Against Against YA

From Slate, by Ruth Graham:

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

Oh, good! A controversy I can dig my brain into that is completely irrelevant, non violent, actually sort of fluffy and entertaining — but also relevant to my interests: whether it’s “okay” for adults to read YA novels. (Adult friends: please read my upcoming YA novels. It’s okay.)

Her premise seems faulty from the beginning, which implies a vast history of books for teenagers, and a brand new phenomenon of adults reading these books without shame. Except, the notion of books specifically for a teen audience (as opposed to children) is quite recent, probably not more than  forty or fifty years old. And the modern era of adults helping make YA books into blockbusters, which might be said to have started with the Harry Potter series, is nearly two decades old at this point. So, that timeline has adults openly reading YA novels for perhaps half the time that such novels have existed. (Which also implies that quite a few of those adults will be people who read YA novels as teenagers and simply never stopped.)

The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom.

Unseemly? This is a joke, right? Let’s all put on our monocles, swill a snifter of brandy, wrinkle up our noses, and declare something unseemly. When was the last time American culture cared about whether something was unseemly? 1958?

“Unseemly” is a telling adjective, I think. It’s the way conservatives like to talk about all the unpleasant things they think people ought to want to do (not be openly gay, live without a safety net) that nobody actually wants to do, because why would they?

Coercion through the principle of social propriety has very little force nowadays.

I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. [..] That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

Note the equivocation — we’re talking about YA, that is, “young ADULT” fiction, but she just called it fiction “for children.” Not that I’m embarrassed to read fiction for children, either, but it’s still rather a cheap rhetorical trick.

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls “realistic fiction.”

HOLD IT! Hold it right there. She just revealed her hand by contrasting “trash” with “realistic fiction.” This is just the anti-genre bias in a different form, isn’t it?

Also, note the introduction of the concept of “serious literature.” This is often understood as a category distinct from “books” and even from “good books.” Serious literature is — you know — serious. As in, not trivial. As in, sincere or truthful. But also, not fun, not enjoyable, not entertaining.

These are the books, like The Fault in Our Stars,that are about real teens doing real things, and that rise and fall not only on the strength of their stories but, theoretically, on the quality of their writing. These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

Hmm. I suspect the number of people who could reasonably be said to read anything for the quality of the prose is vanishingly small. But also, notice how she has tied the fact that the book is about “real teens doing real things” to the idea that it might be expected to succeed based on the quality of its writing. Implication: that books about teens doing imaginary things (slaying dragons, dating vampires, surviving in a future dystopia) can’t be expected to have good writing. This is one of the cornerstones of the anti-genre prejudice, that genre cannot succeed at what the “serious literature” crowd deems the only true literary accomplishment: prose they consider worthy.

Not only do I think it is ridiculous to assume that fantastical fiction cannot produce good prose, I also question the privileging of prose style above all other potential literary accomplishments. There isn’t anything like an objective viewpoint, or even much of a consensus, on what actually constitutes good prose. Many great classics have writing that would today be dismissed as “workmanlike” or “overwrought.”

Novels of the 19th century and earlier are full of weird, lengthy, indirect sentences, stilted dialog, pushy narrators, and endless meandering asides and diversions that would in no way be considered good writing today. But classics are usually held to succeed based on their best moments, and their overall successes, while genre-bashers blithely dismiss works of popular and fantastical fiction based on their worst moments.

Finally, if her primary concern really is “literary” YA displacing “literary” adult fiction, good news! That is almost certainly not happening. I would be willing to bet cash money that there is not one single adult reader on this planet of billions who failed to read (for example) the latest Jonathan Franzen novel because they read Sherman Alexie’s YA instead.

my own life as a YA reader way back in the early 1990s

HAHAHA, I must be old. I was reading YA in the 70s and early 80s. But I never read exclusively YA. I read everything, with a strong preference for literature of the fantastical. Many of my favorites were considered YA, but most of them weren’t.

Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I have no urge to go back and re-read them

Well, there you go. I get the urge to re-read favorites of my youth all the time. In fact, I’m one of those nerds who has re-read The Lord of the Rings roughly eleventy bazillion times.

but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.

… and that’s one reason I like re-reading. Some old favorites eventually lose whatever magic they once had, often for reasons I can’t put my finger on. But other books hold up. That’s why LOTR comes up so often — yes, it’s comfort reading, but also, I have yet to read it and not get something new out of it. The magic has never entirely worn off, and at this point, that fact alone has its own appeal. Increasingly, I read it with an eye toward craft, asking not just, “what’s this all about?” but also, “how on earth does he do it?”

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. [it] left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?

Neither. It makes you somebody who didn’t completely buy the book. I’ve had exactly that same thought about books of all types. In fact, I had that thought many times during The Time Traveler’s Wife, and a few times during The Road, neither of which is considered YA, one of which is generally considered “serious literature.”

