YA Novels and Literary Fiction: How You Can Have It All
Ruth Graham’s recent article condemning adult YA readers does the Literary fiction genre more harm than good. As adults, you should be able to have it all, and here’s why.
Young Adult fiction (or YA) is a genre aimed specifically at teenagers, and in Ruth Graham’s article over at Slate, it’s clear that the current adult interest in this genre is not going down well. As adults we should feel ashamed of not reading more adult genres, such as the hard-to-digest literary fiction genre, she tells us. This piece is of course intended as a shock article, but it reveals more entrenched issues within the literary world.
What is YA mostly composed of? Well, since the original intention was for teenagers, these kinds of novels tend to cover explorations of first relationships, breaking out into the adult world, going through adolescence, or exploring heavier concepts such as war, love, strife and conflicting personalities in a more approachable way. It’s really not a bad thing for adults to read the stuff, but this is for reasons that Graham might not expect. The core fact is that restricting yourself to any genre because of something superficial like age is, ultimately, a sure way to stagnancy. It is also the easiest way to gloss over issues of ability and class, which only ever leads to exclusion. And, beyond that, as geeks most of us have pretty eclectic interests and tastes, so the idea that only a particular genre should be ascribed to us is, frankly, confusing and restrictive.
Let’s take the exclusion issue first. When someone says that adults should not read YA fiction and instead implies that literary fiction is a more appropriate choice, what they are forgetting is that usually only adults without learning disabilities who could afford a high standard of education have access to Lit Fic, and they are implying, however accidentally, that all adults should be held to this high standard.
Disabled adults are always left out of these conversations, and it is a real issue because this leads them nowhere. For many adults with a learning disability, YA novels are easily accessible from a linguistic and conceptual point of view.
And there is an implicit class issue here – not all adults have the same level of education, nor can they afford it. Many poorer households don’t have an environment that is able to encourage the reading of Lit Fic, nor would they have any reason for it to be an interest, and only those few who are unusually obsessed with this more complicated genre would actually go and seek it out.
There’s also the matter of those who quite simply work so hard that they suffer mental exhaustion. Quite often the last thing a person in this situation wants to do is settle down and read some heavy Dostoyevsky at the end of the day. I’ve certainly been in the situation where I’ve chosen Rowling over Kafka after a hard day in a particularly taxing job before.
To conclude this point, not everyone is lucky enough to have been gifted an environment which offers a rich literary experience in life, and not everyone has the capability to achieve this. YA novels have a crucial role in society as the stepping-stone between easier and more complex stories, and they have the potential to keep people from all backgrounds interested in reading.
The second point relates to genre stagnancy. Now, if you’re a fan of Literary fiction as I am, you will know about the genre’s image problem. Seen as heavygoing and complex, it’s hard for it to attract new readers. The reality is that a literary novel can be about almost any topic, as long as it holds literary merit. Measuring merit is a bit subjective, but nonetheless, originality and the ability to experiment with the language plays a huge part. Literary fiction, at its core, turns language into symphonies and breaks down rigid barriers that attempt to dictate how language should be used. An entire novel where the main characters never refer to each others’ names? Cormac McCarthy experiments with that in The Road. A novel composed of multiple stories that end abruptly halfway through only to be picked up later in the book? David Mitchell plays with that in Cloud Atlas. A novel which is a pre-Big Brother era musing on postmodern teenage conversations in a media-rich world? Scarlett Thomas did that in Bright Young Things.
Such a revolutionary medium as literary fiction suffers from being classed only as ‘serious’, adult fiction, and it should not be used as a tool to set up language barriers its authors attempt to tear down. This kind of activity flies in the face of all it stands for.
This does not mean that YA is immune from criticism. There are many things one can criticise about the tropes and linguistic patterns used in a lot of YA novels, but shaming the readers is a world apart from criticising the genre’s conventions. Shaming is not the best way to convince a genre reader to branch out, and it is also the laziest way to express dissatisfaction with the current state of things, as it’s basically transferring the blame to the end users regardless of their situation, rather than the content creators. Readers deserve more than this.
I don’t write with a particular bias towards YA – I’m not particularly interested by the YA novels Graham has cited in her article, and am in fact very intrigued by the one Lit Fic she has mentioned (with a view to seeking it out following writing this – it’s called Submergence and I think it sounds awesome), but this is irrelevant because my interests lie in accessibility, and the fact remains that much of the literary world is still very exclusive.
This brings us onto the final issue, which is, as geeks with immensely varied interests, we are among those who refuse to see the world in such a restrictive way. A geek is someone who has the ability to be incredibly passionate about even the most niche of genres, and through this passion we can enthuse and excite others, and help change this situation.
Book jackets featured in the main image composite are © Rodrigo Corral for Dutton Books, Tim O’Brien for Scholastic, and J.R.R. Tolkien respectively (left-to-right)