Teen Lit and Writing for Adults

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

I am so tragically unhip.  This isn’t exactly a newsflash, but it’s weeks like this that I see just how out of step I am with everyone I know.

It is possible that the cave you live in is not a wifi hotspot (there’s a homeless guy for that), in which case you might not have heard that this week, teen literature sensation The Hunger Games is appearing in movie theaters as the true first blockbuster of the year (sorry Tim Riggins).

I eloquently posted the following on my Facebook (something that’s surely totally passé, only further proving how out of touch I am):

As someone who has never read a single Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games or anything that could remotely be called ‘teen lit’ since I was, you know, a teen (and barely then, either), I must say this looks like the most interesting of the spate. It’s sci-fi instead of fantasy, and the female protagonist seems like a positive role model for girls, instead of that limpid pool of twatification that is Bella.

I could probably be talked into seeing this.

Of course, the universal response to this post was, “You should read the books!  LOLOMGSPLUGE!”  Or something like that.

Though I have very little experience with teen lit, I have been led to understand that the genre has grown considerably in recent years and there are genuine works of merit within it (the Twilight books notwithstanding).  I never read Harry Potter not because I have some major problem with teen fiction, but because they’re fantasy books and I don’t care about fantasy books.

That floats your boat?  Super, have at it.

I do have a passing interest in science fiction, at least when the science is emphasized, so The Hunger Games might be more up my alley, if, you know, I was still 16.  Unless I’m mistaken, though, this is science fiction of the ‘Future Dystopia’ type, and not of the speculative, map-out-where-we’re-going sort.  I’m a nerd, I want my science fiction books to teach me science.

Which is all to say, the movie sound likes an enjoyable couple hours at the theater (with a heroine I’d actually want my hypothetical future daughter to aspire to), but as a reading experience it would surely leave me dry.  I’ve been reading for a long time, I have a pretty solid grasp on what I enjoy.*

I don’t have a problem with teen literature.  I don’t really have a problem with adults reading teen lit, as part of a balanced reading diet.   But, as someone who has worked in bookstores of all size and denomination (corporate, privately owned), I know this is rarely the case. When the Harry Potter craze was in full effect, a study found, contrary to optimistic reports, that teens weren’t actually reading any more than before.  They mostly just read the Harry Potter books and that was it (and some gave up when the books got too long).

From experience, I can tell you this trend holds true for adults, too.  Aside for the mile-long line of apologetic, grown-ass women buying every Twilight book with their eyes averted, for the most part these book Sensations draw out a bunch of non-readers who can feel relatively confident that these books won’t require they ever use a dictionary.

I know a lot of adults who never mention reading a book unless it features a wizard or a vampire.  If you are shamed by that description because it hits too close to home, good.  You should be ashamed.  Don’t call yourself a reader if you never read a book that challenges you.  You’re not a reader, you’re a passive receptacle for childish things.  Pick up some Cormac McCarthy, some Fyodor Dostoevsky, some Michael Chabon.  Or, if you like a little more playfulness in your literature, read Mark Twain.  He essentially created the modern young adult novel with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and then grew the story up with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still one of the greatest American novels ever written.

If you’re scared of jumping straight from Young Adult to Actual Adult, start with Salinger and work your way through all those books you skipped back in high school because, I mean, ugh, reading books for school is lame, bleehhh

Covering my ass: Most of my friends are real readers (if not, I’ve probably insulted them at some point and they’ve subsequently blocked me from their newsfeed), so I’m fairly confident that they’re reading books other than Teen lit.  I reiterate, as part of a healthy reading habit that mixes a variety of genres and styles, Teen Lit is a-ok by me.

Writing For Adults

Personally, I don’t read teen lit.  The last book I read from that genre was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slight but enjoyable work of non-genre teenage literature that I read when I was 19 after my college best friend recommended it. 

I don’t read teen lit because I don’t write teen lit.  I write adult literary fiction.  I’m not interested in dumbing down my fiction to appeal to a mass audience.  This is not to say I’m intentionally hoping to alienate anyone with my writing.  Quite the contrary, I hope that I have a successful, well-received career as a writer, with a wide-ranging audience.  But I’m not going to write about werewolves or sappy teen love stories to get there.

“My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is sage advice from my favorite writer and I’ve carried it next to my heart for a long time.  I don’t take his exultation to mean write for teen youth.  People my age (the dreaded late 20s) are the youth of my generation, and so I hope to write words that speak to them.  I refuse to write down to them so the dumbest among them will gobble up my books.

I’m a big believer in the notion that you put out what you take in, which is why I voraciously devour great adult fiction in the hopes that my writing will steal even a fraction of that genius.  Sometimes I don’t enjoy the book I’m reading, sometimes I read a book and it’s so dense that I must muddle through and finish it just to be done with it.  That’s okay.  Reading should be both a pleasure and a mental work-out.  If it’s only the former and never the latter you’re doing it wrong, as the internet would say (well, actually, they’d say, ‘Your doing it wrong’).

So enjoy your teen lit, curl up with that pretty book after a long day at work and let yourself get enraptured in it so you can forget forget your deadlines and shithead boss.  And then, tomorrow, change it up and read something with a little more heft.

But save your breath.  I’m not going to read your teen lit, and telling me it only takes a day to read isn’t helping persuade me.

*I’m not ‘open-minded’ when it comes to literature.  Because I’m a writer, I am very judgmental of the work I read.  When it comes to music, on the other hand, I have no talent in that art form and so I am far more willing to put aside prejudgments and be won over.