Ten reasons why it is okay to read YA

I haven’t blogged for a while. Well, not blog blogged. I’ve tweeted – micro-blogged – but not gone deep. I’ve been busy writing a screenplay and a memoir about depression (get me).

But I’ve just read something and got annoyed. And annoyance, it turns out, is a lead trigger for blogging. According to leading researchers at the University of Make-believe, 88 per cent of the internet is made of annoyance.

The thing that annoyed me is an article in Slate called ‘Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books’. The writer’s main gripe is that an increasing amount of people – grown-up people – are reading John Green and Stephen Chbosky and Gayle Forman, and not feeling ashamed.

It made me angry. It made me think of all the ways it is unhealthy. It made me think of all the reasons it is wrong. Here are just the first ten that came to mind:

1. There should be no shame in reading anything. There is too much shame in the world. Shame is the enemy of truth and the friend of pretentiousness, especially when it comes to books. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Many of the greatest writers have been children’s writers. And not just YA. Yes, John Updike and Alice Munro are brilliant, but so are Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie and Philip Pullman and CS Lewis and SE Hinton and Maurice Sendak. Brilliance comes in many forms.

3. Teenagers shouldn’t be patronised. This whole article seems to imply that an adult sharing the same taste as a teenager is fundamentally embarrassing. Why? Teenagers are the most passionate consumers of culture there are. Think of music. Who made the Beatles popular? Or the Stones? Or Bowie? Or Nirvana? Old people? Or teenagers? Teenagers not only have as many brain cells as us (more actually, as our brains lose 100,000 neurons a day), but are more accepting of new things and phenomena. They are the literal cutting edge. They could not have written that Slate article.

4. Writing YA is as difficult as writing for adults. I have written one YA book, three children’s books, and five adult (OA?) books. The hardest of all these to write was the YA.

5. Accesible writing  should not be frowned on. Graham Greene was an accessible writer. John Steinbeck was too. Also George Orwell, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, JD Salinger, Jane Austen etc etc. Yet book snobbery is leading us to believe that accessibility and intelligence are incompatible. I would wager that the popularity of YA is symptomatic less of a dumbing down of tastes but a reaction against dumbing down. Let me explain. The adult book market has long been polarised between ‘easy’ commercial books and ‘difficult’ literary books. YA doesn’t play this game. It manages to be easy and intelligent all at the same time.

6. Teenagers are philosophers. Think of the popular YA books. They often deal with subjects of life and death, gender issues, race, sexuality. The big stuff. Can you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t a period of under-thinking. Quite the opposite. You are living at fast-forward. Your body and mind is changing by the day. You are continually asking the questions about who you are, and where you fit in. You are at the centre of the cyclone that is life. There is nothing marginal about being a teen.

7. Dissing one of the few genre success stories in the book world, and trying to stigmatise it in the name of reading and literature, is a bit like shooting a dolphin in the name of marine biology.

8. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. This is why YA succeeds.

9. Alexander Pope was twelve when he wrote ‘Ode to Solitude’. Mary Shelley was nineteen when she first came up with Frankenstein. More recently, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her widely acclaimed novel The Icarus Girl when she was studying her A-levels. Age really is just a number.

10. It’s not what you read, but how you read it. Never judge what someone else reads or why they read it. You don’t own the rights to culture. Often the things that may look simple, are rich and multi-layered. There are as many versions of a book as there are readers. No two reading experiences are the same. Books are great because they open minds and transcend borders. They should never have fences around them.








When I was 24 I very nearly killed myself. I was living in Ibiza at the time, in a very nice villa, on the quiet east coast of the island. The villa was right next to a cliff. In the midst of depression I walked out to the edge of the cliff and looked at the sea, and at the rugged limestone coastline, dotted with deserted beaches. It was the most beautiful view I had ever known, but I didn’t care. I was too busy trying to summon the courage needed to throw myself over the edge. I didn’t. Instead, I walked back inside and threw up from the stress of it.

Three more years of depression followed. Panic, despair, a daily battle to walk to the corner shop without collapsing to the ground.

But I survived. I am days away from being 38. Back then, I almost knew I wasn’t going to make it to 30. Death or total madness seemed more realistic.

But I’m here. Surrounded by people I love. And I am doing a job I never thought I’d be doing. And I spend my days writing stories, that are really guide books, the way all books are guide books.

I am so glad I didn’t kill myself, but I continue to wonder if there is anything to say to people at those darkest times.

Here’s an attempt. Here are things I wish someone had told me at the time:

1. You are on another planet. No-one understands what you are going through. But actually, they do. You don’t think they do because the only reference point is yourself. You have never felt this way before, and the shock of the descent is traumatising you, but others have been here. You are in a dark, dark land with a population of millions.

2. Things aren’t going to get worse. You want to kill yourself. That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.

3. You hate yourself. That is because you are sensitive. Pretty much every human could find a reason to hate themselves if they thought about it as much as you did. We’re all total bastards, us humans, but also totally wonderful.

4. So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive’. Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.

5. That feeling you have, that everything is going to get worse, that is just a symptom.

6. Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.

7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.

8. Nothing lasts forever. This pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it.

9. Or, to plagiarise myself: “Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.” (The Humans)

10. You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at your baby daughter’s face as she lies contentedly asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view like this one and feel the beauty, there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.


PSH, addiction and the myth of free will

There has been a lot of internet discussion following the great Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s death, on whether addiction is a disease, and how ‘responsible’ he was for his death.

