The Stigma Against Young Adult Fiction

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If you’ve ever spent more than a hot minute on bookish parts of the interwebs, then you’ve seen the massive, roaring debate about whether young adult fiction is “proper” literature. The sheer majority of BookTube, the book reviewers and talkers of YouTube, seem to read and review YA, with the odd classic or “reimagined” classic smattered here and there. I came across this issue again recently when Christine Riccio, the biggest BookTuber, released the video ADULT BOOKS VS YA BOOKS. Way back in May, mind you. Thanks algorithm. But it got me thinking thoughts, and boy oh boy are there thoughts to be thought and things to say and words to be written about this supposed stigma against YA fiction.

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First of all, I get it. I was a teenager once. Every single adult was once a teenager, even if they’re old enough the word “teenager” hadn’t been coined yet and was a distant word to be utilised by marketing execs to sell the youth sanitised lovers-lane music that would be advertised on morning shows as exclusive 50-disc Teen Hits CD collections half a century into the future. The moment I hit that magical marker into thirteen, I was all over what YA existed in the ’00s; mostly cheesy romances about Marilyn Monroe fangirls and BFF’s taking scandalous spring break vacations. Then came Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and things changed. The genre modernised. We went from same-old romances to romances about dishwater wallflower girls you could imagine were you, and their sanitised romances with vampires and angels and White Reapers and dream walkers and witches and talking trees. Nowadays YA is as diverse with so many choices a prospective teenager reader is like a chocoholic in the snack aisle. But this is not the problem. From videos like Riccio’s, the main complaints seem to be:

Young Adult Books Aren’t “Real” Books

No duh. They’re a stepping stone between picture books and children’s books, (“middle-grade”) and adult books. These are books meant to encourage those generally between the ages of 13 and 18, but as late as 25, into preparing for a world of reading adult books. The writing is more simplistic, some cover hard-hitting issues but in a way that is manageable for a younger audience. Typically, there aren’t explicit sex scenes or hardcore torture, mutilation and murder. These things can be present, sure, because of course YA characters will witness or partake in these behaviours, but it is sanitised. The writing is simpler. A 500-page YA book is typically different from a 500-page adult book, but not always, because much like YA, adult books are a diverse range of genres. An argument typically made by YA readers is “sometimes you want to read something easy”, and my response is…there are plenty of adult books that are ridiculously easy to read. One can push through an incredibly long psychological thriller in a matter of a day or two, whereas a hard fantasy or literary fiction would obviously take much longer. My current read, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, is 300 pages, and is taking me longer to finish than the 500 page YA The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but I can belt out a 500 page psychological thriller in the same amount of times as the Suzanne Collins prequel. Simply: putting a blanket statement over multiple genres of books is dumb. Of course Young Adult books are “real” books, because all books are real, but there is a reason certain people don’t see Young Adult as a real genre, especially if you’re a grown adult reading books designed for teenagers. Some exceptions aside, if you are a competent reader and an adult, you should be able to be confident enough in your reading ability to have matured into adult books. And that doesn’t mean you should just switch from YA romances to adult literary fiction. You don’t have to read 700-page adult books describing dirt for 70 pages at a time. Switch to the adult equivalent, of course. But you can still read YA as an adult if you wish. But if you’re doing it because you don’t think you have the attention span for adult books, stop fucking putting yourself down and realise you are better than what your low self-esteem is telling you. You can do this!

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There are certain groups of people on the internet—mostly those that who believe anything but reading self-help books about making lots of money and retiring by 30—who think even reading regular genre and literary adult fiction are a waste of time. So for YA-purists to moan that adult fiction readers don’t think YA reading tastes are “real”…there’s a whole rabbithole to go down and everyone has an opinion about everything. For every adult fiction reader who mocks YA readers, there’s a nonfiction aficionado who thinks adult genre books are trash and a waste of time. So it’s a bit disingenuous to think you’re the only ones being mocked for what you like.

And for teenagers who are criticised for not reading “real” books: It doesn’t mean a lot now, when you’re a teen, because almost every teen is highly sensitive to what others say to them. But that’s the thing. Teens will always be criticised for what they do. For thousands of years, the older generations have been mocking younger generations for what they enjoy. Just do it anyway. Enjoy your “trashy” books. Boomers were told by their Silent Generation parents that rock ‘n roll and comic books were for Satanists and TV would give them square eyes, but do you think they cared? No! They just did it anyway. Millennials and Zoomers have been mocked for growing up with technology and not understanding the “real world”. So you think we’re gonna listen? Hell no! And one thing YA purists don’t seem to get is teenagers will be mocked for what they do—by OTHER teenagers. Bullying. Teens will be judged by other teens for not fitting in, even for the pettiest reasons. It’s just an endless cycle of hate, not even unique to enjoying YA, because there are hateful, judgemental people, and they will always exist. Just enjoy what you enjoy, because high school doesn’t last forever and people mature…eventually.

I can read YA if I want because what if I have teen kids, just want to experience life as someone under 18, or want to be more empathetic? Adult books are, like, sooooo dark and depressing and about 50-something white dudes just breathing and stuff.

