Why are so many adults reading young adult literature? It used to be the other way around.
We’ve seen them, or at least heard about them: the mothers queuing up for the launch of a Twilight film; the young professional reading Hunger Games on the train to work; adults who could hardly wait for the next Harry Potter book to arrive. I am one of the Potter fans myself. These are not isolated examples; the boom in young adult literature over the past decade or so has been fuelled not just by teenagers but by adults, though perhaps younger adults for the most part.
The phenomenon was noted several years ago in The Atlantic magazine by a writer wanting to know what appeal books about wizards and vampire lovers had for older readers. American literary agent Meredith Barnes spoke of life-changing decisions and very powerful emotions experienced for the first time. To quote:
“If an adult character has an emotional issue and deals with it through drug abuse, that’s probably not his or her first exposure to drugs. Meanwhile in young adult literature, your young protagonist is often simultaneously introduced to and taken in by the drug. It may be the first time they’ve ever seen heroin, so there’s a kind of innocence there. It’s the loss of that innocence that makes a young adult character so different.”
For myself, I think that YA literature owes its popularity—among adults too—not so much to the thrill of losing one’s innocence all over again, but rather to the search for innocence itself. Readers are seeking a certain type of innocence that they can’t find in literature written for adults.
Ninety percent of contemporary adults’ literature (I don’t like calling it ‘adult’ because that has other connotations) is built upon characters saturated with “experience”, just like most of its readers. These readers know they should feel satisfied that they have attained most of the things they aimed for, tried everything they ever wanted to, but often they don’t feel satisfied at all. Instead they are jaded, doubting that there is anything more to hope for, to work for, to love for… They know they are supposed to be searching for something, but they no longer have any idea what that might be.
And so contemporary adults’ novels offer weird and wonderful stories that try to make up for a lack of hope and ideals with bizarre twists and extreme experiences, or with the smashing of taboos and guilt which they blame for killing the happiness that their “liberal” experiences should have given them.
That is why so much of it is just plain depressing, even if many people find it addictive.
A few titles that we’ve been disappointed in recently: The Thirteenth Tale (supposed to be for people who like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but in reality it’s just a strange story full of incest, rape, evil, murderous characters masquerading as normal people, and a strange obsession with being a twin—a very bizarre book); A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra; The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann (uses shocking coarseness to get the reader’s attention); The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett; Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (just what the title suggests); The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman (disturbing); The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers; The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (depressing); NW by Zadie Smith (an unmemorable and often obscene piece of urban fiction); J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (all-around wretchedness); and The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (which completely drains Jane Eyre of all its richness).
There are some contemporary adults’ novels that manage to hold a little of the magic, but it dissolves into bitterness once the focus turns to experience and saturation sets in. Examples are Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; Mr Chen’s Emporium by Deborah O’Brien; The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon; The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson; and Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress (which started so well but then completely missed the point of the classics it praised, turning into another superficial “experience” novel in a historical setting).
Compare these with so many of the classics, most of which were written for adults, but which show the magic of a timeless humanity that is based upon so much more than experience—and have been read with enjoyment and profit by teenagers too: Our Mutual Friend, Cry the Beloved Country, A Town Like Alice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the works of Daphne du Maurier, Austen, the Brontes (Emily, Anne and Charlotte), Gaskell, George Eliot, Tolkien, Henry James…
A select few contemporary adults’ novels resemble these classics in their ability to tell a story that resonates with timeless human qualities. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which has been so popular with such a variety of people), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (mostly), The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (though because it’s so inoffensive it has been relegated to the YA category), The Help by Kathryn Stockett; The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (and she has another book out next month!) Farahad Zama’s books, all the series by Alexander McCall Smith (though personally I find some of them a little bland), and Alan Bradley’s intelligent and amusing Flavia de Luce mysteries.
But in the general scheme of things few adults’ books are like this. The result is that many readers who have had enough of depressing stories see some hope in returning to a time of innocence, the “first time”, because that is where the magic is.
But this moment of decision in YA literature can go two ways.
It can delve into issues, characters and relationships to show the complexity and possibilities of human nature, but, as the classics do, without reducing the human person to the sum total of his or her experiences. YA books by Jackie French, Jerry Spinelli, some of Sherwood Smith, some of Mal Peet, some of Eva Ibbotson, Leah Scheier, Rachel Hartman and Veronica Roth achieve this.
Alternatively an author can opt for sentimental escapism or gratuitous violence, things which, rather than reveal characters or weigh issues—let alone propose ideals—simply clog up a reader’s heart with the same empty “experiences” that caused them to leave behind adults’ literature in the first place. This style of novel (Twilight, Halo, Hunger Games) is the way to kill innocence, leaving one with that dead, used-up feeling. In the two years since I first read Grady’s article, publishing for the YA genre has increased considerably, unfortunately mainly on the sentimental side (see the goodreads YA website for a sample), not to mention the development of a ‘New Adult’ teen erotica section post-Fifty Shades of Grey.
Frankly, I’ve had enough of books that make you feel used up and dead. I am on the lookout for books that want to rebuild the magic, restore ideals and widen horizons about the amazing potential of human nature. It is exciting that at least some books of this kind can be found in the new YA sections of bookstores. Yet it remains my fervent hope that, one day, we’ll find more in the adults’ sections too.
Clare Cannon is the editor of www.GoodReadingGuide.com and the manager of Portico Books in Sydney.