American reading habits are always a topic of hot debate. Who’s reading, what are they reading, and are they reading enough are all questions that can be found somewhere in the news cycle every year. And while the e-book versus print and “Americans should read more” articles have long-since become commonplace, an unusual new phenomenon has recently taken the publishing industry by storm: Americans are reading a ridiculous amount of Young Adult fiction.
It’s a trend spanning all demographics, from the teenagers to whom the books are traditionally marketed to New Adults (people in their 20s) to adults aged 40+ with teenagers of their own. In fact, Nielsen announced at its 2015 summit that only around 20% of all the YA books sold in 2015 were actually bought by Young Adults – 80% of all sales were from consumers over the age of 18. The growth of the YA industry was so dramatic in 2014 that resulted in a significant bump to the publishing industry, even as sales of general fiction fell.
So why? Why are we, as a society, so hooked on YA? Is it because YA books are more accessible now than they were in prior years, or because societal values are somehow shifting so that adults suddenly want to read them? Could it be both, or neither?
Many publications like to make an argument for one or the other but personally I think it’s both; a combination of the fact that YA books are a bigger industry than ever before—well-advertised and more numerous—but also that their content contains valuable take-away for readers of all ages. YA is often accused of being serious fiction “watered down” for teens, but a growing number of adult readers contest that YA can and does explore themes equally heavy to those in adult literature – it simply does it through a different lens.
The history of the modern YA industry supports this idea, as it has its roots in an appeal to children and adults. In the late 90s, when it began the period of growth that led to its current magnitude, the YA industry largely followed a blueprint set by its first major breakout success: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Before Jo came along, it was widely believed that teenagers didn’t read: The Sorcerer’s Stone was one of only 3,000 YA titles published in 1997, as most books were either aimed towards young children or adults. But once Harry Potter topped the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for almost two years, it distinguished its target audience – young adults – as an untapped market for the publishing industry.
What quickly became clear, however, was that a major player in Harry Potter’s success was its ability to appeal to readers of all demographics. One doesn’t sell 8 million copies in a day catering only to people who haven’t gotten their first credit card statement yet — by the time the fourth book was released, over 60% of adults without young children had heard of or read the series.
“But once Harry Potter topped the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for almost two years, it distinguished its target audience – young adults – as an untapped market for the publishing industry.”
The increasing adult readership sent a surprising message to publishers: while young adults were an untapped market, books written for them had the potential to be highly successful since they could also be made to appeal to older readers. Consumer trends indicated “that YA is not to the written word as PG is to film. That it is publishing’s closest thing to a safe bet in years,” as affirmed by Lowenstein Associates agent Meredith Barnes in an interview with The Atlantic. The key to bigger sales was to straddle the demographic divide; to venture further into the territory of the PG-13.
But while many adults were captivated by the foibles of the boy wizard, other YA efforts from the same era failed to capture an adult audience. Though the number of YA books published post-HP (many of which were deemed suitable for adult consumption) increased exponentially, few achieved significant success outside their recommended demographic. Twilight, The Hunger Games, and John Green would appear in the late 2000s and revitalize crossover Young Adult fiction, but in the meantime, thousands of titles flew under the NYT bestsellers radar. As a consequence Young Adult fiction emerged with a reputation of “books just for teens”, discounting a great many titles really geared towards somewhere-in-betweens. The YA resurgence among adult readers happened gradually and was aided by a number of later-emerging cultural factors, one of which was technology.
Once the internet and e-books became commonplace, they helped popularize YA books among adults by breaking the societal taboo set by the Young Adult moniker. The sudden influx of adult readers of YA we’ve seen this decade has much to do with adults being able to enjoy books without judgment, and becoming aware of others who share their interest.
We may have come a long way from the days of The Sorcerer’s Stone, but it’s undeniable that the idea of adults reading books written for teenagers is still frowned upon in our society. For some reason it is shocking to suggest that there are people over the age of 18 who would rather read Harry Potter than forensic crime dramas, maudlin romances, “psychological” “thrillers”, historical retellings, purported classics, or John Grisham. But because American propriety traditionally frowns on engaging in anything we’re supposed to have “outgrown” – a wonderful leftover from our puritanical days – it’s strange to think that a seventeen-year-old and thirty-seven-year-old might both enjoy the same book.
