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Should Adults Be Reading YA Novels? The Debate Continues!

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

At Slate, Ruth Graham argued that adult readers should be embarrassed they are reading YA novels, generating a firestorm of protest elsewhere online.

By Dennis Abrams

girl readingThe increased popularity of YA novels has been fueled, in no small part, by a rapidly growing audience of “adult” readers. Indeed, Slate reports that according to a 2012 survey, 55% of YA books are bought by people over the age of 18. And the largest number of buyers in that survey, making up a rather astonishing 28% of all YA sales, are between the ages of 30 and 44.

Which leads to the debate. At Slate, Ruth Graham laid down the gauntlet with her article entitled, “Against YA: Adults Should be Embarrassed to Read Children’s Books.” After acknowledging the juggernaut that is The Fault in Our Stars and admitting that there is pleasure to be had in reading YA literature, she went on:

“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.

“I 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.

Not surprisingly, the piece drew a veritable firestorm of protest, from Jezebel, The Washington Post, and Flavorwire among others. But one of the more interesting and thoughtful responses came from Maddie Crum at the Huffington Post.

“The question that the Slate article and its wake of take-downs should address is not: ‘Should you feel ashamed of doing pleasurable things?’ As far as I’m concerned, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘No.’ The question we should focus on is whether or not books and adult readers have a responsibility to do more than feel good — should they also aim to improve upon the world in some way? There’s a reason why most commencement speeches by well-known authors are echoes of the same theme: happiness isn’t good enough. Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag and Jonathan Safran Foer all chose to impart similar advice to recent graduates, on the crux of adulthood: it’s your responsibility to seek something greater than pleasure. Morrison said:

“‘I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind — happiness — I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.’

“That said, there are many perfectly okay reasons to read a book, and being challenged to perceive the world in a new or complex way is only one of them. Distracting yourself from your daily grievances is another. Another: the gratifying feeling that comes with an expected, cathartic ending (which can occur in genre and classic literary books alike). Yet another, and I think this is particularly appealing to adults who read YA, is to experience nostalgia.

“The author of the Slate article wrote that she often finds herself rolling her eyes at the earnestness of YA characters. How could a guy be so persistent in pursuit a romantic interest? How could anyone ever say ‘I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things’ with a straight face? Well, because said characters are teenagers. And just because their experiences thus far have led to a certain unguardedness doesn’t mean their experiences are less valid or complicated than those of adults. Defenders of adult fiction might be unsettled to know that the suddenly beloved Karl Ove Knausgaard argues that ‘childhood is the true meaning of life, the apex of our existence, while all the rest of life is one slow journey away from it.’ Yes, this oddly implies that innocence is more valuable than wisdom, sex and ambition. But it’s worth considering. The rawness of teenage emotion can make us cringe because it embarrasses us to remember how foolish we probably looked the first time we fell in love. But that doesn’t make that time in our lives less worthy of cataloging. Reliving those experiences by reading about them from a more primary resource than, say, from the point of view of a reflective adult, elicits nostalgia, at the very least.

On which side of the debate do you fall?

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.