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Why Do Adults Read YA Fiction? Should Adults be Embarrassed to Read YA?

Posted in Bigotry, Culture, Fiction, Literature, Rants, Reading, YA, and Young Adult

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Many Adults Read YA Fiction

This is quite a difficult post to write. Not because the answer to the questions, “why do adults read YA fiction?” and “should adults be embarrassed to read YA?” are difficult ones to answer, but rather because I can barely believe that anyone is still asking them! But they are. Daily.

In honesty, it’s not something I’d have thought to write about on this blog, except that an article I recently came across in Slate vilifying adults who read young adult or children’s literature rubbed me up so far the wrong way that I simply had to write this if only to let off some steam. And mix up a few metaphors while I’m at it. I’m not going to link to it. If you want to read it you can find it for yourself.

No matter what the self-appointed cultural guardians at Slate may think, the facts speak for themselves. All the recent surveys I’ve been able to find suggest that well over 55% of the readership for YA literature is made up of people 18 years old and up. Namely, adults. I read a heck of a lot of YA. And that’s not just as research. That’s because I enjoy it, I find it instructive, and quite frankly some of the very best writing in English today is categorized by the publishing houses and the booksellers as being for the young adult market.

So about half the people reading YA are adults. The other half are teens and a few bright middle graders.

Mella

What’s the Appeal?

Just search the many YA blogs and forums online, or attend the book signing of a YA author, and you’ll see the truth of this for yourself. Many publishers are canny to this phenomenon, too. They’ll frequently produce two simultaneous editions of the same YA book. One will have a cover supposedly more “adult” in tone, and the other one more geared to its intended audience. This is so that grown-ups can read YA on the daily commute, or in the park, or some other public place, without feeling embarrassed to be seen reading a “children’s book.” This issue of embarrassment I’ll deal with later. And I’ll deal with it pretty severely.

So there are a couple of things to unpick here. One is, why do books purporting to be written for teenagers have such a strong appeal to so many adult readers? And the other is, should adults feel embarrassed if they enjoy reading this material? As I think the second question will be answered largely by the first, let me deal with that first question now. Why do adults read YA fiction?

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You Can’t Honestly Appreciate Literature and be a Snob

I should nail my colors to the mast, as they say, at the outset. I don’t have a grain of snobbery in me when it comes to literature, or culture generally. I’m perfectly capable of discernment. I can distinguish the fine and subtle qualities which characterize rich, complex and subtle works of art in any medium and enjoy them. Equally, I can enjoy the excitement, the thrill, the laughter and simple entertainment afforded by popular media and pulp fiction.

I throw it all into the same bag. It’s all art. It all requires dedication and skill and craft on the part of the creator. I won’t pretend to like something I don’t like simply because it’s been deemed a “classic,” and I won’t turn my nose up at something which the arbiters of culture have condemned as trash if it’s something I thoroughly enjoy. High art and popular culture are for me entirely avoidable terms which, if they mean anything at all, simply refer to different threads woven into the same rug. Chaucer’s bawdy tales were nothing but the popular culture of his day.

Many Young Adult Tales are Rich in Unbridled Fantasy

One of the key functions of any literature, any fiction, is to furnish an opportunity for escape from the pain, the suffering, or simply the humdrum round of everyday life. Everyone needs a little relief from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that. So why do adults read YA fiction? Because a lot of YA output provides exactly that escape. When set in an alternative fantasy world, or taking us back nostalgically to an age of innocence and experimentation, or reminding us of the important values it is so easy to lose sight of under the pressures of an adult existence, YA books are very often just the tonic many adults need.

That, in my opinion, is a sufficient argument in itself.

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Ethical Dilemmas and Identity Issues Are Experienced by Adults, Too

But for those of you who require something more “profound,” there is this, too: the more philosophical or socially engaged works in YA fiction frequently deal with issues of identity and meaning. If there was ever time when these issues were the sole preserve of people in their teen years, that time has passed. In our rapidly changing world: a world in which we must live through the paradox of increased channels of communication coupled to an increased sense of purposelessness and isolation; in which our cultures are fluid, fragmented, and lacking universal applicability or coherence; a world in which the boundaries which once defined who and what we are, and the rites and rituals which transmitted to us the certainty of what we should do and why we should do it, are all but dissolved; in a world such as this, many adults will turn to YA literature because they know that there they’ll find an honest and direct attempt to tackle and make sense of these very issues.

One of the reasons why I often write for this market is because even as I rocket toward my 50th birthday (just one and a half years to go) I find that on a daily basis I’m still burning about the big questions of identity, the meaning of life and death, society, relationships, gender, race, and sexuality. Don’t be in any doubt that these are all issues which our younger adults think about deeply, feel keenly, and have both the wit and beautiful audacity to confront in an honest and direct way.

Five minutes of a “grown-up” Parliamentary debate can destroy your soul and leave you feeling empty inside. Who are these ridiculous, red-faced, shouting men? An hour or two spent reading a YA novel can restore your faith in humanity and our global future.

