on reading YA

(I wrote most of this on Monday and then the week happened…)

‘Grow up and stop reading YA books’. The trope that, apparently, won’t die was kick-started again in Slate last week, when Ruth Graham wrote.

Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

Well, bollocks to that. I am bored of your ‘grown-up’, so-sophisticated dismissal of books written for young adults.
That’s the simple answer.

There is a more complex response – that acknowledges that some of Graham’s concerns might be worth considering – but she makes it hard to want to bother with it it by going down the path of embarrassment and shame.

As Matt Haig wrote yesterday,

There should be no shame in reading anything. There is too much shame in the world. Shame is the enemy of truth and the friend of pretentiousness, especially when it comes to books. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

Shame is not only not a positive emotion, it’s also not a helpful one. Given the existence of right and wrong (which, I’m taking as a given), if there is a problem with a behaviour (which Graham is assuming there is, when it comes to adults reading YA), identifying it as shameful is absolutely the least helpful approach to resolving it because the people you’re embarrasing will just hide the thing away and put up all of the walls that they can. You’re not going to get to talk about why the thing is happening or how it might be dealt with, because you are now the last person on the planet the reader (in this case) wants to hear from.

(Oh, and stop judging people while you’re at it.) If you want to talk about the fact that more adults are more publicly reading (possibly more, but I don’t know how you’d get stats on that) YA and childrens books and that you have a concern about that, you can just do it without judging and shaming people.

With which… part the second.

There is, I think, something worth thinking about in Graham’s slate piece, once you get past that junk (which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to – if something starts from a point of that much stupid, you are allowed to kick it to the kerb), in the moment where she writes:

And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.

But then, she goes on to give an analysis of YA’s literary qualities and teen readership that completely undermines the argument that ‘adult’ fiction is better literature that Alyssa Roseberg has taken apart:

It is also true that plenty of material aimed at adults is aimed at hitting the pleasure centers of the brain and providing endings that satisfy our most childish sense of fairness. John Green’s cancer-stricken teenagers are more closely observed and more prepared for unhappy endings than John Grisham‘s blandly handsome crusading lawyers.

Daniel Mendolsohn, who is an essayist & critic in the NYRB & New Yorker, picked up on that idea on twitter yesterday in a long conversation with a number of people, in which he was, basically, defending Graham’s premise that adults should read adult literature. He also started in a place of stupid:

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(w/r/t which, see above for the link to Alyssa’s take down of the idea that YA and children’s books are inherently less ‘good’, in literary terms).

But he ended up in a more sensible place (having acknowledged that he does occasionally read YA):

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Because, if there is a concern – it’s about the answer to the question: why has YA become so broadly popular, and what does that say about our culture and society (in the UK as well as the US).

Answers to which seem to me to include:

  1. Because it is escapist
  2. Because we’re crazy nostalgic
  3. Because it is good

So let’s go:
It’s escapist. Well, some of it is. As is some ‘grown-up’ fiction in the various categories, including, yes, romance, crime, thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. But a lot of it isn’t – as is a lot of stuff in those categories I just listed – the best of which engages with the lives, hopes, fears and concerns of readers, while telling great stories with intriguing characters. Do all of them? No, sure? Does that mean adults shouldn’t read them? No. Everyone deserves a break. My peers and I (because, let’s not kid ourselves, people talking about adults reading YA are talking about the 20–40 age bracket) may not be living in Mogadishu, but we’re looking out of our lives living in countries where education has risen, but job opportunities that really use that education haven’t; where big change is needed, but every part of every system resists change, and certainly resists change by the up-and-coming generation. So, do I want to read a novel where a teenage girl changes the world? You bet your ass I do. Frankly, it gives me hope as much as escape.

It’s because we’re all crazy nostalgic. Um. I’m not sure. Nostalgic for what? Our own childhoods and teenage years? In which case, why are we reading new things, not the things we read at that age? For the idea of being a teenager? Yeah, there may be elements of those years that come covered in a rosy glow, but who wants to live their teenage years again? I don’t think this one works.

