Recently there has been a lot of bashing and shaming of grown ups who read YA. The article from slate.com “Against YA” written by Ruth Graham is the latest in a chain of tirades against adults who are readers and fans of young adult literature. (Click here to read the original article.)
I am incensed at Ruth Graham’s condescension and derision. In an age where the intellectual grown-up Graham herself appeals to is asked to encourage tolerance and acceptance, Graham’s comments against YA are tantamount to criticizing someone’s religious leanings or sexual preferences. And don’t tell me that it’s not the same because what one reads is a choice just like the kind of music or movies one enjoys or where one chooses to worship.
The inherent argument in “Against YA” can be boiled down to one statement: I do not like YA or think it is literature with merit, therefore no one should like YA and it IS not literature with merit. The assumptions in Graham’s article are that YA is somehow less than books written with adult protagonists and written for adult audiences and that adults who are reading YA are somehow less adult than people who prefer to read books about their own age group. Let’s attack these ideas one at a time.
Of what she terms simple, satisfying endings Graham says, “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.” I disagree: there are countless examples of these ambiguities in YA titles. Even in Graham’s pejoratively labeled “trashy” books, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer tackles some pretty big moral issues: the definition/existence of soul, does “justifiable murder” exist, virginity, consent, and honesty versus deception. Divergent examines probably the biggest emotional ambiguity people face in their lives: Is it betrayal to leave one’s family and strike out alone? That IS the essence of becoming an adult and one of the most emotionally taxing things we experience. Four’s fear landscape scene with his father illustrates just how ambiguous one’s feelings can be in adolescence. Even people in their 30s and 40s are struggling with leftover emotions and mixed feelings toward their parents that began in adolescence. Hence one of the reasons for therapy.
The biggest issue with Graham’s article are the generalizations that plague her argument. She implies that adults who read books written for adults are inevitably reading more “literary” material than YA books provide. This clumps all of YA into a non-literary category and clumps all of adult literature into the “literary” category. Most adults would agree that there is variation in the merit of books written for adults. Some would say that Romance or Thriller titles are “trashy”. Some might call short story collections or poetry “unambitious”. Graham even says, “But 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.” This implies that there exist no stories in YA that do this. I offer Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Foer dealing with the emotional fallout related to 9/11 or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Haddon which deals with Aspberger’s Syndrome. Very few teens would be able to empathize with Christopher’s situation and most teens weren’t even alive when 9/11 occurred. They have no reference for a world not poised for terrorist attacks. Adult titles and authors are as varied as the people who read them. Would it not follow then, that YA titles are just as different?
Neither does Graham define “literature” or “literary” which she uses throughout as a qualitative descriptor for her own reading choices. Miriam-Webster says literature is “written works that are considered to be very good and have lasting importance”. Just as she cites Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as having lasting importance in her reading life, so might today’s adolescents cite Going Bovine by Libba Bray or Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (both of which won the Michael L. Printz Award) as having lasting importance in their lives. The term “literary” merely means reference to literature or “language that is stylized to elicit an emotional response”. In that case, Green’s The Fault in Our Stars should be considered “literary” merely BECAUSE it makes readers cry. Which then brings up the questions: Why didn’t Graham cry if she is so dedicated to reading literary books? Why then does Graham assume that all YA is less “literary” than the books she chooses to read?
It is just this kind of absolutism that is the problem. No one would venture to say that all humans over the age of 18 are equally intelligent, logical, emotional, or sane. Neither would anyone venture to say that magically, at the arbitrarily selected age of 18, one is a mature adult and therefore in possession of the above qualities. Graham says, “Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this”, implying that adults who read children’s or YA books are somehow stooping to some sub level of maturity. This assumes that all adults share the same level of qualities mentioned above. In discussing the titles she enjoyed as a teen Graham says, “…but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.” This statement also implies that adults who read YA have not changed since adolescence or that they do not have varied taste in their reading material. All of which most would agree is patently untrue.
Ultimately, the problem here is the judgement not the genre. Everyone has different tastes in all different areas of their lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking or disliking certain types of books, foods, music, movies, or clothes. The problem is in shaming people for their preferences. Using words like “embarrassed”, “instant gratification”, “indulge”, “escapism”, “juicy”, and “maudlin” imply a seediness and necessary guilt in enjoying these stories. And ultimately, isn’t that what they all are: stories? In my mind, a story that can engage today’s pre-teen or adolescent and get them reading instead of texting, gaming, or watching TV is doing its job. It’s getting them to read. Then, as Graham herself suggests, as they grow as readers, their tastes will GROW. This means their tastes will get bigger and more inclusive and, just as many of this generation’s middle-aged readers prove, their tastes will grow to other genres but continue to include YA. Just as a tree grows a new layer each year protecting itself and its sapling heart, so will these teen readers grow new layers of interest which will enhance and protect the self that (yes, perhaps with the help of Meyer or Roth or Collins) became a life-long reader. And no one should be made to feel ashamed about that. Read freely and read on, my friends.