Monday, April 30, 2012

Should Adults Read Adult Books?

I'm sure you've read writer Joel Stein's recent polemic on the subject of adults reading young-adult literature:
"The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing."
You can find the full article here.

I kind of agree with him, at least as far as my own reading goes; I don't judge people for what they read but I do cringe a little too when a grownup tells me I should read a book written for a 10 year old. And I'm sure it's a wonderful book. Really, I am. I have nothing but respect for the passion of YA and children's authors, booksellers, librarians and readers. But I'm not going to read the book.*

When I was a teen there was very little YA literature- nothing like what there is today. When I finished with middle-reader chapter books I had these choices:
  • science fiction,
  • Sweet Valley High,
  • adult books.
I think somewhere along the line I read Dicey's Song and The Outsiders and Island of the Blue Dolphins too, but once high school hit, virtually all of our required books were "adult" books- Jane Eyre, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Of Mice and Men, and others. The books I read on my own were adult books too- and not always highbrow. I had a romance novel phase and I'm only a little ashamed to admit it. But YA? Today? As an almost-40-year old? I'll pass. I hate to generalize about YA because
  • I haven't read that much and
  • I'll get flamed for a thousand years,
but I will anyway. It just seems so angsty. I don't need teen angst. I don't relate to it and I don't really want to spend my time swimming in it. I had enough teen angst as a teenager to last me the rest of my life and anybody who doubts that can read my diaries. (Not that adult books don't have it too. One of the first adult books I remember reading was Gone with the Wind. I mean, Scarlett O'Hara, self pity much? But read on.)

Maybe the difference is perspective. Books written about growing up from an adult perspective, for an adult reader, often have a little bit of maturity to back up the melodrama, and a little maturity goes a long way. These books don't just recount the horrors of adolescence but try to understand how those experiences made the grownup the person he or she has become. As adult myself I appreciate that insight. I find it missing in books that are more inwardly focused and focused on the moment of growing up, before insight is achieved. I think of books like Asta in the Wings, or Me and You, or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as great coming of age stories lacking in excessive melodrama. I understand that teens need fictional characters to relate to, especially those teens with chaos and dysfunction in their lives. I am glad that kids have books that show the pain of childhood, jagged edges and all, so they know that whatever they're going through, they're not alone.  And if that helps you, great. I wish I had some of those books when I was a kid, and today you have lots of choices. But I don't need to be dragged back into that.

I think I don't read YA because it feels like going backwards. I want to move on in my life and I want my reading to reflect where I am now, not where I was when I was 15. I wonder if that may be what Stein was really getting at but didn't say. It's not a matter of the quality of the writing or the craft or the complexity of the ideas.  It just seems weird for grownups to be so stuck on childhood. If you like angst, grownups have plenty too. Why not read novels about middle aged angst? I can give you some suggestions if you need them.

That said, what you read is your business and I respect differences in taste and have no wish to shame anyone for their reading. But we may have to agree to disagree on this one.








*unless it's a bona fide phenomenon and I have to read it for work. In which case I'll love it and hand-sell it with wild abandon.

36 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I find I can't relate to YA novels, at this stage of the game. It's something which is important to me when I sit down with a book. That being said, I do enjoy books for young kids, but that is because it helps me with building a library for the new addition.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Wow! Pulling out your guns first thing Monday morning! It is true, everyone likes different things and to each his own. The YA genre is huge with adults. I can't say that it is my favorite genre...I have plenty of teen angst in my house! But I do enjoy them on occasion, and additionally it is what my daughter is reading and gives us a teeny weeny bit of common ground. I can use every bit of that. Also I find that sometimes it is nice to regress!

Jeanne said...

I agree in some ways and not in others; I think we can take on roles as we read and that's a good thing. Like Sandy, I read more YA when my kids were reading it. And we have a big collection of children's lit that we reread. But I do have to wonder about all the adult fuss over books like The Hunger Games. It seems like some of the adults who go nuts over these books are overjoyed to find something accessible, something they can understand. It's hard not to think that in some cases, YA means dumbed-down.

JaneGS said...

