New York Times: Forum on ‘The Power of Young Adult Fiction’

In the wake of Hunger Games’ remarkable box office success and the explosion since 2008 of so-called YA titles, The New York Times’ online forum ‘Room for Debate’ sponsored a discussion  about the merits, value, and power of Young Adult fiction. They gathered a librarian, three authors of books sold in the children and YA section of bookstores (two of which satisfy the Times diversity police quotas), one teenage blogger of note, and two critics covering the ‘over the top’ and ‘just right’ aspects of the subject. These last two deserve some comment, I think, and justify the very short time you might spend reading them.

Perhaps to balance the enthusiasm of author Patricia McCormick’s ‘Authors Taking Risks Isn’t Kid Stuff,’ the Times invited Joel Stein a shock-jock columnist at TIME magazine to express the “not worthy of adult attention” point that William Safire made about Harry Potter years ago. Mr. Stein’s wonderfully wide-open disdain and his acidic view is that ‘Adults Should Read Adult Books’ – — and nothing but adult books, frankly.

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing….

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

As I said, “over the top.” Ignorance battling arrogance for the top slot in his predominant characteristic file, Mr. Stein (the rock, quite literally) has a hard and fast division that is as mechanical and self-justifying as any Christian culture warrior’s magical litmus strip for discerning wheat from chaff among books. Mr. Stein’s point of division between ‘good reading’ and ‘trash’ is what an unknown topologist in a publisher’s marketing department has decided to sell as ‘kid lit’ and what as adult fare. A more ‘fundamentalist’ or simple minded perspective is hard for me to imagine — and forgive me for suspecting (wanting to believe?) that Mr. Stein was writing for effect rather than for persuasion or from conviction.

I’m obliged to quote here, though, before moving on, the C. S. Lewis observation about the “arrested development” of adult readers who don’t care for children’s books. From ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children:’

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

[Hat tip to John Patrick for that. Back to the usual nonsense as we descend from the heights…]

To get the ‘just right’ balance, the Gray Lady asked another TIME writer, Lev Grossman, who has made it his life work as literary geneticist to cross the literary novel and escapist fantasy (sic), for the larger and more sympathetic view of YA reading. From his ‘Nothing’s Wrong With Strong Plots and Characters:’

So what do regular adults see in young adult fiction? It’s a different experience from reading, for example, literary fiction. Not better or worse, just different. The writing is different: young adult novels tend to emphasize strong voices and clear, clean descriptive prose, whereas a lot of literary fiction is very focused on style: dense, lyrical, descriptive prose, larded with tons of carefully observed detail, which calls attention to its own virtuosity rather than ushering the reader to the next paragraph with a minimum of fuss. That kind of writing can be marvelous, but sometimes you’re just not in the mood for it.

Likewise, while young adult novels are very focused on storytelling, a lot of literary fiction explores ways to take narrative apart, to fragment it and subvert it and make it non-linear. Again, this can be extremely rewarding — I’ve read “Ulysses” twice, and “Mrs. Dalloway” at least five times, and I’ll read them again — but it demands a lot of work from the reader, too.

And yes, young adult novels tend to be about young adults, and teenager-y things that most adults have long since put away. But statistically speaking, most adults were young adults at some point in their lives, and some of us are still processing that experience. Young adult novels can be as powerful as anything out there. Read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” about teenagers with cancer. I did, and I’ll be surprised if I have a more wrenching, emotional reading experience this year.

Bottom line, there’s one thing that young adult novels rarely are, and that’s boring. They’re built to grab your attention and hold it. And I’m not as young as I once was. At my age, I don’t have time to be bored.

This is largely a second trip to Mr. Grossman’s 2009 WSJ article ‘Good Books Don’t Need to Be Hard’ which earned him the disdain of most of those styling themselves cognoscenti (Italian for “arrested development academics in recovery”). I accept all this and admire Mr. Grossman’s courage in inviting the same kind of flack he endured back in the day, but I think he neglects something important here, the elephant in the room, as do Mr. Rock and Ms. McCormick in their shared deference for ‘adult books.’

