When grown-ups read young adult books

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iol lif july 14 CA_books the fault0 AP TEENAGE ANGST: Ansel Elgort, left, and Shailene Woodley in a scene from The Fault In Our Stars.

Washington - As The Fault In Our Stars barrelled into theatres this month virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t – but because it was written for teenagers.

The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult (YA) fiction is now “conventional” wisdom. Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts.

But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: a 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. (The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12-to-17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches practically to age 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.)

The largest group of buyers in that survey – accounting for a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales – are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

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 be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

The Fault In Our Stars is the most obvious juggernaut, but it’s not the only YA book for which adults (and Hollywood) have gone crazy. Coming to theatres later this summer is If I Stay, based on Gayle Forman’s recent novel about a teenage girl in a coma. And DreamWorks just announced it has bought the rights to Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell’s outcast romance that Kirkus Reviews said “will captivate teen and adult readers alike”. Before these there were the bestsellers (and movies) The Perks of Being a Wallflower and It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Adult fans of these books declare confidently that YA is more sophisticated than ever. This kind of thing is hard to quantify, though I will say that my own life as a YA reader way back in the early 1990s was hardly wanting for either satisfaction or sophistication. Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I have no urge to go back and re-read them, but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that, today, I am a different reader.

I’m a reader who did not weep, contrary to every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault In Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.

That will sound harsh to these characters’ legions of ardent fans. But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called YA for Grownups, put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable”.

But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But, crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.

It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life – that’s the trick of so much great fiction – but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they should have acquired as adults.

When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her”, the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?

YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world – is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likeable” protagonists.

Far be it for me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.

The heroine of The Fault in Our Stars finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying.

Her favourite book ends mid-sentence, which drives her to try to learn the story’s “real” ending from its author: “I know it’s a very literary decision and everything and probably part of the reason I love the book so much, but there is something to recommend a story that ends.”

True enough, and appropriate to the character, who finds the uncertainty of her own near future maddening. But mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathise at all.

I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine.

But the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books. When I think about what I learned about love, relationships, sex, trauma and all the rest from the extracurricular reading I did in high school, I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes. – Washington Post

l The Fault in Our Stars opened in Nu Metro cinemas in South Africa at the weekend.

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