As the movie adaptation of John Green’s young-adult fiction novel The Fault in Our Stars hit theaters this past weekend, teenage and adult fans of the book have reignited a debate on the merits of the genre, termed “YA fiction” for short. It began with Margaret Talbot’s profile of Green in The New Yorker, in which he lauded YA fiction for using the emotional intensity of first encounters with love and grief to relate to teenagers and to remind adults of the persistent weight of the issues they faced in their youth. Ruth Graham decried Green’s view in a viral post for Slate, saying that, while she does not “begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction,” adults’ encroachment into the genre will discourage teenagers from aspiring to “grown-up reading.”
Surprisingly, the most common objections to both Green and Graham question the legitimacy of the YA genre itself. After Graham’s article was published, writer Casey Cep tweeted, “Teenager was a marketing term invented during the Cold War; Young Adult was a more recent invention. Both are meaningless.” In Cep’s view, YA fiction is indistinguishable from literary fiction generally. Similar points were made about the youthful perspective and subject matter of many literary classics, like Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
But the genius of both books, and of YA fiction today, is its very age-specificity. Authors like Shakespeare and Twain were adults using a youth’s perspective to critique adult norms, producing ageless lessons. There is, more or less, no meaningful literary distinction between the bildungsroman and the young-adult genre.
But there is a powerful historical difference. As Adam Roberts explains, “youth culture” has taken over “popular culture” since the 1950s, from pop music to pulp fiction to comic book movies. YA matters as a separate category because it is the literary incarnation of a culture obsessed with youth, but also one that has “made a fetish of adulthood,” in which many adults “secretly feel that we’re immature individual souls walking around in grown-up bodies.” Erasing the YA fiction genre erases the entire virtue of the category: its proclaimed age-specificity speaks to a wider audience because the invention of childhood was not a meaningless cultural experience. If we draw lines more strongly in our bookstores, it is because we draw lines more strongly in our relationships to one another.
Removing “young-adult” from YA fiction also robs youth of a community identifier that has grown immensely important, seemingly under adults’ noses. The Internet has changed everything, and literature is no exception: readers now follow their authors on social media (John Green’s following grew largely out of his online video blog with his brother, Hank). Readers draw fan art, collaborate on fan fiction, and meet up for book clubs. Watching young people come together around something so timelessly positive as reading has been shocking for adult culture.
Dianna Anderson proposes that this is exactly where the phenomenon’s literary merit truly lies: engaging with literature beyond your demographic is crucial to the experience of reading. Just as teenagers encounter adult literary fiction in school (relating to James Joyce is near impossible, but learning from his literary style is usually instructive), adults learn from their encounters with young-adult fiction as well. She writes: “When we request that adults stick to “adult” literature, we further the gap between parents and children, teachers and students, between, yes, men and women. Such uncritical promotion, based only on the ages of the protagonists, creates a false hierarchy of tastes and experiences — and has the effect of demeaning stories about young women.”
Few of the participants in the debate on YA fiction have questioned the popularity of the genre among adults. Why do more adults read YA fiction than teenagers do? What is it that so attracts the adult reader, if the genre contains the same ratio of good to bad writing as any other?
One obvious and undersung answer is that adults writing for children bring a cleaner perspective to their work. Sex and violence are present in their full human complexity, with fleeting emotional intensity, rather than in a numbing barrage of obscenity. The familiar social structures of young life, from school to summer camp to family life, provide a familiar backdrop for archetypal stories like first love and first loss. They allow adults to enjoy timeless themes with all of adult literary fiction’s seriousness, but little to none of its cynicism or vulgarity. They remove the obligation of maturity, while revealing the importance of life experience. In short, young-adult fiction does not condescend to its readers. It should be no surprise that it sells.
Critics of YA fiction are missing an opportunity to learn from the genre’s success in tapping into a longed-for innocence and intensity. But the genre’s fans should not defend themselves by renouncing their youth as irrelevant to their literature’s merits when it is so crucial to their genius.