The Buzz

The fault in our reading habits: is it so bad that adults are fans of YA stories?

Categories: Books, Movies

The gleam of the silver screen has a way of illuminating pop culture trends that have been quietly percolating — for instance when a bestselling book becomes a blockbuster movie.

Take The Fault in Our Stars, aka the teen romance that stole last weekend's box office from Tom Cruise. Made on a paltry (by Hollywood's standards) budget of $12 million US, it did not include any computer-generated vampires or werewolves or aliens.

Like Twilight and The Hunger Games before it, The Fault in Our Stars is based on a wildly popular young adult (YA) novel. More than 10 million readers bought John Green's book, but the film adaptation's opening weekend triumph over a tried, tested and true grown-up like Cruise suggests something else: that those who flocked to Fault — like many of those who read the original book — could not have all been teens.

It's been a reality for publishers for some time now. According to a 2012 study reported on by Publisher's Weekly, 55 per cent of YA books (defined as those intended for readers between the ages of 12 and 17) were purchased by adults. Of that number, 78 per cent were buying the books for themselves.

Some critics see this trend as a fault in our reading habits. Writer Ruth Graham's recent article in Slate suggests that adults' growing propensity for reading YA lit is nothing to gloat about. She asserts that — no matter how well-written (many have lauded Green's writing, for instance) — young adult novels offer a simplistic, black-and-white worldview intended for teenagers. To prefer them over more morally ambiguous literary fare is to forfeit our literary maturity and give up our ability to process the shades of grey (and we're not talking 50 Shades) that exist in adult life and more mature books.

'My dalliances with YA have not convinced me these books should be counted alongside literature's greats, but at the same time, I'm not sure there's a reason to be embarrassed by having read them either'

-- Deana Sumanac

The problem? There are shades of grey in Graham's argument as well.

The very definition of young adult literature is becoming increasingly ambiguous — maybe it always has been. Since Holden Caulfield is a teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, does that make the J.D. Salinger classic a YA novel? Where do we place The Diary of Anne Frank, a book written by a gifted teen during her all-too-brief life?

While we're on the subject of war, let's consider The Book Thief, a YA title at first glance but also a story that deals with typically non-YA themes of mortality and the imminence of death. Then there's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky's coming-of-age novel tossed off some YA lists because it tackles subjects like drug use and sexual abuse.

I've mentioned the last two because I watched their film adaptations first before reading the original novels. A bit of background: I'm a comparative literature grad who reads Crime and Punishment at least once a year for fun. I love the Russian futurists, Latin American magical realists and those Orhan Pamuk door-stoppers some read twice just to figure out the different points-of-view of each chapter.

My dalliances with YA have not convinced me these books should be counted alongside literature's greats, but at the same time, I'm not sure there's a reason to be embarrassed by having read them either.

Perhaps our adult love of YA is an antidote to our equally adult love of today's bleak TV dramas. Maybe there is only so much lying, cheating and self-hatred we can take from Don Draper and Mad Men before we throw ourselves into the comforting arms of stories where teenage love lasts forever. When we've had our fill of gore and betrayal on Game of Thrones, maybe we want to immerse ourselves in a universe where the dying are beautiful and everyone keeps their promises.

Of course, there's also a strictly pragmatic defence of YA. People predicted the end of publishing houses and, indeed, the end of books themselves a long time ago. It didn't happen and we largely have YA literature to thank.

The genre has been the one reliable cash-cow for publishing houses ever since Harry Potter first cast a literary spell that worked on kids and adults alike.

When publishing houses release a book that just keeps selling, it translates into money for signing new authors. Some of those authors will write for adults. Perhaps these authors won't sell as much, but it doesn't matter. They could be the new names shortlisted for literary prizes or this country's fresh batch of Margaret Atwoods and Mordecai Richlers.

And these authors will have had their chance because, somewhere, a 35-year-old bought a copy of The Hunger Games to read and then recommended it to her friend. Is that really so bad?

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