Such a critical attitude towards adult readers of YA fiction didn’t create the most welcoming environment, and likely served as a deterrent to those even casually interested in reading books labeled as YA.
“But because American propriety traditionally frowns on engaging in anything we’re supposed to have “outgrown… it’s strange to think that a seventeen-year-old and thirty-seven-year-old might both enjoy the same book.”
These attitudes began to change, however, with the progression of technology. Once e-books became a thing, anyone could buy and read anything they wanted without other people seeing the cover, which, in our shame-based society, worked wonders. And beyond just reading the books, they could go on the internet under the cover of anonymity and join communities of like-minded readers.
The creation of social networking sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and the archaic FanFiction.net encouraged hubs of discussion open to all demographics, as they operated by different rules than those adhered to in real life. To adults who felt as if their interest in certain books was shameful or unusual, the growing presence of peers just like them said exactly the opposite while encouraging participation.
In addition to just readers getting online, many authors of Young Adult fiction have also made their presence known by joining the same sites and interacting with fans and critics. Authors can often feel like distant, intangible beings compared to the presence of their books, but the visible population of grown adults like John Green, J.K. Rowling, Veronica Roth, and Cassandra Clare (to name a few) mingling with the hoi polloi online reinforces the notion that their stories do have value to adults, as they are written by adults who take their work and their fans seriously.
The presence of adult readers in the YA world online has even attracted major media attention, which helped legitimize it as a movement worthy of real consideration rather than just criticism. Even Scholastic endorsed adult readers of Young Adult fiction, and they were neither the first to do so nor will they be the last.
“The presence of adult readers in the YA world online has even attracted major media attention, which helped legitimize it as a movement worthy of real consideration rather than just criticism.”
Now, long after the internet was made a part of every-day life, there is a growing, vocal community of adults online that reads Young Adult fiction and is proud of it. They blog. They join social networking sites and enter communities of fans. They engage in critical discourse. And they do it because they feel like they can; because they see millions of other people doing it and know they won’t be ostracized.
Along with the presence of e-books and the internet, a more glamorous aspect of technology’s part in the spread of YA is the great deal of help given by the blockbuster film industry, whose favorite pastime in recent years has been scrolling through the “If you enjoyed…John Green” section on Amazon Books.
You need only take a look at Forbes’ highest-paid authors list to see that I’m not exaggerating: a quarter of the highest-earning writers in 2015 fall into the YA category (two of which are in the top five!) Of the four authors included, all four originated a major film franchise, three of which had a movie released during the year. Coincidence? I think not.
And while it’s logical to assume that the book series’ popularity precluded their blockbuster debut, and not the other way around, the transition from page to screen is responsible for introducing content to new areas of the market. While the popularity of many of these series originated in a teenaged fanbase, the median PG-13 rating of the corresponding films is accessible to age groups above and beyond.
Genre also plays a significant role, as most YA-adapted movies contain one if not all of the three components of highly successful films: action, romance, and comedy. As a staple in both print and in theaters, romance is always a big draw (The Fault in Our Stars, for instance, and all its subsequent clones), and action tends to go over well considering the success of The Hunger Games, Insurgent, Twilight, and the juggernaut Harry Potter. If there’s any wise-cracking along the way, which there usually is considering the source material, that’s just an added bonus.
These built-in appeals to demographics beyond just teenagers help YA movies reach a much wider audience than YA books. Reading-averse teens but also parents, siblings, and ordinary moviegoers alike become exposed to stories they would’ve never touched in book form (ask any fan of The Godfather) which then inspires a need to read, out of enjoyment or curiosity, and leads to a spike in book sales.
It also doesn’t hurt that the candidates for multi-million dollar YA-book-to-film adaptations are mostly series that are already successful in print. Studios have the benefit of going into a project with a fanbase that’s already enormous, zealous, and invested, and whose demographic makes up 20% of frequent moviegoers. All this, plus the promise of continued success if there is a book #2, #3, #4, etc. to adapt create a nice incentive for these films to be big, flashy, and well-promoted, which helps alert other demographics to their existence. Don’t take it from me, take it from the numbers – almost half of Insurgent’s opening week audience was over 25. Coincidentally, sales of the book also rose in the weeks following. You can probably guess who was buying.