YA books are children’s books that have grown up. I’m quite fed up of hearing my peers moaning and grumbling and disparaging “the youth of today.”

What in hell’s name are they talking about?

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They are clearly completely out of touch. They’ve possibly never spent any time at all with modern teens. Today’s young people are far more “switched on,” reflective, daring and honest than any previous generation of which I’m aware. Certainly they express these qualities in far greater abundance than my own generation ever did or do. In many ways they are much, much smarter than we are. Reading YA literature is just one way that older adults might attempt to catch up.

What are we supposed to have against teenagers and new adults? They are the throbbing lifeblood of our culture in all fields of endeavor: music, art, theater, television, comedy, books, new media. Our young adults are old enough to be discerning and critical, and young enough to be daring and open-minded. No wonder, then, that some of the best literature of our times is not only written for them, but quite frequently by them, too.

That’s my answer to the first question, “why do adults read YA fiction?”

Why do adults read YA fiction?

The second, should we be embarrassed or ashamed to read YA as adults? Well, I think you understand my answer to that from my answer to the first. My answer is a clear, and resounding NO.

Read Freely, Without Shame

There should be no shame. No shame whatsoever. On the contrary, those who on some snotty point of misguided principle would refuse to read YA literature, are the ones who should feel shame. And it is a deep shame they should feel. They are not only denying themselves one of the most exciting aspects of our contemporary literary scene, but also debasing and insulting people who are not their elders certainly, but most probably their betters. You should be free to read whatever you enjoy. And besides, I don’t think that adulthood should mean exchanging one thing for another; you know, swapping out all your childhood and teenage interests for more “grown-up” ones. A healthy transition into adulthood is just about being able to add other layers, too. It’s not about attrition, it’s about accretion.

I’m happy to read YA, and write it, because I still feel all the same questions it asks, and the values it affirms, very keenly. I’m also happy to read Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and Dr. Zeuss. Just as I’m delighted by Shakespeare, Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, A. S. Byatt, and Dostoevsky. I also enjoy Jane Yolen, Katherine Langrish, Ransom Riggs, John Green, Philip Pullman, Mark Haddon, Chris Wooding, Libba Bray, Linda Buckley-Archer, Michael Jecks, Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner, Umberto Eco, Lindsay Buroker, Rod Duncan, Joanne Harris, Suzanne Collins, Jeanette Winterson, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Waters, Joss Whedon, Scott Westerfield, Catherine Woodfine, Joan Aiken, Sarah Crossan, Sarah Crowe, and so many hundreds of others. My taste in literature is broad and deep and wide and vital and knows no boundaries.

Why should I ever tire of such brilliant stuff, whatever the powers-that-be determine as its intended market?

So to conclude:

Why Do Adults Read YA Fiction?

Answer: Because good writing is good writing and should be read by anyone able to appreciate it.
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16 Comments

  1. Because I like them! The books I yearn to write are meant to inspire children and teenagers.

    June 4, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi WicCaesa, and thanks for commenting. Good for you!

      June 4, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Danielle K Girl
    Danielle K Girl

    I haven’t read the Slate article but I’m dumbfounded that they even bothered to write something like that. It just seems so incredibly pointless and arrogant. As you said, ‘good writing is good writing and should be ready by anyone able to appreciate it.’
    That’s really the bottom line.
    I’m not a huge fan of literary fiction, and I can pretty much guarantee that if a book has won an award like the ‘Booker Prize’ it is not going to be my cup of tea – but I would never suppose to call anyone who enjoyed it a snob, or roll my eyes if they stuck their hand up at book club and suggested it.
    Maybe the percentage of adults reading YA is even higher but everyone is too damn scared of the ‘culture’ police to say so.
    Mind you, I really thought that J K Rowling had put a bit of a dent in that attitude but apparently not.
    Great read Austin.

    June 4, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Danielle – thanks for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

      Well, who knows. Perhaps the people at Slate just wanted to solicit a reaction, drum up a bit of controversy. They certainly did that as far as I’m concerned. But I’m darned if I’ll give them “link juice” for it!

      I wrote elsewhere about this curious divide between “genre fiction” which people actually read and enjoy, and “literary fiction” which judging panels manage to get through and hardly anyone else reads.

      There’s a similar snobbishness among the ignorant about independently published work. Some people – can you believe this? – won’t read a “self-published” book on principle? WTF? Even though, as you concur, good writing is good writing and should be read by anyone able to appreciate it.

      Long live good storytelling, regardless of how it’s pigeon-holed and regardless of what the opinionated snobs care to say about books they’ve probably never even read!

