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.