Why Are We Still Fighting About YA Lit?

john green
Over the summer, Slate magazine’s Ruth Graham ruffled some feathers by attacking the great guilty pleasure that is Young Adult Literature. The main thrust of the article involved Graham waggling her shame finger at the number of grown-ups who seemed to be stuck in Neverland — refusing to read “proper” novels in favor of the latest John Green tearfest or a dystopian sexy teen death duel.

What really had Graham up in arms was the fact that these grown-ups didn’t even have the decency to admit that what they were reading was drivel: some even dared to claim that books like The Fault in Our Stars or The Perks of Being a Wallflower had honest-to-goodness literary merit. But she wanted to clarify that she was not unreasonable — Graham stressed that it was certainly possible to write a great book about teenagers (without providing any firm examples), however what she took exception to was the dreamy, nostalgic and uncritical approach that so much YA lit takes.

Where was the retrospective realism? Why was it all so satisfying?

Naturally, some people disagreed with Graham, espousing many of the same familiar arguments: that people should be able to read what they like; that a failing book industry should try to prop itself up any way it can; and — perhaps most controversially — that YA Lit is going through a renaissance, and it makes sense that adults want a piece of that.

Months later, the argument is still raging — and yet amidst the back-and-forth, the most obvious argument was continually overlooked: If you stripped all of these cretins of their access to YA, what would they read instead?

Would Graham be satisfied if everyone put down their dog-eared copies of The Hunger Games in favor of Grisham-y fare about lawyers and sleeper agents and pandemics and spies? Or alphabetic detective fiction? Or stories about flashy New York 20-somethings who work in PR and gush about shoes? Or the half-baked conspiracy theories of Dan Brown? Or semi-autobiographical accounts of middle-aged American women discovering their sensuality in the slums of India?

You can’t argue that those aren’t books written by and for and about adults. So why do we know — without asking — that Graham and people like her would still wrinkle their noses at these unquestionably grown-up offerings?

Sure, YA Lit is an easy target because it’s enormously popular. But what I suspect is that it’s bearing the brunt of criticism at the moment because it’s easier for book snobs to set sights on the tastes of adult YA readers. After all, it seems more logical to say, “You’re not a teenager — stop reading books written for teenagers,” than it is to say, “John Grisham’s books are poorly-written.”

The former operates under the pretense of an objective fact: adults shouldn’t be reading children’s books. The latter reveals itself for what it is: snobbery. And yet could anyone argue that if I pulled a sentence out of Paper Towns that it wouldn’t be at roughly the same reading level as The Pelican Brief? As for escapism, I feel confident in arguing that there is just as much of a lack of perspective, subtlety, hard truths and realism between the covers of Something Borrowed as there is in Eleanor & Park.

I don’t read YA fiction as I used to, but I don’t think I deserve a pat on the back for that. I have a degree in English and, post-graduation, I try to keep challenging myself with tricky or complex literature. Every now and then I’ll kick back with something stupid, but I think that where so much of this argument over YA Lit has derailed is in the assumption — on both sides — that the fight was over people like me: “good” readers who had been converted to the dark side of unworthy books. Or else that people who might have given Moby-Dick a try are being lead astray by The Maze Runner.

While plenty of dyed-in-the-wool, serious bibliophiles have read their fair share of YA Lit into their 20s and beyond, the vast majority of people reading YA lit as adults are people who, if John Green didn’t exist, would be reading about spies or shoes or European trips of female self-discovery instead. And I don’t mean that in a patronizing way. The average film major is probably not waiting in breathless anticipation for the next Adam Sandler movie — and yet more people will go see
Grown Ups 7 than Lars von Trier’s next gloomy, surreal, “difficult” film.

Unless you love a medium and have been taught to think critically about it — and, most crucially, enjoy that process of critical thinking — you tend to use entertainment for the purpose of being entertained. Which is what all of this boils down to.

