I’m going to talk about a topic that’s been sitting in my drafts for a while now, and something I’m finally ready to post. The topic is when people who predominately read YA books consume adult books and unfairly criticise it. I would love people to discuss this in the comments with me, but please be respectful.
You can see this is an old post because of the example I use, but just go with it 😅.
Late last year, Book Twitter praised, thirsted over, and then cancelled a reader after he defended a book that some readers found “problematic”. I don’t know the people involved, I only saw the tweets afterwards, but basically, Book Twitter fell in love with this guy because he’s a boy and he’s a reader, and then hated him five minutes later when they found he read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
Here are the tweets:
Now, I don’t like Lolita. I read it in my late teens, didn’t really get it, and don’t necessarily care to read it again. But Book Twitter coming after a reader for reading and enjoying a book they deem “problematic” because it features a pedophile as a main character — and thus, in their minds, the reader is supposed to empathise with him (which you’re not supposed to) — is deeply worrying to me. And it brought up something that’s been on my mind for a long time: how readers who mainly read young adult novels interact with and read adult books.
We talk a lot about adult readers of YA novels not reviewing YA books correctly: oftentimes, adult readers will complain of a character acting too “childish” or making “poor decisions” and its like … you do realise the main character is 16, right? And when this conversation comes around (as it often does), it’s something I wholeheartedly agree with. Adult readers should not be criticising YA books based on “young” content and their not being able to understand it. So why isn’t the same said about YA readers not understanding adult books?
I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about books that are genuinely harmful. That’s a different conversation entirely, and not one I believe I’m equipped enough to handle. I’m also not here to try and make you read something you’re not comfortable with.
What I want to discuss is why (predominately) YA readers read adult books and criticise the content as “problematic” when it’s … not. It’s just content they haven’t come across yet in their reading and critically engaged with before. A book that has a character as a pedophile isn’t inherently problematic. It definitely would be if he were shown as the hero of the story, but as someone who has read Lolita, I can definitely say that Humbert Humbert is no hero — he is arrested, put in jail, and then dies. And before that, his actions are shown as clearly deplorable and reprehensible and that we, the readers, should not be rooting for him.
I understand that coming from mainly reading YA books to transitioning to adult books can be confronting. Adult books can be very different: they’re darker and challenging, and deeply disturbing at times. They can feature content that pushes boundaries and makes you question yourself and your own morals (this is not to say that YA books cannot be all these things too. They definitely can and I have read them, and they are unfairly criticised too). But that doesn’t mean the book is problematic or bad for featuring darker content. It just means you’re not ready to read it.
And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with wanting to read fluffy books or books that don’t feature such difficult topics. Sometimes you just want to read something fun. But that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person for reading something you can’t understand. Which is something that is always brought up when a book is “cancelled” on Book Twitter for being “problematic” — you constantly see tweets akin to “unfollow/block me right now if you support this problematic book”, or, “why the fuck would anyone think something like this is okay to write?”
I feel like I’m losing my mind when I try to explain that not all books need to be pure and end happily and feature only approved content that Book Twitter must have had a Zoom meeting about and forgot to invite the rest of us to. Sometimes books can be messy, can be fucked up, can be weird … and that doesn’t mean they’re bad and should be pulled from publication, which I have seen so many people call to action (this is actual censorship, by the way).
I wish I could explain to people the damage they’re doing when they reinforce that books can only feature “good” or “respectable” or “appropriate” content. You’re saying that characters aren’t realistic then: they can’t be messy, or terrible people, or make stupid decisions, or fuck up so bad they hurt someone. You’re basically saying this character can’t be human.
What’s more is that a lot of authors who are criticised for writing problematic content are the most vulnerable: queer authors and BIPOC authors. Victoria Lee, author of The Fever King (which is a YA book actually) wrote about why she decided to publicly reveal she is a child abuse survivor and it came down to she was worried that people would criticise her and her novel for being problematic. She felt like she had to prove herself in order to justify why she wrote a story that she completely has the right to tell. This absolutely breaks my heart.
You might be sitting there reading my post and wondering why I’m picking on YA readers. I want to make it clear I’m not criticising actual young adults, rather I’m questioning readers who mainly read YA. This is because a majority of Book Twitter is made up of YA readers who cancel a different book or author every week for problematic behaviour. One moment that sticks deeply in my mind is when people were cancelling the author of Gideon the Ninth (for multiple reasons that are too long to discuss right now), some people looked to a scene in her novel to further reveal her “problematic” behaviour. What was that scene, you may ask? Well, they accused an older character in the novel of grooming a younger character. This by itself does certainly sound alarming … until you actually read the novel and realise that the behaviour is condemned by the character it happens to, the main character and her love interest, and the older character who grooms the younger admits it was wrong behaviour as well. So — the book clearly shows that grooming is wrong … and yet some readers still lambast Gideon the Ninth as problematic because it dares to feature an uncomfortable topic.
It’s important to note what the difference between actual harmful content and something a reader might just not understand yet. When a book deals with darker content, how those topics are handled becomes extremely important. If dark themes are presented in a positive light or as romantic or as fluffy (a la Balance by Lucia Franco, a book that ACTUALLY romanticises pedophilia), then that book is perpetuating harm. The pedophile in Balance is shown as a good person and his victim is viewed as his love interest — the author is genuinely romanticising something horrific. The same cannot be said for Gideon the Ninth, where the novel shows why an older character exchanging romantic letters with a younger one is wrong. There is the difference: when a book shows bad behaviour as simply that — bad. Sometimes this message can be subtle, sometimes it’s glaringly obvious. That’s why it’s more important than ever to employ our critical reading skills.
It’s okay when you don’t understand something in a novel. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I have to read things over and over again before I understand what it’s saying. But just because you don’t understand something you read or feel uncomfortable when you read it, doesn’t mean that book is bad or problematic. The best thing you can do is employ your critical reading skills to get to the heart of the matter.
Critical reading is when you look at a text at a deeper level: you examine what the text is saying, analyse it, and come to your own interpretations. You question the text and you question your own reading of it. One thing I think that Book Twitter certainly needs to improve upon is their critical reading skills. Which, when you think about it, is a bit worrying for a community of literal readers. You should be looking at the deeper context of a novel, not just pull out random scenes or quotes without context and use them to cancel a story that you personally have deemed bad.
If there’s anything you get from this post, please let it be this: a book is not automatically problematic just because it features something you don’t understand or support. You need to learn the difference between genuinely problematic and harmful content vs. a book that simply discusses that content.
Please also remember that just because someone reads dark content — content you might not be able to handle — does not mean they’re a bad person. It just means they’re a reader, like you.
What’s more, you’re allowed to be uncomfortable by something in a book, and I’m not here to police your feelings. But your feelings might just be a personal thing and you don’t need to justify disliking a book by trying to find some problematic element in it.
Sometimes it’s enough to simply say: this just wasn’t for me.