Are you against YA?

CharlotteThis is a controversial subject: I have known many adult readers who regularly read and enjoy Young Adult or even Juvenile fiction. Since my first “A” at the university was in Kiddie Lit, I have some background in the literary analysis and appreciation of fiction written for the younger set (I also took The Bible as Literature and that too gave me an appreciation of another 17th century work other than by Shakespeare and, contrary to what most believers might expect, actually reading the Bible supported my understanding that it was all fiction).

Although I have destroyed billions and billions of little gray cells through the years, I can’t recall the term “Young Adult” being used back then. Today, if you carefully review the titles in the YA stacks at the library, you will notice that a lot of classic literature is represented. I know Jane Eyre is often read by teenage girls but does that make it YA fiction: wasn’t it written as adult fiction but its directness and relatively easy prose make it accessible to younger readers and the themes represented in Jane Eyre are not far removed from those books dealing with the trials and troubles of your average High School student.

(There is also the character of the young woman who prefers to hide-out under a tree and read anything that takes her to an exciting new place and time, meeting interesting new characters, notwithstanding the target age group.)

So why do adults read this YA fiction? Is it because many good books have now been classified as Young Adult? Is it because the reading is easier, less complex, less effort (like EZ Crossword Puzzles)? When I do read something from the YA pool, I seldom feel satisfied when I finish: it’s like eating soup broth without the chewy goodness of the carrots, celery, noodles, and chicken. The broth is good but with more adult fiction you can dig the spoon in deeper and get those chunks of nourishment that are more satisfying and filling.

An article in Slate by Ruth Graham, titled Against YA, suggests: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom. Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts. But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. (The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches practically to age 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.)

The largest group of buyers in that survey—accounting for a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.

Hunger GamesLet’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls “realistic fiction.” These are the books, like The Fault in Our Stars, that are about real teens doing real things, and that rise and fall not only on the strength of their stories but, theoretically, on the quality of their writing. These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

The Fault in Our Stars is the most obvious juggernaut, but it’s not the only YA book for which adults (and Hollywood) have gone crazy. Coming to theaters later this summer is If I Stay, based on Gayle Forman’s recent novel about a teenage girl in a coma. And DreamWorks just announced it bought the rights to Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell’s outcast romance that Kirkus Reviews said “will captivate teen and adult readers alike.” Before these there were the bestsellers (and movies) The Perks of Being a Wallflower and It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Adult fans of these books declare confidently that YA is more sophisticated than ever. This kind of thing is hard to quantify, though I will say that my own life as a YA reader way back in the early 1990s was hardly wanting for either satisfaction or sophistication. Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I have no urge to go back and re-read them, but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.

That will sound harsh to these characters’ legions of ardent fans. But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”
But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults. When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this. I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.

The heroine of The Fault in Our Stars finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying. Her favorite book ends mid-sentence, which drives her to try and learn the story’s “real” ending from its author: “I know it’s a very literary decision and everything and probably part of the reason I love the book so much, but there is something to recommend a story that ends.” True enough, and appropriate to the character, who finds the uncertainty of her own near future maddening. But mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all. A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love. I’ve also gotten purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton, whose age and canonhood have not stopped them from feeling fresh, true, and surprising. Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long.

BronyI do not begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction. I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. But the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books. When I think about what I learned about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life—from the extracurricular reading I did in high school, I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film. “Last year, when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence,” she told New York magazine this week, explaining why she is finished making teenage movies. “But I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a woman.”

 

 

7 responses

  1. This was an incredible post to read–thank you. Definitely got the wheels turning. 🙂 When I was in high school (and even before) most of my favorite books were written for adults. I was a little ahead of my peers, but I remember most of my “YA” reading was done in middle school. I have, however, been writing YA since I was in high school. I took a break from writing during college and got a lot more exposure to a wide range of literature. Now, I’ve returned to writing it and started reading as much as I could of this genre that exploded while my back was turned.

    It’s true, I see a lot of weaknesses in these books from about as many different angles as one could find possible to criticize a novel. To be honest, I’ve had to put more than a few down after the first few pages. When I find one that is stronger and more literary, I read deep and make notes to myself of what exactly the author’s done right…or I will deconstruct “okay” books as I read them, talking back to them because I can see where they failed–where they couldn’t been better.

    It’s my hope that, seeing books the way I do and continuing to read great adult literature, that I can be one of those “good” YA authors who writes something a little more complex. Happy endings are definitely not guaranteed. 🙂

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  2. I believe there is a strong tendency in schools today to teach books that are relevant and more contemporary than the required reading you or I might have had back in the ’50s or ’60s. When The Kid was an undergraduate, I would go through the campus bookstore and notice one or two books I might not have thought worthy for college level reading and study. But The Kid is now a college professor herself and although her focus is on film, I notice that many classes are getting closer to moiety with the more classic works and the more contemporary works.

    Thinking about this, I suspect that all the classic books are good because they have withstood the test of time, but the more contemporary books can be considered popular at best (they may soon languish on the remainder pile at the bookstore or disappear entirely).

    I have gotten into unsatisfactory arguments with students who truly believe that Shakespeare should be replaced in the ciriculum by more relevant authors such as J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. I still shudder when I think about it. Of course, around here there is a large contingent that can’t understand why any book other than the Bible is being taught in the schools. (By the way, if I suddenly stop updating this website, the local open-carry militia might have discovered my ACLU affiliation and taken me for a ride in their swamp boat).

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  3. Since I’m in my 70s, I’m not in the least interested in reading about teenagers, lol. I don’t get the appeal that they seem to have for some adults, but since I’ve probably never read a YA book, who am I to judge. They sure didn’t have them in my day. When I graduated sixth grade, I also graduated from children’s books and into the adult section. Not that I was reading Dostoevsky in those days. It was more like the gothic romance writers like Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden and Phyllis Whitney and all the glorious golden age of science fiction authors.

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    • I was sent home from Third Grade with a note to my parents because I gave a book report on Shakespeare’s MacBeth: I was reading outside my reading level which in Max Rafferty’s California School System was verboten. Hey, it was a cool story with ghosts and witches … what did I know? … I was in Third Grade.

      Yes, I have commented before on that day at the Public Library when they let me turn to the right and enter the hallowed stacks of the Adult Section. I was big! In no time I knew I would be shaving …

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      • You were a much more precocious reader than I was, Mike.

        I wonder what the high school kids read in school today. Hopefully they get exposed to some good literature.

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  4. I like YA but I don’t like at times how mainstream it has become. I go on this blog for example and see several reviews of books like Fault In The Stars or Hunger Games. They are so many great YA series that people ignore due to the upcoming trends like Article 5 or The Chemical Garden series.

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    • Young Adult and Chapter Books appear to be fairly recent inventions of the publishing industry. In both cases I suspect the intention was to make something simple seem more complex: after all, “young adult” is a more important sounding term than “teenage.”

      I have a rule that states, “Only evaluations within a genre are useful.” Now I hesitate to consider YA as a genre but the sentiment holds true. This is why comparing Charlotte’s Web to The Brothers Karamazov is silly. But I still contend that reading Dostoevsky is going to boost a person’s humanity and satisfy the soul far more than reading E. B. White.

      Hey, I just realized that I first read Crime and Punishment when I was classified as a young adult … who knew!

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