Against Against YA: No One Should Be Embarrassed About What They Read

June 6, 2014

The wanderings of a mind that is wont to ponder. Check out past Between Bookends posts here!
I dont know how many of you know about this, since it's still pretty recent (and this is surprising, because God knows I'm usually the last person to know about things), but the Slate published an article titled Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children's books.

I am usually a peaceable person, but never has an article annoyed me as much the aforementioned one. 

I believe that everybody is entitled to their own opinion on a subject. That is what you think, that is the way you see the world, so really, I dont have a problem with that. If the author has a problem with adults reading YA books, that's fine. Go right ahead. It's a free world, people. 

For those of you who do not know what I'm talking about (or are too busy/lazy to read the entire article :D), the bottomline of the article is this: 'At the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old', and while acknowledging that everyone should just read whatever they like, what the author feels is that adults who read YA should be embarrassed about themselves and they are 'missing something'.

Like I said, that's your opinion. I dont care. But I do take offense when you tell me what to think and do and to feel ashamed about my choices. Which is why I'm going to give (what I hope will be) a constructive rebuttal to the article (Ha! Right. Who am I kidding? This is a rant, people. Be warned).

Aside from the fact that the entire article is extremely derogatory, here are some snippets from the piece which are both biased and blatantly misguiding to an unaware bystander:

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature.
It's possible the author may have formed her opinion on Twilight from the countless criticisms against the series, but Divergent? What? The story that's a scary reflection of our world today - about people being forced to conform to strictly defined ideals, and of a small group of insurgents revolting against said ideals, is not serious? Obviously, my understanding of the word is faulty.

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.
Hey, I totally get you here. I dont cry easily either. Must be something about how cynical and uptight we've become? I dont know. 

Oh, you know a lot of 13 year olds who say things like 'My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations'? That's awesome! I'd actually be pretty impressed with them and would love to be friends, because where I live, I dont even know a lot of adults who have such clarity of thought.

And hey, I dont know about you, but most of the rest of the world loves a great romantic gesture to take us away from all the doom and gloom every once in a while.

As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”
Even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.
I was under the impression that we all read for pleasure. Books open to us unexplored terrain, broaden our perspectives, make us critical thinkers, teach us countless things, provide mental stimulation, help us experience in some small way the uniquely diverse people who we live with, but at the end of the day, doesn't all that give us pleasure? Personally, I feel there is something to take away from every book, even if I cannot relate to the characters in it, and all of that contributes to my pleasure in reading.

Adults reading YA do experience a sense of nostalgia, escapism and gratification, but I am unable to comprehend why that is a bad thing. Or is it simply not 'sophisticated' enough? Is it not a lofty enough goal for reading? And the author fails to take into account that while readers feel all that, that's not the only thing they feel. There's more. Young Adult books, while filled with just as many 'big ideas' as other novels, are infused with a sense of optimism that pervades through even the darkest stories. So yes, maybe the author is right when she says "...the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable."

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.
...mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.
You want to talk about ambiguity? Fine. Eleanor & Park, which the author has so beautifully torn to pieces, ends with Park receiving a postcard from Eleanor with three words written in it. What are those words? No one knows. They could be 'I hate you' or 'Just stay away' or 'Stop pestering me' for all we know.

Life by Committee by Corey Anne Haydu is a story of a secret online group that charges you with a dare every time you tell a secret. Most of these dares are morally questionable, but the question is to what length are you willing to go to to keep a secret? To feel part of a community? How is that for moral ambiguity?

As to the rest of it, I am seriously starting to think the author only reads the kind of books that 'confound and discomfit' with characters she cannot relate to. One of the comments sums it up pretty accurately:
Your condemnation is framed in such a way that I get the sense that you are one of those readers who only likes "dark" protagonists, and who disagrees with a "happy ending" with a near-religious conviction. I hope you will pardon the following sentiment, but to hell with "growing up". You, Dear Author, are boring me to tears. - TheIndieWriter
True that. I would recommend a nice big bowl of ice cream and a relaxing day at the beach. It helps with a dark outlook towards life, you know.

The YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.
'Their books'? Since when did we start compartmentalising books this way? I think it's a real shame. Maybe we should redefine Young Adult books as books that have young adults as protagonists and leave out the part about who they're targeted at, because books are for everyone, and some of the best books of ALL TIME are young adult books. 

And honestly, I would have loved it if my Mum or Dad would've read the kind of books I was reading. We would've had a lovely time discussing them together, and I think most times when parents and children read the same books, it contributes to their bonding. Isn't that the very reason why bed time stories are such a cherished tradition? (Not that I'm comparing bed time stories to YA books, but you know what I mean. It's the joy of discovery and exploration and learning)

One thing the author and I do agree on is this:
Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long.
Yes, it is, and yes they are. So you read what you want to, and I'll read what I want to, and neither of us will tell the other what to read or how to feel about it. Let us agree to disagree.

I'll leave you with this quote:

"Someday you'll be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." - C.S. Lewis

Obviously, you're 'someday' hasn't yet arrived.

Fortunately for me, mine has.

Do you read YA? Are you an adult who reads YA? What is it about YA that you enjoy? If you read the Slate article, what do you think about it?
Sound off in the comments below! :)

P.S.: After reading this, part of me wonders if this is all not just a publicity gimmick to make us all hot and bothered?