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On Defending YA Fiction (and Why It’s Mostly Adults Doing It)

One sociological theory suggests that how people dress is indicative of a society’s trajectory. The theory goes like this:

  • When the lower class try to dress like the upper class, a society is on the incline.
  • When the upper class try to dress like the lower class, a society is on the decline.

In other words, fake Gucci’s are a good sign. Pricey designer jeans with holes in them and unshaven, unwashed celebrities, on the other hand, are a sign of the Apocalypse.

I have wondered if a similar principle isn’t at work among readers. Going theory: A society that “reads up” is healthier and better off than a society that “reads down.”

  • Reading upReading literature that is more challenging, more complex, more sophisticated, more demanding of the reader.
  • Reading downReading literature that is not challenging, not complex, not very sophisticated, or undemanding of the reader.

My mother recently did something she always wanted to do: Read Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov. She was reading up. My daughter Alayna, almost ten years ago, decided to read the Harry Potter series. Up to that point, she had not been a reader. Not only did she finish the series, she moved on to more challenging literary fare. She was reading up.

Which brings me to a trend that continues to puzzle me: Adults who read YA fiction. For if my going theory is correct, the trend of adults reading YA is indicative of a society “reading down.”

Of course, there’s much nuance and many variables to this assertion. It  doesn’t necessarily mean that YA is dumbed-down, dumbing us down, or that one can’t grow as a reader until they tackle Dostoyevsky. It also doesn’t mean there’s some magical box that all YA labeled fiction fits into. (For instance, I recently read two YA books that seemed worlds apart — Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist was excellent, while the first book in Amanda Hocking’s Trylle series was bloody awful.)

However, what gets me about this discussion is not that there’s room for various interpretations and criticism. It’s the knee-jerk reaction of adults who read YA.

This reaction was in full display in response to a recent article in Slate by freelance writer Ruth Graham entitled Against YA. The provocative subheading was enough to boil the blood of every adult YA fan: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

And boil the blood did.

The author’s premise:

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.

I’ve openly puzzled over this demographic anomaly before —  “55 percent of [YA] books are bought by people older than 18” and “28 percent of all YA sales” are to those “between ages 30 and 44.” Asking such questions aloud is not the worst of it; it’s drawing implications like the one I’m making here and the author of the Slate article does, which gets one into trouble. Graham summarizes:

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.

Missing something??? How dare she!

The blowback was fierce.

The article was “hot garbage,” said one author, calling it “broadly offensive to, just, everyone. ” This writer at The New Republic consoled, “You should never be embarrassed by any book you enjoy. And you certainly shouldn’t let some woman you’ve never met make you feel inferior for reading beneath your grade level.” The Modern Mrs. Darcy pronounced Slate was drunk for publishing such nonsense. Flavorwire called it “condescending,” another blogger added “inflammatory…  stuck-up.” On the more creative end was the accusation that the critique was actually “sexist.”

And those were the “nice” responses.

Frankly, I’m not surprised by the angry reactions. The Slate article currently has over 3,000 comments, most of them informing Ms. Graham that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I suspect the majority of those comments are not from “12- to 17-year-olds.” Once again, it’s the adults who are objecting to the suggestion that they are “reading down.”

So not only are “55 percent of [YA] books… bought by people older than 18,” that very un-young  demographic does the majority of belly-aching when their reading tendencies are criticized.

Thankfully, amidst the bristling, comes a few more level-headed responses.

Like Russell Smith at The Globe in his piece The fault in our aesthetic pigeon-holing. Smith correctly points out that part of the problem is in agreeing upon “a plausible definition of what YA is.”

What makes a publisher decide to market a book to a particular audience is not the subject matter but the style. The only thing that unites books in this category is a certain straightforward diction. The narratives, on the whole, are chatty and explanatory. The only thing that makes a book YA is that it is about teenagers and it is written in a very conventional, non-artsy, non-pretentious way. YA is not the place for the oblique or the cryptic. If it is in any way experimental in form, it is not YA.

