Unpacking why adults read young adult fiction

"Catching Fire", by Suzanne Collins The question of why young adult fiction is popular among adults seems to be of eternal interest on the Internet. A couple of weeks ago, librarian and blogger Kelly Jensen tackled this subject in her Book Riot post, “Ridiculous Ways the Internet Explains Why Adults Read YA.” As Kelly notes rather sardonically, “as we are all perfectly aware, when you are an adult, you are only allowed to ever do things for adults, and any deviation from the standard norms of a socially-constructed idea of normal means you need to justify your actions.”

She then proceeded to list a number of theories (often espoused in the comments sections of blog posts) as to why adults read YA, including the ever-popular “Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence” and “YA is nostalgia for adults.” Kelly concludes, however, “The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to.”

Then, over on Publishing Perspectives, critic and journalist Porter Anderson jumps into the fray, commenting on Kelly’s piece. Porter notes that his interest in why adults read YA isn’t about the quality of YA (which is often the subtext — or even the main point — of these discussions); his interest lies in the adult readers:

“I’m always sorry that some people seem to think the ‘why would adults read YA?’ question is about quality. Or even about YA. I don’t think that — in its best iterations, at least — it is that at all. I think it’s an honest question more sociologically based than literature-based, and I do think the question has merit. … The question really is this: If our adult and senior-adult readers find stories of teens told from the teen perspective, what does that say about these readers — not about the books, not about YA.”

When Porter reframed his interest in the question this way, I suddenly got it. “Sociologically based” shifts the entire discussion about YA into a question about ... (drum roll please) ... reception studies.

For those of you unfamiliar with this admittedly academic subfield, reception studies emerged from a few related academic subjects including cultural studies, reader response theory, and media studies. I first encountered reception studies during my grad school years in cultural anthropology. The point of reception/media/cultural studies in this case is: Study the audience (of a TV show, movie, etc.), not the creator of the media.

Some major studies that came out of this interdisciplinary field were Henry Jenkins’ research into fandoms, especially his groundbreaking Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature.

I’ve read both of these books, but it’s been awhile. My memory could be a little rusty! Without delving too deeply into academic jargon, what this research (and other reception studies) does is place the reader/fan at the center of the analysis. Rather than asking what the novel or film means (this is the realm of more traditional literary criticism, in which the critic says things like, “The dying plant indicates the main character’s existential hopelessness”), these studies ask: What does the reader get out of reading these novels (or writing this fan fiction)?

Radway’s analysis of romance readers was a feminist response to critics who argued that romance novels of the 1970s were about reinforcing traditional patriarchal structures and norms. Radway didn’t deny that this critique was valid at the time, but she also pointed out that those critiques didn’t take into account the everyday context, for readers, of reading romance novels.

I don’t have a copy of Reading the Romance with me, but in Radway’s article “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context”, published in Feminist Studies in 1983, she explained: “We need to know not what the romantic text objectively means — in fact, it never means in this way — but rather how the event of reading the text is interpreted by the women who engage in it.” ((Radway’s conclusions, back in 1983, were: “At this particular historical moment, then, romance reading seems to permit American women to adopt some of the changing attitudes about gender roles by affirming that those attitudes are compatible with the social institution of marriage as it is presently constituted. This is not to say, however, that its success at papering over this troublesome contradiction is guaranteed to last forever.” As few as eight years later, Radway admitted that her study displayed some sociological weaknesses, but it nevertheless remains a groundbreaking work of research. Twenty years later, romance fiction and the romance reading community has changed significantly, partly due to the Internet, though I’m not sure if anyone is actively studying romance readers these days.))

This is what I think Porter Anderson is getting at, and I do think it would be extremely interesting for some academic somewhere to study why adults are drawn to reading young adult fiction. The Internet has created some amazing online communities, and the YA community is one of them. There’s a healthy discourse in the YA community about the meaning of YA, and I think it would be fascinating to study adults’ engagement with adolescence via these novels.

I’m not in academia anymore, though, so I freely give any Ph.D. student this idea! Go for it!

Meanwhile, as a former academic and current YA novelist who honestly is very interested in why adults read about adolescents, I will say this. A lot of reception studies focus on how consumption of a media product (TV show, book, etc.) is tied into an individual’s identity formation. Watching a show or participating in a fandom is part of your construction of who you are. I think this can be extended to social media platforms, too. For example, many of Tumblr’s young users spend their time reblogging or liking images that relate to the identity they’re presenting online. This is something we all do or have done as adolescents or even as adults: creating collages of pictures torn out of magazines; putting together zines about music or politics; filling out Friendster and MySpace and Facebook profiles. The YA blogosphere is yet another way that readers of YA create identities: identities as readers, as critics, as women (there’s a lively discourse on gender in YA), etc.

