The Fault in Our Genre: Do YA Books Belong In Grown-Ups' Hands?

Do YA Books Belong In Grown-Ups' Hands?

Last week Slate put out a story letting adults know they should be embarrassed to read Young Adults titles. The crux of the argument was that YA books are written for "children" and their preferences for tidy endings and universally likable characters. Examples included The Fault In Our Stars, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Eleanor & Park, and others. In addition, the writer explained why these books should not be pleasurable for adult readers:

..the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. 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.

Of course, this perspective just about broke the internet, or at least the bookish parts.

The reactions were all over the map. Here are a few selections.

CNN's Kat Kisman on the results of reading "important" books as opposed to what she really found pleasurable:

Was I suddenly a more worthy, worldly person, with bigger, better thoughts? Not that I could tell, but I did get an awful lot quieter about admitting to people what made me happy — and maybe a little bit judgmental about other people's tastes, too. And that makes the world (at least my world) a little smaller.

Jezebel's Mark Shrayber:

Look, I'm not going to tell you what not to read (because if you like Gossip Girl that is your business), but no one should be telling anyone (especially grown adults) what to read either. You're a grown-up. Sometimes you want to read David Sedaris with a glass of Ramona Pinot and laugh about human folly and sometimes you want to eat peanut butter cups for breakfast and not take a shower for three days.

Flavorwire's Elisabeth Donnelly:

Seriously: some of my best friends write YA and people (mostly men) have straight-up asked them, 'When are they going to write a real book?' I have gotten the chance to cover YA in a variety of locations because I read it and I know about it, but also because there’s a general air of disinterest around it from other writers and editors (again, frequently men) who fail to realize that there is something to be said for stories that encourage ardent love.

Annoyed Librarian on Library Journal:

Reading through the comments, we can easily tell a few things about some of the adults who love to read YA novels: they’re very defensive. Also, a lot of them are really bad at defending their reading habits and yet feel compelled to.

The Christian Science Monitor's Husna Haq:

For us, the bottom line is simple. YA lit isn’t the blight Slate’s Graham makes it out to be, nor is it the shining light others proclaim it as. Books aren’t single-trick ponies, reduced to serving just one purpose. They fill our lives with meaning on many levels, no one greater than the other. They inform, entertain, challenge, move, provoke, please, discomfit, and force us to see the world in different ways. No one book can provide that breadth of experience, just as no one genre can, or should.

Rachel Carter, YA writer:

...I write YA because it’s a genre that is constantly evolving, is rich with ideas and distinctive characters, and offers limitless possibility. While adult fiction has been sectioned off into rigid genres, YA is an umbrella term that encompasses subjects as varied as dystopian wastelands, changeling children falling in love, and, yes, teenage cancer. It’s a genre where you can still write a lyrical, literary novel that is also sci-fi or apocalyptic. There are stories with happy endings, and stories that leave you gutted. There are novels set in high school cafeterias or in 1920s New York. YA is not a monolith, not just love stories or epic dystopian novels.

Maybe the most important part of the Slate article, or the most interesting, was mostly overlooked:

Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era.

Is there room to criticize genre? Or the ways books are marketed? Do you think it's wrong to criticize what gives another person joy, or maybe a better way to ask that question, can this kind of criticism be purposeful?

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 9, 2014 - 2:07pm

Yea I still don't get her argument again YA. *cough The Outsiders and Lord Of The Flies.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words June 9, 2014 - 3:38pm

hanging around the Teen section of the bookstore is the hardest part about reading YA.

As a genre (whatever that is, exactly), YA books have tended to veer into female protagonist future distopia (Golden Compass, Divergent, Hunger Games). It`s an interesting turn for the genre, seeing as Margaret Atwood seems to be doing the same in adult fiction with the MaddAddam Trilogy.

the point? Just be glad people are reading anything.

didldidi's picture
didldidi June 9, 2014 - 5:18pm

I'm completely on board with the author of the article. There's no shame in a little bit of YA for variety's sake. But when that's all or most of what an adult is reading, that's a bit much (outside of, say, teen librarians who essentially read them as part of their job).

And there is a reason why adults are uncomfortable looking through the teen section of the bookstore— they're looking at books written for teenagers. And, as the article in question says, they should feel a little awkward about doing that.

Yes, it's good that people are reading (the same justification that I heard so much when the Twilight series was at its peak), but are we saying that there is absolutely no hierarchy in literature? That The Great Gatsby and The Very Hungry Caterpillar are on equal footing since they can both be read?

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 9, 2014 - 5:19pm

This debate is a little confusing to me. Adults are old enough to make their own choices. We were all teenagers once and, sometimes, when life has shit all over you, you just want to read a book that takes you to a time when your biggest concern was passing a math test or getting a date to prom. I read YA in my free time, as well as many genre books from the mystery, fantasy, horror, etc. sections. My entire school year is spent in the classics. I live and breathe Chaucer, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, and co. for 180 days. Then on summer vacation, I pick up something that allows me to relax and escape the pressures of being an adult.

