August 07, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Reading YA

I was reading a post on Beth Kephart's blog about the recent NY Times article explaining the appeal of young adult literature for adult readers. Written by Pamela Paul, it's a very good piece, and thought-provoking. I had started typing out a response to Beth's post and realized I was starting to blather on and should probably make it a full post of my own. So I did. In answer to Beth's question: Why are so many adults reading books that are (at the very least) marketed to teens?

The quotes she pulled from the article held some of the reasons that resonated with me most for reading YA in my adult years: "Y.A. authors aren't writing about middle-aged anomie or disappointed people," says Amanda Foreman. "A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot. I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives," says Lev Grossman.

YA, to me, generally lacks a pretension that is often present in adult literary fiction. Few young adults, in my experience, have the patience for pretension. As adults we are expected to tolerate if not embrace it, because isn't that what it means to be a grownup? Aren't we supposed to have learned something, progressed, gotten "somewhere"?

I like the fact that YA literature, by contrast, embraces the process, the journey, reminds me that I can still learn and grow regardless of age.

I sometimes feel like adult fiction demands more from me than it gives. And in the end I find myself wondering why I read it--was it solely for self-congratulatory reasons, to say that I read it? I also feel that much more self-indulgence, more wandering, more lack of discipline is tolerated in adult literature. There are a lot of gatekeepers in fiction for younger people, and sometimes I think that has an effect on quality, too. I think some of our current era's most exciting, well-considered, high-quality writing--and some of our most enthusiastic reading--is coming out of the YA (and MG) areas. On the other hand, I find a lot of "grown-up" fiction lacking: lacking in storytelling, lacking in consistent quality, lacking in verve.

Stories are NOT just for kids. There; I said it. We all need them. We need good ones, and we need stories that transport us, that help us grow, that neither condescend to us nor insult our intelligence. Retaining a joy in words and in story is not something that should be considered the sole domain of children's literature, something to be savored only until we somehow "graduate" to becoming properly embittered and stultified adults.

A good story is a good story, period. End of soapbox.


tanita✿davis said...

(This is one of those north-by-northwest thought processes where I arrive at a point eventually... so bear with me.)

This reminds me of Or, Sunday School. Little kids get to sing and dance and do crafts for years and years and years. Fun stories, movement, color, all in the service of learning your ABC's or your "begets."

And then, adulthood. Which means all the fun stuff is gone. And learning is this hard, harsh curve, and a drudgery. And we all accept that, as if that's what adulthood is about, as if that's to what level we strongly wished to climb when we were elven and deeply wished we were seventeen, and able to date, or twenty-one, and able to go out with dangerous boys.

I think adults retreating to YA lit are remembering that Once Upon A Time they wanted something better, and something more, and they're backtracking, perhaps, to see where they lost the trail of their lives, and maybe some of them are reaching back and recapturing a bit of their better selves.

The YA/kidlit blogosphere is amazingly ...young. No matter how old we are collectively and individually, I was just sort of gobsmacked at how attractive and flexible and bright the lot of us are. It was spooky.

It's the books. Reading them and writing them and thinking of them makes us... different.

My two pesos, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree with you, Sarah. In fact, the few adult books that I've read and actually loved differ from the standard adult fare by telling actual stories. I include in that my favorite grown-up title in the past decade, The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, which is co-written by a kids' author (maybe that's why it's so good!) and which includes fascinating information about the Channel islands during WWII, and about rationing, and it's epistolary and generally wonderful.

I agree with Tanita's comments to the extent that they imply that most of us wanted far more (and far better) out of adulthood than what we got, but I find myself agreeing more with you that STORIES are what matter. (Which explains why Stephen King and Neil Gaiman sell craploads of copies - they actually tell stories!)

Charlotte said...

And to add to the list of things grown-up fiction is lacking, crisp editing is high on the list. The last few grown up fantasy books drove me absolutly crazy because there was tons of repetition in description and characterization that I don't thing any good YA editor would have tolerated for a second. This might actually be one reason for the verve lack you mention....

Viz taking innocent child-like pleasure in life-- I am enjoying my children's new Wii very much. Especially the ping pong.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I completely agree with you, Charlotte, about the editing thing--I've noticed that numerous times, and it really frustrates me.

And, enjoy the Wii! We've got one, although lately it get used primarily to stream Netflix movies. (I have a video game I'm partly finished with staring sadly at me from the shelf...alas, no time!)

tanita✿davis said...

Agreed -- EDITING is hugely significant between YA and adult writing. I struggle with adult novels because there's a loss of ...point, there's so little editing. YA writers deal with editors as gatekeepers, but adult writers dealing with their editors must have a much different relationship. Hm. Something to ponder.

The stories are definitely the key... and we had better stories when we were still eager for the journey and imagined what life would be like when we "got there."

Melissa said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! (I love this community; it's so wonderful to know I'm not alone in feeling this way!)

I especially liked this sentiment of yours:
"I like the fact that YA literature, by contrast, embraces the process, the journey, reminds me that I can still learn and grow regardless of age."

So, true. It's wonderful to read these kind of stories. And it's wonderful to know that some of the best people are writing for our kids.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Tanita, you put it much better than I did--that YA writers deal with editors as gatekeepers.

Melissa, glad you stopped by!

I keep coming back to the journey idea, and I can't help thinking that not only is it a good thing to recognize that life is an ongoing journey, but it's also rewarding to be able to recapture and revisit and continue to learn from earlier points in the process. Because, of course, we wouldn't be who we are NOW without who we were along the way.

I also realized some of my resentment about being made to feel that YA/children's lit is solely for children is the fact that I really resent being told what I ought to like or dislike, especially when the reasoning is so specious and flimsy. :)

Beth Kephart said...

Oh my gosh, what a fantastic post and chorus of respondents. You have made me think a lot about editing (and having written on both sides of this fence (while refusing to actually believe there is a fence)), and I believe that you are onto something.

Charlotte said...

I wanted to send you this link the first time I commented, but couldn't find it then--I found it both interesting and amusing!

Sarah Stevenson said...

WOW. I also enjoyed the discussion in the comments. It was very telling to me that the commenters who felt compelled to leap to the defense of the book being critiqued, were not only missing the point of the review but also making themselves sound just as pompous, dismissive and insufferable as the author of the book. Kudos to you for putting in a comment. I was way too chicken. :) Not to mention speechless.

tanita✿davis said...

A pissing match in a teapot, that article... that means everyone gets messy and it all stinks.

I could get on a soapbox about THAT and stay on for days.