20 July 2014

Are those adults reading YA? The horror!

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a Slate.com article called Against YA by Ruth Graham, which is summarized below the title as "Read whatever you want.  But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." The fans of YA, especially the adults, were understandably rather offended by this article.  As of the moment I am writing this, there have been over 3,000 comments on the article on Slate, both for and against with varying degrees of vitriol and sense.  And that's just on Slate.

Okay, so adults who read YA should be embarrassed.  What else?  Well, naming books like The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Eleanor and Park, Graham states: "These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers."  Let's think about these claims for a bit.

But first let me say that I don't read Young Adult books, and therefore won't be offering any opinion on the quality of any of them.  I can't remember there being many books of this kind around when I was a teenager, though I do recall being compelled to read The Pigman.  In any event I was mostly unaware of such books back then, and would have found it extremely insulting to be told that that they were more suited to my age than Crime and Punishment.  Even now I think this suggestion is insulting to teenagers. At its best it's condescension.

What then do I read?  Here, in no particular order, are the authors I've been reading over the past year or so:  Louis Auchincloss, Daphne du Maurier, Marcel Proust, Chaucer (in Middle English), Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Edith Sitwell, Seamus Heaney, Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beowulf Poet, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alfred Bester, Tom Shippey, Charles Dickens, Alberto Manguel, Robin Sloan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Niall Williams, Gene Wolf, Donna Tartt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A. S. Byatt, Muriel Spark, Kate Atkinson, George Eliot, John Crowley, Orson Scott Card, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Walter M. Miller Jr., John Lindow, Terry Pratchett, Tarjei Vesaas, Michael Frayn, Frank Herbert.

A pretty odd mix, as you see. But even if you feel inclined to ghettoize and disdain all the SF and Fantasy on my list (not to mention Hammett and Chandler), it would be pretty hard to say that the rest of it isn't "adult" or "literary."

So I am not at all in the camp Ruth Graham decries.  You might even think that I'd agree with her.  But you'd be wrong, though perhaps not for the reason you might think.  I disagree with her because she doesn't have an argument at all.

Her claim about embarrassment is debatable to begin with, as a simple quote from C.S. Lewis' essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children makes clear.
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Now, as always, Lewis puts things well.  He was a very clever, immensely learned man, and a fearsome debater.  And he has a valid point here, but as he phrases it, it's little more than a put-down: "Critics who ... cannot be adult themselves."  It's very like an ad hominem attack, and that's precisely what it would be if I chose to turn it on Ruth Graham.  To say that she must not be an adult herself if she thinks like such critics, would be no different than her saying that adults who enjoy reading books written for children should be embarrassed.  It's a claim, an assertion, a personal attack, which is always a sign of desperation in an opponent.  The one thing it's absolutely not is an argument. And since it's not an argument, let alone one supported by evidence and reason, there's no reason to pay any further attention to it.

What of Graham's other statement, that YA novels like The Fault in Our Stars "are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers?"  I find it hard to take this claim seriously.  Graham adduces no evidence or argument anywhere in her article to justify this statement.
If you want me to believe that a claim is plausible, I'll need more than your assertion that it is so.  Graham further avers that YA fiction is "replacing literary fiction" for these adults.  Does she really mean  -- can she really believe -- that these adults would have been reading John Updike, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, and Charles Dickens if not for John Green and Rainbow Rowell?  Or is it even worse than that, as her use of "replace" here and "substitute" elsewhere suggests -- these poor souls used to read "literary fiction," but were somehow seduced and corrupted by "maudlin teen dramas?"

The serpent beguiled me and I did read?

I have worked full time in a bookstore for the last seven years.  In that time, I regret to say, no one has ever asked me for John Updike or Edith Wharton.  Until Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize no one had ever asked me for her books; and now they've pretty much stopped doing so again.  Only rarely has anyone who was not a student or the parent of a student asked me for Dickens. Now I know what riches these writers have to offer in "adult" and "literary" terms.  I completely agree with Graham when she says that "literary" works are subtle and complex and often ambiguous, just like "real life."  Quite true.

But it's also quite true that the tastes of the vast majority of readers don't run that way.  Most people who are coming into my store to buy "adult" (i.e., not Teen) fiction -- whether Fiction, Mystery, Romance, or Science Fiction and Fantasy -- are looking for straightforward narratives, driven by plot or character to a satisfying conclusion. The good guys win; the bad guys lose; reader, I married him. That's what most people want.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

Graham praises quite highly a recent book, a "very literary novel" called Submergence by J. M. Ledgard.  And I am perfectly willing to believe that she's right about how good a book this is.  Her description makes it sound intriguing, to me.  But being literary and being popular are not now and never have been the same thing. Submergence is, as I write this, ranked 50,702 in sales at Amazon and 132,761 at Barnes and Noble.  Is that John Green's fault? Is it John Green's fault that I sell just enough copies of Swann's Way every year to make it worth my while to keep one or two copies on hand, but never more, and none of the rest of In Search of Lost Time?  Nothing in my experience makes that seem the least bit plausible to me.

The adults who have a taste for YA did not acquire it because John Green beguiled them.  Their tastes already ran to apples.  They are not, as Graham puts it, "substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature." ("Maudlin" is her word, not mine.) They were not interested in what Graham deems "great adult literature" in the first place.  If they were not reading YA, my experience tells me, they would be reading something else that would be "adult," but which would likely not be "literary," at least not according to Ruth Graham (or probably me for that matter).

And there's nothing wrong with that.  It's better that people read than that they don't.  And people should read what they enjoy.  I read those "big boring hard grown-up books," as someone commenting on Amy Sturgis' blog rather caustically called them, because I enjoy them.  If I can choose to read what I enjoy, why not you?

I won't blush if you don't.

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