It’s good. Well, I think it is good. For a start, there’re a lot of books for children and young adults that just plain well written – at the level of words and sentences. Plus they come fabulous stories, because writing for children and YA you can’t get away with not telling a good story – it’s not an audience that generally reads, for pleasure, the stuff that ‘you are supposed to read’ (it’s also an audience that will read ‘grown up stuff’ if an author captures them – why else do you think you see teenagers attached to their Atwood or their Nabokov?). It engages with big ideas, and not necessarily in black and white.
It captures, and sometimes eviscerates a culture, in a way that many ‘grown up’ novels don’t, because they’re so complicit in it. I might not care for Catcher in the Rye, but I can’t deny it has that ability (and if you don’t think Catcher… fits into a YA hat, then you read a different book to me…)

Matt Haig again

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. This is why YA succeeds.

Reading YA as an adult connects us – to current teenagers, but also to teenage us. Growing up is about changing. Sure, you gain stuff – but you do also lose stuff, even for those of us who don’t want to go back to high school. One of the reasons why Merrily We Roll Along is so heartbreaking is because of it’s reverse structure – you start off with Frank, a 40 year old arrogant asshat making movies, making money, with a piano in the corner of the room he’s not touching, and an old friend he’s fighting with, and end up with Frank, a 23 year old dreamer on the roof of a New York appartment singing of the musicals he’ll write and the world he’s going to change. Checking in with your younger self and the person they dreamed of being, by way of the characters and stories that moulded you or by the way of new stories, is a way of checking in with the state of your life. How are you doing? What did you lose? did you leave those things behind for the right reasons, or did they just get lost because you weren’t paying attention?

So no, I don’t think there’s a problem with reading YA. I also don’t believe YA has supplanted adult literature. By and large, it seems to be an additional thing that people are reading. But do I think it would be a problem if it was? Well, perhaps – in that way that I think that your reading life (and therefore life) is richer by reading more than one kind of thing, flat out. And also in that I think that there are good things about growing up and in the richness of novels that embrace all of that experience. But in the same way that I don’t think you can truly criticise an individual (for example, for what they’re reading…) without some context, you can’t criticise a group of people without thinking about their context.

And here’s the thing: as a society we have been and are being patronised and infantilised. You’re as likely to be mocked for reading Infinite Jest or some Derrida on public transport as you are for reading the latest Patrick Ness or Majorie Blackman. Michael Gove wants teachers to spoon-fed and indoctrinate – heaven forbid their pupils should learn to think for themselves, they might ask questions. Politicians score points scorning intellectualism (people like Obama and Ed Milliband are argued to be out of touch because of their intellectual tendencies).

To a very large extent we are not given serious answers to serious questions – you only have to look at the fact that in the UK the Guardian is the only media outlet really grappling with the impact of the Snowden revelations, at the way analysis about Obama’s foreign policy (in America) must be about America and whether America is doing good or bad rather than whether the policy is any good (and the same is often true of British foreign policy, tbh), at the debate over the referendum on AV in the UK a couple of years ago where apparently the Conservative party believed we can’t tell that the world can encompass a situation where we could have a new voting system AND healthcase for babies…, or the current debate about Scottish Independence (heaven forbid you should question any of the claims in the SNP’s white paper… ).

There are voices that work harder to make us think like adults, but – while they make up the majority of my intake, in the wider context I often feel like they’re whistling into the wind. There’s a reason why a site like vox.com has come into existence right now – it’s not just because there’s so much news in our intricately connected world that we can’t comprehend it all, it’s because we haven’t been encouraged or taught to really comprehend it at all for a while. I don’t think YA is any ‘worse’ or ‘less complex’ than the stuff you find in the literary fiction section of the bookshop – but if you do, why are you expecting people to be choosing to move away from it?

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