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14 October 2014updated 12 Oct 2023 10:07am

Read whatever the hell you want: why we need a new way of talking about young adult literature

Should adults be reading books supposedly aimed at children and teenagers? According to the literary establishment in 2014, this is a question fraught with difficulty. But is it really as hard as all that?

By Elizabeth Minkel

Please: have a conversation with me about Harry Potter. I, a person who dressed in house robes and stood in an crowded bookshop at midnight. I, who skipped school to see the first few films. (I attended Chamber of Secrets with a friend who had her mother write a note saying her daughter had “an appointment with Dr. Potter”, which seemed like a brazen and unnecessary risk to take.) I, who’s probably written more Harry Potter fanfic, by sheer number of words, than original fiction over the course of my life (and I’ve long had a novel-in-progress in the works, so that’s really saying something). I, who self-identify as a fangirl, a woman close to 30 who first read Philosopher’s Stone at 16 – and who would read it again today in a heartbeat. I, who continue to read young adult literature, who just this year fell in love with a novel about a girl who is, on a fannish level, me: Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, about a fanfic writer and her love of a Potter-like wizard named Simon Snow. (And Baz. We can never forget about Baz.)

I offer up my fangirl credentials before my “literary” ones. They serve to label me one way; talking about how I worked at a fancy New York magazine or studied English at a fancy university or have spent most of my career reviewing fancy “literary fiction” for money labels me another way. So which identity is invoked when I read something like Tim Parks’s recent piece on the literary “conversation” in the New York Review of Books? “What is the social function of the novel?” Parks asks. A paragraph later, he answers: “Conversation. A shared subject of discussion. Something complex for minds to meet around.” And it’s a relatively thoughtful piece – he gives E L James far more intellectual space than many (particularly male) critics manage to do. But then, alas, there’s this line: “Arguably there was a huge conversation generated around the Harry Potter saga that had nothing to do with social issues, but was perhaps very largely a discussion about the appropriateness of adults avidly reading stories written for children.” When I read this sentence, my head unsurprisingly hit the desk.

When we do have our hypothetical Harry Potter conversation, I might be talking as a literary critic. I’ve got the text, and I’ve got my frameworks, and this is my job (though I personally think most readers have the tools to join any given literary “conversation”, whether they’re paid to do it or not). But perhaps I’ll be talking as a fan, a member of the Harry Potter fandom. One of the biggest in modern media history, and, by the nature of a (loose) community of its size, one of the most vibrant. But would it surprise Tim Parks – or you – to know that “critic” or “fan”, I’d be talking exactly the same way? That millions were reading Harry Potter critically and communally – that the communal nature of any fandom, the vast, collective critical mind, turns over texts in ways that might startle someone on the outside? There was a huge conversation around Harry Potter, yes – and it was precisely about social issues. Or character development, or morality, or themes and allusions and structural observations, or the success of any given stretch of writing versus another. Plenty of it was critical; fandom can celebrate while it analyses – or while it demands better of its source material. People – of all ages – didn’t have time to worry about who should or should not be reading these books; they were busy actually reading and engaging with the books.

I’m not actually here to defend Harry Potter. Or rather, not Harry Potter specifically. Parks’s comment might have been a throwaway line, but it’s not an outlier. Something curious has been happening in the book world recently: a whole lot of adults appear to suddenly have a whole lot of opinions about young adult literature (YA) – and a desperate need to express them. (Yes, I’m well aware of the irony here: I am also an adult with a whole lot of YA opinions and a desperate need to express them. But still.) The YA opinonators are a varied bunch: book critics who spend their days praising or eviscerating “literary fiction”; film critics forced to sit through blockbuster adaptations of YA hits; people who’ve read a YA novel or two and have some feelings; people who like arguing on Twitter; people who have children; people who used to be children. If there is a single genre that seems like it’s occupied a disproportionate amount of column inches – or, rather, column pixels – this past year, it’s got to be YA.

These bookish flare-ups have been particularly numerous in the past few months: 2014 has been a big year for people with a lot of feelings about young adult literature. In the US, there was the “GreenLit” controversy, when a New York Times reviewer ignorantly suggested that the historically largely female-authored genre started with J D Salinger and ended John Green. In Britain, there was the question of darkness, profanity, and what was appropriate for younger readers after Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie Medal for his grim The Bunker Diary. On the transatlantic front, there was a big conversation about the overwhelming – and stubbornly unchanging – lack of diversity on the pages of YA and children’s lit, from the American-led #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to the barrage of racist harassment against Malorie Blackman when she also called for more people of colour – and increased empathy – in kids’ literature.

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But nothing appears to cause more anxiety than the question of who, exactly, should be reading these books. Is it because in reality, the majority of young-adult readers are not particularly young? A widely-reported 2012 study found that in the US, more than half of YA books were being purchased by people over 18 – and nearly a third were in the 30-44 age bracket. Is it because in the past decade, some of the biggest books – and subsequent film franchises – have been labeled YA?