But in spite of all this, if you’re an adult who doesn’t read Young Adult fiction – you never felt the need to check out Harry Potter, adults posting fan theories on Tumblr just strike you as eccentric, and you aren’t inclined to watch Robert Pattinson look sad for an hour and a half – it may be difficult to understand why so many people connect to it. This is where content enters the equation.
In a column on her website, Young Adult author Malinda Lo asked her adult readers the same question.
Their responses were varied, but many touched upon similar ideas: even when highlighting
themes that may not transcend the teen years, Young Adult fiction satisfies a desire for complex stories that stir up nostalgia and provide an escape, while also eschewing adult cynicism.
“Unpretentious” writing seemed to be the mostly widely-cited attribute, yet this is perhaps more representative of a clash between genre and literary fiction than YA and adult fiction specifically. Prose-centric as opposed to story-centric writing is indeed a mark of lit-fic, but like the rectangle and the square, not all adult fiction is literary.
What Malinda Lo’s readers are really responding to is the presence of lit-fic elements in adult genre fiction. Literary fiction has never been synonymous with “popular”, and thus the presence of heavily-emphasized prose, unlikeable characters, and meta-reality in books for adults may be driving casual readers to the distinctly genre-based YA. For what reason literary fiction is being condemned as “boring” or “unrelatable”, I couldn’t tell you – but it is noticeably meeting fewer readers’ needs than it once did. As described by Steven Petite in Literary Fiction v.s. Genre Fiction, genre fiction is an escape from reality while literary fiction is an “escape into reality”. For many adult readers, the former seems to be preferable.
But while thoughts on the nature of escapism and its consequences are divided, all readers can agree that there’s nothing quite like being swept up in the world of a good book, so immersed that you don’t realize that the bench you’re sitting on in central London is currently surrounded by neo-Nazi protestors. (This actually happened to me.)
The escapist nature of YA books is often highlighted as the reason for their success, usually with a blurb about an “unnatural and prolonged adolescence”, but this ignores the greater truth pointed out by Mr. Petite: all fiction, not just genre or YA, is essentially escapist. Adult fiction is no exception, as adults are not immune to the desire to be lost in a story.
For some adult readers escape is found in the world of Westeros, for others in 19th century England, and for some it’s found at Hogwarts or in District 12. The specifics don’t matter – they don’t set people apart from one another except in the matter of personal preference.
That being said, though, there is some significance to the idea that YA literature is uniquely escapist for adults.
This is partly to do with genre as compared with the moniker itself. Much of Young Adult fiction falls into the realm of sci-fi or fantasy, and even more into the realm of romance — all broadly accessible genres that have no particular demographic affiliation. Fans of science fiction, for example, may take just as much pleasure in reading The Hunger Games as in the works of Isaac Asimov, albeit for different reasons. Readers of fantasy may enjoy Harry Potter and Game of Thrones equally. The ability of a story to capture its reader cannot be manufactured by going down a checklist, and that applies to both teenagers and adults. A particularly gripping YA book, perhaps about the romance between an ungainly girl and a sparkly vampire, may do for a middle-aged parent what few works of serious literature can: make them laugh, make them cry, make them care, without reminding them of unpleasant realities. After all, when we say that art holds a mirror up to life it needn’t necessarily be our own.
But while there may be genre elements for everybody in YA, the themes that pervade it – coming-of-age, first experiences, fighting against the establishment, etc. – are decidedly youth-oriented and offer a specific kind of escapism to readers past adolescence: nostalgia. Malinda Lo asserts that rather than reading YA as an attempt to return to adolescence, adults may do so “to re-envision or re-experience the options of adolescence.”
This goes especially for a demographic called New Adults, or people between the ages of 18 and 30. In 2016 that group is comprised of the tail end of the millennial generation and leaders of the generation Z, all of whom have their work cut out for them in the years ahead. Economists and politicians alike place special emphasis on the fact that the world in its current state is no friend to young people trying to enter the workforce — these new adults will be the first to not surpass their parents. Between the debilitating cost of higher education and the stress of being on one’s own for the first time, many readers in this age group are compelled to seek out reading material that reminds them of the revels and the freedom of a not-so-distant past.
