According to a recent Slate page-click grabber, we should all be ashamed for reading YA books if we exceed the proverbial height requirement. Having joined the ranks of YA writers recently myself, the comment bothered me—after all, I’m proud when adults tell me they’ve read my YA novel.
I don’t know that The Indestructibles is purely YA, but it’s about reluctant teenaged superheroes (which might mean I must be twice-damned, writing YA and superheroes in the same place). What I do know is that if I’d written a story only one age group could enjoy, I would consider myself a failure as a writer. Or as C.S. Lewis once said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I think this applies to all stories. If told well, they can be universal.
In a way, I’m thankful the writer of the piece kicked this particular hornet’s nest. The prevalence of adults reading YA fiction is a really timely question, and her assessment was one that I might have agreed with ten years ago as I found myself judging grown-ups reading Harry Potter on the train. (I then of course read Harry Potter myself and realized I was, well, being judgmental).
Before I go on, I’ll say my one really negative point about the original piece: the choice of the word “ashamed” is in fairly poor taste. Shaming in current parlance has a really powerful overtone. We’ve had a lot of very ugly kinds of behavior-based, hyphenated-shaming in American cultural discussions in recent years. I suppose we’ve now added “book-shaming” to the list, and that’s, ah, a shame in and of itself. It's an ugly word and concept. Save shaming for behaviors that are truly deplorable.
But telling adults they should be ashamed to read YA fiction isn’t really a matter of how the reader should feel about him- or herself. It’s a fundamentally flawed statement from the start. It doesn’t take into account that YA is a relatively new and fairly arbitrary designation for books. It’s a marketing technique and perhaps a convenience for retailers to help categorize their stock, but YA is not a scientific diagnosis for a book, in truth. Stories like Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, Romeo and Juliet or Anne of Green Gables would have easily ended up in YA sections if they were to publish now. A local writer I respect immensely wrote a book intended for adults that eventually found its core readership with the YA crowd. The term is less about the definition and more about shelving and search engine optimization.
As a YA writer, I want to know why adults are so drawn to YA fiction right now. I feel like there has to be a sociological or cultural reason behind it. It’s too big a sea change in book consumption to not mean something significant. I have a theory, completely without factual evidence: we live in hard times.
I mean times are always hard. There are always hard things. But in the past fifteen years we have seen two endless wars. Economic desperation. Natural disaster after natural disaster. Raging unemployment. A mass shooting every few weeks.
(As I write this, Stephanie yells from the living room: “Oh God.” I respond: “The four people shot in Seattle?” Her response: “In what other country is this dinner conversation?” Here, in this country, at this time. She turned off the news and turned on the Big Bang Theory.)
I think adults are reading YA fiction as a pressure valve against the building weight of the real world.
I dated this girl in college. She watched a lot of the Cooking Channel. She didn’t cook, herself, but she’d watch hours of cooking shows, even repeats. I asked her why once.
“I have enough [expletive] conflict in my life,” she said. “If I’m going to sit down and relax, I want to watch something where I know everything is going to turn out okay.”
While it’s debatable whether you’d agree Rachael Ray’s cooking always turns out okay, she had a great point. There are times when you want challenging entertainment, stories that make you work, which require you to muscle your way toward the conclusion, and there are times when what you really need is comfort food.
All this being said, I find it interesting in an intellectual way that the original article casually and happily puts a premium on the writer’s opinion about what other consenting adults can and should do with their leisure time. Let me admit something to you: I once shamed myself out of reading comic books.
Like a lot of nerdy boys growing up, I lived and breathed comics, but when I got to the age where I had a car to keep on the road and wanted to find girls who would go to the movies with me, I gave them up. Not because they no longer brought me joy, but because I thought I’d be judged for it, that regardless of how much I wanted to enjoy them I should be ashamed to read them. So I quit comics. Sure, I’d relapse every five years or so, go on a spending spree, but the minute someone new came into my life those books went into a dark dungeon of storage in the basement. God forbid a new girlfriend see that collection of X-Men comics anywhere. How shameful.
These days I know grown men and women, well-adjusted adults with families and houses and love lives and good jobs who read comics or make their own cosplay outfits. Who read YA fiction and line up on Friday nights to watch the latest superhero movies. Who are healthy, happy, and unashamed.
Silly me, thinking I had something to hide all those years. And here I am at age 37 with my first novel out there for the world to see, starring superheroes roughly the age I was when I gave them up. I had a lot of growing up to do to reach the point where I could enjoy my childhood obsession without shame. It might have been a lot harder if I had witty magazine articles telling me I was right to feel bad about myself.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.