Funny story. There I was, sitting on a review of Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars and wondering if I should pull it out of respect for upsetting current events (it’s set at a Catholic home for unwed mothers). But along came this article in Slate and the resulting Twitterstorm around it, and I just had to postpone the Patchett review in order to hear your reactions.
Here were my first two thoughts on reading Ruth Graham’s “Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” (And for once, the title isn’t just obnoxious Slate linkbait. Here’s a quote from the article itself: “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”)
Seriously, huh? Why does it matter if adults are reading YA books? Why should that be a source of embarrassment or shame? Shame is something one should experience when one engages in behavior that hurts other people or damages society, like denting someone’s car and not leaving a note, or voting for David Duke. What social harm results from adults reading the Harry Potter books or Anne of Green Gables?
I should admit that I am not a big YA reader — The Fault in Our Stars, for example, doesn’t really interest me. And I often relish those messy adult novels with unlikeable protagonists and ambiguous endings (exhibit A: The Patron Saint of Liars, which I loved). But I would never turn my nose up at a book just because it was written for teenagers. And frankly, there are some YA books that I think would do many adults some good to read. The Hunger Games, in my opinion, is not only an action-packed YA novel but a sharp critique of the idea that awful things can be justified by their entertainment value. (Which is basically the point Graham is trying to make, much less effectively and with a very weird target in her crosshairs.)
Graham argues that adults who read YA books are unambitious and lazy in their reading choices, that they are rejecting the complexities of the adult world to return to the immature, black-and-white world of teenagers, where teen romance is Life Or Death and everything is supposed to have a tidy ending. So what if they are? The devoted adult YA readers that I know often have demanding, complicated jobs that give them a healthy dose (and then some) of the complex and messy adult world on a daily basis. Why should they be embarrassed to spend their free time in a world where life is a bit simpler and stories have satisfying resolutions?
And that leaves aside the obvious criticism, which is that the notion that you’re either reading YA books or you’re reading Serious Fiction is complete nonsense. A healthy reading diet leaves room for a lot of genres. I, for example, am reading and loving The Goldfinch, but I just picked up the first Parasol Protectorate book to give myself a breather from the intense wonder that is Donna Tartt.
2. How does one criticize YA novels without coming across as an anti-YA snob? / Should I stop snarking on Twilight?
In the Twitter discussion of Graham’s article (and another, much better article by Linda Holmes about young female readers), I noticed a number of YA fans and authors mention that they’re sick of seeing people beat up on Twilight. Many of them feel that most of the vitriol stems from the fact that Twilight was a) written by a woman, and b) is beloved by mostly women and teen girls.
And I have to say I don’t disagree. I’ve heard way too many people categorize Twilight as “crap written for teenage girls” to dismiss the idea that there’s some misogyny behind some readers’ rejection of Twilight.
That led me to some soul-searching. I really, really, really did not like Twilight because I thought the story was boring, the writing was awkward, and the gender dynamics were problematic. I snark on Twilight a fair amount, sometimes for the prose, sometimes for containing lame sparkly vampires, sometimes for basically being a novelized version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinions about women. The Twitterstorm made me pause and consider my snark. I think my disdain is based on legitimate objections to the book itself (I only read the first one), not on a snotty assumption that if teenage girls like it, it must suck. But do I really need to belittle something millions of teenage girls love every time vampires come up?
On the other hand, is it really so terrible to mock a book that I think contains objectionable gender stereotypes?
So. Reactions to Graham, or to my thoughts on YA? Hit me up in the comments!