In a previous life, I worked at a teen girls’ magazine. Alongside securing eye make-up and facial exfoliant from beauty product sales for my girlfriend and mum and continually asking female co-workers to please take me off their email list of explicit dude pics, my duties involved reading and reviewing the latest YA book releases.
Amid initial scepticism, embarrassed skimming and ironic guffaws, I quickly discovered some rewarding reading experiences. Among the most memorable were John Green’s Looking For Alaska, a literary tale about friendship and loss featuring characters who discuss Rabelais and Kerouac; Frank Portman’s endlessly hilarious King Dork, and its disaffected Holden Caulfield-esque protagonist; Meg Rosoff’s poetic What I Was; and pretty much anything by David Levithan (including a ton of titles released by his own brilliant Push imprint dealing with everything from first love to abuse to queer awakening to Russian immigrant kids who learn how to speak English by watching hair metal music videos).
Obviously, it was somewhat convenient to get away with consuming these books under the guise of “Hey, I’m just reading it for work.” Unlike comics (ahem, graphic novels), which have deservedly been reappraised as often thematically hefty, YA is still deemed a socially odd preoccupation for a grown-up (the category’s generally described as books aimed at “12 to 18 year-olds”), and perhaps even less so for a male grown-up. “Real men read Hemingway!”, goes the conventional thinking. “Or Bukowski’s piss-riddled fuck poems! Not some weepy novel about a young girl in a coma. What are you, some kinda paedo or somethin’?”
A recent Slate article by Ruth Gordon re-ignited the debate. Titled ‘Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed To Read Children’s Books’, the article sparked the requisite outrage expected of an essay that dragged current feels-y favourite The Fault In Our Stars into its line of fire. Among her gripes, Gordon issued some fairly broad claims, arguing that YA books ask their readers to “abandon the mature insights that they (supposedly) acquired as adults”, and that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world – is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.”
Whatever value the article may have as a call against anti-intellectualism is lost by Gordon’s ridiculously divisive claims. Without going into a shopping list of titles that challenge her assumption that YA is inherently shallower than “literary adult fiction” (whatever that is), there are a few main reasons why her essay drew thousands of disgruntled comments, collective sighs and eye-rolls.
Firstly, it makes no practical sense. ‘YA’ as a defined category only came into use fairly recently (although it first found usage in the ‘60s, the term’s only blossomed in the past two decades) thanks to commercial decision-making -- there’s something obviously silly in letting some book publisher’s marketing terms define the things you can and can’t read. I mean, what’s really the difference between reading respected youth-oriented classics like Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye or Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and modern youth novels like Green’s Paper Towns or Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower? It’s basically just the shelf section of the bookshop.
Furthermore, Gordon seems to view reading as a means to an end, rather than an activity in its own right, as if we all read books as some sort of self-help process, hoping to gain some miraculous understanding of what it means to be a fully-formed human functioning in the world, rather than just, you know, valuing language and communication and the joy of watching a glorious sentence unfold itself across a page and pull you into its world.
Most importantly, though, who cares? The article’s just a reactionary yell from someone shaking a fist at an ever-growing trend. According to 2012 figures highlighted in Publishers Weekly, 55% of YA book readers are aged over 18, with “the largest segment aged 30 to 44.” That’s not entirely surprising, and newer studies even push the overall figure closer to 80%. What may be more interesting is that men account for a significantly smaller portion of that readership: recent Neilsen figures list the gender split as 60.5% female, 39.5% male.
Back in 2012, Aaron Bergh started the blog ‘Real Men Read YA’, mainly as an avenue to discuss the books he enjoyed most -- “The YA stories I read were exciting, they had memorable characters, and they took me to new places,” he said via email – but partly to vent his frustration at a culture that’d make him feel creepy just for enjoying YA books. “REAL MEN know who they are,” he wrote in the site’s first post. “They don’t apologise for it. They don’t hide it. So, Miss Cash Register Lady, give me all the suspicious glares you want when I buy YA books. YA changed my life.”
While his decision to create the blog was also informed by the clear gender split in the associated audience -- “I realised that I wasn’t coming across many YA male bloggers, so I thought it would be fun to review YA novels from my own unique perspective,” he said – he understands why men may be reluctant to embrace a genre that often features young female protagonists, and frank discussion of feels.
“I think it will always come down to two things: culture and confidence,” Bergh says. “A lot of men will pass over YA because it just doesn’t seem like a manly thing to do. What kind of man will walk into the teen section of a bookstore and read the back of Anna And The French Kiss while standing among a bunch of teenage girls? My answer to that is this: a man who is confident in himself and doesn’t give a crap what anyone else thinks. To be fair, it may very well be that a lot of men just simply aren’t interested in a story like Anna And The French Kiss, but my point is that most of them won’t even give YA a chance because of how it might appear.”
Which is clearly unfortunate, because there’s much to value in these so-called “children’s books” (not to mention in the simple act of reading novels that deviate from one’s own experience). Personally, I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims they weren’t touched by a thoughtfully-written novel that pushes you head-first into the romantic and mortal travails of a young girl with terminal cancer, but whatever – if you spot me tearily revisiting it on the bus anytime soon, try not to point and laugh.