Adult books don’t sell. Hence the numbers of YA titles being rushed into print and why the Times asked the original question each writer was meant to answer in this forum:

The number of young adult titles published last year was up nearly a third since 2008, to almost 10,000, according to Bowker Books In Print. The genre’s appeal has spread beyond teenage readers. Why has young adult fiction become such a phenomenon — even with older adults?

I cannot and do not mean to speak for the plethora of titles that crowd YA shelves these days (check out the Top 30 in line to be “the next Harry Potter for a view of the range and depth of the aspirants). But as someone who has read Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games attentively enough to appreciate the artistry beyond elevated speech and self-consumed narrative lines, I think these writers in their kind words and their criticism of the genre-that-is-not-really-a-genre are not willing to say the obvious.

These books do what ‘literary fiction’ does not, hence the growth industry in these works and the crossover success (sic) of the Hogwarts, Forks, and Panem Sagas.

To reduce ‘what they do’ to three quick points for your consideration and comment:

(1) They deliver alchemical experience. which is to say, some kind of transformation and self-transcendence in story via identification and reader elision with a heart story transparency winning against all odds;

(2) They are able to do this without the convoluted narrative lines and mountain-top vocabulary of the not-selling literary novel genre because their authors focus on reader engagement and using traditional story symbols and scaffolding with six centuries of ‘winners;’ and

(3) The Eliade thesis with Granger corollary: the best selling ‘YA titles’ unashamedly tell the story of the Fall, as Tolkien said all good stories do, and relate a hero or heroine’s victory over death and the World in mythic and religious terms. The books that use the most imagery and resurrection plot points without giving the game away win hearts, readers, and the race to the top of the best seller lists.

I honestly think the reason these books are so popular is largely because they do not come with the tag of literary achievement; we relax and let ourselves in poetic faith suspend disbelief and enter into another world imaginatively. Books that celebrate difficulty and require critical attention do not, and, I suggest, largely fail in the task of what readers want from books in the 21st century: mythic or religious experience in counter-balance to the spirit crushing secular culture in which we live.

I covet your comments and corrections, as always. Hat tip to Anja for the Times link!


  1. PotterMom05 says

    I love you three points at the end and may in fact memorize them the next time someone at my academic institution says “oh, you’ve drunk the HP cool aide, have you?” Or the incredibly smart people in my Sunday School class. It is precicely because these people are so smart, not to mention my colleagues, that I find myself a bit tongue-tied, and then I feel like a snob for thinking I know more than they do. I really do find it irritating that even literature professors, whose children are reading Hunger Games dismiss it with a “she stole it from ancient mythology.” Collins didn’t steal, she used that allusion for a very specific reason. I am so in the minority that I usually chicken out unless I have a person one-on-one so that I can do some real dialogue.

    I’ve been needing to vent that, and John, I know you have already been on the merry-go-round already with Harry Potter. For some reason I am much more defensive about Hunger Games and am reaching my YA ivory tower moment. I also like your ending observation that the tag of “YA” disarms the adult reader, which may be a reason why many of us can quickly see into the deeper layers of the text and simply engage in the story. Well put.

  2. John, your three points are so wonderful! And I love the CS Lewis quote.

    At the risk of boring redundancy I will recopy part of a quote from I made on The Hanging Tree post in another context. This is from Joseph Campbell’s book, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.

    “Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves…can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”

    “The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”

    How many ‘adult’ novels actually hold the possibility of bliss?

    Forgive me if I share two special personal shared moments with strangers:

    1. Just before the HG movie came out I was buying my very own copy of Mockingjay (couldn’t stand to wait for the inter-library loan for my third read). Two college girls came in and picked up a copy of Hunger Games. I couldn’t resist: “Have you read it yet?” I asked breathlessly. “I haven’t yet,” says girl with book, pointing to her friend. “Cheryl says I’ll be up all night reading it!” Our eyes meet. We grin. We have a moment of shared total joy that transcends the forty year gulf between us. “Cheryl is so right!” I say. “Oh, I really envy you — reading it for the first time! Have fun!”

    2. It is July 2007. I am on the subway heading to a local bookstore to get my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I step into the car and find myself hanging onto a strap just above a young woman (maybe 21-25) holding (Audible gasp from me!!!She has one already!) a copy of that ever so recognizable orange dust jacket and a gloriously fat, fat volume. Her boyfriend catches my eye and we both smile. He touches his finger to his lips, protectively, as if saying: ‘shush, my love is deep, deep in her special world’. And so she is. Charmingly, beautifully immersed, unconscious of anything else. We both smile at her, loving her sweet absorption in the pleasure of this moment.

