Is the YA Takeover About Stress?

Reams and reams and reams have been written about the alleged YA takeover; honestly, it’s a good thing that print media is dying (allegedly) because otherwise entire continents would have been denuded of forests to accommodate the rage against the dying of the adult novel. If we are to believe the naysayers, adult YA readers are trapped in juvenilia, reading books designed for teens instead of reading up to their own age, and this is evidence of our intellectual decline. Adult readers of YA can’t handle adult books or aren’t interested in pushing boundaries, don’t you know?

I’ve articulated my dislike of people who criticise YA solely on the grounds that they don’t like it, without any nuance. Such arguments are, to say the least, pretty unimpressive. YA is a complex, multifaceted genre with books ranging from the simplistic to the utterly complicated. It includes political commentaries and fun romances. Readers themselves vary from those who love reading and interrogating books, picking them apart with friends and exploring their deeper implications, along with those who just want to read a fun book, period. These groups overlap and swirl around each other, just like adults; is an adult who reads adult romance inherently better than an adult who reads YA romance, or a teen who reads romance? No. And there’s nothing wrong with reading romance in the first place, in any case. Readers are people who love books and are interested in engaging with them, no matter the genre, and insulting them is counterproductive and dull.

If you don’t like YA, don’t read it. If you want to engage critically, do that; but don’t do it by sweepingly dismissing the genre and all readers as though it, and they, are garbage not worthy of your time. You’d push back against people dismissing adult novels, because it would be ludicrous; it would be like saying that because one writer wrote a trashy, terrible book once, the entirely of adult fiction, including literary fiction, romance, mystery, Westerns, and so on, should be tossed out. After all, the ‘genre’ is clearly filled with boring, uncomplicated books that aren’t intellectually challenging, and the only people who read it are those who aren’t really ready for, or interested in, engaging on a smart intellectual level.

But I have been thinking a great deal lately about the tide of YA, and the ready adoption of the category by adults. Clearly, growing sales and the massive public interest have in no small part been driven by the original target audience of teen readers, which is exciting; young adults started getting seriously into reading when publishers began taking them more seriously. Young adults demand more of their books, and pressure the industry to produce better books every year, driving publishers to up their game. Their love of the genre brought many of the adults in their lives into it, and of course it sprawled into graphic novels, into TV and movie spinoffs, and so forth. YA has created a juggernaut, and an incredibly profitable one, which is something to think about when trashing young adult books: While some think they’re unworthy of attention because they’re boring and commercial, the tide of interest betrays something important about how we interact with books and reading.

That said, there’s a reason more adults are reading YA. While every adult is different and people have complicated reasons for deciding to read, or not read, books in various genres, there’s an obvious thing about YA fiction that stands out to me, as an unabashed fan of the genre: Generally speaking, YA is easier to read. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I view those who consider that to be a failing of YA with extreme prejudice, but the fact that YA tends to be shorter (with larger print, and sometimes less complex literary structure), doesn’t escape me. You’d have to be a pretty ardent defender of the genre to insist that it’s not, at the end, aimed at a spectrum of readers who may not be as advanced as others, but still deserve to read and enjoy books.

Not all YA is simplistic, and not all YA is easy to read (in the literal or metaphorical sense). The same could be said of adult fiction; clearly there are ‘popcorn books’ that can be tossed off in an afternoon’s reading, and then there’s, say, Proust. The two can’t fairly be compared, because they’re about such different approaches to literature and how we interact with books. Again, neither is superior to the other. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and readers are drawn to each (and both) for a variety of reasons.

The growing interest in YA may have something to do with the fact that many young adult novels are easier to read, which isn’t a testimony to a lack of intellectualism, but one more to stress in a world that is chaotic and demanding. People are working more than ever, they’re consumed with obligations, and they’re struggling to carve out time for themselves. That includes reading time. Books that are long, difficult, and challenging to read can be stressful, and can contribute to an already hectic and emotionally draining schedule. Books that are rewarding, and delightful, and wonderful, but less straining, can be a way to read, to stay in touch with fiction, to enjoy leisure time, without feeling like they’re a chore, rather than something to do because you love it.

As an adult reader, one of the reasons I enjoy YA is that I can follow it more easily (a combination of stress, medications, and disability-related issues often makes it hard to track books with extremely complicated structures, i.e. ‘literary fiction’). I don’t believe this makes me an inferior reader, or ‘not smart enough for books.’ I think it makes me a human being, and one who wants to be able to continue my love for books through adulthood.

When I was a teen and young adult with fewer obligations, I read a great deal of complex adult fiction. It’s not that I can’t read it, or that I don’t have an interest in it, or that I never read it as an adult — in fact, I’ve been reading a fair amount of it lately. It’s that, in a schedule where I am working 12 or more hours a day under extreme stress, I can’t fit it into my life and make it enjoyable. So should I just not read at all, or should I pick up a great book by an author I love, and love it despite the stigma slapped on it because it’s YA and therefore apparently inferior?