Slate published an article entitled “You Should Be Ashamed For Reading YA.” Click the link to read it if you want to be enraged but fair warning – it’s clickbait. The gist is basically that adults shouldn’t read books aimed at teenagers but should instead focus on “real” literature. Her examples? Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton. Let THAT one sink in. She goes on to say that if you read and enjoy YA fare you should be embarrassed to be seen reading it. There’s a real “What the heck is WRONG with you people?!” overtone to the whole piece.
Let me just get this bit out of the way first: people should read what they want to read. If they enjoy it, find it relaxing, find it stimulating – WHATEVER – they are reading and that’s the point. It isn’t anyone else’s business what someone likes to read nor should anyone make it a point to attempt to shame anyone for reading.
So, getting to the part where I defend YA, let’s break it down.
First, she lumps the Divergent series and the Twilight series together. They are nothing alike and while they are both technically YA, one has actual merit (mostly, the third book sucked out loud) and the other romanticizes abusive relationships. Frankly, my opinion on Twilight could take up an entire post but the reasons I dislike it have nothing to do with it being YA and everything to do with the plot, writing, and characters.
Next, she starts picking apart The Fault In Our Stars, which I have not read. I know plenty of people who have read it and loved it, I just haven’t picked it up because teens with cancer is too depressing for me right now. Anyway, all of the author’s criticism seems to revolve around “but this is for TEENS!” as if she is personally affronted that a YA book should have such success. She says “Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds.” Does she not remember being a teen? Is she incapable of remembering what that was like and connecting with teen characters?
She goes on:
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.”
So. Reading is supposed to be something other than pleasurable? No one I know reads books simply because they’re supposed to be Great Literature. They read because they enjoy the plot, the characters, the emotional response they have to the book. If I’m not enjoying a book I stop reading it because why waste my time on something I detest?
It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.
Once again – was this person never a teenager? Can she not understand that people can connect with a teen character’s perspective even after having gained the “mature insights” of adulthood?
Then she starts griping because YA has endings that are too “satisfying.” So, only books that end in a way that leaves the reader hanging can be considered literature worth reading? One of the things she dislikes is that plot points are wrapped up and characters are either happy or dead and it’s just not “real” enough for her.
To which I point straight to The Hunger Games trilogy. I know there are a lot of people that were angered by how that ended but I thought it was note perfect. It was both sad and healing. It did not shy away from the question of “what happens when the protagonist prevails?” It showed the personal, intangible, yet devastating costs of the hero’s journey. It was nuanced – in ways that much adult fiction is not.
Another good example is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. These books are astounding. The journey that Lyra and Will take together is profound. Yet the protagonists are children; the genre YA. Will and Lyra do not end up happy together at the end – that wasn’t the point of their journey. They don’t end up dead either.
Next, she takes a swipe at detective novels by saying that if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading a detective novel she guesses that’s just barely passable. Let me just throw out a few names and see if that makes my point: Agatha Christie. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. John Le Carré. See where I’m going with this? Yet these novels are even worse than YA as far as the author is concerned. Ruth Graham intimates that if we should be embarrassed to read YA, we should be doubly embarrassed to read mystery.
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.
Excuse me while I channel Chandler Bing – could she BE more pretentious?!
One last thing I noticed about this article: Graham very carefully makes no mention of Harry Potter. The audience she is castigating for their love of YA grew up reading Harry. They still read Harry. They share Harry with their children. They get as much enjoyment out of the books as any young adult reader does. But Graham fails to mention Potter even once. Could it be that was just too big a bear to poke with too small a stick?
Bibliophiles, ignore this woman. Read what you want. Enjoy it while you do.