3.13.2012

Adults Reading "Young Adult" Literature -- An Observation

First, let me start with the ending: I don't hate Young Adult literature. Far from it. I think it's fantastic when an author can write in a way that ignites the imagination of young people and relates to them in a way they connect with. I love when a talented storyteller turns a young reader -- who is in flux with their interests and are inundated with video games and television and YouTube clips of cats and several hundred thousand horrible versions of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" -- toward the worlds that can only be built in the mind through a well-crafted sentence.

I think it's sad, however, when a person stops there and doesn't mature in their tastes. And that's why it saddens me to see so many adults whose reading lists consist almost solely of Young Adult literature. And it saddens me even more that so many authors are rushing to the bottom to appeal to the lowest common denominator of reader.

Yes, I read Young Adult literature. I LOVED Harry Potter. I was a very late comer to the series. I only recently finished watching the films (which wouldn't have happened if my friend Katie didn't nearly threaten gun-related violence if Andrea and I didn't). I loved them so much that I read the books. I thoroughly enjoyed the world that J. K. Rowling crafted. I adored the characters. I nearly cried at times while reading them.

But those tears weren't from the narrative, or the events that transpired in the storyline. It was my joy at how much wonder and delight and confidence and strength this story was brining to millions of children. Literally, I wept at how powerful this entire narrative was to the social fabric of our future society.

But for me, it was merely a visit to Young Adult Literature Land. I do that from time to time -- sometimes to investigate what it is that's turning young readers on these days, and sometimes to relate to my nephews and niece a little better. In fact, I just finished The Hunger Games because I wanted to see what the fuss was about. It's quite good. I can see the appeal. I'll eventually read the rest of them at some point.

It's a simple read. It's meant to be. And sometimes, I like a simple read. Sometimes.

But there is a growing awareness (at least for me) that Young Adult literature is becoming the dominant genre in American reading culture these days. And for me, this brings to light a theory I've long had, but is now being proven out in a way that didn't quite show itself to me early on.

I think our culture's development in terms of sophistication of content gets arrested somewhere around age 17. It's like we have about 5 years to determine what we like -- from that formative age of 12, when we start paying attention to music and movies and books and seeing what turns us on and what we flat out don't like, until we're on our way out of our forced social dynamic of high school and we're becoming either completely unaffected by what our peers think we should like or we're 100% beholden to that notion for the rest of our lives -- and then it's all locked in from there.

This is, of course, a blanket statement describing the majority of what I've observed, especially on Amazon bestseller lists and Bookscan. The point is that people, by and large, stop expanding at some point in their lives. This is true, and always has been. But these days, it feels more and more like that expansion stops earlier and earlier in our development as people.

Some people might argue that comic books are the same thing. By this, they mean the blanket genre of comics. This is as stupid as saying that people who read books -- any books -- fall into this category. Comics are not, as a format, children's literature, or Young Adult literature, or adult literature. They're a form of storytelling. Sequential narrative and graphic novels are as varied in style and content as books, magazines, movies and television shows. To lump the entire format into "kids stuff" is my first and only sign that you are not someone I ever need to wonder is capable of an intelligent conversation, and I turn you off immediately.

That said, superhero comics, by and large, do fall into this category. And I know plenty of intelligent adults who read superhero comics exclusively, and I have the exact same critique of them.

When you stop expanding your mind, you place walls around what you're willing to understand. This goes for anything whatsoever, including emotional exploration. Young adult literature is, by its very definition, intended for those in the midst of maturing. It's (supposed to be) written such that emotionally unmature individuals can bond and relate to archetypes of characters and follow their development in terms that relate to their lack of worldly experience. It simplifies the complex. It strips the nuance from the mosaic and brings to them a message which doesn't require much in the way of contemplation to comprehend.

If this turns you on, yay. Good for you. I don't hate you. I don't think you're "part of the problem." I just think it's sad, is all.

And yes, I absolutely do believe the inevitable conclusion of this is going to be "Ow, My Balls" being the #1 show on television:




As I said in the beginning, I don't hate Young Adult literature. I don't hate people who read Young Adult literature. I don't hate people who read exclusively Young Adult literature. I just don't find much in the way of interest in exploring anything of any depth with these people, because for the most part, there's just not any depth there. And if I want to skim the surface, I can do that with my nieces and nephews -- at least they don't get all pissy and insist that they understand topics they truly don't, just by virtue of reading the exact same take on that topic over and over in their adulthood (and by the way, I have the exact same critique of members of any political party, Hitchens Atheists, and Ayn Rand fans).

Read something that challenges your understanding of what you think you understand. Give yourself the opportunity of discovering you may be wrong. Stop putting yourself in cages when it comes to emotional or intellectual growth. Go somewhere different in your heart and your mind. This applies to those who refuse to read Young Adult literature and only read (or claim to read) instructional books, nonfiction, or even just the dictionary every day. You should try some Young Adult literature once in a while. Free your mind from now and go back to a time and place where wonder and discovery and "new" are encouraged. Fall in love with a character because he's strong or she's smart, and that's all. Like taking a dip in a cool pool in the summer, it's nice to just strip down and plunge in and float for a while. 

But as nice as the pool is, you really shouldn't live there (for one thing, your skin gets all pruny). And that's what this Young Adult literature fascination is for some people. They're so enamored with the pool that they would move away from any place that has a winter, just so they can stay in there forever. They never explore. They never go anywhere new or remotely dangerous. Sticking with the metaphor, this means they'll never explore the snow and discover the joy of skiing or tobogganing or see a Caribou or smell the crisp Autumn air, because they're floating in the pool of Young Adult literature all day. 

Because it's easy. Because it's safe. It's what they know. And they only stick to what they know, which by default means they won't know anything new. 

And that's sad. 

(Incidentally, I'd like to point out that I never once brought up Twilight. This is because Twilight isn't Young Adult Literature. It's not literature at all. It's masturbation material for unsatisfied housewives [and future housewives])