That New York Times “Room for Debate” on adults reading young adult books is an odd mess. Of the seven essayists, only two actually grapple with the posited question: “Why have young adult books become so popular so quickly — even with not-so-young adults?” Patricia McCormick preaches to the choir that YA books are more “audacious” than adult books, an assertion that can only resound among those adults who don’t read very much. Sharon Flake complains that the genre is too white: she’s right but completely off topic. Teen book blogger Emma Allison gushes about being followed by Libba Bray on Twitter: nice for her but what’s your point? Matt de la Peña writes about people needing to see themselves in books, which seems to be an argument against adults reading YA more than anything else. And librarian Beth Yoke pleads that teens need popular lit as much as they do classics, an oddly defensive pose given that nobody is claiming they don’t. I’d really like to know if the assigning editor at the Times actually asked these people to answer the same question.
Only Lev Grossman, rationally, and Joel Stein, sophomorically, addressed the topic. Grossman, a book reviewer and member of an adult book club that reads YA, understands the difference between adult books and YA but can’t seem to resist queering his pitch: “The writing is different: young adult novels tend to emphasize strong voices and clear, clean descriptive prose, whereas a lot of literary fiction is very focused on style: dense, lyrical, descriptive prose, larded with tons of carefully observed detail, which calls attention to its own virtuosity rather than ushering the reader to the next paragraph with a minimum of fuss.” Aside from the fact that he’s comparing good examples of the former with bad examples of the latter, Grossman ignores the fact that most of YA (including The Hunger Games, which is what I assume prompted this debate) is not literary fiction, it’s what we perhaps too-loosely call commercial fiction, reading as diversion, where the page-turner is king. A comparison between The Hunger Games and, oh, Mrs. Dalloway (Grossman’s example, not mine) is meaningless. If you want to compare The Hunger Games to, say, Snow Crash, or Sarah Dessen to Jodi Picoult, you might come up with points more interesting and useful.
Joel Stein’s contribution is the only one people on my side of the playground are talking about, and he certainly does provide an easy target. His cry to “let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry” is a small masterpiece of trollbait whose effectiveness you can see in the outraged comments, on the piece itself and in the children’s-book blogosphere. (Really. Does anyone actually think Joel Stein thinks The Hunger Games is about “games you play when hungry”? Although, come to think of it, it is.) It’s too bad that this was the only essay among the seven to dare to criticize the reading choices of some adults, because it did so in a way that was too easily shot down as sexist, ignorant, and elitist (which I stick in there like I think it’s a bad thing when in fact I don’t).
I don’t worry about adults reading YA novels. Read what you want. But don’t tell me you read them because adult books aren’t good enough, or that, God help us all, YA books are all you need. (Lest you think I’m erecting a strawman, I’ve met plenty of people in children’s book publishing and librarianship who are completely proud of their indifference to books for adults). To this point I am less bothered by the fact that YA books are for teenagers than that they are about teenagers. If we preach that one of the goods of YA literature is that it probes and reflects the identities of its readers, shouldn’t we want the same for ourselves? There is life after high school.