A Young Adult’s Opinion of Young Adult Fiction
By Julia Bifulco
I have about seventy-five TikTok videos whose privacy settings are set to “only visible to me,” and the reason they exist is because I briefly thought that I could popularize classical literature on the app. TikTok is not officially divided into sections, but the videos that appear on one’s For You Page are based on previous videos that the account has liked. My FYP, for example, involves tarot readings, videos of babies babbling nonsense, and literature-related content. I am therefore on the bookish side of TikTok, or BookTok, which I spend hours watching instead of actually engaging with books in my real life.
I initially discovered BookTok because I was terrified to begin studying at the undergraduate level and sought out fellow university students. Some of my favourite literature-related content creators are @marthalilli and @theperksofbeing_harry, two English undergraduate students that are acquiring a BA in literature. Their content revolves around their favourite classical works, essay-writing tips, and overall undergraduate life. They do not represent the majority of BookTok, however; the app is dominated by fans of Young Adult, or YA, fiction. Another fellow English literature student, @bridgelikesbooks from Toronto, is an avid fan of YA. Her walls may be covered with torn-out pages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but she is adamant about defending YA as a universal genre.
BookTok is quite divided, but both sides believe that certain types of literature are superior to others: on one side, fans of classical literature argue that genres such as Young Adult and contemporary romance do not count as “real books,” while the other side almost exclusively reads the scorned genres. I find myself compelled to associate with both sides, because while I do tend to lean more towards the classics, the arguments presented by the YA lovers make important points.
I’d like to first specify the kind of Young Adult reader I was. At age twelve, I picked up Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the rest was history. I was from then on absolutely enthralled by any dystopian world I had the opportunity to journey to. I became obsessed, so much so that I almost exclusively spoke about the books I was reading to whoever was willing (or not-so-willing—sorry Mom and Dad) to listen. My favourite series were often composed of three or four books, and included love triangles that allowed me to pick a side and viciously defend it on the Internet (shoutout to the fandom side of Tumblr). If it had a movie adaptation, I would watch it in theatres on its premiere day, returning home only to complain about how inaccurate it was to the book. Not all YA novels include the genres I like—romance, fantasy, dystopia—but a good majority do, and for the purposes of this article, I will be basing my definition of YA on what it was when I was an avid fan of it.
The main argument from the YA side of BookTok revolves around diversity; many contemporary novels that are marketed towards teenagers include various perspectives that are not represented by earlier works. I will use Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters universe as an example, because it is the last YA world that I have visited, and Clare continues to write novels and expand her universe to this day. While the initial series, The Mortal Instruments, tells the stories of people that were mostly straight and white, her more recent work, such as the Infernal Devices novels, includes far more representation in its characters. Whether the representation is any good is debatable, but it is there, and that seems to be good enough for one half of BookTok.
It is true that historically marginalized voices can be projected far more than they were in the Victorian era, for example, but Young Adult is not the only genre that amplifies said voices. Literature has evolved over time, and thankfully, it has begun to include BIPOC and queer voices; there is still more work to be done, but ultimately, literature has become more accessible in every sense of the word. This evolution is not, however, exclusive to YA fiction, and personally, I find the genre quite limiting.
The adults that defend their preference for YA fiction do so in a way that writes off other types of literature entirely. I have often heard people claim that they would pursue a degree in English literature if they had the option to read exclusively what they are used to reading. Though English syllabi do require far more literary diversity, both in terms of genres and authors, a reader is not getting all that they can by only reading a certain type of literature. The answer these YA fans are faced with is often just as bad as their initial claim; fans of classical literature retort with something along the lines of “read a real book,” which is far from helpful. Responding from a place of literary elitism only further enables the stubbornness diehard YA readers fans indulge in. Though I personally privilege classics over YA novels, I am not of the belief that the latter have no merit whatsoever. I am instead interested in balanced reading, because whatever is being said in a contemporary novel has undoubtedly been said in an earlier one; combining the knowledge from both works offers a reader the ability to become well-rounded.
