Against Pretentious Blog Posts from Literary Snobs

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Earlier this week, Ruth Graham wrote a post on Slate.com called “Against YA.” She began the post by saying, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” She proceeds to entirely bash adults who read young adult books. Her main argument can be summed up in this quote: “YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. 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. ” She also claimed that The Fault In Our Stars–while being a “nicely written book for 13-year-olds” did not make her cry. (This leads me to believe she has NO SOUL.) She also complains that all YA books have endings that are too neat and that YA books do not offer thought-provoking complexity. 

Now, I’m a little late to the game here on the “adult YA fans who are pissed off about this” train–as is evidenced by brilliant posts like “Really? Are We Still Genre Shaming People For The Books They Like?” and “Creating Readers, not Shaming Them” and “Adults Can Read Whatever The Hell They Want”–all of which you should read. However, I simply could not let this one go by without getting my two cents out there.

First of all, saying that YA books are not complex enough or that they all have “satisfying” endings or that these books present the teenage perspective in an uncritical way is just plain wrong. Both Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky had endings that left the reader thinking, that left the reader “unsatisfied” in some cases while still resolving the story. (There are a ton of other examples as well.) Additionally, I found both of these books to be complex portraits of the teenage experience. There are just as many YA books that offer “literary” content as there are books for adults. I mean, how many books for adults can you name with endings that are tied up in a bow or that don’t offer complex portraits for adults? YA is just like any other genre: some of the books will be books that really make the reader think and some will be entertainment before anything else. But I would also argue that a great deal about storytelling and the human condition can be learned from not only young adult books but also children’s stories like Peter Pan or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. These stories have value for both children and adults alike. (As a writer of both work for children and young adults, the goal is to always create a story that people of all ages can enjoy–though it may be geared towards a certain age group.)

I mean, how pretentious is it to say “well, you shouldn’t get anything meaningful out of this piece of art”? If I watch Mary Poppins and have an inspiring and sincere experience even though I’m 29, does that make me less of an “adult”? Are you going to tell me I should never enjoy or get anything out of any art that was geared towards younger people? Don’t we all remember what it was like to be children or young adults? Aren’t we all still those people on some level? Being a teenager is a time for finding your identity and figuring out who you are. In some way, I think we struggle with those things at many times as adults, which is probably why so many adults are feeling connected to young adult books.

Secondly, no one should ever feel embarrassed for reading any book, and you shouldn’t be telling people how to feel about the books they are reading. If you want to read all young adult books or all children’s books when you’re 35 or 40 or 70, then great! If you want to sit on your couch and binge watch House of Cards and never read anything, that’s fine, too. People work really hard, and how they choose to relax or entertain themselves or engage in intellectual stimulation or experience art is their damn business. I would never tell anyone they should be embarrassed for reading or watching anything. Just let people like whatever the hell they like.

So I say you should never be embarrassed to like the stories or books or movies or plays or music that you like. If something brings you a meaningful experience or if a story simply makes you happy, I think that’s enough of a reason to feel good about reading it.

 

3 thoughts on “Against Pretentious Blog Posts from Literary Snobs

  1. Right on Sara! People should be able to read whatever they want and be encouraged to read. It’s makes us a better country. Some still think that “read” is just a four letter word.

  2. No, you’re absolutely right–you shouldn’t be embarrassed to like the stories or books or movies or plays or music that you like–if at 30 or 35 or 40, your mental and maturity is that of a 13 or 14 or 15 year old.

    Look, no one is calling you a bad person because you choose to read books written for teenagers. No one is saying you can Never, ever read the occasional book written for teenagers. And no one is saying you shouldn’t enjoy that occasional guilty pleasure. However–

    If a 40 year old bought every Justin Bieber or One Direction album, attended every concert they could, and further claimed the Justin Bieber or One Direction played music every bit the musical brilliance–and was just as complex, profound and insightful as the Beatles or other “respected musicians” with years of experience, you’d call me crazy–and rightfully so.

