Young adult author Malinda Lo, exploring the why adults read YA, emphasizes that the question is more complex than it sounds. “Most YA is not nostalgic at all; it’s brutally present… 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.”
Response to Lo’s Twitter poll on the subject, cited in her article Unpacking Why Adults Read YA, further characterize YA fiction as “unpretentious, thought-provoking and strong” and offering “a sense of hope.”
I recently decided, after a book club meeting on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, that a sense of hope and all that goes into building it convincingly, without overdoing it, draws me to fiction–YA or otherwise. Tartt’s protagonist, Theo Decker, is compared with Harry Potter throughout her novel, and I found myself wishing over and over that I was reading 1700+ pages of the bumbling boy magician instead of the 700+ pages of the miserable Theo Decker. While I appreciate the dramatic need for a protagonist to struggle, I also crave a sense of hope in fiction and I appreciate it even more when he actually fights. He may or may not win, but he has to fight in order to earn my admiration. Maybe other readers of adult literature don’t need to admire fictional protagonists–and maybe I should just be reading more YA literature.
Tartt’s latest novel is widely hailed as “Dickensian,” a teacherly word for meandering, bewilderingly wordy stories, merely peppered with the interesting bits that eventually tie things together. This should send up a clear warning to YA fans. But form was only a superficial issue for my difficulty with The Goldfinch. Theo Decker is so believably miserable, the settings of Las Vegas, upper class New York City, the underground art market of Amsterdam so bleak in their detailed richness, that I believed in the novel’s hopelessness just as deeply as I ever believed I that Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen could save the world.
I internalize fictional characters and their worlds deeply while reading–it’s part of my process. Theo was not a good soul companion. His unceasing drug use, fatalistic behavior, and hopeless dishonesty made me feel like a miserable, bad person. The story described an emotionally leaden world and set of characters, and a series of grim experiences, that I am as unlikely to encounter in my life as Aslan battling the White Witch in Narnia. I am not opposed to reading novels that open me to worlds I will probably never encounter. But until The Goldfinch, I assumed that the point of fiction was to arouse empathy. Tartt’s novel somehow aroused not only my suspicion that the world is filled with emotionally shallow and pathologically selfish users, but also my self-loathing.
Some examples of Theo Decker in crisis, alongside examples of protagonists from recent YA fiction in similar crises:
- Harry Potter coping with PTSD after being violently orphaned, is never more than a mediocre student, but saves the world from the darkest wizard ever.
- Theo Decker, coping with same: gets himself into a school that offers him status, fails to connect with anyone through that experience, nearly ruins the business of the kindly man who takes him under his wing, and falls into a chain of increasingly criminal situations with increasingly nefarious acquaintances. He saves no human being from anything at all.
- Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor, while under financial stress and in physical need when her abusive stepfather throws her out of the house, makes a new life for herself with her aunt and uncle in another state, after having hot sex with the love of her life, who she may never see again.
- Theo Decker, under similar stress: steals about $16K from his business partner, buys a bottle of vodka, takes the redeye to Amsterdam to steal back a stolen painting. He may, in the end, realize he needs to make a new life for himself, but it’s not entirely clear.
- Percy Jackson, when failing in school due to learning disabilities and ADD, discovers his ball-point pen is actually a sword, embarks on an Olympian life of adventure and heroism with other misfits of his generation.
- Theo Decker, upon deciding school is too hard and alienating: without going into detail, lots of drugs and stealing in the form of defrauding clueless wealthy antiques buyers
- Katniss Everdeen, after her District is completely destroyed and she discovers she’s had a crush on the wrong guy for years, fights for justice and retires from the spotlight to marry the right guy and raise children, all while quietly defying the hardness of the world.
- Theo Decker, after losing his childhood home and discovering that the girl he’s loved for years is with someone else: Well… more drugs and more stealing, basically.
So I don’t have to wonder why so many adults prefer YA to highly acclaimed “literary” fiction. A better question might be how we ever get through the books we’re supposed to be reading.