In Defense of Reading Young Adult Literature As a Grown-Up
A very concerned Slate writer recently published a viral hit piece shaming grown-ups for having the gall to like young adult literature.
"Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children," Ruth Graham writes, taking issue with 55% of YA lit now being purchased by those over 18 (their lack of mortification likely indebted to the theatrical successes of Twilight, The Hunger Games and, more recently, The Fault in Our Stars). "Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this."
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The debate as to what constitutes worthy or meaningful literature is nothing new, and Graham snidely tries to prove that liking YA is some sort of literary betrayal. "Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long," she laments, as if every time we crack open Harry Potter we're missing out on the chance to read another long-winded Jonathan Franzen novel about sad, middle-class white people.
A better dictum is that life is so short, so people should read whatever they damn well please.
Graham clearly has a limited knowledge both of the breadth of subjects YA books broach and the creative forms they take, but what is most jarring about her piece is the absence of any discussion of the fact that young adult literature is largely defined by female-oriented books. Barring John Green (who is a controversial juggernaut), the genre historically has been far more receptive to women authors than has the high-brow literary fiction Graham thinks is more suitable for grown-up eyes.
YA also features some of the best female protagonists of any genre — young women like Katniss, Hazel, Margaret, Francie and Tris (whose vehicle Divergent Graham immediately rejects as unworthy of consideration at all). And where YA brought us J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Tamora Pierce, Judy Blume and Maureen Johnson (with Joyce Carol Oates and Meg Wolitzer also testing its waters), the literary fiction being read and reviewed, and ostensibly making money, overwhelming comes from men.
YA is not without fault nor above criticism, but its wholesale dismissal often surpasses literary snobbery and bleeds into an insidious manifestation of sexism. Underpinning these conversations is the notion that teen girls and the things they love are automatically silly, and that women's writing is inherently fluffier than men's.
As has often been the case with chick lit, the immediate rejection of YA has the real potential to prevent great stories written by women from getting the recognition they deserve — especially when the boundaries of YA are growing increasingly blurry, and books are being marketed to teens regardless of whether they're written for them in the first place.
The YA label shouldn't fool anyone into thinking these books have nothing important to say. The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, both of which Graham mentions, collectively grapple with adult themes of depression, suicide, death, molestation, sex and drugs, for example.
Graham disapproves of the supposed lack of grown-up perspective plaguing these teen-centric books, writing at one point that adult relationships don't work like they do in novels set in high school (to which I say, duh). But it would be a real shame if growing up meant you could no longer could identify with or learn from any art outside of your immediate experience. Teenagers are allowed to say and feel and want things that adults just can't, and it's worth being reminded now and again of the hypocrisies of adulthood as seen through a child's eyes.
There is something to be said for more academically challenging fare, but in scoffing at reading for the purposes of "escapism" or "nostalgia," Graham rejects a huge part of what can make books so comforting, magical and potentially transformative. These books do not sell because they're simple, but because their stories are uniquely engrossing. And why shouldn't they be? Even absent heavier themes, there are few emotions comparable to the pain and joy of adolescence.