Ed note: I originally wrote this post over a year ago, but for some reason (being a terrible bloggist) neglected to publish it. I no longer work at the bookstore I did when I first wrote this, but I decided to publish the post without editing references to the bookstore out.
Twitter can be a super frustrating communication tool. On the one hand, it makes it so easy to respond to things and start conversations, which is great! On the other hand, I definitely find the character limits make it incredibly easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood. What there isn’t a lot of room for on Twitter is context, or qualifiers, or teasing out an idea when you’re not sure what you really think yet.
At least that’s what I find. Some people probably find Twitter a lot less limiting than I do. But I find any time I’ve tried to have a conversation about anything more substantial than “OMG SCANDAL,” inevitably I am misunderstood, I get the feeling I’m misunderstanding the other person, and we go around and around in circles until I have to check out because it stresses me out way beyond what a Twitter interaction probably ought to and triggers an anxiety spiral.
I’m a wordy person; I always have been. I like to slowly circle my point, thinking it out as I go. I can’t do that effectively on Twitter. Which stinks because I actually really like Twitter and think it can be incredibly useful for sharing information and stories. If you are good at brevity anyway.
Anyway, this post is actually not about Twitter! Do you see what I mean about my love of context?!?!
So a little while ago I got into a discussion about literature and young adult books with a writer and critic whose work I often enjoy and admire. Even when I don’t agree with her conclusions, I think she usually makes her case with strength and clarity and I always make a point of reading her work when she is talking about something I am interested in.
So the first bit of trouble is I wasn’t sure what exactly she was responding to when she started talking about YA readers, but it really was sounding to me like she was saying that adults who read YA fiction are just not sophisticated enough to read real literature, or that reading YA was in itself a sign of immaturity. I want to be clear that those are not direct quotes! That was the sense I got from a series of tweets, and in the course of our discussion I came to believe I misunderstood precisely what she was trying to get at. I probably should have asked her for a link for more context but I was honestly a little weirdly starstruck by the fact that someone who I respect who is Totes Internet Famous was talking to me and I was kind of fumbling to keep up with her responses since I do have such a difficult time editing myself down.
But anyway, the conversation I think was not a great success; I don’t think we really got anywhere useful with it, but over the last few days I’ve been puzzling over the reactions I had and trying to tease out my feelings about it all. Like what would I have said in a different medium than Twitter?
So, I don’t think I can separate my feelings about the YA question from my perspective. I’m a bookseller in a small bookstore. I’m in my early thirties, so I came of age when YA was just starting to be a big thing. There were teen books, but it wasn’t nearly the industry back at the turn of the millennium that it is now. The mix of teen-marketed books and adult-marketed books that I read has not changed all that much from my youth: I was reading both types when I was a teen, and I continued reading both types into young adulthood, and I still read both types now. Part of that is because of my job: I try to read stuff from all over the store, for all age groups, although if I’m not specifically working at it, I tend to stick mainly to SFF/weird fiction/speculative fiction/blahblah and to the YA versions of same. Sometimes a YA is nice, because a lot of the adult books I read are depressing as fuck; YA tends to be a little easier on my psyche when I need a break.
I don’t think there are many people who read Serious Literature all the time. We all need a break sometime. Some people pick up a thriller or a romance when they want a snack-book; I tend to go for YA, and that’s for a couple of reasons, like:
1. It is less likely than adult-marketed pulp fiction to contain gratuitous violence, rape, or badly-written sex.
2. I can still indulge my love of weirdness with books like The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, which I honestly think would probably not have been marketed as YA had it been published twenty years ago (this book does not meet reason #1 as it does contain a tremendously upsetting and violent rape scene).
Another thing I have noticed which is highly highly subjective is, it seems to me that the quality of the books marketed as YA is more variable now than in my youth. The teen books I remember were things like Fear Street, Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan (She was the BEST!), Sweet Valley University… Lots of stuff about witches for some reason. Very pulpy, in general. Nowadays there are more literary options, books that deal in a lot of the same issues and questions as adult Literature but in a somewhat more easily digestible form.
So anyway, I think when I see someone talking about “Adults who read YA,” my assumption is that they’re talking about people like me, and quite a few of my friends: adults for whom YA novels are our snacklit, the things we read in between more serious stuff. Whereas I now realize that Sady was talking about adults who ONLY read YA and never read anything more substantial or weighty.
