Time to read teen-fiction

Posted in Reviews, Society at 12:21 by RjZ

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game after a friend was surprised to discover I hadn’t yet. I borrowed the book from the library, and it was a little difficult to find there, because it was in the young adult section. Once I’d located it in the card catalog, I had to creep into a sectioned off room, passing teenagers lounging on been bags and quickly escape with my book.

I needn’t have been embarrassed. Reading teen fiction is all the rage these days—for adults. Adults were as enthralled with Harry Potter as kids. Moms gobble up the Twilight series as fast as their daughters. The Hunger Games is repeating the book turned box office phenomenon as I write this. And Ender’s Game was good. Simple, like a Hollywood movie, (there may be a connection here) but good.

‘Young Adult’ fiction doesn’t exist

Educated adults are so captivated by vampires and wizards may simply be down to a good story, well written and direct, in such a way as is all but required to capture the attention of our distracted society. A good book is worth reading. The age group of its intended audience is irrelevant. This has always been true, evidence by the wide range of books transforming with time from children’s story, to literature. Pity the highbrow who hasn’t found time for Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down, not to mention other ‘children’s books‘ like The Adventures of Tom Sawer оr <еm>Catcher in the Rye.

Reading bad teen fiction is no better than reading bad adult fiction. Perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a confirmation bias. it’s not that adults are reading so many teen novels, but rather that good books, with riveting stories are popular and book publishers are following the money and marketing them as teen novels because it’s effective. Of course plenty of teen books are published that no self-respecting adult is reading. Fortunately, we simply don’t hear much about them.

Or, people are stupid and lazy

Or maybe, while a young adult can be forgiven for not appreciating the complexity of character and story that a jaded adult requires to interest a more developed intellect; any adult still stuck in this over-simplified block-buster story telling must be stunted in some way. We can all be happy that, in spite of the vast array of entertainment options available to the modern citizen, that some of us still enjoy the rich, decidedly non-passive pleasure of reading. Reading requires you to engage your brain in a way that even interactive video games still do not achieve. But if the only reading anyone does is carefully conceived by talented authors to tell a story without the use of “big words” or nagging gray area details of the real world, aren’t they missing out?

Perhaps, in response to the overwhelming detail and information flux in our lives, we retreat to the stories where there’s no guessing at deeper levels of meaning. In that case, pity the lowbrow who hasn’t made the effort to decipher Shakespear’s and Chaucer’s olde English, or waded through David Foster Wallace and Henry Miller with no idea what plot was even supposed to be yet still so satisfyingly enveloped in their vivid, evocative language.

Brain candy causes cavities

I teased a friend recently for her excitement about The Hunger Games film opening. Another intelligent adult caught up by the sweet allure of brain candy? Then I read some reviews of the film and book, which I had all too quickly judged on its young adult label alone. I haven’t read it, but, like Ender’s Game, it sounds pretty good, no matter who it was written for.

I retracted my reproach, but I am still concerned. Not because The Hunger Games or Harry Potter aren’t excellent stories, well told, or because we should all be reading great literature all the time, whatever that is. Instead, I’m worried that exactly because our lives are filled with so much distraction, so little time may be left over for those activities that require more effort to yield their rarefied rewards.

It’s ridiculous to judge how erudite is your seat mate on a brief airplane ride and from single choice of reading material, but if we’re all really as busy as we claim to be, couldn’t we have the wisdom to prune and curate our entertainment enough that we’re not only entertained but perhaps improved from the experience? Every book need not to be literature, nor every movie an important documentary, but I think folks would have much more to talk about on Facebook if at least some of them were.

Highbrow or lowbrow? Speak out proud in your defense in the comments.


  1. Chrissy said,

    March 29, 2012 at 16:45

    Who says a good story can’t improve your intelligence regardless of the genre? Regardless, I think its more about escaping to most people. Its not that our lives are too busy for a complicated story, its the fact that its so much fun to engross yourself in another world after a stressful or boring day at work.

