Why Adults Read Young Adult Literature

There has been some discussion recently about the phenomenon of adults reading young adult literature. A.O. Scott in this piece, and Ruth Graham, here, argue that this is a sign of our cultural decline. I don’t buy it. I would argue instead that the issue is that children’s literature in recent years has gotten really damn good, while strictures around literature for adults hinder broad appeal. The problem is that the adult literary climate creates a wide divide between smart, or literary fiction, and exciting, or genre fiction.

Literary fiction is produced by graduates of prestigious creative writing programs who have spent years honing their ability to produce tight, beautifully written prose that illuminates the human condition. The problem with this work is that it’s often not all that fun to read. Nothing much happens. Characters amble through life, and we glimpse through them ourselves and our own shortcomings. The sentences are beautiful to behold. But there isn’t much action. It’s our own lives, revealed in their ordinary tragedy.

Genre fiction, in contrast, is all about action and escape. Thrillers, romances, fantasy, are designed to transport us from the everyday. They are page-turners. The problem they suffer, though, is that through decades of books, their genres have become so proscribed that they have become cookie cutter. A romance has to end with true love. A murder mystery has to have a dead body on the first page. Romance novels that upend the trope face significant challenges to getting published. The agents and editors – and the readers – of romance novels have certain expectations, and will reject those that don’t meet them.

Those adult writers who manage to write literary stories where things happen are often very popular. Donna Tartt is the classic example. Her books straddle the line between genre fiction (where things happen) and literary fiction (where universal truths are revealed). They are immensely popular, but derided by the literary elite, as Vanity Fair notes.

Young adult novels avoid this dichotomy through a simple back door: Young adult is its own genre. Thus, a young adult writer does not have to fit her work into the thriller mold or the literary fiction mold. It is a young adult novel. Eleanor and Park, for instance, is considered a young adult romance. It’s also a fascinating study in the role of race and class and size in society, and it has an ambiguous ending – we don’t see our heroes off to marriage. The Fault in Our Stars is literary in its exposition on our yearning for meaning in life, and it is also a romance. The Hunger Games is a thriller with a female lead and some powerful and complex critiques of class and consumerism. People aren’t reading these books because they’re easy, they’re reading them because they’re great. I’m not into thrillers, and have never read a book by James Patterson. I loved the Hunger Games. I don’t read Danielle Steel, but I loved both Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars.

Young adult literature has flourished in recent years. In addition to the writers above, there are Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher, Elizabeth Wein, and more. Their writing is gripping, thought-provoking, and beautiful. So, my advice for adults looking for a fun story that will draw them in and make them think: Check out YA.