Of course, you do you. Nobody has made it illegal to read YA books, so keep fucking doing it. Even if it’s illegal, there will always be Guy Montags hiding books in secret compartments in their house and surreptitiously reading while Mildred is busy watching the plasma. You can read YA for these reasons, but you can also read adult books for these exact same reasons. Not all adult books are boring, literary journeys about how leaves falling off a tree refer to April’s autumnal slumber as she sleepwalks through life, and not all YA books are life-changing diverse empathetic manifestos for change. To assume only one type of book can enact a specific emotion is to be the arbiter of ridiculous gatekeeping. This also ignores that most YA books aren’t written by people from the age group the characters are. Sure, everybody was young and emotional and full of life once (thanks, 2020), but that can be shown in almost any book, regardless of genre, regardless of age range, gender, ethnicity, emotional status. Riccio states this in her video: books are so plentiful, so different, so diverse, that we cannot just assume one is all. It’s like another video I watched where a BookTuber said she was surprised to love Little Women because she didn’t think she liked classics. Wow. Talk about lacking in empathy: to completely denounce thousands of years of literature, assuming all are too hard and dense and boring. No single book is the same, unless you wrote a fanfiction or Ctrl-C Ctrl-V’d a novel and hope nobody has noticed.

In the edited words of the classic movie Finding Nemo, “Just keep reading”. Or as Riccio succinctly put it: “We’re all in the same boat. We just want more people to read and discover that joy”.

People only dislike YA because it’s a “women’s” genre

If anything, calling Young Adult a female genre is the sexist statement. I’m not talking about the people who only read “real” books like literary fiction and self-help guides about investing in Bitcoin (despite the irrelevancy of Bitcoin) who are criticising your love for books about wolf women falling in love with angel bad boys, or even your political YA about police brutality that is driving the YA world by storm (at least for a few weeks until everyone move onto the next “life-changing” political YA and forgets about it). I’m talking about the people, like Riccio but not limited to her, who believe Young Adult is only mocked because young girls and women read the genre.

And this all stems from the world’s prejudice against teenage girls

Of course there are plenty of people—typically men, but not always—who dislike YA fiction because it is seen as a female genre. To ignore those people is to ignore a real percentage of the population. As stated before, this is a disingenuous argument to imply the only reason YA is disliked purely because of prejudice against things girls like. This argument, as you’ve likely heard, implies YA is seen as childish and immature because society sees girls as childish and immature and this is an inherent sign of society’s systemic misogyny and problematic attitude towards girls’ behaviour. But there are plenty of non-teenage girls who enjoy YA fiction, even if they don’t make the majority. This sort of behaviour discourages teenage boys and anyone who is not part of your precious little clique to read Young Adult: “Well, of course adults—and by adults we mean men—don’t want us, glorious us, from reading this genre, because we are the most beautiful, glorious group of people to ever exist, and no-one can ever match-up to this life-changing, game-changing genre that is taking the world by storm”. And suddenly you’re a cliquish cult and only approved members can join the in-group, because only we and us and us alone are good enough and not the yous and the thems because anyone who is not precious and God’s gift to earth as us Young Adult readers can truly understand YA fiction. Adult fiction is only about descriptions of dirt and death and men’s boring stuff, and YA fiction is about political stuff, because no adult book ever has been accessible and had a political message.

This also seems to ignore that, while YA fiction is seen by some as childish and for teenage girls and therefore not “real”, that teenage boys are also criticised for what they enjoy. This assumption implies only the hobbies of teenage girls are mocked. Three of the biggest stereotypical hobbies of teenage boys are sports, action movies, and video games. Think of the worst assumptions and generalisations you can muster about these hobbies. Sports: meat-heads, dumb boys kicking sportsballs and causing head injuries, sexual abusers and harassers, dumb, brainless. Action movies: Mindless entertainment, guns and sexy women without personality. Video games: Neckbeard losers who live in their parent’s basements, weirdos who can’t talk to girls and smell funny. Smells like a massive dose of hypocrisy, methinks. Instead of being on the offensive, and playing a game of “No! I have it worse!”, “No! I have it worse!” you’ve got to realise that if teenagers and young adults enjoy something, it is going to be criticised by adults/”mature” individuals because they don’t understand the new thing.

So what’s the end result?

Take pride in what you read. Just because I’ve said what I’ve said, or others say things about your beloved genre, doesn’t mean you need to take it as gospel and believe it forevermore: believe what you want. If you only want to read YA and dismiss all adult books as boring, flowery, descriptive, and a slog to get through, despite the wide diversity of adult fiction, then all power to you. If you refuse to pick up YA ever again because you are a Real Reader and YA is basically the equivalent to TV or *gasp* video games, despite the wide diversity of YA fiction, then you do you.

Even though it’s not my main genre, and I don’t think it will be—and it hasn’t been the case since I was a wee university student—I have nothing against the genre. It’s the absurdity of those who think they can legitimise a genre that needn’t be legitimised. It’s books for teenagers and early adults. It is a stepping stone to adult fiction. Of course you will have nostalgia for that time of your life, and will naturally have some interest in YA books, or at least YA books you read when you were a young adult. But you don’t have to make it sound like Young Adult is the only type of fiction capable of enriching your life. Both young adult and adult aren’t truly comparable: they are a wide diversity of genres and authors and writing styles. Any book is capable of being life-changing, but it doesn’t have to be. Books aren’t the only medium capable of enriching and enhancing someone’s life. You can just enjoy YA for what it is. This is just a brief rant on the negative aspects of cliquish book culture. Hope you enjoyed my TED Talk*.

 

*This is not a TED Talk. But good on all those awesome TED Talkers the algorithm recommends.

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