I honestly don't care what other people read and I can't imagine why anyone would care what I read. I just want enough readers out there to keep the publishing industry moving, and if adults want to read YA, more power to them.

I personally don't read much YA, but I loved the HP series, Hunger Games, and a few other YA titles. I read for pleasure, and sometimes I get pleasure from history, sometimes from bio, sometimes from adventure, and sometimes from angst.

Suzanne said...

I agree with Stein as well, though I think it must be said that Stein generally writes satire so I'm not sure we should take this essay too seriously.
My take on this, for what it's worth: I don't have a problem with adults reading YA, I have a problem when that is ALL they read.

Tina said...

I read YA to remain on the pulse of what my students are reading. That said, the predictability to many YA reads leaves me feeling as if I just wasted my time. My own children dropped YA lit at the young age of 12 (now 18 and a few days shy of 15). I think the sophistication of the reader determines how long one stays with YA. For some who are barely readers, though, I'm grateful that they have something which keeps them reading, even if through adulthood!

tonkelu said...

I like YA. I love Harry Potter. I thought Hunger Games was fantastic.

I just laughed myself silly at Mindy Kalling's book, and am doing the same with Bossypants.

Pride and Prejudice might be the best book ever.

I have eclectic tastes where books are concerned. It doesn't make me any less of an adult. Quite frankly, my life is real enough and sometimes I want to lose myself in a world where magic is real, or where childhood trauma means having the cutest boy in school call a girl "Freckles". Joel Stein- and anyone who wants to be a pious book snob- can bite me.

They're books, not status symbols. Gah. Get over it.

Ryan said...

Like you, when I was growing up, I don't recall a genre specifically known as YA fiction. There was Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume, Gordon Korman, the Hardy Boys and a few others, none of which I read with any real interest. I recall wanting to read adult books as soon as I was old enough to read. When I finally did start reading adult books, I couldn't see any reason to go back. As you said, too much angst, and the themes feel like blunt objects upside my head.

That being said, it's hard for me to chastise anyone for what they read because anything that gets people reading (whether young or old) is fine with me.

Melissa Ward said...

I think the major point is that you don't feel YA is for you personally, but have no bones with others reading it, while Stein is takes the stance that adults who read YA are not worth his time or respect.

Yours is the more adult angle :)

Blodeuedd said...

I do read YA now and again and some are good. But some are so angsty and filled with silly drama and it annoys me. I never really read YA books as a teen either. When I was 10 I started reading harlequins and when I was like 11 I read that prequel to Gone with the wind. But then again we did not have many YA books either. What we had were mg books

bermudaonion said...

I do enjoy a YA book from time to time but I gravitate to the less angsty ones. I don't get it when adults read nothing but YA but, I'm like you, if it floats their boat, I'm fine with it.

Zibilee said...

I don' read a lot of YA because of the angst and the usual love triangles, but I don't denigrate anyone else for reading it. It's not really to my taste to read a lot of YA, but my teenage kids like it, and will point me towards something good if they think I will like it. They know my reading tastes really well, and I know theirs. We can pick books for each other with great confidence that it's the right book for the right person, so I tend not to read much YA that hasn't been vetted by my kids, who will know what I like.

All that being said I don't think less of anyone for what they read, and I certainly hope that article was written with a good spirit, because I don't like it when people judge me based on the books I read, and the snobbery is just not necessary. With society being the way it is today, I am just happy people are reading!

Anna said...

I don't read middle grade or YA too often, and when I do, it's mostly historical fiction. I can't read the contemporary stuff, though, because I definitely don't want to re-live high school.

You're right that it boils down to a personal preference. I say we should all just read what we want to read. :)

Deb Baker said...

All true, Marie. My daughter, who is 14, doesn't like most teen lit. because of the angst, and has been saying that for a few years.She also hates it when a romance is tossed in "for marketing" rather than being integral to the plot, a sad ploy in YA fiction. We recently read Lord of the Flies as a family and she told us it ruined crappy teen lit. for her because the writing is so amazing. We told her it's ok to read mind candy sometimes, but agreed there is a whole world of good writing, so why not enjoy that instead!

caite said...

