You might've seen a recent piece published by Slate outlining exactly why readers should be a little more ashamed about their young adult book consumption. If not, here's the gist: novels written for a teenage audience that are intended to represent realistic relationships (think The Fault in Our Stars, not Divergent) do so in a limited and immature way. According to the author, books like Eleanor & Park tend to have neat, happy endings, thereby making them unchallenging and uncomplicated -- they're for pleasure, whereas adult literature is for ... something else, left unspecified.
Naturally, this stance induced a flurry of "I'll read what I want!" rants (here, here, here and here). These pieces mostly compare YA to other genre fiction, which fans should take pride in rather than sneakily reading e-versions on their coverless Kindles. These counter-arguments, if you can call them that, are so blatantly true that it's difficult to imagine why they're being written. Of course readers should read what they want. Of course not all YA books are created equal. And of course there are smart and important and altruistic and fabulous books being written in every genre. This feet-stamping defensiveness -- declaring "I'm an adult! I can do whatever I want!" without providing a more nuanced critique of what was originally a nuanced (if problematic) argument -- almost proves the author's point. (It also undermines the fact that genre books are not only fun and nothing to be ashamed of, but also in many ways beneficial, both to individuals and society, which I'll touch on below.) Our exposure to books and other media that provide little more than quick hits of pleasure can, at times, make us act like children.
That's why one of the many benefits of great literature is that it challenges us. It doesn't always make us feel good, but sometimes it does, and sometimes it allows us to see the world in a new way. Reading a novel that deals with emotions that are layered, emotions that are juxtaposed and emotions that are ephemeral is like walking around a previously unexplored city; it allows us to see so many bustling, conflicting things at once. Conversely, a novel in which boy meets girl and loves her unconditionally forever is like seeing a snapshot of a place. It's nice, it captures the general idea, it serves as a memento and it looks great on your Tumblr. But, as is often said, photos rarely do a breathtaking place justice. Really. Imagine your favorite place. You can probably envision precisely how it looks at dawn, dusk and noon. You can probably recall a specific feeling you had while there. You can probably smell it.
There are books that accomplish this sense of familiarity with a place or feeling or experience that exists outside of ourselves. These are the books that studies are referring to when they say literature increases empathy. They're scientifically proven to make you a more understanding person. As adults, the books that force us to question the truthfulness of our personal experiences are usually books that were written for adults. Books written for teenagers offer many things, but they don't typically show or tell us anything we don't already know. This, I think, is what the Slate article was getting at. And it is irrefutably true.
The question that the Slate article and its wake of take-downs should address is not: "Should you feel ashamed of doing pleasurable things?" As far as I'm concerned, the answer to that question is a resounding "No." The question we should focus on is whether or not books and adult readers have a responsibility to do more than feel good -- should they also aim to improve upon the world in some way? There's a reason why most commencement speeches by well-known authors are echoes of the same theme: happiness isn't good enough. Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag and Jonathan Safran Foer all chose to impart similar advice to recent graduates, on the crux of adulthood: it's your responsibility to seek something greater than pleasure. Morrison said:
I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind -- happiness -- I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.
That said, there are many perfectly okay reasons to read a book, and being challenged to perceive the world in a new or complex way is only one of them. Distracting yourself from your daily grievances is another. Another: the gratifying feeling that comes with an expected, cathartic ending (which can occur in genre and classic literary books alike). Yet another, and I think this is particularly appealing to adults who read YA, is to experience nostalgia.
The author of the Slate article wrote that she often finds herself rolling her eyes at the earnestness of YA characters. How could a guy be so persistent in pursuit a romantic interest? How could anyone ever say "I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things" with a straight face? Well, because said characters are teenagers. And just because their experiences thus far have led to a certain unguardedness doesn't mean their experiences are less valid or complicated than those of adults. Defenders of adult fiction might be unsettled to know that the suddenly beloved Karl Ove Knausgaard argues that "childhood is the true meaning of life, the apex of our existence, while all the rest of life is one slow journey away from it." Yes, this oddly implies that innocence is more valuable than wisdom, sex and ambition. But it's worth considering. The rawness of teenage emotion can make us cringe because it embarrasses us to remember how foolish we probably looked the first time we fell in love. But that doesn't make that time in our lives less worthy of cataloging. Reliving those experiences by reading about them from a more primary resource than, say, from the point of view of a reflective adult, elicits nostalgia, at the very least.
Like empathy, the great do-gooder of adult literary fiction, nostalgia offers demonstrable benefits. According to The New York Times:
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.
I immerse myself in nostalgic activities frequently enough that I might call it a hobby. I keep a notebook (per Joan Didion's request), I shuffle through the postcards I've hoarded from the places I've visited. Yesterday, while considering the value of nostalgia, I walked around my neighborhood listening to Chutes Too Narrow, an album highly lauded by 17-year-old me. I remembered where I was when I first heard it (in the back of my 17-year-old boyfriend's pickup truck), and what the words meant to me at the time, even though I now find them mostly faux-insightful. Staying in touch with who I once was gives me context for who I currently am, and who I want to be. Sure, not everyone reads realistic YA books with such high-minded intentions, but I think a good deal of us enjoy them because they help us relive our own related histories. In that sense, YA books are more than a pleasurable way for adults to zone out -- they matter, and they help make us better.