October 9, 2010 in Washington Voices

Young adult books beat downer lit

By The Spokesman-Review
 

How did reading for pleasure become a test of endurance?

Adult fiction has been hijacked by what I call the Jodi Picoult Syndrome, after the critically praised bestselling author. With plot subservient to psychological examination, the syndrome defines a bleak dysfunctional tale full of ruinous tragedy, alcoholism, family secrets, abuse, forbidden love, psychopathic minds, wretched marriages, and damaged children. The whopping freight of human misery simply guarantees an unsatisfying ending.

Just what I want to read for pleasure!

As a devoted reader, I once felt I should read some of these depressives because they were “important.” The last one I tried was Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge” for a book club and the unpleasant narrator immediately drove me away. Such literary darlings were detrimental to my life and outlook, so I dumped them.

It’s hilarious that publishers and critics think I’m lured with reviews like “heartbreaking” and “bleak and searing” on gloomy bricks festooned with Oprah’s Book Club stickers. If I want heartbreaking I need only read the paper.

When I confessed these feelings to my friend Liz Cox of Veradale, she agreed. “A while back I saw an article on the state of modern fiction, in which all sorts of dark and terrible things happen to children, spotlighting Picoult,” she wrote. “ ‘Olive Kitteridge’ was so depressing that I’m not sure the value of reading it outweighed the tragic exploration of the human condition. Ditto with ‘Revolutionary Road;’ yes, it’s a masterpiece and extremely well-crafted, but it took me weeks to shake the existential pall. With all the suffering in the world right now, and the awful economy, only a masochist would willingly read such books and endure even more dark nights of the soul.”

Amen.

Misery beautifully crafted is still misery. You can’t give me enough joy at the end to justify my journey through these downers. I deserve better — an engaging tale I want to live in, that, without sunshine and lollipops, offers a meaningful transcendent experience, goodness, humor, and hope. Make me cry, laugh, or spit nails, but reward me. Don’t bore me silly with melancholy.

I have good news. Some of the best storytelling for any age can be found in the young adult bookshelves. Unlimited by current adult literary constraints, YA lit explores life’s big questions and bursts with riveting plots, sweeping narratives, vital characters, exquisite writing, timeless themes, superlative imaginative fiction, and winning genre combinations. Even the darkest stories offer hope.

Unfortunately ghettoized in YA, they’re undiscovered by adults unless they become powerhouse crossover hits like Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, and Suzanne Collins’ emerging dystopian blockbuster, “The Hunger Games” trilogy.

In a recent nytimes.com article, “The Kids Are All Right,” Pamela Paul enthuses about her YA lit preference and cites a Codex Group survey showing a sharply-increased percentage of adults buying YA fiction for themselves. They include authors, English majors, literary eminences, and everyday readers like me starved for a terrific story. Time’s book critic Lev Grossman critiques contemporary adult literature’s “real distrust of plot,” and says that his book club’s two-session discussion of “The Hunger Games” was “among the most contentious and shouty we’ve had.”

Paul writes that frustrated readers have created thriving book clubs centered around YA lit, debating classic favorites and contemporary gems. Imagine interacting with others so inspired and impassioned by good stories!

I’ve loved great storytelling all my life, and refuse to settle for less. Besides, our cat Casey Rose deserves a happy lap.

If you’re feeling that you too can’t stand another bleak tome, join me in the YA section where I’ll be happy to share with you my “divine secrets of the YA-YA reader.”

Because good stories are literally great!

You can reach Deborah Chan at tabbytoes@comcast.net


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