Which just isn’t something I’ve really run into, myself. In my store, adults don’t buy a ton of YA, and those who do usually buy other types of books as well. Teens and young adults are buying the YA. Now part of that could very well be that our customer base tends to self-select for a certain type of literary person who sees added value in an independent brick and mortar bookshop and is willing to pay a little more for that value (as they won’t stop reminding me; dearest customers, I know you mean well, but it really is awkward when you cheerfully tell me “I know I could get this cheaper on Amazon but I want to support you!” You and I and everyone know(s) it’s cheaper at Amazon, I think it would be ok if it went unsaid). I could certainly see that being correlated with a desire to read serious literature.
Now, it is true that some people only read snacklit, but I kind of honestly don’t care. It’s a bit cliche to mention it, but a lot of what we now consider classic literature was snacklit in its day; in earlier days, the novel itself was considered a form for only unserious literature, the purview of the newly-literate working classes who devoured serialized sensation novels. Do you remember that bit in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Collins “protested that he never read novels?” From The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, edited by David M. Shapard: “Novels at this time [P&P first published in 1813] were scorned and denounced by many, either as intellectually frivolous or as morally corrupting” (127).
At this point I’m starting to lose track of my point, to be honest.
Too much TV, that’s my problem.
At any rate, the truth is, once I realized what Sady was trying to get at, I realized I don’t really disagree with her much at all (there is some stuff about the fundamental arbitrariness of labeling books YA or literary or genre, which I’m not sure anyone really “gets” until they work in the book industry in some capacity — like at the store I used to work at in Oregon, several of the female employees griped from time to time that Nicholas Sparks was shelved in “Literature” rather than “Romance,” for no reason that we could determine other than that he’s a dude. We eventually got him shelved where he belonged. Anyway the intricate dance of finding books their proper home on the shelf is a post for another day). (Run on sentences and parentheticals are another reason I am bad at Twitter).
I actually do get a bit of a furrowed brow about the dominance of YA these days, myself, but not really because adults are reading it, even if they’re reading more of it than anything else. Adults have fucking stressful lives and I can’t blame somebody for not wanting to tackle a challenging work in the ten minutes of reading time they have before they go to bed. I am more concerned that teens are over-relying on YA. When I was 16, I read Les Miserables (which is great because now I can say I did it and I never have to do it again. I actually tried again last year and, no I can’t make it happen a second time). I read Siddhartha. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was seventeen, and almost all of Margaret Atwood’s other novels by the time I was 21. 1984 when I was fourteen. Pride and Prejudice at fourteen and most of Jane Austen’s novels (I have still never finished Sense and Sensibility for some reason) by the time I finished high school. The summer after graduation I read East of Eden and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the same time and had the creepiest dreams about inescapable fate. None of these books were assigned reading; I read them because I was curious, because I wanted to, and because I had this epic thing called summer fucking vacation and no job. Also I blew off my homework a lot. Oh also I read a freaking Clockwork Orange at some point as a high schooler, what the hell? Some important books I think are actually best read when you’re young; it was a profoundly disturbing reading experience and I very much doubt I could stand to be in that character’s head now as an adult.
I mean I also read a whole shitload of Dragonlance novels, though, and for a week one summer I was like, weirdly convinced that I was in love with Raistlin (look that was also the summer I started trying mind-altering substances and let’s just say I skipped the “gateway drug” and these things may or may not be related). Also I thought Tarot by Piers Anthony was like, super deep, man. I reread part of it when I was like twenty and was horrified that I’d ever liked it. Damn but there are a lot of paragraphs dedicated to describing the sexy body of a young teenage girl.
Was there a point to any of this, Kate?
I think so. I think it would be useful if all of us could stop thinking of YA as simply “inferior literature for teenagers” and started thinking of it as a type of literature that occupies an important place in our literary landscape. I think YA is important in that it centers the voice and experiences of young people in a way that I think can be really validating and important for young people (although it has much-discussed problems involving which types of young people — mainly white, mainly straight — get to have their voices and experience centered. However, literary fiction and adult genre fiction also have these issues). I think it can also be really helpful for adults to refresh their memories about how it feels to be young; reading YA may or may not be the best avenue for this, but personally I find understanding and forgiving my past self to be a really vital process in my recovery from mental illness.
And that, my friends, is why I am bad at Twitter.