Backlash has been building for years. There was Harry Potter, of course: the vague sense of outrage some people seemed to feel when adults flocked to it – made worse when the publishers had the gall to reprint them with “adult” covers. It was the endless mocking that “paranormal romance” has received since Twilight hit it big, that women of all ages reading about teenage (teenage-looking?) vampires were engaging in a shameful act. And now, it’s the so-called “realism boom”: if a book isn’t about wizards or vampires, if its readers can’t be written off as giggling schoolgirls, if the author is male, or writing about male protagonists, it might be  encroaching on the territory of “serious literature”. Realistic YA is often deemed not quite serious enough – and some act like its existence is some sort of threat to the “adult” titles it might be shelved beside. It appears easier to dismiss a teenage heroine in a dystopian hellscape than it is to dismiss kids with cancer – but these books are getting dismissed all the same.

The literary world began the summer with Ruth Graham’s inflammatory assertion in Slate that “adults should be embarrassed to read YA”. I’m not interested in quoting it here. It ended the summer with pieces like Christopher Beha’s more nuanced but eventually just as dismissive “Henry James and the Great YA Debate”, at the New Yorker’s books blog. (I saw the piece somewhat misleadingly shared with the burning question, “What would Henry James think of YA?” and for the love of God, if there is a single person whose opinion on YA I care less about…) Beha does a few different things in his piece – he is aiming to defend enjoying sort of dense “classic” literature others see as a slog, and more power to him on that front (I found myself fighting this same battle recently, if somewhat ineffectually, at the pub) – but he ultimately can’t manage to do it without spending a good deal of time bashing YA:

Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.

(For a far more successful attempt to defend “serious” literature, see last week’s “The Pleasure of Reading Difficult Novels (And Maybe The Goldfinch)” by Glenn Kenny, in the Gawker Review of Books. It is possible to like things without short-changing other things!)

In between these pieces, people took sides, and I watched critics I’d previously admired, with unabashed snobbery – and little knowledge of their objects of criticism – eulogise things that frankly shocked me: on Twitter, they bemoaned the slow death of  “highbrow literature”; in major newspapers, they mourned the decline of “the patriarchy”. The broader ideas at play here aren’t new: as long as literature has been widely read, people have felt a need to draw lines and label books and the people who read them. And there’s long been a special emphasis on the idea that what is popular in culture and what is valuable to culture are somehow mutually exclusive.

But YA, as a marketing category or as a genre, is relatively new. (If YA is meant to be a “book aimed at teenagers”, the concept of adolescence isn’t much more than a century old, and specific literature “aimed” at the group is only as old as the Second World War. As a modern marketing term, with dedicated imprints at publishing houses, it’s a project of only the past few decades.) What does it mean for a book to sit on the YA shelf, or for an author to write for and/or about teenagers? What of these adult critics’ claims that YA doesn’t challenge enough, emotionally or intellectually, that there is a shallowness in these works that makes them perfectly fine for young readers but shameful for older ones? And why does it often feel like these lines have been arbitrarily drawn – or drawn with the idea that the sad old dead patriarchy is, to borrow Grayson Perry’s assignation, “default”, and that its passing should be mourned instead of applauded?

(For that matter, is it notable that The Fault in Our Stars, the apparent subject of so much of this anxiety, is listed on the YA and children’s bestseller list in the US and the adult bestseller list in the UK? Apologies for bringing up John Green once again – while I appreciate him and the whole of Nerdfighteria a great deal, I’m sick to death of the “saviour of YA” narrative people slap on him. Though perhaps it’s appropriate, since many of these YA critics, so well-versed in the things they normally write about, save their complaints for the handful of books they seem to have heard of: beyond “genre” series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, they rarely seem to stray beyond TFIOS and, occasionally, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. And it’s often unclear, when they discuss these few books, if they’ve even read them.)

Perhaps you found yourself nodding along at one of the aforementioned pieces, or shaking your head when you see a fully-grown woman plowing through one of these books on the train. Perhaps you were left unmoved during a screening of TFIOS, or struggled through a Harry Potter book or two, and you’re convinced that there is something shallow that is inherent to the young adult novel – to the sort of book that might “as easily be enjoyed by a child”. Perhaps you, for some reason I can’t explain or even really understand, might get upset to see many of your peers so enthusiastically engaging with these books. (At the expense of books you love? I don’t even know.) If you aren’t the type to dismiss and diminish (and write think-pieces about it), you might genuinely wonder what you’re missing.