Everybody has different things that trigger their “oh brother” moments. I tend to avoid what I think of as the “lad mag” mid-century narcissistic male lit fic subgenre — think Philip Roth and John Updike — because I know their view of women and sex roles is going to trigger a lot of “oh brother.” (Luckily, they let you get an English Lit BA without any Philip Roth.)  But even my favorite works have moments that make me purely cringe, moments I simply cannot defend, sometimes from a literary sense, sometimes from a social justice sense. But I also believe that everything is problematic. There is no work so outstanding that it will be beyond any reproach by anyone, ever.

But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”

Oh, no! Fiction that aims to be pleasurable! As opposed to what, fiction that aims to be a miserable dreary slog? Look, if that’s what you think makes something “serious fiction,” no wonder people don’t want to read it.

Escapism — instant gratification — nostalgia. All unseemly, of course, if you take a Puritan work ethic model of literary virtue fully to heart. But what is it that makes escapism so offensive to a certain mindset? Life is hard and full of sorrow, and storytelling is one of the ways we cope with that. Everyone has to cope in their own way. A favorite book can be a refuge, and who am I to tell you — or you to tell me — that adults shouldn’t use books that way?

China Mieville has said, “The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism–what they don’t like is escape.” But I don’t think it’s realistic to assume we live in the midst of a revolutionary army, at the ready to overthrow the current system, if only they were no longer sufficiently soothed by their sentimental YA fiction, their consolatory fantasy, or even their Jersey Shore marathons. Most people, if you took their escapist entertainment away, would just do more drugs.

When I use fiction for escape — and I do, make no mistake about that — I’m usually trying to escape boredom, alienation, loneliness, stress, pain, sadness, despair — the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. That’s just life. There’s nothing to be overcome. What you have to do is cope. Escapes can help you cope. And, as escapes go, a really engrossing work of pop fiction is almost certainly better than a week-long martini bender or a complete nervous breakdown, don’t you think?

If you think I should be so staunch and unwavering in my confrontation of the reality of life that I should never need escape — well, forget it. This seems like a good place for my paraphrase of George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:

When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to read dull wholesome literature. You want something a little bit ‘entertaining’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have a pennorth of vampire romance! Run out and buy us a twopenny spy thriller! Put the telly on and we’ll all have a nice bit of comedy! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. Space opera and formula romance don’t nourish the mind to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than achingly subtle character studies of upper middle-class professionals going through an existential mid-life crisis. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with fantasy, the English-speaker’s opium. An epic adventure or even a detective novel is much better as a temporary stimulant than a New Yorker short story.

The original was addressing why the poor didn’t make what were perceived as better nutritional decisions. I found it remarkably easy to substitute the tropes of “popular” fiction for food seen as a treat, and the tropes of “literary” fiction for food seen as nutritious. And I think it reveals our weirdly literal view of artistic merit — books (and other art) are either good for you like broccoli, or bad for you like Twinkies.

But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable.

Really? And what ways would those be?

YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life [..] but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.

She does know that YA is usually written by adults, right? I would imagine their “mature” perspective influences the text to varying degrees. But also, I’m not really sure I understand it as an objection. It might be why the essayist doesn’t connect with YA books, but that’s very different from making YA an objectively bad thing for adults to read. A lot of YA is about the process of acquiring those insights — I’m not being grandiose when I call the Harry Potter series a bildungsroman. Many adults enjoy observing that process, even if they have moved beyond it themselves.

Good YA often affords an opportunity to view the story from both the perspective of the teenage protagonist, and from the adults in the story. For example, it seemed to be rather commonplace that, if you were a 30+ heterosexual female reader of the Harry Potter series, you would have kind of a thing for Professor Snape — the opposite of Harry’s perspective.

YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

“Satisfying ending” is up there with “pleasurable” as a quality I cannot bring myself to consider a flaw in a work of fiction. The essayist seems to be working from the assumption that to be any good, a book has to be a kind of penance. It’s a fairly common attitude, but one I don’t share. Reading “serious fiction” is treated as a secular version of going to church: a token badge of good citizenship and high moral character. But neither lit fic nor church actually makes you a better person. No, really, it doesn’t. Trust me.

These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

Nowhere? Nowhere at all? That’s kind of a broad statement, and hard to defend, especially for somebody who isn’t a fan of YA, and therefore can’t be expected to have read much of it. Also, she is fully equivocating “adult fiction” with “adult literary fiction.” You won’t find much emotional and moral ambiguity in Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, for example. But you do find it in YA work like The Graveyard Book or The Hunger Games. Zilpha Keatley Snyder is where I learned about unreliable narrators and conceived of my love for stories that hover just on the edge of the fantastical (you know, where there might be an actual ghost or something, but probably not).

These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

A couple of paragraphs earlier she said “There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters.” You know what Shakespeare wrote? Tragedies, where everybody ends up dead, and comedies, where everybody ends up married. Classics nearly always seem to get a free pass on things such as “likable protagonists” and “satisfying endings,” though, the same way they get a pass on less-than-fashionable prose.

