Like all good satire, there is a hint of truth behind this. A surprising number of popular books, especially ones that find themselves made into movies, come from what we call the Young Adult (YA) novel, and to a lesser degree the Teen novel. And despite the pigeon hole the names imply, these are increasingly popular with people of all ages.
Perhaps my favourite example of these books and the one with the most obvious effect on the reading public is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
YA novels are typically defined as having a readership between 16-25, and Teen novels as between 10-15 (by this definition the Harry Potter series starts off as Teen and becomes YA), but there were people in their forties reading them all as well. The series began when I lived in Canada, hit the mainstream zeitgeist (thanks to the first movie) when I lived in Japan, and concluded when I lived in England—a phenomenon that played out over three continents and ten years. I saw people hide the books behind magazines while reading them on the subway or bus, and sure enough it wasn’t long before alternate “adult” covers came out for the entire series. The publishers realized what was going on, but they hadn’t been prepared for it.
The roots of the YA novel have been around since the nineteenth century, but more formally recognized as a distinct category in the early twentieth. While some books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, and Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious to picture as YA, it might be a little harder to imagine, say, The Count of Monte Cristo as one. Your definitions may vary.
In his interview with YA author John Green, Colbert used the term “ghettoization” to describe the popularity of these books—the perception perhaps being that YA books are outside of “legitimate” fiction and as such are safe and non-threatening compared to “adult” novels. If that is a factor, I’d argue it’s more in the sense of saying to the reader, “Hey, it’s okay to enjoy this as a story. You won’t be quizzed later” (though once you talk to other fans you’ll find that’s not the case). But in truth these books can be far more thought provoking and challenging than one might expect.
There is not much to say about the Harry Potter series itself that you haven’t already heard elsewhere. It is a prime example of The Hero’s Journey, following many of the classic archetypes of such a story. But that doesn’t mean it used a by-the-numbers formula. Though I read the series after it became big, I couldn’t help but wish it had been around when I was in public school. What I admire about it most was the fact that Rowling chose not only to age the characters, but develop the complexity of storytelling as well. It is a series I wish I had grown up with, rather than having read it all grown up.
But while the storytelling becomes more adult, the language does not. The complexity of prose between Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is not the huge leap you’ll find between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But it certainly does become more complex in terms of underlying philosophical themes and general levels of maturity.
One idea I’ve heard bandied about is that the difference between a YA novel now and thirty years ago is that they used to be stories for youth that nudged the reader towards more adult stories, while now they are fully adult stories written to be accessible to youth.
Another possible reason for the popularity of YA novels might not be directly about age, but rather the perception of genre fiction in regards to age. While you will find adult fantasy out there like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones), you are more likely to find a wider selection of genre fiction within the YA section of your bookstore or library.
There is perhaps a bit more freedom here to explore wild ideas and revel in the fun of storytelling, without being bogged down by more adult expectations. And a good thing, too. It is that liberating ostracization that made geek culture what it is. So today you find more and more older adults looking in the YA section, not because they’re dumbing down or looking for something they don’t have to think too hard about, but because they can’t find the kind of stories they want elsewhere.
It’s a theory, anyway.
I think Tolkien himself may have put it best: “The association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.”
Perhaps what we’ve been seeing lately is more and more adults discovering that all that old furniture in the nursery is a lot more interesting than our brand new dinette set.