On YA Lit: Should Adults Be Embarrassed to Read It?

There’s apparently been a bit of a stir lately over this article on Slate condemning adult consumers of Young Adult Literature.  To condense, the author over there, one Ruth Graham, feels (rather strongly) that YA lit is strictly for YAs and if you’re not a YA then you shouldn’t be reading YA lit.

Okay, that’s perhaps an intentional oversimplification, but the argument is simple.  As an author, you must know your audience.  (An interesting comment for me to make given my schizophrenia lately over exactly who my audience for AI might be.)  And an author writing for young adults presumably makes different choices in their stories than an author writing for adults, whether it’s simplifying plots and making characters’ choices more transparent, using saucier or more elevated language, or even the entire subject matter of the story.  So the author is writing for a specific group of people (though that group might itself be incredibly diverse).

Let’s just take that on its face.  Say you’re an accomplished author, and you write your book about robot-fighting tree-farmers in post-carbon-emissions formerly-known-as-America.  (Don’t steal that, it’s MINE.)  But you write it specifically from the point of view of, and full of the lingo of, and bulging with references to, let’s say, south Floridian retirees.  Why would you make such a choice?  This is the strange and wonderful land of Hypothetica, just keep your hands and feet inside the chopper.

So you wrote this book for this one specific audience.  Does that mean that a teenager in rural Kansas can’t enjoy it?  Or a wealthy suburbanite in Chicago?  Probably not, especially if it’s well written and taps into universal truths and human struggles (as, I think, good literature must do).  Should that teenager or that suburbanite be condemned for penetrating your big inside joke of a novel?  Surely not.  Should you, the author, be upset or disillusioned or disappointed that they are reading your book instead of, perhaps, one geared more closely to their specific life experience?  Sharknado, you still got a check, didn’t you?

Graham argues that the argument (okay my head hurts) that YA lit is pure escapism for the non-YAs that read it falls flat because “proper” literature (my term) is escapist in its own right, that YA readers are purposefully and deliberately choosing literature that is below their level because it’s “easy”, not because it’s “escapist” (again, my quotes).  But, Fargo, if I’m reading this book, isn’t it up to me to decide if it’s escapist for me in the proper manner?  Do I need to have my escapist pursuits evaluated by a committee?

Graham also argues that the stories of YA lit are too simple, too “neat”, the endings too satisfying for a non-YA adult to reasonably believe.  But really, this leg of the argument is just an offshoot of the original one, which is that YA lit is escapist because it’s simple.  I mean, I dunno, I pick up a book expecting certain things from it; is it a mortal sin if the book actually gives it to me?  Is it horrible if the character I expect to die dies?  If the character I expect to have a heart-rending revelation and subsequent transformative character development does exactly that?  Good literature should surprise us, sure, I’ll grant that, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also give us what we want vis-a-vis happy endings (settle down), the tying up of loose ends, the promise of hope and growth?  (Okay, “proper” literature has these thing too, but YA lit has them in spades, and I’m just making a point anyway, okay?)

So I think that Graham oversimplifies her issue and doesn’t really give her audience (her … scoldees?) enough credit.  I’ve read Twlight.  I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it for what it was.  Does the mere act of reading it make me a bad person, a sub-person?  …Okay, maybe that’s a bad example.  But I had a lit teacher in college (the second time around, thank you, I has educations) who put the issue of YA lit nicely: “It’s like eating ice cream. I know it’s bad for me, and that it has no nutritional value, but sometimes I just have to have it.”  We are humans.  We seek these indulgences now and then.  For sharknado’s sake, don’t drag somebody over the coals because they slipped up and read a 1500-page series about dumb gorgeous teenage vampires and the “problems” they un-live through (get it?).  We all make mistakes in life.

All that said, I do agree with Graham on the point that if you’re an adult reading YA, you need to recognize and be aware that you’re reading something that wasn’t meant for you.  Not in the way that a secret agent peruses classified stolen documents, but more in the way that I, for example, watch Yo Gabba Gabba with my two-year-old.  There are stories there.  Conflicts.  Characters.  And they’re appropriate for my two-year-old (appropriate meaning he can grasp them, not that they are appropriate — I mean, one character is made out of spikes for god’s sake), but they are not appropriate for me.  If I can pull a profound meaning out of an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba, then maybe, just fargoing maybe, there is a better use of my time out there.  Sure, watch the show with your two-year-old.  Hell, preview it for him if you’re afraid of the message it might carry, or even write an essay about how it embodies universal themes if you’re so inclined.  But don’t pretend it’s something it’s not.  And for god’s sake, don’t let it be the only entree in your diet.

Point is, read YA lit.  The medium provides authors with a lot of freedom and opportunity that … uh… adult? … literature doesn’t, and as a result, there is some cool stuff happening in YA lit.  Space cowboys.  Societies built on corn.  Teen suicide.  (Suicide isn’t cool, but being able to write a book about it that impacts the lives of teens is.)  But recognize that, much like ice cream, YA lit is, probably, maybe, not the only thing you should be eating.  You need some protein and veggies in there, too, so make sure that if you’re reading YA (and I think you should be), you’re getting a healthy dose of the classics and work by new greats too.

What do you think?  What place does YA lit have in the library of a no-longer-young-adult?

4 thoughts on “On YA Lit: Should Adults Be Embarrassed to Read It?

  1. I agree with you sir. If I spend my entire day authoring and reading scholarly articles about motivation theory and how it relates to goal setting theory in the aerospace engineering field, then it is just not fair to tell me I cannot spend 30 minutes breezing through a YA post-apocolyptic wasteland. I mean- how will they ever escape the maze? How can they defeat that brainy faction? Why is Katniss so stupid? These are questions I don’t want to have to work to answer.. Or really even think about to be honest. /rant off


    • I’m not going to lie, the first thirty words or so of your post might as well be written in Swedish, but I whole-heartedly feel the second part. Stupid Katniss.


  2. I imagine I still, sort of, belong to the YA intended audience. Yet I haven’t read any YA in the last couple of years. I guess one of the reasons for that is that it’s so much cheaper for me to buy some classic out of the Penguin collection. (I’m a poor student with a phobia for libraries.) However, it is not really anything new that a book would appeal to someone other than the intended reader and I don’t really understand how this is such a big deal. It’s very likely that YA authors will begin to consider their new audiences by expanding the intended audience, which will only improve the quality and themes in these novels further, perhaps ultimately to the level which Graham approves.


    • I hear what you’re saying, and it really raises the question of what’s YA anymore anyway? I mean in YA lit, characters die, characters get raped, characters cheat, murder, philander. So what sets it apart? The language? The structure? Those are stylistic choices. The line between YA and … what… “proper” lit is blurring. Thanks for the thought!


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