I thought I’d better say something about the infamous "Against YA" article in Slate, since, you know…I have a degree in this subject.
A few days ago, Slate contributor Ruth Graham wrote a piece
in which she chided adults for reading young adult fiction. YA is alright for
teens, she says, but grown-ups should be “embarrassed” if the bulk of their
library consists more of YA than adult literature. She laments that about half
of all YA books are purchased by readers who are
above the target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds. To her, that’s a problem.
It would be hard to find any article with which I disagree
more thoroughly—and not just because I happen to write the genre that she’s
suggesting adults abandon. I find her argument flawed in nearly every
paragraph, and feel the need to defend a genre that adults are finally
beginning to wake up to.
The first thing I disagreed with was her ham-fisted usage
of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our
Stars, which she simultaneously misinterprets and manipulates to suit her
I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever
written about the book, when I read The
Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm,
that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest,
it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me
heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that
features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love
with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of
saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a
European vacation he arranged.
Absent, of course, is any mention of what Fault In Our Stars is actually about. Props
to her for finding the one detail in the book that sounds stereotypically
teenage-ish and wording it in the shallowest way possible. She conveniently
omits that it’s a book about a teen with cancer who struggles with the
knowledge of what her death will mean to her loved ones, and can’t seem to find
any meaning in what’s happening to her.
But I guess no one wonders about life and death, or worries
about hurting people, or gets cancer past age 13?
It’s actually quite ironic that she uses the age 13. That’s
the age I was when I watched my grandmother die of cancer. And all those questions that are central to the book—about the meaning or not-meaning of
death, the messiness of death, and our struggle to live with its reality—were not
resolved in my mind when my grandmother died. They were only beginning. They never truly
got resolved, and they never can be, which is why the book haunts me so at age
30. Why she thinks a preteen is the only one for whom this book is appropriate
is beyond me. If she figured out the answers to death at age 14, I sure wish
she’d come share it with me.
She also has this to say:
But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the
enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification,
and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for
Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA
aims to be pleasurable.”
I’m not sure what she counts as a “myriad” since she
doesn’t explain who she polled and/or interviewed, but I don’t know anyone who
would self-identify as reading YA for instant gratification. Believe me; anyone
who was into Harry Potter while the
series was unfinished understands the utter futility of wishing for instant
But on a serious note, I’m baffled as to why she made this
claim. General YA readers truly don’t, in my experience, say that the books
allow them instant gratification or are primarily about nostalgia. Most readers
of YA read a book because the protagonist is interesting and the story is
captivating. Isn’t that why we read any
book? Also, how does the word “pleasurable” imply escapism or nostalgia? I find
many adult books “pleasurable” that are far from escapist or nostalgic, and
plenty of YA, too.
But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in
a fundamentally uncritical way.
I’m not even sure what she means here. She seems to imply
that viewing the world from a teen perspective becomes obsolete once you gain
enough life experience.
But who says? Who says that teens see life in a
fundamentally different way from adults? Yes, it’s true that we (hopefully)
develop a more nuanced understanding of the world past age 18. We learn
to take social slights with a grain of salt, we quit stressing about pimples,
we start to see our parents as people rather than decrepit caretakers. But
there are many things about life that we do
see accurately as teenagers. By the time I went to college, I had done much observing of life and death and hope and spirituality and social dynamics
and dreams. Whatever immaturity hang-ups teens have, it doesn’t disqualify them
from also knowing good and true things. In fact, sometimes I think I was wiser
about certain issues—such as my work-life balance—at 17 than I am at 30.
Ironically, there’s even a scene from Fault In Our Stars that makes this very argument! (The scene in the
Ann Frank House, anyone?)
Furthermore, when I’m, say, 50, should I stop reading adult
literature that has 30-year-old protagonists? After all, I will have outgrown
the 30-year-old perspective on life, according to Graham’s theory. Should we
divide adult literature into “middle-age” and “elderly" genres and get snooty
about the age groups directly below ours?
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the
kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to
reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through
weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the
emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in
evidence in YA fiction.
I take it she’s never read Hunger Games, which ends with the PTSD-riddled protagonist becoming
estranged from the former lover involved in her sister’s death, and struggling
to make a relationship with a man who formed a trauma-induced attachment to
I guess The Hanged
Man is not on her shelf. It’s about a girl who comes to terms with being
molested and ends the novel plotting how to save her best friend from a
self-destructive fate (we never see the outcome).
