Under The Bus

Jules Verne by mac.rj

Jules Verne by mac.rj

“Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed
when what you’re reading was written for children.” – Ruth Graham

That was the subtitle to the piece published in Slate back in June titled “Against YA.” In the piece, Ms. Graham doesn’t just throw YA fiction under the bus. She stops and backs the bus up and throws any adult who reads YA under it as well.

According to her, if you’re an adult who reads YA, you should feel ashamed.

I guess you might want to find some secret, special, hideaway place to do your reading where no one will find you (like the image above).

What a bunch of hooey!

Look, Ms. Graham is entitled to her opinions, by all means. She even has a right to try to persuade others to share her views. And, truthfully, there isn’t a single person (adult or otherwise) who should feel ashamed of what they read or what they enjoy or why they do so based on the opinion of someone else.

It’s not her point-of-view that offends me as much as the way she presents it.

When the article came out, I admit, I was a tad bit hot (as were, it appears, many others – apparently the piece was shared on Facebook alone over 70,000 times). Not because I felt slighted as a writer of YA books, or even as a reader, but because Ms. Graham had just used writing, this art form that I love, to enact one of my biggest pet peeves.

Some of Lafayette’s Pet Peeves:

Prejudice (of any kind)
Abuse, Neglect, and Other Forms of Cruelty
Intentional Manipulation or Deception of Others

Ms. Graham’s commentary on YA fiction and, even worse, on adults who choose to read such fiction, is quite prejudicial.

That’s one of the primary themes of my writing, so naturally I was miffed. But I was also curious. Filled with wonder.

It would seem Ms. Graham is educated. She’s certainly wily enough to shape her argument in such a way to put the onus back on the reader – if you agree with her, then based on the logic she employes you’re an “actual” adult. If you think she’s “heartless,” well, then you need to grow up because you’re really just pretending, it seems, to be adult material. After all, she suggests there are only two types of people who would have an opinion such as hers – the heartless or “actual” adults. Yep.

Ms. Graham wisely removes anyone from the conversation who doesn’t qualify his or her adulthood based on what he or she is reading (or even more importantly based on the reasons behind why).

In his autobiographical essay, “Shame,” Dick Gregory wrote:
“I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”

Today, you don’t even need to go to school to learn shame. Just read a book written for a child. Well, that, and then read Ms. Graham’s review.

You know, in all those psychology classes I took in college, I don’t recall Maslow or Piaget or any of the other experts identifying the stage of “adulthood” based on what you read or why you read it.

But maybe I’m just fooling myself. I mean, I read YA all the time. Heck, maybe I’ve regressed into (or merely sustained) adolescent me.

Ms. Graham states that “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.’”

Really? I’ve interviewed a few authors who write YA and none of them have ever mentioned that they write with the INTENTION of providing pleasure. They have, however, stated that they write to understand, and to explore, and to make sense of things that often seem inexplicable.

Ms. Graham alludes to “the myriad defenders of YA fiction,” yet I’m unfamiliar as to her sources. From what studies does she glean her information? She identifies a single expert, as if one person’s claim that, at its heart, “YA aims to be pleasurable” makes it definitive.

Another conclusion that begs the question, based on what information? I don’t see any citations as to those defenders she’s using to reinforce her position. I guess when you’re an actual adult you don’t need to support your comments, you merely need to say it and it is so.

But wait, isn’t The Hobbit identified as a book for children? Isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird (my favorite novel of all time) considered a YA novel? Aren’t other “classics,” like The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, Oliver Twist (scribed by one of the authors Ms. Graham mentions when she does her name-dropping as writers worthy of true adults), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and may others, considered books for children today?

Some of Lafayette’s Favorite Novels Deemed Written for Teens or Young Adults:

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Hobbit
Harry Potter Series
The Book Thief
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Fat Kid Rules the World
Every Day
How I Live Now

The Book ThiefI’m not going to suggest that reading Fat Kid is the same as reading The Sound and the Fury (another of my all-time favorite novels) or Kite Runner or A Passage to India. But it has quite a bit of value, especially when it comes to its themes and to a rather authentic view of someone who is obese and hyper-self-aware. Someone who doesn’t feel like he fits in. Someone who feels isolated and unworthy.

Reading a book to experience the perspective of such a person can be valuable, especially for someone who doesn’t have such a life.

Dear Ms. Graham – practicing empathy is as important a value as expanding the intellect or encountering “astonishing sentences” or experiencing “plot-based highs,” though some YA novels provide those opportunities as well.

Is Feed as intellectually demanding as Brave New World?

