Why So Many Adults Are Reading YA Fiction

It seems like a good half of my friends were commenting last week on A.O. Scott’s article in the NY Times: The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. It is a fantastic, thought-provoking article. It could perhaps be summed up best in these two sentences:

Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s the reason I’ve all but eschewed everything with the label “independent” on it, which, as far as I can tell, these days simply means “another story of an adult who is mopey, whiny and perpetually regressive.” (Well, that or “I couldn’t come up with an ending so I’ll just label it ‘indie’ so I can leave it unfinished.”) No thanks. But then again, this kind of character has become so mainstream that there’s really nowhere else to go.

What we see on screens big and small these days are people who cannot get their act together, as if this is the only acceptable character to portray anymore. Remember when Superman came out? (And Captain America, too, though he got away with some of it by being so “vintage” that he didn’t know better.) People said how 1950’s he was, how he wasn’t a believable character because he’s so squeaky clean. Never mind that we’re discussing an alien from outer space who can fly and see through walls. What really seemed too farfetched for us was his virtue, his do-gooder attitude. He wasn’t “relatable.” (Hear more about how I feel about that in this post.) No, the stories of the day seem to be guided by the idea that misery loves company. How many more people is Don Draper going to pull into his constant mess of crazy? Let’s watch and find out.

Honestly, Scott makes this point more eloquently than I ever could, so that’s all I’ll say about that. What I wanted to say is this: I think Scott misunderstands the reason adults are reading YA fiction. Which is funny, because I’m the first to admit being a book snob. I’m not going to defend ALL YA fiction, and I’m not remotely going to defend the level of writing in many of these books. For Pete’s sake, a couple of years ago I wrote an entire blog post rant on how badly they’re written. I haven’t changed my mind about that. (But please, please stop putting JK Rowling in that group. She is a phenomenal writer. Read the first 50 pages of The Casual Vacancy and tell me she isn’t one of the best writers we’ve got today.) But I have spent a lot of time wondering why so many people are attracted to these stories, and I think Scott gets it wrong.

Adults are reading YA fiction because they’re longing for heroes. In a world of Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers, and in a waking world where nobody knows how to be a grownup anymore, adults find themselves drawn to a teen named Katniss who doesn’t mind standing up to the Empire and struggling to figure out how to honor the dignity of human life when she’s a pawn in a killing game. They’re drawn to dystopian stories where the whole world is at stake, where everything counts, where our actions matter. We aren’t reading these stories to escape. We are reading them to find ourselves. 

This is what all good children’s literature does. It provides a world in which adults are not present or cannot be counted on, so that the children learn how to figure things out for themselves. Why do you think Hansel and Gretel has been around as a story for so long? A cruel stepmother and a father who’s too scared to stand up to her? That’s the very dynamic Scott discusses in his article. The kids are on their own. If they’re going to survive, they’re going to have to figure it out themselves. And what happens when they stumble onto the next adult, who’s living in a childhood fantasy house made of candy? Well, they realize she’s not to be trusted either, stuck in her power-crazed, manipulative, greedy little world in which she gets whatever she wants. The adults are all suspect. The kids are going to have to grow up.

This is true for every good (and not so good) piece of children’s and teen literature. The kids in Narnia go through the wardrobe and discover that only the sons and daughters of men can sit on the thrones. Of all the creatures in Middle Earth, young Frodo is given the ring. Even the great Dumbledore cannot defeat Voldemort, but must rely on the courage of young Harry Potter. And yes, Katniss, whose mother can’t keep herself together after her husband’s death, takes up the parent role, providing for her family, volunteering to take her sister’s place. Children’s and teen literature give us characters who can see what the adults can’t, or have forgotten to look for entirely. The young people are the ones who have the insight, who have the courage, who have the audacity to try to change things.

Even in the YA fiction stories I don’t find as “good,” at least I can say they’re struggling with big questions. They may be doing it badly, but at least they’re engaging them. What do you do when you’re a vampire who wants to honor the very human life you crave? I’ll never stop saying how tragic it is that this question didn’t fall to someone more deft at writing its answer. It’s a great question. It’s a great debate of desire, and love, and longing, and the sanctity of life. Say what I may (and boy, do I) about Twilight, I can’t say it didn’t begin by asking big questions. Which is more credit than I can give to the vast majority of adult contemporary fiction I’ve read in the last year, whose protagonists are stunted and confused and stuck in terrible relationships and have no arc toward growth by the end other than a tiny whimper of irony. Much of contemporary adult fiction has the same childish, stunted characters Scott’s pointing out in his article. They’re rudderless and lost, and after I finish reading their story I’ve learned…nothing. Nothing more than the most basic insight of all, which is that we’re often a mess. That isn’t a storyline. That’s a starting point.

