My hometown public library, like most public libraries, grouped fiction by age range. It was a two-story library, and the first floor was home to the easy books in one corner and juvenile fiction over against the far wall. Teen books were on the second floor. You were old enough to read YA when you could go upstairs without your parents. (Adult fiction was also on the second floor, so your parents might be upstairs too, but they weren’t with you.) I was reminded of this while reading Ruth Graham’s now-infamous article, “Against YA.” Mixed in with that headline-grabbing pronouncement about embarrassment and the general tone of frustration that so many adults are reading books meant for teenagers, I found her markers of reading maturity to be interesting, even when I disagreed with them.
But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.
My objective in youth was to graduate from the first floor, and once I made it upstairs, I was in no hurry to leave the YA section I’d just earned my way into. But why didn’t I yearn to make that next move as Graham so clearly did? Maybe it was just that there was no staircase involved, no obvious rite of passage—all I would have had to do was walk across the room to get to the adult stacks. But also, I expected adult fiction to be boring. Over the years, I’d looked at the books my parents read, and they weren’t promising. Dad never read fiction at all. If adult fiction was so wonderful, why wasn’t he reading it?
But 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.
What happens, of course, is that when you’re ready to read something, it becomes interesting. I don’t remember deciding that I was too old for the teen book section; I just found myself looking for books I’d heard of and wanted to read, and finding them in the adult section instead. So I’m not worried that teenagers will fail to move to adult reading simply because adults are reading YA. See, here’s the corollary: when you’ve outgrown something, you lose interest in it. The problem is predictability, the feeling that you’ve read this story a few hundred times before. There are times I envy teenage readers, because with their comparative lack of reading experience, they still have so much to discover. But when they want to read something beyond YA, I’m sure they’ll make the leap.
And why must it be a one-way progression? Yes, I read YA. My favorite genres are fantasy and science fiction, and a lot of YA books fall into those genres, so yeah, I’m interested. But I also read adult SF/F. And New Age books. And poetry. And philosophy. Heck, I read The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye last month, a book in the easy books section of my hometown library. Really, why limit yourself? (Come on, it wouldn’t be a reaction to “Against YA” without a statement that you should read whatever interests you.)
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.
Okay, people, as much as many of us adults love reading YA books, we’re not the intended audience. No one will force you to suppress your mature insights, but an adult perspective can’t be a requirement for enjoying YA books or teenagers will be shut out of the very books meant for them. It seems to me that here Graham is holding YA books to a higher standard than other works. For example, many books present a white male perspective uncritically. It doesn’t mean they’re badly written. It doesn’t mean that readers who aren’t white males won’t enjoy them or shouldn’t read them. Some of them are classics of literature, masterpieces of language, characterization, and plot. But it doesn’t work to fault YA for a trait that a lot of fiction shares.
Googling “Against YA” not only turns up the article itself, but pages of links to reactions to it, most of them negative. Okay, I’m writing this—obviously I cared enough to spend time thinking about it. I don’t seem to be able to work up as much anger about it as many people had, though, because I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. The tone of the article is off-putting and I hope the assertion that adults should be embarrassed to be reading YA was mostly meant to get people’s attention (it worked!). But the core argument, that people should be willing to grow, to try books that are out of their comfort zone, is sound, and it would be a shame if it was lost in the kerfuffle.