My favorite conversation topic is and has always been literature. In high school, it was our love for the written word that may have been the only thread in common betwixt my group of friends. I am now 25, and a few months ago I found myself in conversation with one of these old friends, and the topic of our book-of-the-moment inevitably arose. When I know a person well enough, I am completely shameless in my literary loves, and in the course of this conversation, my friend said something along the lines of “now that I’m an adult, I try not to read YA.”
This flabbergasted me. My immediate response was to shower her with the last five years’ worth of phenomenal YA fantasy releases, many of which are dystopian and are coming to the big screen, if they haven’t already. Her statement, however, is not uncommon. The unspoken expectation of “coming of age” is to separate ourselves from the things which defined our childhood. YA – young adult – literature like the Harry Potter series and Percy Jackson may have dotted our childhoods, but is it appropriate for adults?
The latest newspapers say yes, it is.
Over the last year, a vicious war has been going on across the internet regarding the appropriateness of adults reading fiction geared for young adults (although how young must an adult actually be to qualify for that title?) In a New York Times article, columnist Meg Wolitzer reminisces about her experiences reading a critiquing YA books with a group of adult friends by saying. “Not only do I feel an intense connection with my earlier, often more vulnerable and intensely curious self, I also feel that I’ve been given access to a pure form of the complications involved with being young, now filtered through the compassion, perceptions (and barnacles) of my older self,” while on a more serious note adding “there’s just far too much variety in Y.A. to define it or dismiss it”.
Wolitzer’s article is a reactionary response to an article written earlier in 2014 by Slate writer Ruth Graham who vehemently criticizes adults who burrow in YA stories, scolding them blatantly in saying “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” A personal interjection here, reminding my readers that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy features arenas wherein children and teenagers brutally murder one another in a novel intended for 14-year-olds. Graham’s concerns lie in the way YA fiction is replacing what she considers to be higher literary fiction, urging others in saying: “Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.”
I reject that. Why is it that endings need to be messy or characters need to be tragically flawed? What is wrong with falling into fiction with the hopes of escapism? Would modern adult readers criticize Tolkien for allowing the One Ring to be destroyed because it ties ends up too neatly, and real life does not have such a happily ever after? I read Cervantes several years ago, and while I can appreciate the literary significance of his work, I found the writing positively unstomachable. I revel in the flawed true love story throughout Dante’s Divine Comedy, but is the nobility of the man trying to rectify himself by following his love through Hell to Peter’s pearled gates too much of a noble trait to be considered “adult”? There are reasons why Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has transcended time, but Hugo’s Les Miserables is better known for the opera than the original work. The innovation and imagination in the world of happy curiosities is the type that allows a person of any age to escape a stressful, merciless lifestyle, if only for a little while.
Critics like Graham brush aside adults who read YA as those looking for escapism instead of depth. With a good writer, these two things can be easily combined. The world of YA is easily shadowed with heartwrenching stories like those written by John Green (The Fault in Our Stars was the book which brought this argument to light from the shadowy confines of the world wide web) and the just-kill-me-now sort of which I describe Meyer’s Twilight. I understand the frustration of shallow characters and too-good-to-be-true relationships, and I reject them as much as the next adult reader, but this does not mean that an entire genre ought to be shrugged off. I become equally infuriated with the vivid sexual encounters that seem centric to any adult fantasy novel.
I believe at the end of the day, a good book is simply a good book, despite its intended audience. Some read to enrich their minds, others for entertainment. The most important thing is that we do read.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I read YA fiction.