The YA category is an entirely new one, and seems to have more to do with readability than with age group or theme. The adult YA readers I know do actually consistently say that they are looking for an easy read, a fun read, an unchallenging read. And they are unashamed of seeking the light and the fun, even defiant about it – populism seems to many like a non-conformist position. (bold mine)

And this gravitation toward “an easy read, a fun read, an unchallenging read,” is, from my perspective, all that Graham was out to skewer. That, and why adults would want to remain there.

Smith concludes:

Sure, love what you love, of course. But please don’t try to argue that criticism of what you love can only be motivated by some sort of classist snobbery, or that any criticism that relies on aesthetic judgment is in some way elitist.

The defenders of YA are willfully, I think, ignoring some important points. It is not ridiculous to point out that the primary appeal of this literature lies in its artistic conservatism. That seems like a legitimate troubling point to me. Nor is it mean or small-minded to criticize art, for as long as there has been art, there has been criticism. (bold mine)

Translation: Some criticism is valid. So why not shut up and listen.

Then there’s Geoffrey Cubbage succinctly framing the response in his title: The YA Readers Doth Protest Too Much.

Once you feel the need to defend YA literature as not just entertainment but as a tool for intellectual challenge, you’re inherently accepting the premise that literature derives value from more than just the entertainment it provides. And that’s a test most YA books — and most books in general, for that matter — fail.

The vast majority of YA books are crap for making you think about the world in deep or significant ways. They just are.

Sure, there are exceptions. But we’re talking about books for teens, here. If serious emotional or intellectual complexity makes it in there, it’s because an editor wasn’t paying attention, not because that’s what publishers think teens want.

That one really moving YA book by an up-and-coming author that made you think in ways you never thought before (and that you’re going to mention in the comments) isn’t what pieces like Slate‘s are talking about, and you know it. They’re talking about the hundreds of other books on the YA shelf that are treacly, simplistic crap, and you can’t pretend those books aren’t there, in vast quantities.

We can argue about what is and is not “crap,” what percentage of the YA market is made up of such “crap,” and whether or not the percentage of “crap” to non-crap is different for the general market to the Young Adult market. But the undeniable point, from my perspective, is that “we’re talking about books for teens.” We’re not talking about books with “serious emotional or intellectual complexity.” Or as Smith put it, “the primary appeal of [YA] literature lies in its artistic conservatism.”

Artistic conservatism. Heh.

Like Graham, I believe “There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader.” Not sure anyone in this debate is denying that. The point is, if readers aren’t reading up, they’re “missing something.”

I have a hunch as to why the Slate article provoked such a rabid response, why it was called “hot garbage,”  “broadly offensive,” “condescending,” “inflammatory,” “stuck-up,” and “sexist.”

It’s because the author was onto something.

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{ 81 comments… add one }
  • R.J. Anderson June 18, 2014, 7:23 PM

    My biggest problem with all these articles being written that are critical of adults reading YA novels, and/or of the quality and maturity of YA novels in general, are invariably written by people who don’t read YA. And that includes yours, Mike. Sure, you’ve dipped a toe in the pond, but reading two YA novels does not an expert on the genre make, or even someone well acquainted enough with the genre to have an informed opinion about it.

    Nor are people like Ruth Wilson and the other detractors well enough versed in YA to avoid the pointless sniping at mega-popular YA books like Twilight and The Hunger Games that such articles invariably contain. To me all that proves is that the authors know so little about YA beyond a general pop-culture awareness that they can’t think of any titles that haven’t been made into movies or TV shows.

    So what happens if and when the adult critics finally cave and decide to give YA a chance? They start with those very same mega-popular titles. But of course they’re only looking at a tiny, narrow sample of what the YA genre has to offer, and not even the best examples of it… so, surprise! They find the books insufficiently literary and mature to compete with classic adult literature in enriching the minds and hearts of today’s youth.

    Well, duh. “Insufficiently literary and mature” can also be said about a great many mega-popular adult books, particularly those written by Dan Brown. But if I wrote an article unfavorably comparing The Da Vinci Code to (say) Octavian Nothing: Traitor To The Nation, and then argued that adults should stop reading Brown’s superficial thrillers and start reading M.T. Anderson’s brilliantly researched historical YA novels instead, people would rightly say that I was comparing apples to oranges. So why should we take critics of YA seriously when they do the same thing in reverse?

