Sunday, March 25, 2012

Not-So-Young Adult Fiction

Ceremony--"Adult" (mp3)

There's a tangible shift that has occurred in the genre known as "Young Adult Literature," or YAL. It isn't that the literature itself has changed so much (more on that in a minute), but that the concept of "young adult" has changed, at least in terms of readership. High school students and college students and, yikes, even real live adults are reading YAL these days! What gives?

If you think about it, the label was always wrong to begin with. Young adult literature aimed at precocious 12-year olds and socially-savvy younger teens? I understand the target group, but not the label. Those are not young adults. They are "pre-adults," in some cases, "pre-teens." Now, I don't know much, if anything, about the book industry, so I can only speculate that the original thought was create a category that could titillate younger readers with more adult themes.

Maybe it doesn't even matter. But I was, indeed, a young adult reader once myself. I can remember people around me in middle school (which we called "junior high" back then), people I would term "pre-hippies," just to add another label, reading Go Ask Alice, that anonymous memoir of debilitating drug use that we could never figure out whether it was supposed to be cautionary or cool. I'm guessing both. I can remember us carrying around copies of The Outsiders with similar confusion. After all, our upscale suburb made us the "Socs" in the context of that book; the gritty heroes from broken homes in that book would have had to come from the working class area one town closer to the city.

The many decades that passed between my time and my daughters' time in that demographic don't seem to have altered the genre that much. Superstars like Judy Blume and Gary Paulsen and Robert Cormier added their own classics, but their books were read (and taught) by most youngers readers in their 6th-9th grade years. My daughters read some of those writers on their own and were required to read some of the socially/historically-conscious ones in their schools--Out Of The Dust and The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963 come to mind. And that should have been it, except......

Except that they haven't left it, and they're now 19 and 22. Except that I have high school senior boys saying to me, "Sorry, sir, I didn't read last night. I picked The Hunger Games and read it cover to cover. I couldn't put it down." An 18-year-old boy at an all-boys school admitting that he'd spent the night reading a book by a female author with a female main character? Clearly, something has changed.

In fact, I bought my older, recently-graduated-from-college daughter a YAL book for her Christmas stocking. I can't remember the name of it--it was the first in a series of books about immortals or undead immortals or immortal vampires or wizards or magicians that span the centuries or something. I'm not being dismissive; just commenting that this new series was clearly playing off of the successes of the Harry Potter books and the Twilight books and everything else that they have already spawned in both young adult and adult fiction.

The funny thing about the YAL book I bought my daughter last Christmas: one of the blurbs on the cover described it as "sexy."

I suppose that's the shift right there, eh? There's nothing "sexy" about Mathilda or Holes or My Side Of The Mountain or Holocaust stories or Civil Rights movement stories, or stories about gangs fighting or drug stories. But once that little angle was inserted the first time, whenever that was, then the whole thing changed. Or else it was a reaction, a realization that the readership was skewing older and that it was okay to go in that direction.

I have no idea when it started; I'm guessing somewhere around the emergence of Lois Duncan's book. Or, at least, her books as movies. Her books, like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr. Griffin had coed groups of teens grappling with situations that, while relatively dangerous and non-sexual, (basic plot: groups of teens accidentally kill someone and must deal with the fallout) still provided the shell plots of movies that were far more graphic and focused on violence and allowed Hollywood to introduce beautiful young stars.

That may not be where it started, but it does capture the basic cause and effect. In effect, young adult books spawned not-so-young adult film versions of themselves which, in turn, paved the way for young adult novel writers writing books with an eye toward having their books turned into those not-so-young adult films. Like the Twilight series. Or the Hunger Games series.

At the younger end of the age spectrum, I talked with 6th graders in front of my house tonight who are faithful readers and who evaluate the movies like an English teacher--how faithful was it to the book? That's what they wanted. Faithfulness. But at the other end, I heard true young adults a couple of nights ago worried that the movie wouldn't be able to capture the true violence contained in the pages of The Hunger Games; they seek a different kind of verisimilitude, the kind that age and pop culture experience brings where they want the story to be true to its realistic implications. If the story is going to be about a battle to the death, regardless of who it's aimed at, let's see that carried out on the screen.

And behind all of that now are the Hollywood subplots. Will Jennifer Lawrence become the next "IT" girl? Will R Pat and Kristen ever marry? Daniel Radcliffe? Emma Watson? Will they have careers?

What happens is that the movie culture overwhelms the book culture, except, perhaps, for the youngest readers. But the young readers also want to see the movies, because the movies get all the hype, but they can only see the movies if an adult takes them and the movie is going to have to be rewarding for the adult, as well. And suddenly, the adults begin weighing in on the movies as well, have their own expectations of what the movies should be, respond to the sexual tensions of the movies (or at least to the physical beauty of the actors) in ways their younger children do not and cannot, get reeled into reading the books or seeing the next movies maybe, eventually, without their children, working off of some mixed fantasy of movie actors and book characters. And we end up with this very strange cultural phenomenon where everybody can get what they want out of it, book------>movie, and none of us quite know where we are, but we have a sense, don't we, those of us who are not young adults, that the whole thing probably feeds an aspect of our society that isn't healthy. While writers dream and try to conceive the next series that can draw in children first, eventually draw in all of us, and make them ungodly rich.

I don't know. The whole thing just makes me kind of uneasy.


Billy said...

Love this post, Bob. The only part where I beg to differ, however, is that I don't think the books have changed nearly as much as the adults.

In my pre-teens in the '80s, I specifically remember reading three YAL books that were similar in many ways to what has blown up in current culture. Vampires. Teen love. Murder/death. The big kinds of consequences that invigorate young minds.

The difference is, adults weren't reading that shit. Just us kid-types.

What Harry Potter and Twilight and Hunger Games says about our culture -- and as a YAL fan, I'm as guilty as anyone -- is that adults are no longer capable of reading adult literature. We have, as a reading populace, regressed. We are less mature.

We watch adult TV shows that are basically "Sweet Valley High" plots with enhanced breasts, or "Goosebumps" episodes with more exposed intestines and bloody decapitations. (See: "Desperate Housewives" and "The Walking Dead")

It's not the teens or their books that have changed. It's the fact that the adults won't grow up anymore and put away their childish things.

Bob said...

You're right. I didn't close the argument. Meant to drive home point that because adults are becoming a major reading segment for this genre, that much of the marketing is aimed towards them ("sexy"!) and all of the shame of reading "kids' books" is therefore gone. Hunger Games is cool!

Daisy said...

Great post! I think Billy is correct in saying the subject matter hasn't changed that much. The difference is that instead of just being literature it is now a multimedia phenomenon. I think there is a big difference in a young teen reading something and seeing the same subject matter on the big screen. I have not yet seen hunger games but it has to be more violent and graphic on screen than it would be in the mind if a young reader.

I think the obsession adults have with YAL is like a literary mid life crisis, a way of reclaiming youth. What I don't understand is grown ups thinking that all of this is okay for kids without using any common sense or discretion. Is it out if a longing to be the "cool mom" ( or dad?) because that isn't parenting. Oh , wait that''s an entirely different soap box....

cinderkeys said...

I've read every book featured as an image up there except _Twilight_.

A decade and change ago, I wanted to write a children's book. But I had no idea how to write for my target age group. So I picked up a few: the first Harry Potter book; _The Great Gilly Hopkins_ (which I'd somehow never read as a kid); the Song of the Lioness quartet (which I'd read as a kid and loved).

The thing that struck me, hard, was how these books didn't talk down to readers. I thoroughly enjoyed them. I'm still proudly reading Tamora Pierce. And no, I haven't stopped reading books for adults.