Let’s assume she skipped my friend Sara Farizan’s book If You Could Be Mine, which ends on an emotionally
devastating note when a character realizes she married someone she can't love, and
can’t do anything about it.
Do these books count as the “nowhere” that the ambiguity of
the real world is evidenced in YA fiction?
For that matter, has Graham read any adult fiction? If
emotionally “satisfying” endings that look to the future are a sign of
immaturity, then we must re-categorize popular adult works like To Kill A Mockingbird, Rosie, Lord of the Rings, and Gilead, as being overly-simplistic YA.
All of these have very satisfying endings and thus don’t fit her vision of the
supposedly adult, supposedly real, world.
To be honest, this article got my dander up so hard because
I hate when satisfaction and hope are seen as childish fantasies that one
outgrows. If one seriously believes this, why would one even get up in the
morning, let alone stare at a glowing monitor and type a series of symbols in
hopes to create meaning and communicate with fellow creatures about the genre
of meaning-making symbols they read?
You may think I’m waxing philosophical, but really.
We walk around and form attachments and contribute to society because we think
there is some spark of hope in what we do, some meaning, and we follow that instinct in spite of ambiguity and hardship.
It’s not that kids enjoy hopeful endings because they haven’t learned better;
it’s that people enjoy hopeful
endings because their hearts just won’t stop yearning that direction.
Let’s finish this train wreck. Graham proves that she
hasn’t actually understood Fault In Our
Stars when she claims that the protagonist Hazel “finds messy, unresolved
stories unacceptably annoying,” (even though Hazel is the character who
constantly reminds others that the prospect of death is pointless and messy and
irresolvable through platitudes). Graham gives hollow lip service to politeness
by claiming that she doesn’t wish to shame anyone’s reading list (this is the blogger’s
equivalent of the “No offense, but…” routine, in which yes, one actually does
mean offense). She encourages adults to read about protagonists they can’t
empathize with (I guess Ann Lamott will now have to be considered a YA writer,
because Lamott is famous for stating in her book Bird by Bird that “I like for narrators to be like the people I
choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as
I.”) And finally, she states that adults are “better” than all this satisfying
If being an adult means going beyond hope, satisfaction,
and empathy, then, my friend, I am not along for the ride. I will remain a
young adult for the rest of my life, along with many of the most famous adult
writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
And that’s really where the subject touches home for me. It’s
not just about the lack of knowledge of the YA genre, nor the logical fallacies
in her article, nor the frustration of a writer arguing about books she doesn’t
understand, or even the hair-tearing at watching someone claim her insults aren’t
insulting. This is also about whether adults are allowed to be hopeful—whether cynicism
is the mandatory mantle of the high school graduate. She seems to think that
with increased intellect and life experience comes decreased satisfaction and
hope and pleasure.
Probably the best thing I can say in response to that, is
J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius. Really, the man was no dummy.
He invented, in one lifetime, the kind of mythology that typically takes
centuries to develop. He was fluent in several dead languages, and snored his
way through school at Oxford, where he ended up teaching.
This extremely intelligent adult also had a very hard life.
He grew up with no father and lost his mother at a young age, forever scarring
him emotionally. As a teenage orphan, he was separated from the love of his life
for many years due to the short-sighted decision of his legal guardian. When he later found his love and married her, they often had a difficult home life, strained
even further when he went away to the horrors of World War I. He saw friends
die. He lurched through middle age carrying the emotional battle scars and
living what most would consider a drab and unremarkable life, lost his wife
years before his own death, and finally passed away without fanfare or trumpets
in the 1970s.
Yet this remarkable man, much smarter and more acquainted
with the sorrows of the world than I or Ruth Graham will probably ever be,
coined the term “eucatastrophe,” which means a sudden and unexpected reversal
from bad circumstances into incredibly good ones. It is described as a sudden “turn”
from sorrow to joy.
Tolkien once commented on how frequently we experience
eucatastrophes in real life…and how infrequently in the modern novel.
Labels: bad arguments, childhood, critique, fiction, hope, nostalgia, stories, teen years, writing