    In short, when I see a thoughtful article about how YA readers need to grow up and read adult literature written by someone who actually knows the YA genre and has read enough of it to offer examples beyond the usual Twilight – Hunger Games – Harry Potter obvious, and moreover who knows the difference between Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction well enough not to use MG books as examples of YA (another typical problem with these articles), then I might be inclined to take its argument seriously. Otherwise, it’s a bit like C.S. Lewis said:

    “Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett… Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a teetotaler?”

    • Jeanette O'Hagan June 19, 2014, 7:48 AM

      That’s a great quote from C.S.Lewis R J – just wondering if you could say which book or article of Lewis’ it’s from.

      • Jeanette O'Hagan June 19, 2014, 7:51 AM

        Never mind – I found it. “On Science Fiction’ in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories Good old Google 🙂

  • Jason Haenning June 19, 2014, 6:14 AM

    Mike, I think your definition of “reading up” reveals a significant flaw in the discussion. Before the conversation can make meaningful progress, those involved must agree upon the definition of “reading up” and “reading down.” In most cases, reading up or down is based upon the readers own education, exposure and reasons for reading. Anyone claiming that reading YA is largely “reading down” without defining the criteria likely deserves rebuffing for making such a blanket, unqualified statement.

  • Jeanette O'Hagan June 19, 2014, 7:40 AM

    That’s a great quote from C.S.Lewis R J – just wondering if you could say which book or article of Lewis’ it’s from.

    And as an avid reader of YA and Adult, popular and literary, classics and contemporary – I agree with what a lot of people have said – all genres have great books, middling books and some awful books (though often how we rate these is a personal decision).

    Wrapping a plea for people to ‘read up’ and to ‘stretch themselves’ by tying it to a particular popular genre – or rather category ( in this case of YA) – but then claiming that you aren’t saying all YA is bad – just confuses the issue. Either say all YA is bad (if that is your point, which it seems it isn’t) or that we should stretch ourselves when we read without implying the immaturity and ‘dumbing down’ of people have different tastes in books. Just because something is written for a young audience doesn’t mean it’s juvenile. It’s been interesting hearing some of the same arguments for and against crime fiction – and the ones arguing that reading ‘crime’ is reading down are the ones that don’t read it. My suggestion that Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose was crime fiction was howled down with ‘That’s far to literary to be classified in the crime genre’ but the strongest ‘I only read literary fiction’ advocate.

    Having said that, what is wrong with reading a book for pleasure. And who says that adults that read, enjoy & defend YA don’t also read Dostoyevsky?

  • Lex Keating June 20, 2014, 6:13 PM

    A day late and a dollar short here, but the appeal of YA fiction isn’t because it dumbs anyone down or artificially uplifts the mundane. As a culture, we’ve become more than a little lost. Fiction about teens, where there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to their problems, where a conflict gets resolves and helps define this teenager–we *miss* this. We no longer have a proper coming-of-age event that defines the end of childhood and the beginning of maturity. So we look for it in fiction. And, lo and behold, bookstores are chock full of stories about teenagers whose lives have a purpose. And when combing the shelves for something that appeals to whichever piece of us has gone missing, we find that these YA books have the same things we want in “adult” books–purpose, symbolism, smart alecks, conflict resolution, and that enduring contest between character and reputation–only the language is a little scaled back. The grit of the stories isn’t as intense as “adult” books. The romance stays between the pages (instead of fueling unrealistic lusts). The adventures are the end of childhood and the beginning of a brave new life.

    Yes, I read YA. Mostly because I write YA, and I find keeping abreast of the market no hardship. A lot of it isn’t worth writing home about. (And these give me great hope that I can, indeed, do better.) But every so often, there are some surprisingly wonderful books. Timeless ones. I wouldn’t know about them if I didn’t dig, because they aren’t making the top ten lists (not enough unrealistic dystopia or lovestruck vampires). But I know that the really good surprises wouldn’t exist if YA weren’t expanding and evolving as a genre.

    If we want kids to want more out of their books, we need to introduce youngsters to quality literature that makes them recognize shoddy fiction when they encounter it. If we want adults to stop reading YA fiction, perhaps we should start producing fiction that makes adults want to be grown-ups instead of Peter Pans.

    Your call. 🙂

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