According to a recent study by Bowker Market Research, a slim majority of young adult books are bought by consumers older than the 12-17 target age. That’s not all that surprising when you consider that adults are more likely to have their own income, and that many teens reading YA books likely receive them from older family members. What’s surprising, perhaps, is that many of those adults report that they’re buying those books not for younger readers, but for themselves.
That popularity of YA books beyond their intended demographic has drawn attention for some time now, prompting critics to speculate as to why. The “arrested development” argument has been prevalent among naysayers, but others have taken a more positive view. Columnist Jen Doll, who contributes a recurring column on Young Adult reading over at The Atlantic, recently provided a list of five possibilities, many serving as a form of apologia.
To say that YA books are “good”, for example, explains little unless we posit that they are not only good, but better than the adult-geared competition. Otherwise, we’re still left in need of an explanation for why, given two equally good novels, so many adults are choosing the one written for an audience less than half their age. And while it may be true that the Harry Potter phenomenon made it socially acceptable for adults to read YA, that doesn’t explain why adults read them, so much as why they feel comfortable admitting that they do. That isn’t to say that those factors haven’t played a role in the trend, but there’s reason to suppose that the most encompassing explanation is a bit more complex than any one of them on their own.
The x-factor, such that there is one, may rest in the remedial nature of most YA fiction. That isn’t intended as a slur against YA. Because many of us associate the word with the remedial classes offered to students who flunked a subject the first time around, we tend to associate the word “remedial” with stunted development. It’s original meaning (still retained in the medical profession) denotes healing, as in the cognate remedy. That’s the sense in which the term was first applied to remedial education, but the politics that hold sway over educational programs have a knack for putting a bad spin on just about any word.
Young adult literature is remedial in the sense that it cures a specific literary malaise that can occur on a diet of too much adult fiction. In part, that’s a function of the relative simplicity of YA. Not that all YA plots are straightforward; nor do all YA characters tend toward the two-dimensional. If that were the case, I doubt we’d talking about them at all. Yet, there is a stylistic clarity to most YA fiction that can seem modest compared to the contortions of high-brow adult literature. It may not be entirely coincidence that adult audiences embraced the first Harry Potter novel even as David Foster Wallace’s compendious Infinite Jest circulated among the literati.
At its most extreme, that may also explain the willingness of many readers to overlook some of the cruder styles. NPR’s “I Will If You Will” book club launched on the strength of snark about the stylistic lapses in the Twilight novels, but were silent about its aftereffects. My suspicion is that they returned to adult fare with renewed enthusiasm. It isn’t that YA cleanses the palate by allowing readers to follow bad with good — thought certainly there are bad YA novels, some of them notoriously so. But even when their style is bad, it remains accessible.
In this case, accessibility is not a virtue unto itself. After all, many books written for adults are accessibly written, some of them with a clarity and simplicity of style that rivals their YA counterparts. Genre fiction, like the serial novels published under James Patterson’s name, are the stylistic equivalent of tap water. The difference, I would suggest, is in the handling of theme. YA is a genre traditionally driven by issues. Most genre books are not, and when they do put social and political issues at the center of their plot, it’s often difficult to tell whether the books is there to grapple with the issue, or the issue is there to give texture to the book.
In point of fact, many of the YA book series that have recently enjoyed success with adult audiences retread well-worn genre territory. There is nothing particularly novel in The Hunger Games to distinguish it from a dozen other dystopic survival sport stories, ranging from “The Most Dangerous Game” to Battle Royale. If that hasn’t particularly bothered the millions of readers the trilogy has managed to attract, that’s likely because the real appeal rests not in its genre trappings, but rather in its willingness to grapple directly with problems that are meaningful to teens — and apparently to adult readers as well. Part of the implication here is that many readers are not getting that same sense of immediacy from high-brow literature written for adults, nor the same sense of significance from adult genre fiction.
For those of us who love literature, then, reading YA fiction can be a bit like returning to the wellspring to rediscover what it was about fiction that invigorated us in the first place. Many of the adults buying contemporary YA first cut their teeth on Judy Bloom or Robert Cormier. That suggests a historical component. After all, even with its relatively streamlined style and direct thematic treatment, YA is not some kind of primordial ur-literature, transcending culture. Rather, what we recognize as YA grew out of a specific and relatively recent historical movement. Most contemporary readers grew up during the formative period of the genre. For many of them, a YA book of one sort or another played a part in kindling their love for literature. The books were accessible, comprehensible, and dealt directly with the issues that troubled us growing up. Reading them, we understood the promise of fiction.
It would almost be more surprising to find that many of us didn’t see them as the pattern for how a work of fiction should work when boiled down to basics. The more revealing question may be, why does so little adult fiction build directly on that pattern?
In part, that may be because subsequent phases of life encourage us to build a different set of expectations. I recently read Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, in which a young girl with a culturally divided background discovers that she can wield magic powers. There’s a secret society of other Leopard People, as the book’s magic-users are called, and a mysterious serial killer who preys on children, all of which, in an adult book, would promise unrelenting adventure or horror. Yet I found myself somewhat frustrated while reading Akata Witch. Why didn’t it get to the fireworks sooner?
Only when I had finished did it occur to me that the chapters that seemed painfully slow to me were likely a large part of the novel’s strength. It isn’t that Okorafor was dragging her heels on their way to the action. Rather, the hurdles the protagonists have to face in order to navigate the fact of being a teenager are the action. Akata Witch grappled quite directly with the themes of persona, cultural identity, and self-knowledge as a teenager would have seen them. It was my expectations that had betrayed me. I’ll not make the same mistake again.