Should adults be embarrassed to be reading young adult books?

Those in the literary community are weighing in on both sides of the debate, with some saying young adult books aren't sophisticated and others saying they should be able to read whatever they like without being ashamed.

'The Fault in Our Stars' and 'Eleanor & Park' are two of the novels singled out by those who don't think adults should be reading young adult novels.

Should adults be ashamed to read young adult literature? 

Absolutely, says’s Ruth Graham.

In an article entitled: "Against YA: Yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books,” Graham says adults should feel embarrassed when what they’re reading is written for children, especially when YA books are replacing literary fiction. 

Graham says YA books aren’t sophisticated, consume limited reading time better left to more enriching adult fare, are too “pleasing,” and wrap up neatly, unlike real life.

She notes that reading YA lit has become popular and prevalent among adults: an industry survey that finds that 55 percent of YA books are bought by people older than 18.

“That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” Graham writes, adding later, “Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.”

Not surprisingly, her admonishing article has stirred a firestorm in the blogosphere, with scores of bloggers pronouncing some variation of Jezebel’s “Hey Everyone! Read whatever the **** you want!”

“’Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long,’ [Graham] laments, as if every time we crack open Harry Potter we're missing out on the chance to read another long-winded Jonathan Franzen novel about sad, middle-class white people,” writes PolicyMic. “A better dictum is that life is so short, so people should read whatever they **** well please." 

Or, as other bloggers put it, some variation of “I’m an adult, and can therefore read whatever I please.”

Moreover, some writers have pointed out that all adult reading is hardly the Alice Munro and John Updike-type fare Graham points out as adult-worthy: “While young adult literature (a category that includes sub-genres such as dystopian fiction, historical fiction and romance) is certainly a big seller, “romance” and “espionage/thriller” novels both also outsell “general fiction,” and “mystery/detective” stories are a similar portion of the market, according to Random House,” reports the Washington Post. “Graham might have had a more defensible case…if her piece made a comprehensive case against readers who seek out a certain kind of easy enjoyment and moral satisfaction no matter where they find it.”

And let’s not forget that the YA genre is simply a marketing distinction, writes Toronto Globe and Mail’s Erin Andersson. “[A]re we to confine ourselves to certain “categories” of books because some marketing committee slapped a label on the spine?”

And what about the benefits of reading YA lit? It’s a powerful way to bond with one’s kids or young friends and relatives, an opportunity to discus important and sometimes uncomfortable issues with teens. And writes YA novel writer Rachel Carter for the New Republic, for nostalgia.

“There is a thrill to growing up. But there's also a thrill to looking back, to remembering how you grew up.” 

The HuffPo even goes so far as to make a scientific case for nostalgia, citing a study that found that “nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.”

For us, the bottom line is simple. YA lit isn’t the blight Slate’s Graham makes it out to be, nor is it the shining light others proclaim it as. Books aren’t single-trick ponies, reduced to serving just one purpose. They fill our lives with meaning on many levels, no one greater than the other. They inform, entertain, challenge, move, provoke, please, discomfit, and force us to see the world in different ways. No one book can provide that breadth of experience, just as no one genre can, or should. We need YA lit just as we need literary fiction and biography and mystery and history and graphic novels and historical fiction and romance and sci-fi and fantasy. Our libraries, and our experience, would be poorer without any one of these. After all, judging a class of books by its artificially created genre is as juvenile as judging a book by its cover.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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