Last week, Ruth Graham published an article on Slate, shaming adults for reading YA literature and urging them to grow out of the sappy, satisfying, simplified stories between those kid-friendly covers. “Fellow grown-ups,” she writes, “at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.” And, “If [adults] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”
First of all, and this seems so obvious that I won’t waste words on it, nobody should be ashamed by their reading habits. Read whatever you want, whenever you want.
But what really bugs me about this article is the narrow lens through which Graham is studying and defining YA:
Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls “realistic fiction.” These are the books, like The Fault in Our Stars, that are about real teens doing real things, and that rise and fall not only on the strength of their stories but, theoretically, on the quality of their writing. These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.
The author of this article is doing readers a disservice by branding all YA fiction as either realistic fiction or trash because, like adult fiction, YA spans innumerable genres: sci/fi, fantasy, historical fiction, thriller, mystery, etc., etc., and, yes, realistic fiction. The only common denominator is the age of the protagonist, which tends to range from about 12 to 18.
Graham limits herself, too, in her definition of realistic fiction, by choosing The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park as the lynchpins of her discussion. Both of these (as well as most of the other titles Graham mentions) are of the “marginalized girl gets marginalized boy and they both find themselves, or start to, anyway” formula and, while I would argue that they’re both excellent realizations of that formula (read: I ADORED both those books), I can also understand the eye-rolling Graham claims they’re likely to incite.
But what about realistic fiction of other ilks? Graham’s inherent claim that these two titles are representative of all realistic young adult fiction is no more accurate than the assumption that all realistic adult novels are just like Something Borrowed (Giffin) or Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding). Both of those novels, arguably “maudlin dramas,” approach the protagonists’ perspectives in “a fundamentally uncritical way,” ask readers to “abandon the mature insights that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults,” and indulge in those satisfying endings Graham claims adults should scorn as “far too simple.”
Yet nobody would claim Giffin or Fielding as the template-makers of adult fiction. Non-realistic genres aside, they’d cite Meg Wolitzer and Khaled Hosseini and Donna Tart and so many others as wildly different authors writing for the same audience. And I would identify Jay Asher and Laurie Halse Anderson and Ransom Riggs as just a few authors who represent other, unexplored-by-Ruth-Graham corners of the young adult fiction universe.
Just like “Adult Fiction,” “Young Adult Fiction” describes an audience, not a template. And “realistic fiction,” for readers of any age, encompasses much more than puppy love. There are trashy books and good books and all kinds in between, in every genre, for every audience. Please don’t pigeonhole YA fiction into one measly theme.
And for Pete’s sake, stop book shaming anybody who finds joy in those pages.