Full disclosure: Slate is not a magazine I read. It isn’t a website I frequent. I don’t know what the bulk of their content is or what demographic they’re targeting, but the article Against YA by Ruth Graham was brought to my attention and it stirred in me a discontent that could not go unanswered. I don’t know Ruth. She writes well, seems smart, but I firmly believe that she’s missing fundamental details about the purpose of Young Adult fiction and all the things it brings to the literary table.
I think part of the problem is that there is some sort of mistaken understanding that just because books are in different genres and fitting different grades in terms of content that there must then be a segregation in its readers. If you don’t think that’s the case, look no further than the opening caption of the article: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
Am I… being book-shamed? Read-bullied? What is this? Why should anybody be embarrassed by things that bring them joy? There isn’t a rule that says I have to enjoy Game of Thrones because I’m over 18. I don’t need to throw away the stories and themes I liked when I was younger as nostalgic detritus that somehow reached an expiration date once I was legally allowed to vote. Or drink. Or get reduced car insurance.
Some of the scariest, or most insightful, thought-provoking, romantic films have been rated PG-13. That is a rating that is entirely predicated on the assumption that it is acceptable for young adults and yet grosses a ton of money based on the fact that it appeals to older audiences as well. Film, by the way, has the added advantage of being a visual medium. When you read, you’re suddenly privy to the deeper understanding that comes from internal dialogue and descriptive narration, though the mind is still engaged because it needs to create the visuals itself.
There is this idea in Ruth’s article that the enjoyment of young adult fiction instead of “the complexity of great adult fiction” is somehow a fault of the reader’s. To her credit, there are deep, rich, layered stories that reach back hundreds of years that are certainly considered better literature. However, not everybody wants to read The Canterbury Tales or The Maltese Falcon or Carrie or whatever.
Here’s a key point: just because someone finds value in something simpler than you, it doesn’t make it less valuable.
There are a ton of issues in regarding YA fiction as exclusively for “children”, not least of which is that 13-18 year are not the same as 8 and 9 year olds. They are learning about violence and language and sex and adult themes. I touch on that a lot in Sex and Swearing In Writing (WARNING: Language). There is a lot more complexity in young adult novels than I feel Ruth gives them credit for.
And what’s wrong with that? We don’t put lessons in young children’s books to instill in them morality at a young age? We don’t have thirty articles online every day about things that we can learn from children?
The next logical step is for teenagers and young adults to be exposed to and understand those subjects taken to the next extreme. You know how many bodies and curses were being thrown around Goosebumps books? How about a little older: how many people were enslaved, tortured and murdered in Animorphs? That’s what I grew up with. It’s only gotten more intelligent since those years.
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy deals with famine and poverty and oppression. It deals with mortality and rebellion and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rowling’s Harry Potter septology is a realistic portrayal of a coming-of-age story. The innocence of youth growing into responsibility and obligation, sticking to your beliefs, loss and perseverance.
Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, which Ruth described as “trashy” deals with sacrifice and the internal conflict that comes with loyalty to self over expectations. Like Hunger Games, it shows that good and evil are not as easily defined as black and white and it depicts sacrifice.
These are important themes and qualities and realities that are inherent in YA novels. To dismiss them as something base or lesser because of the lighter way they’re structured is insulting to the authors writing the books and the audience reading them. To insinuate that they are poor quality because they’re YA: I will gladly direct you to 70% of literature tailored for adults and 99.9% of the Literotica, er, Romance section that is just as bad.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This was pointed out in the comments that the romance jab was a form of book shaming, which is true. I was trying to be flippant and came off hypocritical. Romance and erotic novels are not my type, as YA aren’t Ruth’s. I understand the types of wish-fulfillment and escapism this genre provides is the same as any other, and I’m sure there are plenty of well-written novels in this genre as there are in any other.)
There are so many rich stories in the YA community. You need look no further than James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, which starts off with an atypical labyrinth story and branches out into so much more. Ruth stresses that people who read YA are missing out on the concepts and storylines of adult fiction. I posit that the river flows both directions in this case.
Here, though, is my biggest issue: Ruth Graham is not congratulating YA fans for reading, she is shaming them for not reading the “right” thing. “We are better than this,”, she says.
I think that adults reading young adult fiction will convince far fewer young adults not to read than insinuating that YA fiction isn’t “good enough.”
The invention of the digital reader makes carrying a library with you convenient. The invention of tablets and smartphones and the ability to have social media and Google and sites like Slate and blogs like mine, however, means attention spans are shorter than ever. You don’t see as many people curled up in chairs for hours with a dog-eared novel. It’s more like getting your reading in on the run. I’ve been tearing through the Dangerous Women collection in twenty minute bursts on the bus to and from work.
When people do read, they may not have the time or inclination to get through something as layered as Cloud Atlas or as thought-provoking as anything Alastair Reynolds writes. They want something easily digestible, equally accessible and providing just as much an escape from the drudgery of the day-to-day.
You cannot judge a genre based on the quality of a few, and there is just as much quality and fun and as many lessons in YA as there are a dearth of those in adult novels.
Instead of shaming or embarrassing someone because of what they read, try saying, “If you like this, you might like this” or “One of my favorite books is this, I’ll let you borrow it sometime.” Keep in mind, too, that different people have different tastes and they take away different things from different books. One of my friends lives and dies by Ender’s Game. I like it okay, but I much prefer The Stand. I have a healthy respect for the classics, but I would much prefer reading Michael Connely’s latest than a reread of Robert Louis Stevenson.
As readers and writers, we should be encouraging people to read and write, regardless of genre. We should be offering suggestions and discussing the stories so we can better understand why these things are enjoyable and what we’re getting out of them.
We absolutely should not be shaming anyone for their tastes.
Although, Ruth Graham, if you like fiction for adults and you haven’t read my books, then shame on you.