So what I’m trying to say is this: In a world where our adult heroes are high school chemistry teachers who turn into drug dealers, maybe the most mature thing in the world is to turn to a teenager who’s willing to take on the system. In an adult world that is often preoccupied with petty problems, maybe it’s a sign of maturity to be drawn to epic stories of fantasy, of good and evil, of corruption and the power of the human spirit to overcome it.

Maybe we’re reading YA fiction because we’re trying to grow up, after all.

6 Comments

  1. I am not sure if sitcoms are much of an indication of the larger dialogue…but perhaps sometimes they do reflect something of note. I have followed two sitcoms in the last two decades…Seinfeld and The Big Bang.

    I remember part of the analysis of Seinfeld was that in the writing of the episodes the characters were never suppose to “grow” or mature…and they didn’t. There was a belief too that as the characters aged their arrested behavior became less believable, or perhaps more accurately less embraceable, for characters approaching 40. Each of the lead characters lived alone. These characters, and their writers, were largely Baby Boomers and they were succeeded by the Gen X hit show Friends, where almost nobody lived alone but sought a version of family and community not just at the coffee shop featured on both shows but in their living situations.

    The Big Bang, beginning a new season this next Monday, is the leading sitcom of its day and features a Millennial cast where growth and change are phenomenal. There is a greater variety of living circumstances and every character is challenged by change…and their wrestling with change tends to generally lead to maturation, adulthood. The absence of significant older role models — who when they appear often are fairly dysfunctional — might support your points Danielle. Thanks for the post and the lead to Scott’s piece.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Richard. I don’t watch Big Bang (not for any reason) but I love Seinfeld and I think I can see what you mean about that. Maybe that’s why people were so frustrated by the ending? It was so ridiculous, in a way, but maybe they were making a more sophisticated point than I realized. Appreciate your insights!

  3. I love Seinfeld too Danielle. It supplies a large number of quotable quotes that facilitate short hand conversations throughout my extended family. From my perspective the arrested morality of Seinfeld is that the moral or ethical response almost always falls back on the characters voicing “what is the social convention concerning this.” The appeal is to some established, external rules. There is little reflection — or even opportunity for humor as in other shows like Frasier or MASH — in exploring how to determine one’s own ethical answer/response to a situation.

    The series conclusion, prompted by the characters violation of a new social convention in the form of a law in a local community, spurs neither repentance or reflection in the convicted four. At very the end, starting to serve their sentence, they start back on a conversation from the first episode — again suggesting growth is not a significant part of the narrative arc of this very engaging and well written series.

  4. This discussion confirms for me the necessity to be VERY CAREFUL about the media we consume. I have turned to Netflix for series like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries that are brought to the U.S. by PBS, this one from Australia. It’s crime drama, but with a thoroughly enjoyable ensemble cast that interact with integrity and humor. She is “a thoroughly modern woman of the late 1920s operating in a mostly male world.” I’m of the baby boomer generation and I have little patience for the ironic and sexually suggestive aspects of series like Seinfeld and Big Bang, though I went through the sexual revolution as a liberal and don’t condone censorship. I have seen Seinfeld episodes multiple times, but when channel surfing and stopping on them lately, they no longer entertain and I conclude that the puerile, anti-intellectual, sneeringly dismissive world they portray has not helped our culture mature for 21st century challenges. There is adult viewing to be found, but you have to search and not settle for what the commercial interests want to foist on us.

  5. “Read the first 50 pages of The Casual Vacancy and tell me she isn’t one of the best writers we’ve got today.”
    I read the entire book and gave it away. I am here to say “Casual Vacancy”was crap. Rowling needs to stick with what she does best.

    Seinfeld said from the beginning to the end that the show was about “nothing” and that made it easy to laugh at all the reflected nothingness of our own!

  6. I watch moving pictures to escape reality, but I read to engage it. I am one of the adults you’ve mentioned who has found her way to YA fiction in the midst of reading the classics I avoided in school. I just finished Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” quartet and found the characters to be believable in their growth. Quality fiction is art… beautiful, rare and reflective of who we are, whether we’re grown-ups or not.

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