    I read (upside down, trying to be inconspicuous) from her book:

    “Well frankly, I think Arthur and I have a right to know and I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Granger would agree!” said Mrs. Weasley. Harry had been afraid of the ‘concerned parent attack’. He forced himself to look directly into her eyes, noticing as he did so that they were precisely the same shade of brown as Ginny’s. This did not help.”

    Literature (and I also think movies — despite the hijacking risk) that touch our hearts and souls as you’ve described, help us to transcend our own limiting barriers. My guess is that Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and much so-called YA fiction will stand the test of time — as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and Charles Dickens have.

    The site has a wonderful description of the popular frenzy for Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop: “The famous actor William Macready wrote in his diary that “I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain. . . . I could not weep for some time. Sensations, sufferings have returned to me, that are terrible to awaken.” Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish member of Parliament, read the account of Nell’s death while he was riding on a train, burst into tears, cried “He should not have killed her,” and threw the novel out of the window in despair. Even Carlyle, who had not previously succumbed to Dickens’s emotional manipulation, was overcome with grief, and crowds in New York awaited a vessel newly arriving from England with shouts of “Is Little Nell dead?””

    Sound familiar? I think so, even if the Grey Lady begs to differ.

  3. I agree with Hannah and PotterMom05…and wish to add a few thoughts as well:

    ” I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing….”

    Well, perhaps in Mr. Stein’s self-grandised world of adult lit heirarchy he equates the cessation of physical growth with adult maturity. Really?? I am tired of being told that I do not have the smarts to read AL when, in fact, I have the wisdom to know what edifies my spirit and the fortitude to walk away from that which tears me down!

    Thank you, Mr. Grossman, for holding forth one of many candles that shed light on the wonders of YA literature. (John, you also lift the light high for us.) I, too, do not have time to be bored. Nor do I wish to grapple with the complicated turn of a phrase. I want the hero’s journey without the burden of reality or the seediness of life. YA provides another bridge by which I can communicate with my grandchildren on their level; magic happens when we connect over a great story and I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything.

    Frankly, critics such as Mr. Stein, who choose to decry YA without reading the very material they vilify do, in fact, reveal themselves to be without credence. They undermine their reputations with every narrowed and misguided review.

    I feel sorry for you, Mr. Stein. You seem to have lost the ability to wonder and discover…you’ve set aside your inner child and put on the blinders of adulthood. Get off your high horse and test the YA waters.

  4. Kathleen says

    Mr. Stein is an elitist. He also doesn’t realize that you don’t start out loving stories and understanding them at the age of 5 by reading Stephen King’s “The Stand” or Charles Dickens or Utopia. You have to start with Paddle to the Sea and Charlotte’s Web.

    On another note, I am tutoring a student for high school English who struggles with comprehension, reading, and writing. We finished Brave New World and are at the end of 1984. She has struggled with both books mightily and it has taken a lot of time to get through them and grasp the major themes. I asked her if she had seen The Hunger Games movie(she comes from a bit of a sheltered family so I was surprised at her answer). Her eyes lit up and she began to talk about how she hadn’t expected much of it but was totally drawn into it. She had not read the book! Perfect opportunity for a plug. I also realized as we continued to discuss BNW and 1984 that the parallels to a controlled society were multitudinous. I never realized that. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful and intelligent observations that really make me think!

  5. In the early hours of morning, I read a few articles about “Great” books and for a few brief moments I felt my inspiration falter, because I knew I couldn’t match right away, and my first try (I have just started writing my first novel that can fall into the YA fiction category) began to seem so, so amateurish by default.
    I read your article and it told me pretty much exactly the words I needed for encouragement. You know? Like when you ask a good friend for advice.
    Thank you so much. I won’t let my first try to be shamed into expectation of failure or raised brows by those who consider themselves “above” it. I am not talking about Twilight, per se, but Harry Potter and even The Hunger Games had great stories to tell, and I will try to do the same.


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