Monday, May 15, 2017

Why Young Adult Fiction?

For at least a decade now the bestseller lists have seemed to be ever more dominated by works of young adult fiction. Accordingly to the data presented by Publisher's Weekly, between John Green, Veronica Roth and Jeff Kinney eight of the nine top-selling books of fiction of 2014 were of the young adult variety--with the one exception, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, boosted by the release of a hugely successful film adaptation that year.

There seems no shortage of possible explanations for this.

One is the greater readability of YA fiction. Publishers of YA routinely serve up more simply written books, and shorter books, that may be more attractive to grown-ups with declining literacy, greater hurry, shorter attention spans--with the problem exacerbated by how much of our reading we are doing off of screens.1

Another is that the books are, in some measure, sanitized--and so at least a partial refuge from a culture that so many find toxic, for so many reasons, be it the cultural "traditionalist" distaste for four-letter words and graphic sexuality, or a deeply feeling progressive's revulsion at the raging conformism and smugly fascistic tendencies of the purveyors of the "edgy" and "dark and gritty."

Still another might be the nature of contemporary, bourgeois adulthood and its portrayal--how narrow and dull the "grown-up" life encumbered by work in the age of Weber's "iron cage," and the conventional responsibilities; how little of the spectrum of such life gets attention from today writers (ever directed toward the upper middle class); and how false is its treatment (how oversimplified and glamourized and sensationalized). How much can one say about well-heeled doctors and lawyers and their adulteries? And how long can anyone go on being interested in the nonsense written about that?

For all its difficulties, youth is different and more varied, at least--and an object of curiosity to more of us in a rapidly aging world.

Jonathan McCalmont, responding to a recent piece by Adam Roberts, noted another aspect of this that seems worth mentioning, namely the fuzziness of the whole concept of adulthood. We are constantly subject to sanctimonious talk about "growing up"--but what does this really mean? One might reasonably think of it as referring to a person's amassing a certain body of knowledge, skills, personal qualities that permit them to function in the world, but as is usually the case with conventional social judgments, the criteria are rather more stringent than that, and much more brutally materialistic. For adult males, at least, he refers to the conventional "model of adulthood" as entailing an income sufficient to singlehandedly support a family (which, of course, an adult was supposed to have).

This has always been a fairly classist definition, implicitly denying full adulthood to the poor, for example, and therefore most people in society. However, in contrast with the mid-twentieth century period of broad middle class affluence (how brief it was in historical terms, and at the same time how deeply it has shaped our thinking) it has increasingly been out of reach "for all but the most supremely wealthy people." Indeed, even in comparison with "the 1990s, today’s adults not only struggle to find full-time employment but even those that do still wind up struggling to make enough money to live independently of their families" to an extent respectable opinion (and even pop culture) generally refuse to acknowledge.

Adulthood in that sense (whether one thinks it a good definition or a bad one, reasonable or unreasonable) has simply not been attainable--and no alternative version has appeared yet. And so chronological adults find themselves in just about all other ways (the level of their earnings and what these permit) endlessly "becoming adults" rather than "being adults"--"the coming-of-age process but not the experience of adulthood itself," which is exactly what YA fiction is so often about.

1. I draw together the research on what reading off a Kindle or other such device might mean in my essay "The Writing Life Today and What it Means for Science Fiction" in my book The End of Science Fiction?

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