  2. RjZ said,

    March 29, 2012 at 16:50

    Sure, many books are about escaping to another world. The concern I am expressing here is that there may be better, more satisfying vehicles for that escape. While I haven’t read The Hunger Games, I suspect, young adult or not, it’s quite likely better writing than, say, Dan Brown. As a rule though, exceptions like this one notwithstanding, isn’t it likely that young adult books are written with a simpler plot, character and story telling in mind? Doesn’t the target audience have fewer tools (from experience) to manage a more complex story? And perhaps might a more complex story (if it’s a good, engrossing world) be a better escape than a book made for someone without your skills, knowledge and life experiences?

  3. Aaron Hull said,

    April 5, 2012 at 10:57

    Most of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best known works are probably aimed at teenage boys, but that certainly did not take away from his ability to craft a descriptive passage or characters more interesting than those found in any work of fiction. I was surprised actually that I devoured it so readily as the setting is usually a sailing ship or 19th century England. I feel like a complete jackass not having read them when I was a teenage boy(Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde were all on my bookshelf when I was young but it was only after I got an iphone that I read them)

    Last of the Mohicans was another book I never read as a teenager but was probably aimed at the same demographic. However it took a little more of an effort to visualize the setting.(Although it read quickly enough when there was action or Hawkeye was wearing a bear suit). This probably had to do with the author’s tendency, upon beginning the journey from subject to verb to object, to travel along several other paths of thought, insightful and interesting though many were, before ultimately deigning to conclude the sentence just before it became expansive enough to qualify as a paragraph.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that difficulty alone does not make it literature and deciding not to read something because “it’s boring” doesn’t always indicate that the reader is intellectually lazy or too stupid to get it. I tend to believe that most people intuitively know when something isn’t so good. I would say that with all the variety easily available to us, people are less willing to stick with something that presents difficulties unless there’s an outside motivation or no other options. So even the smallest amount of sloppy dense writing will give the reader an excuse to go elsewhere, but they might give less dense material more of a chance.

  4. RjZ said,

    April 5, 2012 at 13:16

    First, if people intuitively knew what was bad, Dan Brown would never have become popular. Of course there is good teen fiction, but my suggestion is that people aren’t even giving themselves the chance to reap the rewards of more dense writing.

  5. Aaron Hull said,

    April 7, 2012 at 8:44

    Popularity doesn’t necessarily mean that the people chose to read a book because of the quality of the writing. I read 2 Dan Brown books and was well aware of how badly written they were. They read amazingly quickly, as do many of these modern potboilers that wrap a novel around some idea or philosophy, so I didn’t mind putting up with it. 2 years ago I read all the Harry Potter books because I decided it was enough of a cultural “thing” that I should probably be familiar with if I wanted to express any kind of well-founded opinion. I was well aware of its literary limitations. After hearing Salman Rushdie’s comments on Slumdog Millionaire I decided to read “Midnight’s Children” so that I could evaluate where he was coming from (not to mention if his writing was worth the famous fatwa for Satanic Verses). The last half of the book started to drag for me, but I continued regardless. More recently, I just finished reading Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” because it was on my iphone, sounded interesting and I never read “Heart of Darkness” in high school. Brilliant.

    All these books have different densities of writing. But the result was the same. I finished reading them. Now what? What “rewards” have I reaped from them? Would reading Focault’s Pendulum instead of the Da Vinci Code have changed my life in any way for the better or worse? I wrote a piece of fan fiction after reading Harry Potter, so I guess I can at least quantify that. Midnight’s Children gave me insight into the modern history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Maybe in the future I will be able to compare it favorably or disfavorably to the Bollywood movie they’ve currently finished filming. Maybe I’ll eventually write something about “The Secret Agent” or use some of the techniques I observed in my own writing.

    When I said “I tend to believe that most people intuitively know when something isn’t so good.” I chose my words carefully. I know full well that they are probably not truthful. But I observe myself deciding to behave in a way that presumes that they are. That has more to do with how I want to behave than how I want everybody else to behave. It’s their choice and it’s not my place to convince people to enjoy something. They’re on their path and they’ll discover it eventually(or not). But maybe I’m overly apathetic. What do you feel are the rewards of reading quality literature?

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