The YA Book Stigma

imagesWhen I visited my library last week, I gravitated toward the young-adult section. With Trial by Fire secured in my hands, I thought I would look for something else within the genre.

I stood in front of a tower of books, my eyes perusing the selection and flitting occasionally at the people around me. I noticed an old man behind the reference desk. He wore a lopsided grin and then, quite noticeably, shook his head in my general direction. I shrugged it off and dismissed it, as one should do instead of making assumptions. Then standing next to me were two teenagers, and it didn’t take long for me to feel the out-of-place age gape.

Ten years have gone by since I was sixteen. The library I went to didn’t have a designated shelf for YA literature. There was children fiction and adult fiction. That was it. I had to hunt for books aimed at my age group, which left me mostly with Sarah Dessen books or books on bullying, drugs, or romance–the last thing I wanted to read. Sure there were other books, but the YA books published today offer more audacious and experimental content than their predecessors. Books such as the Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, or Libby Bray’s The Diviners are mature stories with young-adult characters confronted with real adult problems. In spite of YA’s growth in popularity and myriad of subgenres, critics and fellow book readers continue to castigate the genre and its older readership.

Last year, Ruth Graham’s article was posted on Slate shaming adults for reading YA, suggesting that it’s “replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers.”  I would be concerned too if a well-known genre was on the brink of extinction, but there’s no indication of literary fiction or even adult fiction dying out soon. Graham identifies literary fiction as the genre being faced with this ostensible annihilation, as if YA will monopolize the book market and that book publishers will cease production of all literary-fiction books. Literary fiction does tend to be read less than other genres; however, as long as there’s a market for it and a kindle of interest, I doubt there will be a shortage of literary-fiction books any time soon. Graham’s treatment of YA is astounding and seems more territorial and didactic. Telling anyone what they should be reading has a tendency to backlash and ruins the overall reading experience.

Graham further expounds on the problems with adults reading YA books. She pointedly clarifies that it’s not that having adolescent characters is the issue, citing contemporary, literary author Megan Abbott, but that YA books require adults “to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” This implication is problematic in two ways. It suggests that adults reading YA are psychologically regressing, but regression is impulsive, a result of a defense mechanism. If adults are casting out their “mature insights” when reading YA, then there would be some kind of threat triggering this event. Adults’ maturity remains safely intact as it’s unlikely that years of experience can be washed away so easily. Graham may also be assuming adults are reading for scholarly reasons and overlooks the entertainment value of YA books. When reading books, most people are reading for pleasure.

The other problem besides what Graham insists will cause adults to regress is that she presumes that in order to fully appreciate adult literature, one must have the maturity, not the intellect, to comprehend it. The implication made also suggests reading YA will negatively interfere with an adults’ capability of reading adult literature with age as the only determinant. She excludes other factors such as sex, race, and social class that can significantly affect our views and shape our experiences. In addition to this credulous statement, it belittles young adults themselves. As she implies, they won’t be able to really appreciate adult literature and inadvertently discourages young adults for even trying. Graham discredits young adults and their capacity to translate complex text and ability to relate emotionally.

Graham is just one example of critics shaming adults reading YA. Critics snub the merit of YA books and often demonstrate a high, elitist opinion. But what critics realize or don’t give credit to is the amount of revenue YA produced in 2014, and how the YA book market kept the book market afloat. In spite of YA’s commercial success, critics repudiate the literary aspects of YA and are convinced that only young adults should read young-adult literature.

This notion might have had more weight to it 50 years ago, when YA was originally a term designed to indicate the intended age a book would most appeal to. YA has gradually shifted from an age classification to a genre since then. Over the years, YA underwent several changes, from formulaic plots and horror, to paranormal and dystopian. From only a few books on a shelf to a section in the bookstore, YA encompasses a plethora of subgenres that seem to have one commonality: transitioning. Whether the teen protagonist is a werewolf or a symbol in a dystopian world, YA plots occur during a time in the protagonist’s life when he or she feels stuck between times and places, from adolescent to adult, or more fantastical, one world to the another. Characters struggle with identity and sexuality, alcohol and drugs, abuse and survival, issues of degrading health and mental illness, etc, with these topics also prevalent in other adult-related genres. Of course YA’s inclusion of more adult-related themes has led to discussions debating about its mature content and even causing some YA books to be banned. The term YA became intermittently synonymous with its targeted audience and genre.

But what is the appeal of this genre? Some might argue the popularity of this genre should be accredited to the John Green Effect, which does warrant some discussion. John Green certainly has caught the media’s attention in the last year with the theatrical debut of The Fault in Our Stars, but most of his success can be contributed to his fan base and social media plate forms. It’s not only the book-to-film adaptation of Green’s novel that has done well. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergent have done substantially well too, hooking moviegoers and having them direct their eyes at the written source. This is one explanation as to why so many adults are diving into young-adult literature.

The other explanation is the economic and social changes. The effect of the recession has recent graduates (infamously dubbed Millennials, or my personal favorite, the Peter Pan generation) unemployed or underemployed. As a result, they are living at home with their parents. The lack of income and independency postpones traditional adult milestones such as marriage, purchasing a house, or starting a family. The effects of the economic environment has left adults in a stagnant, awkward transition resembling stories found in YA literature; these stories offer palpable and relatable scenarios. Millennials are possibly turning to YA books for comfort. Why should adults be shamed for that?

Critics are also quick to dismiss YA as a low-brow form of literature, yet the genre is surprisingly experimental and versatile. Yes, it doesn’t always conform to conventional rhetoric or meet the criteria of true literary fiction. YA redefines the concept of literary prose by incorporating chunks of dialogue, email formats, and texting vernacular into fewer, simpler lines. We are a multifaceted culture and communicate in a variety of different ways. It’s not as though adult fiction doesn’t show this, but it’s more apparent in YA, with its subjects and audience’s generation more fluent in technological innovations. Usually literature is a reflection of the current times, and it’s good to see what post-modern writers are doing with it. This doesn’t mean YA contains less in story when it comes to content. YA literature has produced some thought provoking ideas exemplified in Lois Lowry’s The Giver. While it was written for a young-adult audience, it’s harbors dark themes of solidarity and conformity. Sometimes the best pieces of literature can be said in few words.

And we cannot forget what YA is doing for the younger generation. By expanding on subjects that have been considered taboo in the past, YA authors are reigniting young adults’ interest in literature. This same phenomenon is also being carried over to adults. If more adults are reading because of YA literature, then how is that bad?

What I see is YA authors taking more risks and challenging the traditional, literary conventions, not sabotaging literary fiction or, more nefariously, poisoning adults’ minds. As much as I like literary fiction, it’s enthusiasts and advocates have a way of sometimes taking themselves too seriously.

So to those readers shaming others: less judging, more reading.

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