Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Reading Young Adult Fiction as an Adult

Every now and then, an adult patron will tell me, "I actually really like young adult books. They're so good," in a hushed, embarrassed way, as if admitting that they enjoy young adult fiction is a problem.

This happens more often than I'd like, but let's be honest: when you're an adult, it can be hard to admit that you enjoy fiction written for teens, particularly when online essays talk about all the reasons why we should be embarrassed to like young adult fiction. In June, Ruth Graham posted an essay called Against YA, in which she stated that while it's okay for people to read whatever they want, adults should be embarrassed when they read books written for young adults. To summarize, here are some of Graham's key points:

  • Her essay isn't about books like Twilight and Divergent, which she calls "transparently trashy," and which "no one defends as serious literature."
  • She is, however, writing about realistic fiction, which can also be called contemporary fiction or contemporary realism. Examples of realistic fiction include The Fault in Our Stars, and according to Graham, "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."
  • Graham wonders if her reaction to The Fault in Our Stars (she apparently said, "Oh, brother," out loud, more than once, while reading it) makes her heartless or if it makes her an adult.
  • And then there's this: "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."
  • Graham then goes on to say that all young adult books have satisfying endings, which are created for readers who like things to be wrapped up nicely by the end of a book.
  • Finally, Graham says that adults are "better than this" and that if we're reading young adult fiction instead of "the complexity of great adult literature, than we're missing something."
Graham's essay resulted in a lot of talk among the community about why adults shouldn't feel embarrassed to read young adult literature. It's a topic that comes up again and again in the online book community, because we are told again and again that we should be embarrassed to read young adult literature. And I disagree--I don't think we should be embarrassed at all. So, if you're an adult and you're embarrassed to read young adult literature, here's why you don't need to be ashamed of it:

  • Adult fiction has just as much "trash" as Graham thinks young adult fiction has. Would anyone argue that 50 Shades of Grey or Danielle Steele is good, literary writing? Probably not. All genres will have books that people consider fluff or trash, whether it's young adult fiction, adult fiction, or even non-fiction. That's just the way it is, and there's nothing wrong with reading and enjoying things that can be described as fluff--sometimes, it's a nice break from the more intense books that are out there.
  • Contrary to what Graham says, young adult fiction might not be replacing adult fiction for readers at all. I read a small amount of adult fiction (mainly Stephen King and a few of the classics). But what about non-fiction? Graham didn't talk about that at all, and while I don't read as much non-fiction as I do young adult fiction, I still read a decent amount of it.
  • Adult fiction isn't always that interesting. Of course, young adult fiction isn't, either, but that's why I don't read certain young adult titles, just like I don't read every adult fiction book that's published.
  • Plenty of young adult books do present the teenage perspective in a critical way. It happens all the time, as the characters in young adult books look at themselves critically. Books like I'll Give You the Sun, The Beginning of Everything, The Girls of No Return, and Dangerous Girls are just a few examples of books that take on a critical teenage perspective, whether the narrators are looking at themselves or other characters in a critical manner.
  • Not all young adult books have satisfying endings. If you've read Atlantia or Dangerous Girls, you'll know that not every ending is satisfying. Also, what's satisfying to one person might not be satisfying to someone else, so it's hard to use an objective argument for something like this.
  • Are we really missing something if we read young adult fiction instead of adult fiction? Sure. I suppose, after all, that I'm missing the unhappiness I would have if I were reading something like Cloud Atlas or Ayn Rand. I'm missing the misery I would be putting myself through if I forced myself to read a book I didn't like. Do I feel like I'm missing out on something amazing by not reading books I don't enjoy? Not really.
What it comes down to is, I'm not a fan of book shaming, and I'm not a fan of telling people why they should be ashamed to read young adult fiction when the argument is based on generalities, especially when some of those generalities also hold true for adult literature.

Do you read young adult fiction? If so, tell me what your favorite young adult books are in the comments!

1 comment:

Emily B. said...

Great article! I'll read anything that interests me. My favorite YA books are the Hunger Games trilogy.