Last month, it was William Giraldi, trashing romance novels in the pages of the New Republic, who did the critic’s equivalent of dumping a bucket of piranhas into a crowded pool on the first great swimming day of summer. June brings another provocation, this time from Ruth Graham in Slate, who argues that adults ought to be ashamed of reading young adult literature.
There are plenty of easy objections to make to Graham’s piece. I do not know that there is any particular evidence that young adult literature is replacing John Updike and Alice Munro — two of Graham’s favorites — in anyone’s reading roster. Just 28 percent of Americans reported reading 11 or more books in 2013. That may mean that each piece of literature traded in for a YA book is more significant. But it also means that there are not many tradeoffs to make in the first place.
It is equally plausible that adults who are reading young adult literature are among those highly engaged readers, and are simply adding YA novels to other categories of books they read, or that the adults who read young adult fiction are reading no other literature at all. I fall into the former category. Re-reading Ann Rinaldi’s historical novels about young women has not lured me away from my annual rendezvous with Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” though Rinaldi may have encouraged me to linger on Mantel’s depictions of Thomas Cromwell’s female relatives and acquaintances.
It is also true that plenty of material aimed at adults is aimed at hitting the pleasure centers of the brain and providing endings that satisfy our most childish sense of fairness. John Green’s cancer-stricken teenagers are more closely observed and more prepared for unhappy endings than John Grisham‘s blandly handsome crusading lawyers.
While young adult literature (a category that includes sub-genres such as dystopian fiction, historical fiction and romance) is certainly a big seller, “romance” and “espionage/thriller” novels both also outsell “general fiction,” and “mystery/detective” stories are a similar portion of the market, according to Random House. Graham might have had a more defensible case, and made a more effective plea against what the film critic A.O. Scott called the “cultural devaluation of maturity,” if her piece made a comprehensive case against readers who seek out a certain kind of easy enjoyment and moral satisfaction no matter where they find it.
If Graham wants readers to feel guilty for reading fiction aimed at readers younger than themselves, it seems they already do — not that it stops them from reading it. The same research firm that conducted the study she used to suggest that older readers buy a lot of YA also suggests that e-books make many readers more likely to read so-called “guilty pleasures,” including “teen fantasy books.”
And Graham never seems to have considered that there might be a really rather honorable reason for adults to read young adult fiction: so they can discuss those books with their target audiences. Talking to a pair of very smart girls about the feminist themes of their favorite young adult novels was one of my more delightful experiences as a reader this year. The thoughtful lovers of young adult fiction may grow up to be avid readers of many other categories of books as well if we take the time to encourage them to think deeply about literature.
But the point that I really want to contest is the assumption that young adult fiction is mediocre because it all involves unsophisticated storytelling of a very specific variety and that young readers inherently crave that particular sort of storytelling. Graham writes:
But 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. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults. When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.
Unless we are to define young adult fiction as having a certain kind of ending or perspective, this is a rather odd mold to try to force around a vast and varied category that includes books in multiple genres. The Atlantic published a history of children’s literature in 1888 and surveyed books from as early as 1430. As teenagers emerged as a discrete phase of childhood, writers started to tell stories for them, and the term “young adult” came into use by the Young Adult Library Services Association in the 1960s.
Since that time, writers have produced any number of novels for young readers that eschew the supposed naivete of childhood, refuse to give their readers conventional happy endings and regard the achievement of maturity as an enormous accomplishment.
Graham waves aside “the transparently trashy stuff like ‘Divergent’ and ‘Twilight,’ “ apparently dismissing the idea that any young adult fiction in the science fiction or fantasy modes might merit a defense as serious literature. The writer and critic Michelle Dean named “A Wrinkle in Time” and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series as two examples that might meet that standard. Both are deeply engaged with Christian ideals. The former is a sometimes-terrifying meditation on the ways in which great intelligence can betray us. The latter tells us that growing up means the expulsion from paradise.
If you crave more Madeleine L’Engle, may I recommend “A Ring of Endless Light,” a harrowing portrait of mental illness with experimental passages and fantastical elements grounded in scientific concepts? The appearance of dolphins at the ending may perk up the ears of those eager to disdain the Lisa Frank set. But the main character’s adolescence consists less of the illusion that love lasts forever than encounters with death and an alcoholic, self-destructive boyfriend.
Epic fantasy more your style? Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels, five series of books set in the same world that explore the evolution of civil society in a medieval kingdom over hundreds of years, would be a good place to start. Pierce explores how the end of slavery affects the rights of women, anti-colonial rebellions and magical birth control, gender identity and the state of institutions such as law enforcement. If Pierce had a big television or movie deal, we would be hailing the Tortall novels as a cross between “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones” that improves on the former’s representation of women and the latter’s treatment of them.
I am not really sure at which point either L’Engle or Pierce ask us to “abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults,” even though their heroines are young women and their audiences are often young and female as well. It is not as if we are naifs one moment and jaded adults the next. The passage to maturity can be a shattering thing. Preparing yourself for that transition or looking back on that metamorphosis is hardly an un-serious act.
If we turn out attention to the “realistic fiction” that Graham thinks has been overvalued by adults, there are still myriad novels that are both “realistic” and defy Graham’s rules for plot and tone. Take S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel of class conflict and parental abandonment, “The Outsiders.” That book, written for young people, would be valuable and important if only for its treatment of its main character, Ponyboy Curtis, who is sensitive in a way that many of the male heroes of literary fiction dare not be.
Realistic young adult fiction need not all be shot through with tragedy, either. Simon Irving, an art student who goes to war with his corporate executive father in the delightfully strange “Son of Interflux,” carries us through a biting satire of both the art world and corporate America. In a way, it is a predecessor of the excellent short-lived television series “Better Off Ted.”
Similarly, “The Pushcart War,” a fictionalized account of New York City economics and urban policy, is a fabulous and very funny exploration of machine politics. It is also, of course, a reminder that novels aimed at young readers need not have young main characters and thus need not “present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.”
I could go on listing the exceptions that nudge at the bonds that Graham, acting in the role of the Greek gods, has tried to place on that giver of fire that can be young adult literature. But setting young adult books — even “realistic fiction” written for young adults — against literary fiction is a kind of cheat. “Literary fiction” is the honorific that we give to fiction aimed at adults that we have decided is worthier than trade paperback romances and mysteries and that meets a certain standard of quality that can exclude even more ambitious efforts.
Rather than trying to set one category of fiction against another, which seems to be the fashion these days, I wonder whether we might all benefit from a more open-hearted approach. Just as adult women exploring their sexuality deserve something more sensually and emotionally sophisticated (and certainly better-written) than recycled fan fiction such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” anyone who is interested in stories about young people deserves better than poorly developed “chosen one” stories.
To simply give up on romance novels or young adult literature as hopeless categories of fiction, fit only for the weak-minded or young and incapable of improvement, is to embrace a kind of snobbery and rigidity about what is worthy and what is not. A hopeless belief in love and a happy endings is not the only perspective that’s adolescent.