Grown-Ups and YA

should grown-ups read ya?

So, by this point I’m sure that many of you have seen the kerfuffle over on Slate surrounding Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA: Read whatever you want, but you should be embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”  I read the article nearly a week ago and have been meaning to write a suitable response, but haven’t been able to find the time.  So, at long last, here are some of my thoughts, in hastily written bullet points:

  • Graham assumes that adults who are reading YA would have been reading literary fiction if they weren’t reading YA.  This statement is fallacious, and doesn’t consider that perhaps adults who are excited about young adult novels would not find literary fiction appealing as a way to spend their leisure time.  Not every person likes every genre.
  • The fact that an adult reads YA novels doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t read other things.  I like to alternate between thinking books and fluffy books.  It makes me enjoy both types more.
  • Many of the books that we now consider classics were originally intended/consumed by young adults.  They were regarded by their contemporaries as trashy, and their distinction as “literary” came much later.  I laughed when the article mentioned Charles Dickens, because books like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are books people read as teenagers.
  • The fact that Graham read one YA novel (The Fault in Our Stars) and didn’t like it says nothing about the quality of all young adult novels.
  • YA is, more than anything else, a marketing distinction.  It sells.  A lot of the books that are in the YA section would have been in the adult section if they were written 20 years ago, but they’re not, because YA sells.
  • “Literary fiction” is also a marketing distinction.  Y’know who decides that it’s “literary”?  The people that publish it.  It’s up to the reader to sort out what’s quality and what’s not.
  • One hallmark of adulthood the realization that you don’t know everything.  You feel like you’re pretending to be a grown-up, and that one day people will realize that you’re not.  Young adult novels often feature protagonists in similar situations, where they are thrust into roles of responsibility that they may or may not feel ready for, but they step up to the challenge and excel.  That feeling of insecurity and self-doubt is the same one that adults feel when getting unfamiliar assignments at work or realizing that they’re old enough to have a family.  Even though the characters in YA novels are teenagers, the books encompass universal experiences.
  • One of my favorite books is The Little Prince.  It’s written for children, but each time I read it as an adult, the message becomes more clear.  Don’t lose your imagination and become a boring grown-up.  Sometimes the simplest thoughts are the most profound.
  • It is small-minded to only read books about people who are the same as you.  That goes for age, race, gender, ethnicity, disability, etc.  Part of the magic of reading is the ability to step outside of your own comfortable experiences and experience something different.  Discounting an entire genre because it features teenage protagonists seems rather silly.
  • Reading YA as a grown-up can be a great way to learn to identify with teenagers, especially if you’re one of their parents.
  • Adults need to stop being embarrassed about the things they like.  Some people like YA dystopias, some people like cozy mysteries, some people like BDSM erotica, some people like books about robots, some people like books that make them cry, some people  like books that make them laugh, some people like romantic candlelight dinners, some people like books about cowboys, etc. etc. etc.  And you know what?  That’s okay!

And now, for your thoughts:  Should grown-ups read YA?  Is “serious” reading becoming underrated in today’s world?  What are your reactions to Graham’s article?  Discussions are welcome.  Don’t be shy.  😛

Comments make me happy! Please feel free to leave a reply.

16 comments

  1. Hear, hear. Great response; I went with the short “tweet” answer stating that I had nothing to be ashamed regarding my reading. I think that you should read whatever moves you at the moment, independent of the branding the publishers are giving it at the moment.

  2. People should read whatever the hell they want :). I’m so tired of being told what to read and what to watch and what to do. I read for pure enjoyment and stress relief, and at 48 years old I absolutely love YA. I read a number of different genres, but there is something about YA that always keeps me coming back for more.

    1. Ditto. There are some days that I want to read something intellectually stimulating, and some days when I want to read a good story that is so captivating that I lose track of time. And YA novels, like adult novels, contain such a broad range of genres and experiences. 🙂

    1. Thanks! It bothers me when people try to dictate what other people should read, because as long as what someone does in their leisure time doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s really nobody else’s business.

  3. I wonder if this article will drive more adults to read “young adult” fiction on E-Readers in much the same way that they read romance novels on e-readers…to avoid the judging stares of others because of the covers.

    I think this article was clearly designed to get hits for Slate. And it certainly has done that.

