Nobody Should Feel Embarrassed to Read YA Fiction

Young Adult literature is not just for kids, and it fills an important niche left vacant by much of contemporary "adult" fiction.

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Young Adult literature is not just for kids, and it fills an important niche left vacant by much of contemporary “adult” fiction.

I’m usually good at steering clear of those click-bait stories that use teasy-taunty headlines to snag online eyeballs, but Slate managed to come up with such a perfect doozy last month that I couldn’t resist. Even though I realized I was being trolled by Ruth Graham’s column, “Against YA“, proclaiming that adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books, I found myself sucked in anyway, and my feathers were predictably ruffled upon finishing the article.

I’ll give props to Graham for that, at least—she knows how to reel ‘em in. But telling modern adult readers they ought to stop enjoying YA books is just dumb.

First of all, the books we now classify as “Young Adult” are not necessarily “written for children” as Graham so dubiously insists. A lot of YA books are not even written for teens—they are written for exactly who they say they are written for: young adults. What constitutes a young adult? I can’t really say, though at 41, I’m probably out of the running, and yet I still love me some YA.

Why? Because the YA genre has essentially taken the space left vacant by much of contemporary mainstream literature. Adult fiction, by which is usually meant “Literary Fiction” has become something of a modernist minefield for the average reader. You might find something really great and meaningful, or you might find some long-winded junk that hides its mediocrity behind lead curtains of dense prose, or beneath endless layers of “experimentation” that serves no narrative purpose and takes the reader on a tedious journey to n-o-w-h-e-r-e.

Even if there is some value found in grinding your way through a difficult but critically lauded tome like Infinite Jest, it’s not like you can read stuff like that all the time. That kind of fiction was written mainly to impress other writers and to expand the boundaries of the form, not to entertain or enrapture average readers. And if average readers are neither entertained nor enraptured, they aren’t going to love reading, and so they won’t be motivated or prepared to try out the more challenging books Graham believes they ought to be reading, such as J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence and apparently anything by Shakespeare.

I’m not exactly sure when it became important for a book to be deliberately challenging in order for it to become canon-approved, but I suspect it had something to do with the attempted censorship of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I’ve tried several times to get through and will probably have to keep trying for the rest of my life. In 1920, the year a masturbatory scene from Ulysses appeared in a US literary journal, it was essentially put on trial by a puritanical group of culture critics known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who claimed the text was obscene. The book was essentially banned in America, and if the Post Office caught anyone trying to import a copy from France, it would burn it on sight.

The next year, in the landmark decision “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses”, a federal judge deemed Joyce’s masterpiece fit for human consumption, and modernists everywhere cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft! (In other words, they all had orgasms at the beach.)

The verdict was, of course, the right decision, establishing some basic freedoms of imagination and expression that we writers of today should be extremely grateful for. But I wonder sometimes if critics and literary lions of the day overshot their mark in their vociferous defense of Ulysses. T.S. Eliot called it the most important book of the age, and basically said that anyone who didn’t get it was a dolt. By setting up such a difficult book as the paragon of 20th century literature, Eliot and his gang created an ideal for fiction that was far outside of the average reader’s taste range.

Eventually, that ideal would splinter popular literature into the kaleidoscope of genres we see today. This development was probably good for publishers, since more genres equates to more control over who they could market specific titles to. But it’s also led to a confusing array of choices that readers shouldn’t necessarily have to make.

When I think of YA fiction, I don’t think of stuff like The Fault in Our Stars, the book that led Graham to her anti-YA stance. I didn’t read it and I probably won’t, because it seems more like Chick Lit to me, and I just don’t have any interest in love stories, cancerous or otherwise. When I think of YA, I think of two things: Old classics like The Lord of the Flies and edgy new titles like Blythe Woolston’s Black Helicopters, which follows the tragic journey of a female suicide bomber from America’s right wing underground.

That’s the kind of stuff I like to read, whether it’s new, old, for adults or kids or whomever. These are books that challenge orthodoxy and explore the motivations of the best and worst in human behavior. Books like the two I just mentioned are hard to lump into genres because they don’t seem to have a lot in common other than a bleak outlook and young protagonists, so that’s how they end up shelved in YA. (It’s also natural for writers who are exploring social motivations to write about young people because those years are so important for moral development; it’s often easier to show internal conflict in characters just learning these things than characters old enough to have already absorbed such lessons.)

Now, I know a lot of people will object to me calling The Lord of the Flies YA, and well they should. William Golding certainly didn’t write it for kids, but check your local library for a copy and I guarantee it’ll be shelved in the YA section, alongside other great classics like Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Of Mice and Men, and everything else you were supposed to read in high school.

Why? Are classics just for kids now? Should I be embarrassed to read David Copperfield because the last person who checked it out has braces on her teeth? Obviously not, and this is where Graham’s argument really falls apart, because she specifically cites Dickens as an adult writer who can give her a “plot-high” like no YA writer apparently can.

But if Dickens were alive today, which genre do you think he’d be writing in? He’s not experimental enough for today’s literary fiction, not hard-boiled enough for the crime genre (even though there is always some crime at the heart of his plots), too realistic for any of the fantasy genres, and far too sentimental to be taken seriously by modernist critics. If Dickens were writing today, his books would fall squarely and automatically into the YA genre, because they have everything YA readers long for–well-crafted characters on complex journeys who learn and grow and overcome.

One other thing I think has led to the popularity of YA (as well as its undefinable cousin, so-called “New Adult” fiction) is the recent proliferation of confessional non-fiction. Ever since the Beat writers of the ’50s and their heirs, the “New Journalism” movement of the ’60s, people have gravitated toward memoir and away from fiction in general. I’m not sure exactly why, but the prevalent idea seems to be that a “true story” is more enjoyable than a fictional one because it “really happened” to the writer.

I gotta say, while I love the Beats and Joan Didion and all that stuff, and while there’s a ton of great memoir out there now, I don’t get why some people think a nonfiction story is supposed to be intrinsically better than a fictional one. To me, a story is either satisfying because it rings true in an emotional sense, or unsatisfying because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because I know the difference between truth and fact, and neither is the exclusive domain of one genre over another.

The nonfiction movement is wonderful, to a point. But the popularity of memoir has come at a cost to mainstream fiction. It’s gotten to where some writers feel almost forbidden to write realistic novels because publishers, responding to readers’ demands for “authenticity”, think they can’t market them. So a lot of writers just go ahead and lie.

The classic example is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces which, as legend has it, was originally written as fiction but failed to sell to a publisher until it was remarketed as the true-life story of the author. Even though it’s kind of a terrible book, it became a best-seller, until somebody figured out it was almost totally made up. I could rattle off a dozen books published in the last 20 years that have ridden the nonfiction wave to popularity, and everyone claimed to love them when they thought every word was “true”, only to feel betrayed and embittered when the actual truth came out.

This has pushed a lot of modern novelists into writing YA by default, because if publishers won’t sell fiction to “Adults”, at least they will sell it to “Young Adults” or “New Adults”, and for novelists, any reader is a good reader. If Hemingway had written The Sun Also Rises today, he would surely have been urged by his agent or publisher to write it “just as it happened”, which is fine, I guess, but it would have deprived the book of its punch-to-the-gut ending that, for me, is what makes the story so memorable.

Would Hemingway, like Dickens, be writing YA books if he were around today? I don’t know, I can’t really see that. But then again, where in the library would you look for a copy of The Old Man and the Sea? I’ll spare you the trouble—it’s under “H” in the YA fiction stacks.

See also Print the Legend: Arguable Merits: Young Adult Fiction and Its Rabid Discontents by Sean Bell.