I think I disagree.
Really, who defines what is 'adult' fiction and what is YA. I think they are just marketing terms which often have nothing to do with the reality of a book. I just finished Beneath a Meth Moon. The main character is a teenager, and yes, it is marketed as a YA book, but I think in so many ways it is actually a very adult book.
Is Huck Finn YA...or treasure island..or are they just classic, great book that anyone can enjoy?
I think there are good book and not so good books and just read the good ones and don't waste your time on the bad ones!

Alexia561 said...

I find myself in the YA section lately, as those are the types of books I'm currently reading. Nothing wrong with that, and I don't like that the author is looking down his nose at us. Why does it matter what we're reading? I read thrillers and urban fantasy and general fiction and chick lit and YA and anything else that catches my eye. To each his own...

Marce said...

I remember reading the article and thought he was just having a laugh, maybe he was serious. I am just happy people are reading, YA, erotica, whatever :-) YA is not a genre I go to, I quickly realised since blogging it is not for me, that and Dystopian which Hunger Games is both. I was not a fan and realised I was in the minority.

I'm 36 and can't related to most YA and have a problem when parents are not in them at all, lol, so hey.

picky said...

I rarely read YA, but the ones I have read, I've mostly enjoyed. I don't do angst, so if a book has it, I'm out - whether it's YA or adult.

But I also read adult books when I was extremely young. Jane Eyre in 4th grade. Did I understand all of it? No. Did I still love it? Yes.

My ESL class recently read Fahrenheit 451, a book I read in high school and loved. Arguably, it's an adult book, though it is mainly read by high schoolers. And though the themes aren't simplistic, I must say, the writing isn't as impressive as I remembered. It's full of angst and preachiness. Ugh.

All that to say, I think it depends on a lot of factors. I'm selective with my reading, no matter what, but it doesn't mean I'll not factor in all types of books.

Tasha B. said...

Henry James would agree with you, and Stein. He hated when adults read children's books. There's a post up about that somewhere, but I don't remember where I read it. But James wrote an entire essay about it and that's one of the reasons why YA and MG is its own section of the bookstore now.

I used to enjoy YA because I felt like the authors, generally speaking, focused more on telling a good story than adult novels did. But I haven't been interested in a YA book in a while. The behavior of some authors and bloggers in recent months hasn't exactly helped, either.

That being said, it's important to keep in mind that YA is a marketing term, not a proper genre the way romance or mystery are. There are no unifying genre characteristics to YA other than the characters are teenagers. And considering Pride & Prejudice, Oliver, and To Kill a Mockingbird all have teenage or child protagonists, discounting a book based entirely on the age of the main characters seems an odd way to judge the quality of a novel.

Brandy said...

I'm one of those people who mostly reads YA. (Professional hazard; I'm a teen librarian.) And yes, a lot of it is crap. A lot of what I read is crap. But there's also a lot of it that's really great, with well-developed characters and situations and some truly stellar writing. And there's a lot of angst.

I think placing a blanket "yuck; that's junk" over anything marketed toward teens is going a little far, particularly when it is (frequently) just a marketing decision. The Book Thief, for instance, or anything by Sonia Hartnett; in their native Australia they're both targeted at Young Adults (i.e., 18-35) but here they're Teen. How is reading excellent books marketed at teens somehow less worthwhile than, say, a steady literary diet of Shopaholic?

When I do have a chance to read an adult book, I enjoy it--it's nice to indulge in grown-up concerns! But frankly, I don't have a ton of time. As a public librarian who does a TON of Readers' Advisory and booktalking, I need to know what books are out there and what books are similar to the bestsellers that are never on the shelf. I need to be making recommendations to the schools when they're updating their summer reading lists. There are only so many hours in a day, and the great myth of librarianship is that we spend all day reading books. (hahahahaha. If only.) So a lot of that reading gets done on my own time. I will be the first to admit that it feels pretty good to plow through 2 books a week, even if they're under 300 pages and written at a 9th-grade level.