Why do adults read Young Adult fiction? Because it’s entertaining. Because it’s easy. Because most people don’t want to unwind after work with something that feels like work. And if you do care about books and view reading as a noble pursuit, consider this: at a time when countless book stores are closing their doors and libraries are being gutted, it doesn’t make sense to keep thrusting our collective noses in the air and demanding that people stop investing in the one genre keeping this industry afloat financially.

Ruth Graham, you’re better than this.

4 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Fighting About YA Lit?

  1. I’m sure that someone like me wouldn’t qualify even as an average reader,let alone a raging bibliophile in someone like Ruth Graham’s eyes.I still have some bones to pick with her though.The sole purpose of every book ever written is to resonate with the reader.To classify certain books as meaningful and the rest as drivel would mean making an initial assumption that all readers have homogeneous tastes and preferences.Which,needless to say is ridiculous.I’m not a huge fan of YA literature myself,and I try to keep reading as many different kinds of books as I can.But that doesn’t mean that I harbor a dismissive attitude towards the genre itself.We’re all entitled to our own opinions.For instance,I’ve never particularly enjoyed John Green,even though most people I know absolutely adore his writing.Stephen Chbosky, on the other hand, is a completely different story.I am in awe of how that man can pen down such complex emotions in a few nonchalant sentences.It seems to me,the fact that people are embracing these kinds of stories,ones that have an overwhelming message of kindness,courage and tolerance delivered in a simple, relatable tone,can only be a good thing.

  2. I may be ‘shallow’, and ‘immature’, but I find the few YA books I’ve read had more character development and emotional content than a some of the ‘adult’ books I’ve read (books that would no doubt be approved of by Ms.Graham).

    More difficult, and wrought with meaning doesn’t automatically mean better. A good story line, interesting character development, and a good plot (with/without a twist) are more important to me than elitism.

    I sometimes have the idea that reviewers tend to favour books that are ‘unlikable’ and difficult, in order to make themselves seem smarter. Yes, complexity can be a great thing, and challenging yourself with ‘great adult literature’ is good, but challenging yourself and enjoying yourself shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    At a time where people seem to be reading less, more constructive criticism might be a start. Why not say ‘hey, if you liked TFIOS, try reading Sense and sensibility next’.

  3. I wandered over and read that article, and I don’t think it actually says what you think it says. (Or at least I didn’t see you respond to her core message).

    She explicitly said that the issue wasn’t that the books were necessarily low quality or ‘drivel’, but rather that they are written from a teen perspective – which is something most of us have outgrown.

    Personally I think she makes a valid point about that – if you read nothing *but* YA then you *are* constraining your reading experience to subject matter and themes appropriate to teenagers.

    But saying adults should be embarrassed to read Young Adult literature is ludicrous. She seems to be assuming that, if you have a copy of “The Fault in Our Stars” in your hand then that forever assigns you to reading nothing but YA. Umm, no.

    As far as I’m concerned, YA offers one valid and interesting perspective amongst many. If you read nothing but YA, of *course* your reading will be limited – but then, isn’t that true of any genre?

    And to say that we shouldn’t read teen fiction because we’re adults? What next, saying that we shouldn’t read queer fiction if we’re straight? Or that we shouldn’t read books about women’s concerns if we’re male? Hmm. Probably should stop reading books from other countries to be safe, too. Otherwise we risk being exposed to a different perspective, right?

    • But it’s important to note that she says that the main problem with it being written from a teen perspective is that it means that there’s no deeper reflection and no harder truths. That’s what I choose to focus on.

      If you want to say you shouldn’t read YA because it doesn’t focus enough on reality and doesn’t challenge its readers, then you also have to say that adults should be ashamed of reading spy books or New York City PR lady shoe books that do the same thing.

      And of course she *would* say that, but her focus is YA simply because it’s popular.

      She also never explicitly says that she’s talking about adults who read nothing *but* YA.

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