As a teenager, I was able to devour a seven hundred-page Cassandra Clare novel in a day or two, but as a young adult myself, I am now utterly bored by the stories she tells. They seem awfully repetitive; it is as though different authors are using the same narration formula and merely inserting new characters in it. Obviously this is not the case for every YA author, but the reason I was so obsessed with this sort of fiction in high school was because I knew what to expect from it: though the fates of certain characters may differ (I still see no need for Tris’s death at the end of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series) the novels will end the same way. After a not-like-other-kids protagonist realizes that they are, in fact, different from everyone else, they will solve a global issue—maybe lead a revolution—and in the end they will relish in their victory, at peace with the knowledge that instead of learning algebraic equations like the majority of high schools students, they were caught in a love triangle and battled head-to-head with a sarcastic, witty antagonist, thus ultimately fueling their superiority complex. (This only pertains to dystopian fiction, but it was the majority of my reading material, so my vision is quite clouded.)
The major distinction I can make between classic novels and Young Adult novels involves the reason behind the reader’s experience—or, at least, the reason behind mine. I sought out YA fiction as a means of escapism; when I was bored with my own life, I was endlessly entertained by those of John Green characters. I could lose myself in a novel that would fall apart without its central love triangle because it was easy; I did not have to think hard about the media I was consuming because doing so wasn’t necessary. As a result, I could not differentiate the plots from one novel to another, because I did not have to. This is not a problem: seeking refuge in art is not new and it is a wonderful pastime. Escapism works wonders! As I have grown, however, I have found myself wanting more from literature.
I read classical novels because instead of offering me a method to hide from my real life, they force me to stare at my life head-on. A Virginia Woolf novel, for example, does not provide a means of escapism—it reflects me in terrifying and alluring ways, and I am therefore endlessly drawn to it. I love literature because of its natural ability to reflect the human experience, and though some novels follow similar patterns, each one evokes something new in me. I have recently also read more contemporary literature; some of my favourite authors include Margaret Atwood, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Zadie Smith, and Donna Tartt. I maintain the same belief about their work that I do about classical novels: they hold mirrors up to me and infinitely attract me.
Most—perhaps all—of Jane Austen’s novels end in marriage, but, in getting there, they do not follow a rigid formula in the way many contemporary romance novels that I have read do: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy makes grand romantic gesture, boy and girl live happily ever after. The reason we continue to read classic works of literature is because of their ability to transcend time, whereas I believe most YA novels are grounded in their time periods.
I acknowledge that I am privileged enough, as a white woman, to be able to see myself in most works of classical literature, but I am also of the belief that YA is not the only path towards literary diversity. However, immediately rejecting Young Adult fiction as a legitimate genre is quite elitist, and that is where the danger lies in criticizing the popularization of the genre. It is unfair to look down on other forms of literature simply because they are contemporary, as all art once was contemporary, but personally, I understand the confusion when an adult says that they exclusively read YA. This declaration is often followed by an argument that YA is superior to other genres, and while the above points presented are important to consider, overall, I believe that Young Adult simply does not add as much as other genres do to the never-ending conversation of literature that takes place throughout history. The problem lies, in my opinion, in a stubborn reluctance to broaden one’s literary horizons for fear of losing the comfort that comes with YA fiction.
Not everyone’s reading experience follows my above-mentioned one, as everything is subjective, but I think there is more to be gained from literature than the easy gratification one invariably receives from a YA novel. I have no authority to dictate others’ reading habits, and even though I find that I have personally grown out of Young Adult fiction, I think a balance is needed. There is nothing wrong with preferring cookie-cutter dystopian novels, for example, but I think adults should be able to balance books of that sort with others to become well-rounded readers. Diving into a classic novel every once in a while may even offer them the ability to enhance their YA reading experience. The balance would allow them to become better readers overall, which would allow them to get more out of the novels they read, no matter the genre. YA books, like all works of art, have meaning; one can learn from them, but one cannot properly develop the skills needed to learn by exclusively reading YA.
I am endlessly grateful for the myriad of YA novels I read as a teenager, because they instilled a love for literature in me that I will carry forever. I have been fundamentally shaped by the characters I latched on to in these books, and they have opened my mind to earlier works. At a young age, I found confidence in myself through my love for Katniss Everdeen. I became a hopeless romantic because of Cassia’s relentless belief in the existence of true love in Allie Condie’s Matched series. Rick Riordan’s Annabeth Chase inspired a desire for adventure that I did not previously know I had in me. Young Adult fiction was a perfect starting point for me, and although I am happy with having moved on, I am indebted to where I began. I am also of the firm belief that if BookTok had existed in 2014, I would have had a massive following, but that is another article entirely.