And for veteran adults whose world revolves around a job, a mortgage, and the commute from their house to the twins’ soccer practice, YA books are a way to put down the cross for a while. Adulthood is a taxing business (not that I would know) and traveling back to an age when everything was new and exciting for just half an hour a day offers a perfect distraction. And furthermore, some adult readers say it can be enlightening to revisit the dramas of a younger self armed with the wisdom of adulthood.
In a New York Times article titled “A Not So Young Audience for Young Adult Books”, author Meg Wolitzer recounts such an experience in a YA literature group:
“For me, the books and conversation…serve as a continuation of my education. Not only do I feel an intense connection with my earlier, often more vulnerable and intensely curious self, I also feel that I’ve been given access to a pure form of the complications involved with being young, now filtered through the compassion, perceptions (and barnacles) of my older self…it’s broadening to spend time around the losses and transformations of young characters without having to cast myself in the role of a parent or authority figure.”
For adults who take great pleasure in reading YA, the desire to revisit the days of one’s youth is likely not the byproduct of being “unable to confront the realities of adulthood”. What it might be is a consequence of doing so, constantly, and not wanting to be reminded of those realities all the time. Or, in Ms. Wolitzer’s case, indicative of a desire to learn and grow; to look introspectively at a different time in life to better understand oneself in the present.
The final component of YA’s appeal beyond the teen years is perhaps the most controversial: the issue of representation of minority groups. Ever since readers were annoyed by the botched “Dumbledore is gay” reveal it’s become increasingly clear that Young Adult fiction has distinguished itself by placing significant focus on diversity – so much so that it’s attracted the attention of the publishing industry’s critics and scholars. And while most of the conversation still lies in calling for more diversity, YA as a whole has noticeably begun to incorporate new awareness in issues of racial, cultural, religious, sexual and gender identity, disability and mental illness into its brand.
This pulls in an increased readership of adults simply because members of these underrepresented communities have an easier time finding representation in YA than in adult fiction. For authors who entered the adult fiction industry 30 or 40 years ago, it was likely much more difficult to convince a major publisher to go for a book featuring an autistic or transgender or otherwise underrepresented character, especially in a debut novel. Even now, in a more liberal social climate, the greater community of veteran authors is having a difficult time moving on from the ingrained rules of the past.
Young Adult fiction, by contrast, was only recently born, and started off fairly liberal to start. Because the industry is still small compared to fiction as a whole, and populated by young, socially conscious readers and authors, it is much more receptive to the crusade for representation. And because it’s growing at an exponential rate, titles featuring underrepresented characters make up a larger comparative portion of its industry than they do in adult fiction.
You can get a pretty good sense of the disparity just by using Google:
Not that the first page of Google is an exhaustive resource, or that “minority/lgbt characters” are all-encompassing phrases, but it’s telling nonetheless that most of the results feature YA titles, lists, or are from publications catering to younger audiences.
Besides the lack of diversity in fiction overall, there is also a lack of easily accessible critical discourse about diversity in what is considered “serious fiction”. Popular lists, recommendations, and interest articles outside of niche publications are sparse. They do exist, but you have to go deep to find them – poring over B&N and Amazon subcategories, assuming there are any, or sifting through Goodreads libraries. It all says what readers of Young Adult fiction already know: minority inclusion is coming to the forefront of YA, and is not only present but advertised – it’s a selling point. And it’s easy to access, whereas the like-minded adult reader has to go to the lengths of a Dan Brown protagonist to find similar results even with the internet as a resource.
I can attest to experiencing the difference firsthand. One of the YA series I loved in high school and still love is Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, which, while no masterpiece, features two same-sex couples: two men, one of whom is bisexual and a person of color, and two women who are also both minorities. At the time I read them I wasn’t really concerned with the implications of having minority characters in the books; I was wrapped up in the fantasy element of it all and just liked having them there. It was a comfort to see LGBT characters included in the story and partake in healthy relationship without the plot revolving around the fact that they weren’t straight.As I got older and moved on to more adult-oriented books, I read series like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, both of which I loved but whose treatment of LGBT characters disappointed me. The Magicians contains one gay character whose sexuality is mentioned in passing and almost never brought up again, despite him being one of the protagonists, and its reveal is murky and fairly demeaning. Game of Thrones has/had (spoilers, sorry) several characters who aren’t explicitly heterosexual, most of whom die, and the remaining few of which are relegated to plot-irrelevant positions and not brought up again. While their inclusion at all is commendable, this is a series with literally hundreds of characters. You couldn’t keep one gay alive, George?