This argument against YA books is not only an issue in the media and is isn't strictly focused on adults reading it. As an English teacher, I have been told that it is ok to let kids read YA in their free time, but we should never ever teach a YA novel because it isn't capital "L" Literature. And then I look at my class set of John Green's Paper Towns, sigh, and tell myself that I will teach it next year because I feel pressured into following the system. Then I go through the headache of struggling to get students excited about classics, when they struggle with the language because most of my students are ESL. I can't fully understand the stigma that goes along with reading or teaching YA because the books can be used as a bridge.

And shouldn't we be celebrating that people are reading instead of shitting on them for their choice of books? I'd much rather see a person reading something than not reading anything at all. Sorry, long rant.

Olivia Marcus's picture
Olivia Marcus from Chicago, IL is reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella June 9, 2014 - 5:44pm

The only problem in YA books is when they kind of talk down to you. This isn't always true, but they often seem to be about some female protagonist struggling through middle school. I guess it's supposed to "relate" to those readers, but if I was "struggling" I would want something different. There are different ones though, ones I like to read.

Alex Hurst's picture
Alex Hurst June 9, 2014 - 6:20pm

I think we'd all just be better off if we got rid of umbrella-categories that suggest age limits. YA, MG, NA, Adult... the only thing about age that should matter is for readers, and by that I mean Pre-K-4th Grade reading level (for vocabulary and comprehension learning).

Otherwise, why limit any book?

Alex Koeller's picture
Alex Koeller from Chicago is reading Furies of Calderon - Jim Butcher June 10, 2014 - 12:45am

Ultimately I think it's about a balanced diet. There's nothing wrong with reading fiction marketed to teenagers but if that's all you do, you're limiting yourself. Not the worst thing in the world for people who only read for fun, but people who consider themselves serious readers/writers should aim higher.

I wonder if there's an economic story behind it, instead of the old saw about adults who refuse to grow up. Troubles in the publishing industry + less disposable income means that the market for 'grown-up' popular literature collapses. Teenage relative purchasing power increases (not that they haven't taken a hit too), the industry redirects their efforts toward publishing and marketing teen fiction, curious people who mostly get their new reading material from bestseller lists pick them up, and voila.

Anders Seneca Bang's picture
Anders Seneca Bang from Copenhagen, Denmark June 10, 2014 - 4:47am

I don't understand the fuzz. Of course people can read whatever they want, and of course other people can criticize that choice. It's very simple to me.

Twistedsage's picture
Twistedsage June 10, 2014 - 7:37am

Personally, I don't read YA.  I have dabbled in it, but it's never been anything that I have enjoyed.  Mostly for all the reasons listed in the article by slate.  However, I try not impose my standards on the people reading next to me.  To thine own self be true and all.

Here's an interesting fact though, the reading level of the average American (if there is such a thing) is now at eight grade (  That fact doesn't mean a whole lot and doesn't take into account a lot of factors, however there is something pertinent in this conversation about YA.  How the hell are we going to raise the average reading level if most adults are reading books meant for seventh graders? 

See, when we start a discussion about this the topic has to go beyond reading for enjoyment. 19 other countries have scored higher in reading than Uncle Sam (  That number jumped from nine in 2009.  I’m not holding solely YA responsible, but I do think it’s related. On a daily basis I get texts from friends that end in LOL because they have nothing else to say.  Words like plz and sexting and OMG have made it into our vocabulary.  Language is a living, breathing thing kept alive by the culture that utilizes it.  English is such a varied vibrant language capable of so much more then what I have sampled in YA, both in content and prose.   

Read it, don’t read it, I don’t care.  Just know that when you follow a trend in society you are directing the flow of that society, especially one with a sole foundation anchored in supply and demand. If it sells you can be damn sure it’s going to flood the market.  Where are we going to be in ten years I wonder?


Glen Jordan Spangler's picture
Glen Jordan Spangler June 10, 2014 - 8:46am

My main problem with the Slate article is its overgeneralization:

  • If Ruth Graham avoids reading YA except when required to do so for professional reasons, she has limited the sample she has used to reach her sweeping conclusions.
  • If Stephen King were just starting out now, and sold his first novel—about a bullied teen girl with supernatural powers—how would it be marketed?

This being said, if anyone asked me for advice in choosing books to read, I'd recommend variety.

LeahD's picture
LeahD from Boston is reading The Devil In The White City June 10, 2014 - 11:35am

All I want to do now is buy a bag of peanutbutter cups and check out a big stack of YA books.

ynohtnAAnthony's picture
ynohtnAAnthony June 11, 2014 - 4:09pm

Graham is stepping too lightly, something tells me she is afraid of these simple people. Attention YA adult audience, let me help you to get started developing your higher brain: learn an appreciation for subtlety, exercise patience, and bookmark Merriam-Webster Online. Rinse and repeat..good luck.