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As someone who teaches young adult fiction at a university, I am troubled by the recent crop of opinion pieces about adults who read this genre. At Slate, Ruth Graham wants anyone over 18 to be embarrassed to enjoy YA (as those who study, catalog, or publish the genre call it). And on the opinion page of The New York Times, in a piece plaintively titled “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Joel Stein writes “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Over at The New Republic, at least, Hillary Kelly thinks you should have the courage to read whatever the hell you want.
I like Kelly’s commitment to seeing some continuity between adulthood and childhood. However, both those who defend the adults who now read YA and those who attack them seem to assume that such readers have suddenly departed from a long-established norm of adults reading novels written for adults only.
Whatever you think of YA’s mixed-age readership, there is one thing you should know: there is no 3,000-year history of fiction written for adults. There is barely a 100-year history of such fiction. The adult novel is a relatively new invention, one that is not much older than YA itself. So all the adults now skulking or striding proudly down the ever-expanding YA aisle are not in fact breaking with a long tradition of adult reading. If we look back a couple of centuries, we find that in many ways YA’s mixed-age readership is perfectly normal for the Anglo-American novel. Fiction about young people triumphing over adversity in morally satisfying ways has long been default reading for people of any age who read fiction at all.
Look at the title page of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 breakthrough novel Pamela, which shattered sales records and inspired Pamela fans, teacups, and a multitude of other consumer tie-ins. It proudly announces that the book was written in order to improve “the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.” And its protagonist, Pamela Andrews herself, is a beautiful and indomitable 16 year-old who confronts the perils, sexual and otherwise, of a hostile world, winning a resounding finale of emotional and material rewards. Sound familiar?
The winning adventures of one plucky young protagonist or another play out through two centuries of the Anglo-American novel. And it’s not just these characters and the arc of their plot that resemble YA, but the ages of these novels’ actual readers as well. From Pamela’s day through the end of the 19th century, these novels were devoured by readers of all ages. They promised to teach moral lessons to inexperienced young people, and we have records of children as young as nine weeping over Pamela. But masses of older people read them as well.
Until recently, even boundaries between more specialized children’s literature and what we now see as literature for adults were quite blurry: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden first appeared in The American Magazine, whose other contributors include Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; E. Nesbit’s Adventures of the Treasure Seekers was first serialized in the similarly eclectic Strand. When Little Women came out in 1869, lawyers, merchants, and office clerks happily chatted at work about the tribulations of the March girls.
People who are shocked by the fact that The Fault In Our Stars has mixed-age market appeal, even after witnessing the sales of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, will be equally shocked by a list of turn-of-the-century American best-sellers. Heidi, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, and Little Lord Fauntleroy topped the charts between 1865 and 1914. Ever since T.S. Eliot, critics have tended to draw a bright line between Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which Eliot called a "boys' book," and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Eliot insists "does not fall into the category of juvenile literature." However, through the first decades of the 20th century, both books were praised as equally fabulous for "boys of all ages" — which meant that they were good for a male of any age whatsoever. Gender, not age, was the criterion for identifying appropriate readers. The "great works of American fiction," the prominent literary critic Leslie Fieldler wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), "are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library."
So what is “adult fiction” and why do we now use it as our standard? Adult fiction has never been a description of what most adults actually read, but rather a fairly new aesthetic and psychological standard riding the coattails of a trendy political ideal. In principle, adulthood is an egalitarian idea. The claim that everyone has the right to vote when they turn 18, for example, implies a more leveling view of the world than does claiming this right as the exclusive property of a few people who own a lot of property. Coming into adulthood is now supposed to mean coming into power, in your personal life and in the wider world. But until quite recently, most people, most of the time, did not expect age alone to bring them much power over much of anything.
Late 19th- and 20th-century public policy and the emerging discipline of psychology charted a new path through life. In particular, universal state-sponsored education structured lives according to a new sense of age. Everyone became part of a cohort: we now read — as we reason, play, and love — at, above, or below grade level. From kindergarten eligibility to child-labor restrictions, from voter registration to old-age pensions, this path created newly precise and standardized age distinctions and invested them with meaning. And the apex of all these developmental schemes is adulthood, which in the 20th century became not only a key legal status, but also an always-out-of-reach personal aspiration — the golden moment when we transcend our lousy judgment, sexual confusion, self-centeredness, and other woes. And in this sense, far from being an egalitarian, leveling sort of idea, adulthood becomes a deliciously elite one: most adults, it turns out, are not adult at all. Modernist novelists of this era like Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and the critics who valued them, were the first writers to rely on “adult” as a synonym for “good.”
In playing down plots that reward good deeds and punish bad ones (and in playing up ambiguity, formal complexity, and explicit sex), the Modernists were not writing for an existing adult audience. They were calling it into being. They were fighting to demolish the mixed-age audience they had inherited: "Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing is so much to be borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls," lamented Henry James. Eventually, the Modernists prevailed — in ideals about reading if not actual practice. Their new idea of the adult novel meant that other kinds of novels became suddenly and conspicuously non-adult, enabling all the guilty pleasures of the self-consciously crossover reader that flourish so vigorously today.
Modernist ideas about adult reading were especially appealing to mid-20th-century English departments. They took root in part because they were helpful in establishing the profession of literary criticism as an adult affair, a proper part of the intellectual life of the university, in contrast to the poorly rewarded child-centered work of primary and secondary education.
So, as a market phenomenon that cashes in on a high-stakes, intensively calibrated sense of age, YA is indeed a late-20th- and 21st-century thing. But there is nothing new at all about great numbers of fully grown people reading fiction that was not written for adults. What is fairly new is the value we place on a particular sense of adulthood. There are lots of interesting arguments to have about what makes any novel bad, good, or great. Using age as shorthand for aesthetic quality is not the best way to frame these arguments. Since the ideal of adulthood is now so important, whenever another YA book tops the best-seller lists, the opinion pieces on mixed-age readership will continue to fly. But awareness of the complex history of age and reading may help to deepen the discussions we have about the place of YA in an English department’s curriculum.