It’s easy to dismiss the lack of explicit, non-focal representation in adult-oriented fiction as situational. That it’s the fault of the reader that they feel underrepresented – they just aren’t looking hard enough. Supposing this is true and not at all offensive, I once tried “looking harder”. Which in my case means spending more than 15 minutes on Goodreads and going past the first page in a Google search. What took about two hours and brought me significantly closer to a carpal tunnel relapse takes about fifteen seconds if you don’t mind reading Young Adult fiction, and I wasn’t even looking for anything particularly obscure (“lgbt fantasy” – god knows there’s never enough.) And while I did find some good titles, none were from major publishers or were advertised on any popular platforms. The best resource I found (aside from the same 12 books from B&N and Amazon) was one critic’s independent list of sci-fi and fantasy titles, mostly non-YA, that included LGBT characters, which was posted on an old, self-hosted side-blog, and had been left untouched since 2014. My computer crashed while I had it open, and I have yet to track the page down again. (Though this was….something.)
“You couldn’t keep one gay alive, George?”
The point, overwhelmingly, is that there are any number of reasons an adult might choose to pick up a YA novel. Legitimate reasons, even assuming for a second that “because this is a free country” no longer holds water. But many of the opponents to adult readers of YA aren’t concerned with all that. They are instead worried that “if [adults] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something,” as professional blogger Ruth Graham eloquently put in her 2014 article “Against YA”.
While the internet commended Ms. Graham for being so charitable as to worry about the well-being of strangers, several writers (Elisabeth Donnelly at Flavorwire, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post, Kat Kinsman at CNN, Michelle Dean at Gawker, Non Pratt at The Guardian, Elizabeth Vail at the Huffington Post, Michael Cart at Booklist Online, Lyndsay Faye at Criminal Element, Rita Arens at BlogHer, Tommy Wallach, the aforementioned Meg Wolitzer at the New York Times, Sarah Burnes of The Paris Review, Caitlin White at Bustle, Matt Haig, the editors at Barnes and Noble, and Kathleen Hale at Nerve, to name a few) took to their craft to comment only that while her concerns may have been sound, her logic and analysis of adult readers were grossly inaccurate.
As many readers of YA books pointed out, most of them had yet to “substitute maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature”, and there is no evidence to suggest that such behavior is commonplace. Apathy towards “very literary” books, in Ms. Graham’s own words, is not a provably dominant characteristic of the movement for YA fiction. Rather, what many adult readers of YA are doing is trumpeting openness towards the unique offerings of YA fiction in addition to those books traditionally prescribed as “serious literature”. In addition to. Not “instead of”.
“It should be noted that I read plenty of things written by and meant for adults,” writes Jen Doll in her article, The Thirtysomething Teen. “I can stand tall as I show them off on the subway. But adult as they are, they don’t always captivate me the way YA does.” Similar testimonies, from writers and casual readers alike, can be found published and posted across the web. I’ll throw my own two cents in: when I read Swann’s Way, I felt the profundity of the language and structure, and acknowledged the merits which distinguish it as a seminal work in the history of the novel. I also resolved never to put myself through such torture again, and immediately went on to read the new book in The Mortal Instruments series, which was nowhere near as thought-provoking but significantly more enjoyable.
Rather than narrowing the scope of their reading lists, adults are broadening them and diversifying the literature they consume, which I’m sure Ms. Graham would agree is a good thing. Perhaps it will even lead to a better breed of fiction – novels with the depth and gravity of serious literature but the compelling vitality of Young Adult (that magic which makes many Young Adult books, as Doll says, such page-turners) – enthralling to readers of all ages. Literary purists may scoff at this notion, viewing “enthrallment” as a gimmick for children. I counter with the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who said, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and a desire to be very grown up.”
In the constant uphill battle discerning what is right to read and what is wrong, we sometimes forget that reading is an act with many rewards. We read to learn and grow; to grieve and to delight. If we, flawed species that we are, occasionally stray from the pages of Proust to the writings of Rowling, the earth will not split open beneath us. As adults, we are entitled to that choice – whatever its implications.
(Though it might be prudent to note that they never stopped anybody, teenager or adult, from staying up late with their nose pressed against the page, racing to the last “All was well.”)