Why Adults Can, And Should, Read Young Adult Novels Without Shame

The Young Adult section of the publishing industry is getting huge, largely on the back of genre novels. The Hunger Games sold copies by the crate, Harry Potter and Twilight are still going strong, and Divergent is a huge success. And the success of YA is angering the kind of person who thinks you should be ashamed to read something they don’t approve of.

If you’re a comics fan, or read SF, a lot of this will sound very, very familiar. Try and not experience deja vu reading this piece from Slate by Ruth Graham:

…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.

Or, you know, DAMN KIDS! Or how about Will Self’s navel-gazing complaint that nobody buys Will Self novels anymore, but instead reads Harry Potter and smut, so clearly the novel must be dead.

I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour.

Ew. “Genre fiction.” We can’t have any of that in the canon.

Here’s the fundamental problem with every argument against YA fiction, or any “non-serious” fiction, being pleasurable escapism: Yeah… so what? That’s been true of the book since we’ve had books.

One thing it’s important to grasp with articles about this is that they’re not actually about other people, they’re about the author. That entire Slate article up above boils down to “I didn’t like the cancer kids in love book because I’m a grown-up and you’re not.” Because that is, of course, what adults do, lecture each other about how adult they are. Ruth Graham was happy to read Archie when he got political, you’d think she’d calm the hell down about another book about cancer kids.

The unspoken undercurrent of this is “You should read the right books, or I’m going to judge you when I see you in an airport or something.” Again: OK, so what? That very statement underlines that the person in question is a tiresome snob. Why would anyone voluntarily talk to a tiresome snob, especially when they’ve got a good book in front of them? Anybody who wants to tell you how much better their taste is than yours is a human being you can safely ignore.

What’s annoying about all this is that it misses the fundamental point of reading a book. Reading books to impress other people turns books into props, and that’s not what books are for. If a book is entertaining, thought-provoking, or otherwise rewarding to you, then you should read it. If not, take a moment, think about why not, and when somebody brings it up, you can say “Eh, it wasn’t for me” and elaborate if they ask. You know, like how adults discuss books.