I am capable of only the slightest, pithiest insights into my own character; the sort of quivers of self-awareness that wobble through my body like a light shiver. But I know this much about my ol' self: I am a cynical person. My mother always said: "Each day you don't wake up dead is a bonus." It's something I've taken to heart. And something I find weirdly buoying. Expect the worst of people, and of life, and you'll often end up pleasantly surprised.
So, the ascendancy of so-called young-adult (YA) literature is something I have long regarded with measured cynicism. When I saw websites devoting serious space to YA, I assumed it's because the writers were trying to bolster their bottom lines by cranking out three modestly discerning articles about The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent and The Spectacular Now instead of one seriously discerning article about, I don't know, The Goldfinch. I also, cynically, viewed any adult taking this stuff seriously as a sort of developmentally arrested perv, licking their blistered, syphilitic lips while reading extended passages about teenagers doing it presented in clipped, uncomplicated sentences. I have been not only suspicious or reserved about YA lit. I've been openly contemptuous.
For the most part, I still think my contempt is justified. But over the past few weeks, I've tried to understand the appeal of this stuff. I mean, obviously there's an appeal, right? In real life, people aren't just drooling morons pawing at the pages of books written for 13-year-olds because they're too stupid to read something more age-appropriate. And anyway, as someone pointed out, most mass-market paperback fiction is written at a Grade 5 or 6 reading level, meaning that the bulk of fiction is "young-adult" fiction, even if you're reading about a cool spy foiling a plot to explode a dirty bomb at the Super Bowl instead of, well, teens doing it. Or, even more commonly it seems, teens killing themselves.
"The problem with suicide," muses the teen heroine of Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes, "is that it's really hard to follow through." You'd never know it reading Gayle Forman's I Was Here, which opens on news of a young girl taking her own life with mannered fastidiousness ("I regret to inform you that I have had to take my own life," begins her matter-of-fact suicide note). A teen suicide also kick-starts Michelle Falkoff's Playlist for the Dead, about a kid working through a mixtape loaded with stuff like Leonard Cohen, the Decemberists and Nine Inch Nails in order to make sense of his friend's suicide. Teens drop like flies in these books. And when they're not offing themselves, they're thinking about offing themselves.
Suicide is the textbook teenage preoccupation. All the cool teen idols killed themselves: Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Romeo and Juliet. It speaks to that sense of frustrated sentimentality that defines adolescence, when every feeling feels like the most important feeling you've ever felt. For teenagers, craving the finality of death is as much a rite of passage as learning about cool bands from a friend's older brother or getting drunk on an Aberfoyle bottle of rye in the alley behind the local hockey rink. Suicide is the ultimate adolescent fantasy, a statement that all these extreme emotions are actually justified. You never have to grow up, gain perspective and realize that what you were going through was normal. You die – young, beautiful and, best of all, right.
For the "Grades 8 and up" audiences these books are aimed at, the message is obvious: Don't kill yourself, people love you, it gets better, etc. It's hard to argue with this. As to the adults shamelessly yammering about this stuff on Goodreads, well, there's something there, too. YA lit offers a perfect vantage point on adolescence. These books are written with the knowledge that adolescence is a fleeting ailment. More than this, the shrewd, precocious protagonists of these books, like the acutely self-possessed Cody of I Was Here, possess an unfathomably rare insight into themselves.
Even as a fully adult man, I remain mostly a foggy, very dull mystery to myself. But these kids are intensely self-aware, understanding their own behaviour and motivations. There's this comforting sense that the whirling emotions of teenagedom can be rationalized and understood, instead of merely overcome by cultivating the hardened emotional calluses of adulthood. This is a dual fantasy of YA lit, attractive to both children and adult readers slumming it. It's a kind of cross-generational escapism, not much different from playing Skyrim and gawking wide-eyed through the latest Avengers movie. It's an elemental instinct: to imagine being something better, whether through superpowers or finely tuned teenage self-awareness.
After time spent in the morose trenches of teen suicide, poignant mixtapes and postadolescent groping (wherein condoms are always dutifully applied), I feel better equipped to explain this stuff. But I can't explain it away. It's hard not be cynical. It's hard not to want grown-ups reading books targeted at eighth graders to grow the hell up.