Of course, many readers feel that this kind of analysis may be overthinking things. I’ve often heard the following exasperated reaction to pop culture analysis: “Why do you have to go into so much detail about that? It’s just a TV show! People watch it to be entertained!”

I understand that not everyone is interested in these sometimes esoteric details. For those who are, it’s an opportunity to dig deeper into the meaning of life. Yes, seriously: TV can be an entrypoint into the meaning of life. Asking questions such as “What is entertaining?” or “Why is that deemed entertaining?” are fascinating windows into meaning. (That was basically the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written.)

Anyway, I’d love to see any research into YA fiction and why adult readers choose to spend time engaged with narratives about teens. That’s why last week I asked on Twitter:

 

You can see many of the responses here or by searching #whyadultsreadYA on Twitter. There were a few trends among the many answers I got, ranging from “Why not?” to more practical responses, such as “I read YA to stay connected to my daughter & my students. It helps me relate to their concerns & interests” (@donalynbooks).

While “Why not?” and practical reasons (such as my own: I often read YA because I’m writing it, so I want to see what’s out there in the market) are certainly valid answers, they weren’t the ones I found most interesting. The ones I was most intrigued by were ones like these:

  • “I find the narratives are sometimes less cynical without being too twee.” - @DoubleEmMartin
  • “I enjoy the immediacy of the stories and the sense of being at the beginning of the path of who you’ll become.” — @sesinkhorn
  • “I think every YA bk has some sense of hope & that there is so much out there to see/do.” — @LKeochgerien
  • “I love the intensity of 1st time experiences, experimentation, & growth that we’re told to stop doing as adults.” — @sarahockler
  • “I like the mash-up of genre & style. Unpretentious/literary, fast-paced/big-ideas, fantasy/mystery…” — @ErinSatie
  • “I like story length, type of stories being told, the pacing, char development, and the lack of pretension.” — @ek_johnston
  • “It is the in between - where imagination still reigns and cynicism isn’t quite as present.” — @niais
  • “I was shocked at how completely unpretentious, thought-provoking & strong YA was. So I’m now a huge fan!” — @ThisIsOurNow

I believe the subtext of these responses is that YA is being compared to non-YA — that is, adult fiction. So, in comparison to adult fiction, YA fiction often delivers accessible, emotional, fast-paced stories with an optimistic or hopeful outlook.

Now, the responses I got were not a random sample; I asked my Twitter followers, who then re-tweeted my question. Many of the answers came from people who are highly involved in the YA community and the discourse about YA; some of them even write YA novels. What I summarized above is essentially the professional definition of YA that has been drummed into me by my editor and other publishing professionals over the course of the four novels I’ve written, so I may be seeing what I expect to see.

But wait: These responses are only the gateway to more complicated questions, such as:

  • Why are you seeking a book with a hopeful story?
  • Why do you enjoy a story that exhibits emotional intensity?
  • Why do you want to read something that is unpretentious, and what do you mean by unpretentious?

Sarah Ockler’s response is especially intriguing: “I love the intensity of 1st time experiences, experimentation, & growth that we’re told to stop doing as adults.”

Though this is totally not an in-depth ethnographic analysis, I would theorize that one reason adults read YA (there are probably many) is because YA helps adults to re-envision or re-experience the options of adolescence. As an adult, your life is largely bounded by responsibilities to your family, your job, your mortgage. And I think Sarah’s on to something there: adulthood, in contemporary American culture, is generally not about experimenting or growing; it’s about paying the bills, fixing the leaks, doing what needs to be done.

This, in my mind, is not about nostalgia, which is a loaded word. Most YA is not nostalgic at all; it’s brutally present. Adults who read it, though, do read it from the somewhat safer distance of adulthood. I bet it’s a different experience from reading YA as a teen. As an adult, reading YA can be a method to remind yourself — if even subconsciously — that many things are possible. It can be a way to reconnect with the adolescent experience you had X number of years ago, to think about what you did then and whether you’d do it again.

And that brings us back to identity. I admit, I think that most cultural consumption in the contemporary United States is about identity. ((We're extremely identity-conscious in a way that some other cultures are not. Identity is pretty much what consumerism is about, not to mention social media.)) It’s about reaffirming your identity or challenging your identity or trying out new identities. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s intriguing to me that so many adults these days are drawn to narratives about teens. What does that say about adult identities in the contemporary USA? ((I mean, if you really want to go into it, you could spin out a whole theory about nationhood and adolescence. Go for it, Ph.D.’s!)) In a parallel vein, what does the mainstream critical discourse about YA say about anxiety about adolescence?

I don’t have any hard-and-fast answers here, just more questions. I do think it’s legitimate to ask why adults read YA, just as it’s legitimate to ask why people do anything. The problem is, the answers to these kinds of questions are never simple, but of course, that’s why they’re interesting.