Yesterday, Slate caused a bit of a stir with an editorial reprimanding adults for reading books marketed to young adults. This song-and-dance — saying that we should be ashamed of what we like to read — is a familiar one for fans of genre fiction. And frankly, it's getting old.
Top image by Rory MacLeod.
The meat of Ruth Graham's anti-YA screed is that no one over the age of 17 should be reading young adult novels—no Hunger Games, no Divergent, no The Fault in Our Stars (whose movie adaptation seems to have inspired this manifesto). No, instead, proper mature adults should be reading appropriately literary fiction—which, presumably, you find in the part of the bookstore marked "Literature."
I'd hate to hear what she thinks about my comics collection.
This argument is a familiar one to anyone who has ever heard that serious literature can't contain spaceships or aliens or, god forbid, dragons. For decades, science fiction and fantasy fans have dealt with people dismissing our favorite books as "mere escapism" — no matter how many William Gibsons or Neal Stephensons or George R.R. Martins came along. But as science fiction and fantasy are being taken more seriously, it seems that we need to find more targets for our elitist sniffing.
Don't Confuse Marketing With Content
You know what makes a novel a young adult novel? The marketing team decides to sell the book to teenagers. They turn up in the young adult section of bookstores or in the "teen" room at the library. What unites books like Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight or Scott Westerfeld's Uglies? Very little, aside from the fact that they feature high school age (and often female) protagonists.
To say that these books represent a cohesive genre is a bit like saying that G and PG movies represent a genre because they are so frequently marketed to kids.
The young adult market is seen as a hot one right now, and it's no wonder that it has attracted so much talent, with engaging storytellers like Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, and James Dashner looking to tell stories that appeal to younger folks as well as to adults. Graham cites a statistic from Bowker Market Research that found that people in the 30-44 age range are the largest consumers of books marketed for young adults — and that they are overwhelmingly buying those books for their own enjoyment. Graham chalks that up to some flaw in her cohort's reading habits, but it speaks much more strongly to the broad appeal of these writers and their stories.
In fact, the young adult space has become a place of wild inventiveness, where mournful stories about loss and suicide rub elbows with alternate histories, supernatural world-building, and rich science fiction futures. If anything, it's evidence that publishers believe that teenagers are willing to gobble up a wide-range of genres, from the mundane to the fantastical, as long as the stories are interesting enough. Adults are just following those well-told tales.
And even when it comes to actual genres, people often confuse the category with the content of individual books. In a 2011 piece for the Wall Street Journal, author Lev Grossman notes that a lot of folks assume that fantasy is a genre for children, until they learn about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The idea that certain kinds of books must be childish because they contain young protagonists or dystopian societies or magic is nothing new and it has been disproven time and again.
Why Do We Only Shame Certain Genres?
Certain books seem to be particularly vulnerable to finger-wagging from the so-called literary elite: science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, "chick-lit," and now young adult fiction. Fiction that has been traditionally aimed at women and young people is particularly vulnerable to the criticisms of not being serious enough, not being mature enough. We don't typically see the same criticisms of, say, spy thrillers, even though some books in that category tick off the boxes on Graham's no-no list: Namely, that they tell complete stories with nice, neat endings, and may idealize situations rather than teach us big truths about life.
While there is certainly a growing number of male characters in young adult literature, the appeal for many readers is, in fact, that the books tend to feature female protagonists and deal with female struggles. Whether these characters are fighting against the typical high school social order or high-concept circumstances that will see them mind-wiped at age 18, a lot of readers find that YA satisfies a craving for interesting and sometimes powerful female characters that they may not be connecting with elsewhere. And it would be a real shame to deny them that.
In fact, Graham's insistence that adults read only adult literature seems ripe for its own dystopian YA adaptation: In the literati future, people must only read very serious books after they turn 18, but an underground of post-young adults forms a secret reading club. Because dammit, they'll keep reading about spaceships and teen heroes if they want to. And they won't be ashamed.