- Posted June 6, 2014 by
THERE'S NO SHAME IN READING
I don’t know that my book is purely YA, but it is about reluctant teenaged superheroes (I must be twice-damned, writing YA and superheroes in the same place). What I do know is that if I’d written a story only one age group could enjoy, I would consider myself a failure as a writer. C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I think this applies to all stories. If told well, they can be universal.
I’m thankful the writer of the piece kicked this particular hornet’s nest. The prevalence of adults reading YA fiction is a really timely question, and her assessment was one that I might have agreed with ten years ago as I found myself judging grown-ups reading "Harry Potter" on the train. (I then of course read "Harry Potter" myself and realized I was, well, being judgmental.)
One element that really bothered me about the original piece, however: the choice of the word “ashamed” is in fairly poor taste. Shaming in current parlance has a powerful and negative connotation. We’ve witnessed a great deal of repulsive kinds of hyphenated-shaming in American cultural discussions in recent years. I suppose we’ve now added “book-shaming” to the list. It is an ugly word and concept. Save shaming for behaviors that are truly deplorable.
But telling adults they should be ashamed to read YA fiction isn’t really a matter of how the reader should feel about him- or herself. A fundamentally flawed premise, it doesn’t take into account that YA is a relatively new and fairly arbitrary designation for books. It is a marketing technique and perhaps a convenience for retailers to help categorize their stock, but YA is not a scientific diagnosis for a book. Stories like "Catcher in the Rye", "Little Women", "Romeo and Juliet" or "Anne of Green Gables" would have easily ended up in YA sections if they were to publish now. A local writer I respect immensely wrote a book intended for adults that eventually found its core readership with the YA crowd. The term is less about the definition and more about shelving and search engine optimization.
As a writer, I want to know why adults are so drawn to YA fiction right now. There has to be a sociological or cultural reason behind it. It’s too big a sea change in book consumption to not mean something significant. I have a theory, completely without factual evidence: we live in hard times.
Hard times are nothing new. But in the past fifteen years we have seen two endless wars. Economic desperation. Natural disaster after natural disaster. Raging unemployment. A mass shooting in what seems like every few weeks.
As I write this, headlines about the latest multi-victim shooting begin to appear in my newsfeeds. A friend asks: “In what other country is this dinner conversation?” before turning away from the news and switching to the "The Big Bang Theory".
I think adults are reading YA fiction as a pressure valve against the building weight of modern life.
I dated a girl years ago who watched a lot of the Cooking Channel. She didn’t cook, herself, but she’d still watch hours of cooking shows. Finally, I asked her why.
“I have enough [expletive] conflict in my life,” she said. “If I’m going to sit down and relax, I want to watch something where I know everything is going to turn out okay.”
While it’s debatable whether you’ll agree Rachael Ray’s cooking always turns out okay, she had a great point. There are times when you want challenging entertainment, stories that make you work, those that require you to muscle your way toward the conclusion. And then there are times when what you really need is comfort food.
All this being said, I find it interesting that the original article casually and happily lends gravitas to the writer’s opinion about what other consenting adults can and should do with their leisure time.
I should be honest. I once shamed myself out of reading comic books.
Like a lot of nerdy boys growing up, I lived and breathed comics, but when I got to the age where I had a car to keep on the road and wanted to start dating, I gave them up. Not because they no longer brought me joy, but because I thought I’d be judged for it, that regardless of how much I wanted to enjoy them I should be ashamed to read them. So I quit comics. Sure, I’d relapse every five years or so, go on a spending spree, but the minute someone new came into my life, those books went into a dark dungeon of storage in the basement. God forbid a new girlfriend see that collection of X-Men comics anywhere. How shameful.
These days I know grown men and women, well-adjusted adults with families and houses and love lives and good jobs who read comics or make their own cosplay outfits. Who read YA fiction and line up on Friday nights to watch the latest superhero movies. Who are healthy, happy, and unashamed.
Silly me, thinking I had something to hide all those years. And here I am at age 37 with my first novel out there for the world to see, a story about superheroes roughly the age I was when I gave them up. I had a lot of growing up to do to reach the point where I could enjoy my childhood infatuations without shame. It might have been a lot harder if I had witty magazine articles telling me I was right to feel bad about myself.
(Matthew Phillion, a Massachusetts-based writer and author of The Indestructibles, loves hearing from readers of all ages.)