read your age
This highlights a lot of the issues with young adult fiction. A lot of the issues seem like they can be boiled down to "Twitter"—I'll get to that later this week—but there's an awful lot in there about how the conversation around these books isn't shaped by their theoretical target audience (the one that's in the name), but rather by actual adults, who are the ones who have the time and inclination to spend too much time being part of the conversation on social media. This, to me, raises a bigger question; namely: why the hell are adults reading books for teens in the first place?
YA novels are distinct reading experiences. I remember a couple of years ago starting something I'd picked up on sale by a science fiction author I had heard vaguely positive things about, and then, within a few pages, realising that it was from his more recent forays into YA. The protagonist was Not Like Other Boys, his love interest Not Like Other Girls, the oppressive regime they lived under suspiciously shaded with overtones of parental control. This characterisation doubtless over-generalises, but man, the genre is literally called young adult. It's Special Child Memes For Fuck-You-Dad Teens. I struggle to see anyone who doesn't (as teenagers often do) live with the heartfelt conviction that they are the most special and the most parentally over-burdened getting much out of it.
When I was a kid, I loved Harry Potter. I was just the right age to grow up as the books were being released, the final one dropping with perfect timing for me to be entering my mid-teens, glad that the story I'd followed for so long had resolution, and never really think about it again. When I was a bit younger, in the midst of my most profound Potter-mania, I tried to get my parents to read the books I loved so very much. They didn't, because they were adults and as adults, reading books not-for-adults was not something that occurred to them. They were adults, so they read books for adults.
This isn't saying they couldn't derive pleasure from books not-for-adults. My mum read us Swallows and Amazons and Just William and The Famous Five and many other British kids books from the '30s and 40s, because she'd read them at that age (as, presumably, had my grandparents) and she enjoyed passing on that part of her childhood a great deal. But when she was reading for herself, she was reading J.B. Priestley, or Ian Rankin or Reginald Hill. Not necessarily Great Works, mind—crime is just as Genre as SFF—but books written for adults. It's weird to imagine otherwise, weird to imagine her talking to her friends about books for teenagers. There was just a norm against it—arguably quite an old one. Kid's stuff for kids; teen stuff for teens; adult stuff for adults. Goodness knows there's going to be some cross-pollination, some mixing between them. Parents will always be exposed to their kids' entertainment choices, and (to a more limited extent) vice-versa. But you wouldn't have expected people to go out of their way to cross the boundaries and advertise the fact. So what changed?
Other than 'Twitter' (again, more on that soon), I think it's largely a product of the way that, amongst other things, fewer people (of the kind who are inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, anyway) are able to buy a house, settle down, have kids, etc. Goodness knows, often it's difficult enough for them to move out of their parents' house! They cannot, in the way that society saw it before, transition into adulthood. This leads to some of those people, while adults in a strictly numerical sense, being trapped in a perpetual state (perceived or otherwise) of arrested development. Without these markers on the way, who is to say whether they are Truly Adult? Why not continue marinading in the things that have given them comfort this far, the modern-day opiates of the masses?
I am still slightly bewildered at the afterlife it seems to have had for people my age but again I think that might be another post. ↩︎
Though they were subject to endless conversations on the topic from me and loops of the audiobooks from my brother, so they ended up having to absorb it anyway. ↩︎
That said, once when my dad was ill in bed I did manage to badger him into reading the fifth one. As I recall, he was amused by the evil school inspector and not much else. ↩︎
Certain phrases—I think particularly of "A busy day is a happy day", "A penknife what you can't do any harm with" and "William replied that he didn't think he would"—are part of our familial lexicon. All, now that I think about it, from a collection of Just William Christmas stories. Richmal Crompton could really turn a phrase. ↩︎
The kids thing is more of an issue than anything else here, I think: a lot of people don't wait to grow up then have kids—for a lot of them, having kids forces growing up onto them. Not having that removes that forcing function, and leaves them a bit stuck. It's a hack point to make, but by the time my parents were my age they'd had one kid and were about to have their second. I want kids, but I don't want to do it until I can provide the kind of stability that I felt growing up, and that's not going to be for a while. ↩︎
Leaving aside discussion for now as to whether it's 100% desirable that these specific things be those markers, suffice it to say that I believe it would be generally agreed that they are. ↩︎