Maybe it’s not “ambitious” to like satisfying endings — so what? Why assume everyone needs to be ambitious in their reading? I’m well aware of the fact that my reading (and movie-watching) tends to get less ambitious when I’m sad, upset, or stressed out. What I mean is that I have less patience for persevering with something that doesn’t instantly captivate me, and I am much more likely to seek out something that seems likely to be fun — The Avengers, rather than Brokeback Mountain.

I don’t wonder why I seek out one and not the other when I need comfort and distraction. What I want to know is why entertainment that aims to be good so often also seems like it aims to be dreary.  Shakespeare proves that you can be wildly entertaining (Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and still be hailed as brilliant. Maybe it just takes 500 years.

Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.

Better? Better than what? Better than books? No, I don’t think so. Of all the things a person can do that makes them worthy of being thought a grown-up, going out of their way not to read a type of fiction they enjoy is… really, not on the list at all.

Nerds will always strike a certain contingent as unforgivably childish, I suppose. We watch cartoons, read comic books, play with toys — wear goofy t-shirts — embrace fairy tales — read YA fiction. But what do any of those things really have to do with being a grown-up? With being responsible? With taking care of others? With being able to face death and tragedy? With wisdom? With kindness?

Right now, even as I write this, the world is full of adults behaving badly — who take action to hurt others — who wallow in ignorance, deception, hatred, bigotry, cruelty and selfishness — and they not only are not ashamed of all these things, they take pride in them. Why on earth would anyone devote the tiniest bit of energy attempting to get otherwise decent people to feel ashamed about reading books that aren’t “ambitious” enough?

I mean, she lampshades it, but she does sound snobbish and joyless and old. A lot of things grown-ups have to do are not fun. But it does not follow that denying oneself fun is therefore the grown-up thing to do.

There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. [..] mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.

Serious again. Obviously, serious readers require serious literature. But who is a serious reader? Are most adults serious readers? I doubt it. But I wish she’d make up her mind. What is she really complaining about? That adults ever read YA (“The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction…”)? That adults read lit-ier YA instead of adult lit fic (“…books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.”)? Or that adults ought to be reading more serious stuff, in order to get that esoteric “satisfaction of a more intricate kind”?

The thing is, when you start tearing down a type of popular fiction because it is pleasurable and satisfying, you perpetuate the notion that anything praised as serious is going to be a chore to read, something done purely out of a sense of obligation. You know, like church.

But the mere act of sitting in church will not save your soul — not when you’re a cynical teenager taking notes entirely for purposes of later mockery. (Sorry, Mom.) Cultural experiences, be they church or lit fic, are not objective. What you get out of them depends on how you relate to them. Reading lit fic, if you don’t particularly want to, and don’t particularly enjoy it, is not in itself an ennobling experience.

A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love.

Uh. Okay. Good for you? I mean, that little description does make the book sound kinda interesting, and if you hadn’t already undermined your credibility by declaring that you prefer your fiction to be dull and unsatisfying, I might be inclined to check it out. But I already know that you don’t read lit fic because you sincerely enjoy it. You read it because you think it’s the sort of thing mature adults ought to do.

There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.

What I remember, is that other teenagers were mostly thrilled by adult books because of the explicit sex and the swearing.

I never had this experience of “graduating” beyond YA, maybe because I never read exclusively YA. It just faded out of the center of my regular reading habits. I didn’t go to the YA section looking for new stuff anymore — something had to make a big pop-culture splash, or be specifically recommended by friends, for me to pick it up. And when I did, sometimes I loved it, sometimes I liked it okay, sometimes I couldn’t really get into it, and sometimes I actively disliked it — which is pretty much my spread for all types of books, from the popcorniest urban fantasy to the most venerable classic to the weirdest and most challenging lit fic.

The fact that a lit fic sensation might be the next book I love is the thing that keeps me reading it. But that is exactly the same thing that keeps me reading YA. I always read for pleasure, even if that pleasure is the pleasure of snark, or raw curiosity, or a sense of accomplishment. Some pleasures are more work than others, as anybody who hikes for recreation can attest. (I do Bikram Yoga, so obviously I’m one to talk.) But I think everyone who doesn’t read for school or work, must, by definition, be reading for pleasure.

Doesn’t it seem a bit peculiar, even narcissistic, to argue that your favorite pleasure (“satisfaction of a more intricate kind”) ought to be everyone else’s favorite pleasure too?

Some people enjoy church. Other people enjoy the feeling of moral superiority they get from knowing that they are the sort of person who chooses to sit in church while other people are sleeping in — lingering over the Sunday crossword puzzle — hanging out in a park — you know, doing something fun.

Some people enjoy reading lit fic. Others, I suspect, enjoy the feeling of superiority they get from knowing that they are the sort of person who chooses to read serious literature, when they could be reading something fun.