Do I think adults should read YA? Of course – if it’s not obvious already, I think people should read whatever the hell they want. But I’ve seen that defence evoked before and it often feels a little patronising, some version of, “Aw, well at least they’re reading!” Or it comes at the expense of the kind of literature that its critics are championing: this debate, and parallel debates between other genres of literature considered “less serious” – fantasy, say – can get reactionary pretty quickly. I’ve seen friends on Facebook proudly assert that they’d never touch “self-serious” literary fiction or anything that would be nominated for the Booker or the like, for one reason or another. I mean, I myself called the highbrow fans “snobs” just a few paragraphs ago.

But there’s something missing in a lot of the anti-YA-for-adults discourse that I can’t help but zero in on, as an observer and critic of fan culture. These books don’t exist in a vacuum. The fan culture I was describing at the start of this piece exists across YA (not to mention plenty of other genres): these writers are creating worlds readers want to inhabit, rather than just visit, or even worse, view from on high. Tumblr is awash with fan art and fiction and meta about established and emerging YA books alike – a vast and rich and varied “conversation”. Many YA authors are occupying the same spaces as their readers: not just dropping by for a publisher-sanctioned Q&A or sending out the occasional awkward tweet once every six weeks, but actually using and enjoying social media, speaking these very modern languages as fluently as their readers.

Perhaps YA is more accessible: the language tends to be a little more straightforward, and the protagonists often deal (apologies for painting this in broad strokes here) with big issues, love and death and fighting the bad guy, issues of identity in the most formative years of our lives, things people from many stages of life can connect with. (A fair bit easier to get into for some of us, maybe, than books about introspective men approaching middle age and having crises about their relative mediocrity. But…) I’m no fan of the “relatabilty” demand – just this weekend I revisited Ira Glass’s comments about Shakespeare being “unrelatable” and got irrationally angry about it all over again. Accessibility does not directly correlate with depth – by that token, inaccessibility does not inherently make a book deep, and it certainly doesn’t make it more valuable. It’s what you take out of anything you read – and what you put in. If you’re incapable of having – or unwilling to have – a deep conversation about Harry Potter, I suppose that’s your loss. If you change your mind, well, I’m here.

I’d like to propose a theory, one that’s perhaps not universally true, but I think there is something to it: the people who scoff at adults reading – and gaining intellectual stimulation from – YA novels are the types of people who believe that reading is, at its heart, a solitary pursuit. That’s fine! It’s certainly one way to read. And the way that plenty of people have read historically. You read with a bit of dispassionate critical distance; perhaps you watch films and television that way as well. Maybe you associate a period of deep and obsessive reading with your childhood; you “grew out of it”, you think, rather than just feeling like you became a different kind of reader. You don’t see the appeal of reading in a fannish way, occupying the space of a book for more than the span of time it takes to simply read it. (And please note here that I’m not suggesting that reading YA needs to be fannish – just that for millions, much of it is.)

(The elephant in the room here, of course, is that the deep and obsessive reader is probably female, or young, or – worst of all! – female and young. She wastes her mind with sparkling vampires. She’s bringing the patriarchy to its knees with the sheer inanity of her reading material. The majority of YA authors and the majority of children and teens (and adults, for that matter) who read are female. And for the fannish YA readers among us, the majority of people engaging in the creation of fan works are female as well. The gendered element here is in important one, and many people before me have written extraordinary feminist critiques of the anti-YA argument. One of the very best must be Anne Ursu’s “On Poisoned Apples, the “Great YA Debate,” and the Death of the Patriarchy” – I highly recommend giving it a read.)

For readers of all genders and of all ages, I think what it really comes down to is the idea that every time a book is read, it’s read differently. We have different ways to ground ourselves in the text – backgrounds, sets of references, desires and preferences and biases. And those backgrounds and preferences determine the way we read – how we choose to engage, what kinds of conversations we have, what we’re after from the written word. I can read the same book as someone half my age or twice my age, adult or YA or any other label you want to saddle it with, and, in a way, we’re each reading a different book: we find the same book, the places we overlap, in the “conversation”, whether that’s a fannish one or not. In any ridiculous literary debate, where one kind of book is privileged over another, perhaps the problem lies in an inability to see these other readers, to acknowledge that another person’s unique reading DNA makes them just as capable as you to read any book in an intellectually rigorous way – or, on the flip side of that, to find any book pleasurable to read.

So here’s a directive, to anyone who feels like the type of book – or any individual book – is being unfairly attacked: please stop making a case for what you like by putting down what other people like. Stop imagining that the conversation you hear is the only conversation being had. And if you feel like your beloved book is under attack, hit the attacker back with as much positivity as you can manage. I’ll stand by Harry Potter not because it can be read by a child, but because it can be read by children and adults alike, how it’s a bazillion pages full of little spaces or big ideas to explore, how I fell in love first with the characters on the page, then with the sprawling conversation they inspired. I won’t put you down if you don’t enjoy them – I’ll just invite you to join in.

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