      June 4, 2016
      |Reply
      • Danielle K Girl
        Danielle K Girl

        No way! Serious? (about the self-pub self imposed ban) Talk about depriving yourself. Look, I get that some of the quality might be lacking in some self-pub books – mainly for those authors choosing not to have proper editing/proofreading done – but to be honest some of the trad published stuff is equally awful. Anyway, I guess that means indie/self pub is still in a really exciting growth stage as all this gets sorted out. Did you see that recent report (couple of days ago) on the income figures for selfpub? Someone worked out a way to calculate what Amazon’s figures might be – it’s very interesting stuff!
        http://authorearnings.com/report/may-2016-report/

        June 6, 2016
        |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          Hi Danielle,

          Yes, seriously! There are almost as many book bloggers/reviewers who also specifically state they won’t even consider an independently published book for review. I understand the history behind this and there are still plenty of appallingly bad independently published books out there, along with a considerable and ever-growing quantity of good stuff. But times not only are changing, they have changed. And you’re absolutely right that being traditionally published is no guarantee that your book is really any good. Certainly no guarantee it will sell more than a couple of hundred copies.

          Ah yes, you’ve discovered Hugh Howey and “Data Guy.” It’s all interesting, and often inspiring stuff, but don’t let it distract you from the most important thing – writing more, writing better, publishing what you write.

          Thanks for dropping by. Always nice to hear from you. Have you got a deadline for that book yet?

          June 7, 2016
          |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hey Carol, nice to “see you” here! Thanks for your generous comment. x

      June 4, 2016
      |Reply
  3. E Susan Baugh
    E Susan Baugh

    I am a librarian. I have found that people who read a lot, enjoy books written for every age group. Ask “What is your favorite picture book? What is your favorite book for young adults or juveniles? What is your favorite classic? Who is your favorite dead author? Who is your favorite current (alive) author? I did a program for a local science fiction club and introduced them to the book “Bunnicula” a children’s book series written by James Howe, featuring a vampire rabbit. Then watched as adults read ever Bunnicula book on the shelf at the library.

    June 4, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi E Susan,

      First up, let me say that even without knowing you I already hold you in the highest regard because you’re a librarian. I am a vehement and tireless advocate and defender of the public library system and have nothing but the greatest respect for everyone involved in maintaining and advancing libraries.

      Now, thank you so very much for that contribution. I think you’re absolutely right and I love your anecdote. Thank you so much for sharing it.

      June 4, 2016
      |Reply
    • Oh my gods, I remember the Bunnicula Books! Read and owned four of them (wasn’t sure if the series went beyond that) and I bet if I still had my copies, I’d find them just as engaging as I did at the age of 11. 🙂

      October 15, 2016
      |Reply
  4. Sharmin L. B.
    Sharmin L. B.

    To be honest, I really didn’t know people actually asked those sort of question. A reader should be able to read whatever they wish to, no matter their age.

    June 19, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Sharmin and thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment – I really appreciate reading what people think. I have to say I completely agree with you: anyone of any age should be able to read anything if they enjoy it or find it interesting without being mocked, sneered at or vilified. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks as we do. People ask these questions all the time! I find it rather bizarre, but there it is. One reason I wrote this post was to add my voice to the read-what-you-like chorus. I’m glad it is being heard. 🙂

      June 20, 2016
      |Reply
  5. There’s no shame in reading YA when you’re an adult. It becomes a problem when all you read is YA – there’s a wealth of experiences out there, in my opinion. But hey, I guess it doesn’t matter as long as someone gets enjoyment out of it. 🙂

    September 29, 2016
    |Reply
  6. Yet another excellent blog (sorry, I finished my writing quota for the day, and find myself needing a literary boost–hence the frequent commentary).

    In both the long and the short of it, you voiced precisely how I feel on the subject, only in a more articulate manner. I’d say half–if not more–of the books on my shelf fall intothe Middle-grade/YA category–and they just so happen to be the ones I enjoy most. Like you said, many of them touch on subjects that anyone at any age can relate to, provided they aren’t the same bloody jackanapes thumbing their noses at people for reading “outside of their age group”. I suppose I’m also supposed to don polyester pants and awful, corny T-shirts when I’m over the hill, too? That’s all I get out of people like that; that we’re supposed to “act our age” in every sense of the word, when there’s really no set way that any one age group acts.

    I absolutely loved this. Thanks for having the guts to make this blog. 🙂

    October 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Shannon.

      Please don’t apologize for commenting – especially as you leave such intelligent, heartfelt and enriching contributions. Your comments are always very much appreciated.

      Yes, there are too many snobs altogether across the arts. And you’ll find most of those “jackanapes” (what a fabulous word – although Sibelius* might be slightly insulted by the origins of the term!) are people who buy their opinions wholesale off the supermarket shelf of thoughtless assumption. But it does bother me when something like The Slate joins in the tirade, probably just to generate a few extra hits on the back of the controversy (which is why I didn’t link to the article).

      As someone who has been trundling down the other side of the hill now for some years, I fully agree with you that I should be at liberty to read whatever I like without insult or redress from those who think they know better.

      Thanks again for you contribution, Shannon. Take care and happy reading!

      *For anyone else reading this who doesn’t know – this is not Jean Sibelius the fabulous Finnish composer, but a simian character in my steampunk fantasy series “The Dark Sea Trilogy.” He was named after the composer, who is one of my all time favorites.

      October 16, 2016
      |Reply

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