People talk about spoiled celebs and free will and life choices and all that. Though part of this is automatic bollocks, our determination to believe that celebrities are somehow ‘other’ and that fame and money are total salvation. But  yes, from the outside, it always looks like these Bad Things the famous or unfamous addict chooses (alcohol, coke, heroin, sex, money spent on a roulette wheel, whatever) are consciously chosen.

It’s a tricky issue. One that probably involves far more understanding of neurological networks and processes than I have at my disposal, as I don’t have a PhD in neuroscience.

The thing is, whether or not addiction is a ‘disease’ or not, depression and anxiety undoubtedly ARE. And they are deadly and unbearable at times. People actually jump under trains to end the pain of these diseases. They don’t want to die, anymore than the person in a burning building wants to jump. They HAVE to.

Short of suicide, the only way sometimes to numb pain is through unhealthy comforts.

It’s a gamble.

Sometimes I have binge drank to fight off anxiety and it has actually worked and broke a cycle. I didn’t wake up the next day needing more alcohol, either. In the long term, it makes you worse, but pain ignores the long term. What I am saying is, do not judge someone until you have been where they are, until you have felt the fierce intensity of the mind. It is nice to believe in free will. It is itself an addictive comfort. But neuroscientists (like David Eagleman) and philosophers (like Julian Baggini) alike are wondering if it is yet another arrogant human delusion.

Never judge. (‘If you’re a human walking the earth,’ said PSH, ‘you’re weird, you’re strange, you’re psychologically challenged.’)

Personally, I believe addiction is a disease. One that causes involuntary dis-ease. ‘Ah, but people choose to have their first drink/line/shot of heroin’ people say. That is a choice. Yes, well pretty much everyone made a choice to drink alcohol at some time. You might have felt it relaxing your mind. You might never have needed that sense of relaxation, and so for you it remains a choice. But what if you felt the full stormy ferocity of the human mind at its bleakest and knew you could find shelter under the shade of a substance. If your leg is on fire, you pour water on it.

Whatever, some things are certain:

We are what we need to be. We do what we need to do. We are not all in the same reality.



How to banish clouds

January is not a good month for me. Traditionally, if I dip back into depression or anxiety it will happen in October or January.

And this year it happened. Just anxiety, but that is bad enough.

Two weeks ago I started to get that familiar tightness and tingling in my chest. My dreams dove into surreal nightmare territory. I’d wake up at three in the morning and battle with my breathing and my mind to stay in control.  I’d feel like an internal Russian Doll version of me was trembling all the time, a kind of vibration that couldn’t be seen (my hands were steady as a rock), but which I felt humming inside me.

Now, for people who don’t know the difference between anxiety and Anxiety I’ll explain. Normal anxiety – the kind I pretty much always have – is when you worry about things, but you can still distract your brain away from things via such anaesthetics as television and books and Twitter and the folks you love.

Capital A anxiety is different, because you are inside your fear. You can’t stop worrying for a second any more than you can stop having flu for a second. When I am in this state, everything has to be perfect. I have to eat healthily, have to be in bed by eleven, and exercise just the right amount (for me, a morning 5k run is the right balance between two much and too little). If I mess up it gets worse. If I think of an actual worry, however minute (an email that hasn’t arrived, a negative comment a publisher said) it hurts like salt in an open wound. But mainly, the worry is the worry. Anxiety is the most postmodern illness. It is entirely self-referential.

Normally, I would be in this invisible nightmare for three weeks. This time, it was more like five days. And you suddenly look at the world in bewilderment, like people must feel after they’ve been to war. Everything – friends, trees, shops – looking exactly as they did before, as if nothing had happened. Still, calm, blades of grass, as calm and green and unknowing as ever.

I’ve worked out that anxiety can be beaten by believing it can be beaten. The more times I get anxiety and then get over it, the easier it is to believe this. Anxiety is the illness that feeds on itself. I was once trapped inside it for nearly three years. It nearly took my life, because it is an illness that can be infinitely horrible, because it is a disease of thought, and thoughts are infinite.

To paraphrase Horatio, anxiety is bad because thinking makes it so. You can’t simply think yourself out of it, but you have to hold on to the idea that it is beatable, and that it can be conquered.

Because even though anxiety feels like everything, it is also actually nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a cloud can be banished just by knowing there is a sun.



Things people say to depressives that they don’t say to other ill people

Suicide is on the rise, and is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime – put together.

And, even more staggeringly, depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it, in a way they do not kill themselves with any other illness. Yet people still don’t really think depression really is that bad. Unless they would say these things to other potentially dying people:

–       ‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no-one’s died.’

–       ‘Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?’

–       ‘Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you want to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.’

–       ‘Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.’

–       ‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.’

I think it is time for us to stop seeing depression as a choice. It is something that happens to people for an infinite and not always identifiable number of reasons.Yes, there are decisions sufferers can sometimes make – exercise, diet, medication, meditation, therapy – that might help, but that is the same with all illnesses. We are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to our attitudes to mental health, as anyone who saw Peter Hitchens on Newsnight last night will be aware, but the light is slowly entering.

The more sufferers who speak openly about it the better. Because stigma not only prevents understanding, but in this case can actively exacerbate symptoms. Having an illness of the brain is no more the sufferer’s fault than if it was an illness of the lungs or heart. Ill is ill. And depression is serious. We need less judgement and more help, for an illness that claims the lives of thousands every day.