    1. I know it’s just clickbait, and much more successful/frustrating than all the Slate “You’re Doing It Wrong” articles. It’s the price I pay for my Dear Prudence addiction. 😛

      Anecdotally, I do see adults reading YA on the Metro more than erotica, but I saw a fair share of people carrying Fifty Shades around back when it first became popular. Also anecdotally, but people in DC read more than people in NYC, but that’s neither here nor there.

  4. I haven’t read the article yet. Btw – there are YA novels which i would consider quite literary. Therefore I don’t think that is a major distinction. And, as you correctly point out, it’s a marketing strategy.
    Not sure what made her write that. Plus she only read one book? She’s a real expert. Duh.

    1. On one hand, I know it’s just a curmudgeonly old lady (old in attitude if not in years) railing on about the evils of what teenagers like.

      On the other hand, it makes me so happy to see people my own age reading for fun, and I don’t want to see spoil-sports ruin all the fun. So what if it’s YA? When I grew up, I didn’t see very many grown-ups who loved reading aside from my mother and my aunts. Seeing people realize that reading can provide lifelong enjoyment makes me happy, and seeing all the backlash against the article is wonderful.

  5. well-stated points. I agree. I especially appreciate the first one, and later, your pointing out how perceptions of what is literary changes…and when people read “literature” (Dickens).

    I tend to worry about anyone who restricts their reading diet. And perhaps we should be hearing more from the literary communities the author seems to want to be arguing from. There is adult literary fiction dealing with the ‘hallmark’ resistance to adult expectations… Nick Hornby came immediately to mind, but I wonder how “literary” Graham would perceive him…

    It seemed like the arguments were not thought through and the article was trying to be provocative in order to generate traffic. If she were pushing for more literary works, surely she wouldn’t have ended with such an unappetizing description of one, and she certainly should have spent more time creating an appeal rather than attempting public-shaming.

  6. OMG! Do I sound like a teen? Right now, that expletive seems to sum up my feelings. I’m pretty shocked someone would dictate reading choices for others. I haven’t yet read Graham’s article, but I will search for it.

    Interesting you mention The Little Prince. While I first read that as a young adult, I do not consider it YA literature. It’s literature with a capital L– filled with allegorical symbolism, lyrical prose, and literary devices. I often use that book with students to examine style.

    This dictate is not only small-minded, as you say, but also short-sighted. Sir Walter Scott once tried to “improve” Jane Austen’s “frivolous” writing. Ha! She was the one in it for the long haul.

  7. You could not be more right about Dickens. In his day he was considered entertaining but not particularly intellectual or highbrow. Many of his novels were serialized in inexpensive periodicals – basically the 19th-century equivalent of television. Actually, many beloved nineteenth-century classics were considered lowbrow because for a long time novels were a “women’s” form of reading.

    I think Graham is frustrated by what she thinks is a new cultural tendency to celebrate lowbrow or easy entertainment. But if you want people to give more challenging fiction a try, the way to do that is not to crap on the books they already love. You need to convince them that they might love Margaret Atwood or Donna Tartt or Fyodor Dostoyevsky even more. At the end of that unpleasant piece I had no desire to read anything that such a negative, uninformed person recommended.

    1. Exactly! Today’s classics were considered popular rather than literary when they were written, and people’s attitudes toward them changed over time.

      Graham’s descriptions of books made me want to never ever read those books. It’s almost like she was trying to turn people off.

  8. There’s plenty of fiction intended for adults that could be construed as “trashy” or “lowbrow”. Judith Krantz novels are a guilty pleasure of mine because I love her descriptions of clothes and jewelry. Doesn’t mean I don’t also read “serious” books like Guns, Germs and Steel.

    Oh, and get this. I have a couple of *picture* books in my collection because I love the illustrations. Not just YA, but books without any words. Maybe those were written for babies? I shall now hang my head in shame.

  9. Beautifully-said, and I agree on all points! I read the Slate piece–so dismissive and so limited in its understanding. I especially object to the idea that YA novels only have limited themes, or don’t explore those themes with any depth. I’m convinced that good YA (and children’s books) can have just as much depth and deal with as complex themes as any “adult” novels. One of my favorite children’s book is Abel’s Island–about a mouse stranded on an island, and I swear he has a full existential crisis!