As my blog clearly shows, I read a lot of YA. So I can’t leave this article alone. Ruth Graham shows herself to be the biggest book snob I’ve ever encountered outside of academia. Even though others have already responded adequately, I have to give the world my own particular reasons why I think she’s wrong.
- Sure, some YA is crap. I’m the first to admit it. I’ve criticized several YA books pretty harshly. But there are a lot of trashy books marketed to adults too. No genre can be judged by its worst representatives. Are critically acclaimed YA books really that much lower in literary quality than the paperbacks they sell at the grocery store?
- Some of the adults who used to read formulaic, shallow adult books (bodice rippers, mysteries, thrillers) now read YA instead. This does not represent a loss of readers from Literature. Shallow readers read shallow books in the past, and shallow readers read shallow books now, whether they’re labeled YA or adult. Nothing new here.
- There is considerable overlap in YA and adult literature. Some ‘adult’ books that were written before YA existed as a category would probably be considered YA if they were published today, especially those with child or teen protagonists. Some writers–J.K. Rowling, Julianna Baggott–publish in both categories. I’m currently reading Kelly Link’s book of short stories for young adults, that contains a story, “Magic for Beginners,” that was also included in a collection marketed to adults. The categories are pretty meaningless as descriptions of content or quality, and mostly just serve a marketing function.
- The endings of YA books are not as uniformly simple and uncomplicated as Graham implies. I think the ending of Mockingjay is pretty nuanced indeed, for example. There is a ton of moral ambiguity in books like The Lunar Chronicles and Maggie Stiefvater’s books. Graham has not read much current YA.
- Some of the aspects of YA that Graham objects to are just aspects of the teenage experience the books document. Teens are over-the-top dramatic and ridiculous at times. Graham may groan at characters in The Fault in Our Stars, but in doing so she is only groaning at teenagers in the same way that grownups have always done. It doesn’t make the teens’ experience any less worthy of being the subject of a bestselling book.
- YA readers young and old don’t necessarily ready uncritically. Just because a book seems to invite its readers to enjoy an uncomplicated romantic moment doesn’t mean that its readers see the moment in an uncomplicated way. Any skilled reader can read any text in a complex way if she wants. You don’t have to agree with something wholeheartedly to get some kind of enjoyment from it. And you don’t have to “abandon the mature insights” of adulthood either. In fact, sometimes that grown-up perspective is exactly what makes us YA readers long for the things we find in YA books. The things that are marketed to young people need a critical eye the most urgently because they can be so insidious, for some of the same reasons that Graham mentions. In this way I think those who criticize and review books for young people are performing a kind of public service.
- Graham assumes that it is necessary to be naïve to get pleasure from a narrative that is simple enough for a child. But there are many ways to enjoy a book. It may be true that certain ways of reading and certain kinds of readerly pleasure are inappropriate for some YA books. I have certain critical tools that go unused when I read books for teens, and that’s ok. The new ways of reading that I have learned as an adult have simply added to the other, less complicated ways I have been reading for a longer time. I didn’t unlearn the old ways when I learned the new ways, and I didn’t lose the capacity to enjoy a book in an uncomplicated way. There’s no shame in immersing yourself in a narrative or delighting in characters’ personalities. Graham feels this way because she privileges certain kinds of readerly pleasure over others, preferring the kinds of analysis you learn in grad school over the simple joy of being a fan, and her basis for this preference is unclear. Some people don’t like to read like PhD students do, and that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent or heralds to the End of Literature. It may mean they don’t have those very specialized skills, or it may mean they prefer not to use those skills every single time they pick up a novel.
- Graham is entitled to her opinion, and if YA isn’t for her, that’s fine. It’s good that she recognizes that she’s a different kind of reader than she was as a teenager, and she chooses her books accordingly. But there’s no need for her to cast judgment on others for their reading choices. Perhaps some people have done the same kind of introspection that she has regarding the type of entertainment that will suit them best, and come up with YA novels. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are immature readers, or that Literature is doomed.