    If a 40 year old played “Magic the Gathering” non stop, spent all their time and extra money on it, and made it the center of their life, and never stopped talking about Magic the Gatheing, as more than a few teenagers are known to do, you’d call them juvenile–and rightfully so. (But if you’re 13, it’s ok)

    And if a 40 year old pursued a 17 year old, romantically, you’d not only scream for that 40 year old to be immediately arrested, but your further justification would be that a 17 year old doesn’t have the life experience, the maturity, the mental and emotional complexity to enter into an adult relationship, period. And rightfully so!

    And yet you claim that these YA books are every bit as emotionally developed, as thematically consistent or as intellectually complex as adults books are. It’s intellectually dishonest, frankly just plain wrong, and really, just asinine. It really just says one thing: Anyone defending this position actually has the emotional development of a 13 year old, and hence they find these books emotionally and literarily satisfying. Makes sense.

    And, you know, if you’re saying these YA books are every bit the emotional complexity, and offer ‘just as much “literary” content as there are books for adults’ and there are written for teenagers, then what you’re saying is teenagers have the emotional and mental maturity to engage in an adult relationship with a 40 year old on their own terms, right?

  3. Hi Chelsea,

    I have to disagree with your conclusion that if you like YA books you must have the maturity of a teenager. The original post did not advise 20 and up adults to exclusively read YA literature. The point is that there are valid pieces of work being done currently in the YA genre. These stories may include teenagers as the main characters, but the subjects dealt with speak universally to all ages. Have you read The Book Thief or Code Name: Verity? Both of these are classified as young adult literature because they feature young teenage characters, but the themes in these books are much more complex with more emotional depth than many, many adult novels. Those two are only a few of the many so called YA books that have similar themes.

    Many people don’t fully understand what it means to classify a book as YA. All it really means is that a teenager is usually the main character. Does that mean that teenagers only deal with silly, non-complex issues in their lives? I hardly think so. All one has to do is take a look at the statistics and many problems in our society to see exactly what many and most teenagers are going through today. But today is not really new. All down through world history we have experienced wars, famine, poverty, political upheaval, social change, and in all of those times, all ages were affected. Teenagers and young adults should be given more credit for their developing intellect, emotional growth, and innate human understanding.

    Have a look at some of the many 100 greatest book lists from Time-Life, Modern Library, The Guardian, etc. Many of these book lists contain children’s literature or what would be classified as YA genre. Some examples include 1984, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, Lemony Snicket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye, and on and on.

    The reason so many of these books are considered classics or best books is because they appeal to teenagers (in some cases children) AND adults. There are themes in these books that perhaps only the adults will relate to while other qualities will appeal to teenagers. So yes, there are many books that have deep and complex themes while being presented in a way that will appeal to all ages. Re-reading these books at different stages and ages of your life will reveal completely different connections and enlightenment.

    Your argument that this type of statement is “intellectually dishonest, frankly just plain wrong, and actually asinine” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when compared to opinions from librarians, teachers, and literary critics worldwide.

    I don’t understand your comparisons to older people dating teenagers, or to 40-year-old people being obsessed with teenage singers. None of that was mentioned in the post, and is far from what the point of the piece seems to be.

    I personally would agree that if an adult does nothing but teen related activities there is a problem. However, no one who is defending YA literature is recommending that type of lifestyle. I happen to be much older than any of the ages you have mentioned, and I find that many YA books have deep emotional content and are absolutely as thematically and intellectually challenging as any adult centered literature. A good writer can make a story interesting and meaningful to all ages. Many of the examples above illustrate that point much better than I can. I don’t limit myself to one particular genre. I enjoy all types. If you just lump all YA books together with activities such as Magic the Gathering, Justin Bieber, or One Direction, you are missing the point of the argument not to mention missing some very fine literature that speaks to all ages.

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