I do feel defensive about my reading habits, and I know that my brain has gotten pretty lazy. Adult books are haaaard. They take a long time. I have to THINK about them and process according to my adult brain, and those are all things I don't have to do with the books that are aimed at 15-year-olds. But at this stage in my life--building a professional reputation (and--maybe a little braggy here--having just finished writing a genre guide to dystopian teen books, forthcoming from VOYA Press in June), keeping up (and catching up) with what the teens I'm serving are reading/doing/thinking, juggling all kinds of work-related projects, and having a 2-year-old at home--I don't have a lot of mental energy left for reading. Most of my reading and entertainment options get filtered through a lens of "how does ___ affect teens?"

But my To-Be-Read shelf is stuffed to bursting with adult titles that I want to read and don't have the energy for, which makes me sad, honestly. I don't want to be someone who only reads teen books; it's just something that's happened.

Brandy said...

(Good gravy, that was long; I didn't realize. Sorry!)

Amy said...

Nope I disagree that people who read and enjoy YA are stuck in their youth as you insinuate. I think good stories are good stories some just have a broader appeal to more ages. So it seems shortsighted to broadbrush good stories based on what age they are marketed towards. I mean you don't have to read anything you don't want to, but it doesn't make you smarter/more intelligent/more mature to read all adult books. One could say it makes you more narrow minded because you are unable to appreciate the truth of a variety of stories for yourself, you can only accept that which is written for adults.

Carrie said...

It has gotten so that I hate the designation of a book as "middle grade" or "YA." If To Kill a Mockingbird was written today, it would be classified as MG or YA, and then some people would think it was only written for that age group - and miss out on a classic. Same with Lord of the Flies.

Marie said...

I read both YA and adult books and a great deal of everything else -- I have very eclectic tastes and my children are turning out the same way. I really liked your post by the way and there are things about it that I agree with but honestly I don't care what people read so much as the fact that they are reading! I just want people to read, something! I am amazed at the number of people I talk to who tell me they don't read at *all* or rarely ever pick up a book. If reading YA would get them to read then I'll go with that. My son has been a rather reluctant reader -- too busy being a non-stop boy :-) When he finally started reading he read every single Captain Underpants. *Not* what I would have chosen for him, at all. But he was reading so I let it go. And now he has moved on to other books (that I like better :-) and has become a reading machine. Thanks for a great and thoughtful post!!

Marie said...

I thought Stein's article was hilarious and was meant to be so; it reminded me of many conversations I've had with YA booksellers and librarians who think (correctly) that I am an incurable literary snob because I'm not interested in that section of the bookstore.

Marie said...

Agreed!

Marie said...

Haha fair enough. No they're not status symbols. But that doesn't mean they're meaningless either.

Marie said...

thank you, that's very kind :-)

Marie said...

exactly, exactly!

Marie said...

I have nothing but respect for librarians and booksellers serving children and teens- you're doing God's work and don't need to defend yourself to anybody!

Marie said...

that's me, narrow-minded.

Marie said...

Fahrenheit 451 is definitely a social-message book, and it was defintely written for adults although you're right, it's a regular on high school reading lists. I don't like preachy books either but some things are just cultural touchstones.

Marie said...

"YA" is confusing because it is a marketing term as you say but a valid one. Plenty of what gets designated as YA is actually written FOR that market. I think that's what unifies the books- that they have that age audience in mind when they're being written. Not all books that teens/kids read or that have teens/kids as protagonists are written for teens. And some of what gets marketed in the US as teen/YA is written for adults or marketed to adults in another country. I find the whole thing very confusing at times! Jane Austen was certainly not writing for a teen audience, I'm sure!

Marie said...

I'm glad to hear your son is doing so well with books. And I agree that I'd rather have people reading YA than nothing.

Kathleen said...

I can't deal with the teen angst since I have a teenager with plenty of angst living in my house...ha! However, books like The Book Thief are also characterized as YA and are incredibly powerful and literary reads so don't count out all YA...I think you will find a few to love.

Amy said...

Love the post, and the comments. I think it's a tricky topic to discuss because people are so quick to jump to conclusions. I do read some YA, and some of it I really enjoy - in part I enjoy knowing that there are more varied and realistic and diverse options out there for young adults these days. That being said... I don't read much, and I actively try to read less. It isn't because it they are easier or less challenging, but like you said they are from a different place and I'm no longer really there in my life, I find.