthearted and humorous and disturbing and downright dangerous" is a much better goal.


    Great post!

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  4. Couldn't agree more -- edgy is so overused now!

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  5. I cringe every time I see someone say, "Look over my Query for Edgy YA" or "Please tell me what you think of my Edgy YA." Like nails on a chalkboard because they think a few swear words and sex makes it "edgy."

    I agree, lets do away with the word entirely.

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  6. Really great post, Kirsten. I'm with Lee--I cringe at "I'm writing edgy YA" or "I want to make this really edgy, so I'm adding a lot of swearing and sex."
    Noooooooo.
    Goodbye, overused word.

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  7. Fantastic post. If I had a stapler, I'd be plastering the YA town.

    So right about it being relative. I often say my ms is darker compared to a lot of other YA UF. Take it out of UF, put it next to certain contemp titles and it jumps several shades.

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  8. Amen to that!

    Great post. I totally get what you mean. Edgy is being sensationalised when really, it's all about writing a story you want to tell

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  9. Truth is, the edge is so far out there now, doesn anyone really want to go over it anymore?

    Can we retire angsty along with edgy?

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  10. Excellent advice, Kirsten! I'm so over edgy. :)

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  11. Thanks for the post love and the great comments so far!! I agree with L. Diane that "angsty" is another candidate for eviction from the YA dictionary.

    Like Lee said, I also cringe when I see writers use Edgy YA as a category. Like Dystopian, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, and Edgy. What does that even mean??

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  12. Oh my goodness, THANK YOU for posting this!! *applauds widly*

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  13. This is great! I've never really paid a lot of attention to the word, but I can definitely see what you mean.

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  14. Great post!

    Personally, I'm really confused by the word edgy. As a teen, I'm baffled by some of the books that are classified as "edgy". I mean, I don't think I've ever read an "edgy" book that I'd really term edgy, except maybe SMACK (which certainly has out-there material).

    But all the same I really don't think edgy makes sense--I kind of think of an "edgy book" as one book that comes along every few years that completely changes YA fiction around. But just having controversial material in there doesn't make it edgy, imo.

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  15. I agree wholeheartedly. Wonderful post.

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  16. I can't agree more! And then I'd like to add "compelling" to that list of words that say nothing. When a book is compelling, what the bleep does that mean? It could compel me to jump off a cliff or cry or any number of things.

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  17. The problem isn't with the word edgy. The problem is with labels in general. I find that is the best word to describe what I'm doing--or at least the best word that can quickly tell a publisher or agent where I fit. The business has gotten to the point that you have to tell agents and publishers what you are and why you'll sell "product" in a fraction of a second. It's the same as any stereotype. We all know they're bad, but if we didn't have some way to quickly classify people that are based on some version of the truth, we would go nuts trying to deal with the number of people we come across in a day. Yes, it's bad to write JUST to be edgy. Adding curses and sex for it's own sake is lame. But I don't feel bad for classifying myself as edgy. Of all the little classifications out there, it's the one that fits me. For unpublished writers, it's a marketing choice. Maybe once you've got a couple novels out there you can afford to go label free. www.williamfriskey.com www.williamfriskey.blogspot.com

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  18. I dont know I think this article is kind of edgy

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Item Reviewed: Why the Word EDGY Has Lost Its Meaning Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard