Once, waiting to go up to the office where I worked in Manhattan, I was reading a paperback when my boss stepped into the elevator. He was an elder statesman type in the environmental movement and I was junior fundraising staff, so he rarely spoke to me and didn’t need to know my name. Still, after a few seconds he broke the groggy morning silence by asking, aghast, “Isn’t that a children’s book?”
As a reader of legal briefs and current events, mostly, he may have been unaware that the world of supposedly adult readers had been taken over by the Hogwarts franchise years before.
I recall being so surprised by the question that I actually turned my book over to look at its cover—maybe to see what he was seeing, maybe to answer his question about the book’s category (as though only the cover would remind me). It happened to be one of the Narnia tales, which I was pleased to be rereading after an absence of twenty years.
“Yes,” I said. “I read them all the time.”
“But they’re for children,” he repeated, and then stared at me agape, apparently awestruck by my infantilism. He didn’t mean to be rude, I think; he was just genuinely puzzled by the spectacle of a thirtyish, childless woman publicly reading a book with a sword-wielding mouse on the cover.
The doors opened before I could answer, and the elder statesman got off ahead of me and into his overscheduled day, braced to make friendly calls to politicians and shake hands with celebrity spokespersons.
Even at the time I smiled, rather than frowned, at the elder statesman’s bemusement. Of course it was I, not he, who was with the Zeitgeist in that moment; the pop cultural world, which dwarfs the rest of the cultural world much as Godzilla might dwarf a Kafka bug, features a superabundance of games, movies, books and other media made of alternate worlds, magic and multiverses, opulent period epics with mystical overtones and mythic orchestration. In all of this high-earning pageantry the line between juvenile and mature fare is blurred to the point of smearing; only a person sealed off from popular culture would assume otherwise.
In fact, it’s often the case that so-called “YA” novels—I don’t love the name but don’t have a better one either—are far more politically and morally oriented, and certainly more existential, than their counterparts in the marketplace of “adult” reading and especially general, rather than genre, adult reading. While it’s true that a majority of YA novels are concerned with relationships, much like adult novels, many of the most striking and memorable of them are also allegorical, high-concept, science fiction, fantasy or several of the above combined.
And if the time for simple magic like C.S. Lewis’s or Edward Eager’s has passed, or at least been passed down to the realm of younger children and out of the adolescent sphere, it’s not because magic itself has fallen out of favor: it clearly hasn’t, since vampires, demigods, fairy tales, and wizards continue to dominate. No, it’s likely because the social dynamics in many such older classics are too simple and agreeable for today’s YA readers, who have been raised on rapid scene changes and so demand nonstop action and conflict.
I wrote my first YA novel Pills and Starships—a story about a 16-year-old girl spending a very strange week in a Hawaiian resort in a world transformed by global warming—because I couldn’t help but imagine the nightmarish future it depicts. And I wanted to put myself in the shoes of a cheerful, resilient, and innocent person forced to live in that world. Won’t some version of this world, after all, be the one my granddaughter grows up in, should I ever have one?
It’s a world whose coastlines have been submerged by rising sea levels, cities have been ravaged by destructive storms and disease is rampant because insect-borne sicknesses have colonized new areas. The small part of the population that’s not indigent and looking for safe places to live is managed through mood pills by big, diversified corporations, whose “pharma” products are part of a much larger and ominous portfolio. Government is a flimsy puppet of these powerful corporations; voting online for figureheads whose looks you admire has replaced democracy.
I don’t think any of this is particularly fantastic — speculative yes, but so’s Wall Street, and a lot of people seem to believe that’s real. The only “shocking” conceit in the book has to do with death contracts: the family’s in Hawaii to celebrate their last week together before the parents commit managed suicide, led by the pharma company that also owns the high-end resort they’re staying at. Pills and Starships is the seven-day journal Nat, the daughter, keeps while she, her brother Sam, and their parents are having their moods, and the parents’ deaths, smoothly finessed by Management.
Dystopias are popular in the YA realm because they’re both lavishly exotic and highly structured: there are reasons for the ruination of their landscapes, and those ruined landscapes have an exciting and often beautiful geometry. Characters and conflicts and loves are spot-lit by the drama and beauty of these charismatically designed alternate societies-prisons-mazes, and of course they give us a touchstone of normalcy and a plot of personal intrigue. The real dystopias of the physical world we live in—needless to say our societies are largely made up of dystopias, not utopias—pale by comparison to fictional ones, whose architecture is charmingly deliberate, whose colors are rich and deep, whose ugliness can be perceived safely with the mind instead of being suffered by both the mind and the body.
I’d argue, as others have before, that the domestic fiction many American middle-class adults favors is far more “escapist” in the pejorative sense than spec fiction, science fiction or often even fantasy—YA or otherwise. Much of current so-called literary fiction is plodding middlebrow fiction marketed loftily by an industry that’s flailing to class up the joint. And it’s middlebrow partly because it has a profound dysfunction when it comes to depicting or even acknowledging the sociopolitical landscape its characters inhabit. Many of these books actively deny that such a landscape even exists, adhering to a false “realism” that’s really little more than craven personalism. Of interest is only the emotional self and its arcs of sex and friendship, behind which questions of the urgent crises of human history, to say nothing of the vastness of the galaxy and the towering immensity of time, fade into apparent insignificance.
So when an older demographic that prides itself on its “adultness”—its “seriousness,” say—dismisses as juvenile any fiction that contains mythic elements like talking mice or holy lions or ghosts or Martians, such dismissal has to be taken with a shaker of salt. Teenagers seem to be better equipped to read about a diversity of possible worlds, and about extreme and disastrous global scenarios, than their parents. Maybe this is because their minds are more open, their imaginations more active. Or maybe it’s because they don’t kid themselves that stories about infidelity and suburban ennui are more important than stories about courage and injustice and the abuse of power.
About the Author:
Lydia Millet is the author of 11 books of fiction, including the apocalyptic YA novel Pills and Starships, set in Hawaii and out this week from Akashic Books. Previous novels include Magnificence (2012), the last in a trilogy about extinction, which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics’ Circle and Los Angeles Times book awards, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), about the physicists who invented the atomic bomb, shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Prize. Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a new satire, Mermaids in Paradise, will be published by W.W. Norton in fall.