Let’s Have A Real Conversation About (YA) Literature

We interrupt our regular programming…

Alrighty Swoon Readers, prepare yourself – I was going to write about the The Fault In Our Stars movie, but I’m going to have to interrupt our weekly blog date. I’ve taken many deep, calming breaths and a couple of days to gather my thoughts, but this is just simply not something that can be ignored. You might have seen the internet blow up last Thursday after Ruth Graham posted an Op-Ed on Slate.com. Although, I don’t want to encourage spreading this article around, it’s posted here. If you haven’t read it my advice is to proceed with caution, this article may induce blind rage, the desire to hurl large objects or internet stalk Slate.com, Ruth Graham and/or her comrades. Before I proceed to aggressively disagree with nearly every point she makes, I will summarize this article by saying it basically is lecturing adults that they should be embarrassed if they are reading books for teenagers: “Not because it is bad– it isn’t –but because it was written for teenagers.” Before I dive in let me just say rereading this article to write this blog post makes me want to light my hair on fire.

To summarize further, I think the thesis of this article is: you are older than the intended audience; therefore you should not be choosing to read Young Adult literature because it is for teenagers. You should be choosing adult titles exclusively. Ms. Graham conveniently skips over the Harry Potter series (presumably to avoid the full force of rage that fuels the entire internet)
or other titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby, which I think we all read in school but are not decidedly for “kids”. Should we also be ashamed of reading those? I assume she would say yes. I would argue that in all genres of literature, of which YA is made up of not just one but several, there are some incredibly interesting, well-written, satisfying novels out there. Some will live on in the literature hall of fame for years to come and others will not. And in some cases, the decision to publish these books for a specific age group is made by the publisher, not the author, because of the industry that is forced to categorize them for selling purposes. In fact, it was Maurice Sendak who said it best: “I don’t write for children. I write. And someone says, ‘That’s for children.'” But from the book selling perspective it’s difficult to shelve a book about 14-year-olds in the adult section of a bookstore (presumably because through the years, adult readers, such as Ms. Graham, start raising their eyebrows critically).

I actually wholeheartedly agree with one of the points I think Ms. Graham is trying to make, although I believe her condescending tone and all-knowing approach to her article makes this point difficult to find: if you are a grown-up and are only reading books for teenagers, you’re missing the boat on a lot of other great books out there. I work in this industry and see a lot of YA all the time, and I read a lot of it – but I also appreciate books for grown-ups. And just like a movie about 40-year-olds might not appeal to me now, I know that in maybe ten years or so I might have a different perspective, so I collect books that I hear are good, that I either don’t have the time to read now, or might not be interested in at this particular time. I read what I enjoy, and at this point in my life that does include books for teenagers. Certainly not all of them because they are not all good, and of course I can walk away after a good book and qualify how much I enjoyed it for what it is. And here is the next question I would ask Ms. Graham: which should I be more or less ashamed of reading: The Fault In Our Stars or Fifty Shades of Gray?

60-going-on-16-AARPWhich brings me to one of the arguments that I think Ms. Graham skips over nearly completely: quality. I suspect if she’d taken a couple of more minutes to pull together her blog post, she might have tackled quality of YA literature, and adult literature a little more – or at all. She dismisses Divergent and Twilight immediately as “trashy” without a second glance, and jumps on The Fault In Our Stars, Eleanor and Park and The Perks of Being a Wallflower – saying that it’s too bad that these stories might be taking the place of adult titles for adult readers. I’m not entirely clear on what her point is here, to be totally honest. First of all, the assumption that just because someone read Eleanor and Park means they aren’t going to read Atonement or Crime and Punishment (Ms. Graham doesn’t offer up any adult titles that I shouldn’t be ashamed of reading, so I’m just guessing here) is ludicrous. Just because someone reads and enjoys Fault In Our Stars, doesn’t mean they can’t also read Twilight, Divergent, 50 Shades of Gray AND Crime and Punishment. Just because someone enjoys reading all those books doesn’t mean they can’t distinguish a difference in quality between them. What’s more, there are many adult titles that I have read that are far worse written than The Fault In Our Stars and far less satisfying. I don’t understand the idea that because the target audience was a 14-year-old girl makes it instantly worse than ANY book that was written for adults.

As you can imagine, the office has been discussing/arguing/raging about this article since it came out. My coworkers have all made several other interesting points about this article – and the internet is literally buzzing with all the attacks directed at Ms. Graham at this point. One of my favorite things about the YA community – ranging in a variety of ages – it is a loud and extremely powerful one. Ms. Graham even points out the volume of adult readers these days, and working in sales we see the growth and expansion of YA literature year after year and it’s incredible. Many a YA novel is shelved in the adult section, often to appeal to all those adults interested in the YA novels, too. I can understand why that would be frustrating to a reader, such as Ms. Graham, who is no longer interested in that genre of reading. Although, I would also challenge Ms. Graham to read a YA novel or two that isn’t on the New York Times Bestseller list, because she might come to find that the assumptions and generalizations she’s making are uninformed and bigoted. I would recommend a few, but as she mentions herself, the internet is full of lists YA books adults should read. So I’m assuming she’s read all those before writing this article.

But ultimately my first and foremost issue with this article is that literature is an art form. Just as I don’t particularly appreciate Modern art, I certainly don’t think everyone who does should be ashamed of it, and I don’t think Ruth Graham (or anyone for that matter) should start telling people to be ashamed of what they are reading. And I’m sure Ms. Graham wrote this article, and Slate.com published it, to get a response from the internet, for high click-throughs and to start a discussion. And she has done that. I just think it’s too bad she took the tact she did. She might not appreciate teen literature – good or bad – for what it is these days. She’s outgrown it, but others haven’t. And in this day and age with so much distracting crap on the internet, TV and all the portable devices that we are all carrying around, taking the time to sit down and appreciate the work an author has put into writing a book is a good thing, no matter what you are reading. So long as you find a book that you enjoy – for whatever reason, be it good writing, or a neat and happy ending, or a psychological thriller that leaves you unable to sleep for three days – good for you! I’m so happy that people are READING. According to the internet 32 million people in the US can’t read and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read, so rather than discouraging people to read books that Ms. Graham didn’t find particularly satisfying, she should just be thanking her lucky stars that at least those people are actually able to read.

Here’s my real point: we can debate quality of literature forever; I went to a Liberal Arts college and still remember the concept of subjective. So if Ruth Graham wants to have a serious discussion about the quality of top-selling literature out there, let’s go. Let’s have an intelligent, example-based debate – I would happily read that article on Slate.com, and I’m sure many others would too. But let’s not randomly sling crap at a couple of the top-selling books out there and tell adults they are wrong for reading some of them. That doesn’t get us anywhere, well other than a bunch of angry tweets and a couple (or a lot) of angry blog responses.

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Claire T.

When I was little I used to carry one of the Baby Sitter Club books with me wherever I went. …

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