No. The prose might not be as sophisticated, but the concepts presented in Feed strongly echo those of Huxley’s novel. Anderson has updated the ideas, however, focusing more specifically on the inescapable influence technology has on every aspect of our lives. He has made it more relevant to teens (and to contemporary adults).

One of Ms. Graham’s reasons for disregarding anyone who reads YA is this: “When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of ‘He’d never get enough of her,’ the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?”

I haven’t read other criticism by Ms. Graham, so perhaps this is a method she commonly employs. Although, perhaps she’s just a very wily writer who knows that pushing buttons will generate much more buzz than her article truly deserves (Slate seems to have mastered the art of pushing buttons). Write about a genre or about the people who enjoy that particular genre and get a decent amount of people to read your work, especially if you’re writing it for Slate. Write an article in such a way as to appear condescending, in part by pretending to not be condescending, and stand back and watch the chain reaction.

Doesn’t Ms. Graham presume quite a bit?

If not, I certainly envy her telepathic ability to know what readers are expected to do, or to feel, or to think.

Of course, maybe she contacted Rainbow Rowell and simply asked, “Is that what you were going for?” Though, for some reason, I imagine it was much more appealing to her to come to a conclusion and to suppose and to present it all as knowledge, as certainty, without inquiring.

Is it possible the narrator of Rowell’s novel is merely conveying a fact regarding his adolescent feelings at the time (infatuation, love, call it what you will)? That he will never get enough of her?! Has Ms. Graham ever spent time with a teenager, watched the heart-filled notebook become scratch-filled too with alteration after alteration during the course of a school year?

Infatuation, love, it doesn’t matter what the feeling is, at the time it is felt it seems real. It feels real. And it often seems an indelible part of the relationship and of the people in that relationship (of the boy and of the girl).

The point Ms. Graham seems willing to dismiss is that the intended audience is the adolescent (who range from thirteen-ish to twenty-six-ish).

Anyone in America could travel to the nearest mall, scout out the food court, and find at least one person in that age group experiencing something very near to those feelings revealed in Rowell’s novel almost any day of the week.

Does reading about someone who feels that strongly for someone else mean the reader pines for such a relationship? Or reminisces? Or clings perhaps to the past? Or that experiencing those things vicariously through a novel makes that novel less valuable?

In my experience, adults who choose to read YA books tend to do so with intention.

They want to know what teens are reading, they enjoy the genre, just as other adults enjoy sci-fi or horror or mystery novels, just as many adults enjoy romance and other pop fiction, while others still (Ms. Graham included) might prefer literary fiction or the classics.

The immensely successful Fifty Shades of Gray wasn’t written for a fifteen year old, but that doesn’t mean it’s literary, or that the person who reads it is any more or any less adult than the person who doesn’t.

I’m curious as to when adulthood became defined based on the “quality” of literature one read.

That’s what Ms. Graham is saying. In order to be an actual adult, you have to not just read classics (or other contemporary literary fare), but prefer them. You can’t have any other objective or reason for reading.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe, I’m heartless or narrow-minded for not reading Ms. Graham’s prose and thinking, wow, now here’s someone mature and insightful. This person must read the sort of books that make you a genuine adult.

UntitledYAbooksI wonder if Ms. Graham has read any other John Green novels? How about Every Day by David Levithan? The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson? Is she speaking of the current crop of YA books? Is she familiar with crossover books?

I would venture to guess that YA fiction does aim to be pleasurable – sometimes.

But, as someone who writers in that genre, I can say that it also aims to examine and to explain and to try to make sense of one of the most challenging times in any human’s life, most particularly because it is a time of irrational action and impulse and an assortment of changes that seem inexplicable.

The world we’re taught as children that should be isn’t. The illusion which innocence allows us to believe in is often suddenly replaced by a less than ideal reality. YA fiction aims at both. It aims at catching a glimpse of the world as it should be, but also shows us the way things are (some kids get cancer, as in Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars, the movie release of that books seems to be what set Ms. Graham off in the first place). The juxtaposition of the way things should be ideally and the way they tend to be really is a paradox, an unfairness, that most teens have to work through.Some teens handle it better than others, as evidenced by the teens in Green’s novel. YA books often reveal movement in an upstairs window that we might not otherwise see, but which see might remind us of what it’s like to be a teen (and that, in and of itself, is enough reason to read YA).

I wonder, Ms. Graham, is Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, escapist? Does it provide instant gratification?

“Most importantly,” writes Graham, “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.”

That comment suggests that providing an ending that is the desired outcome, even if it’s unrealistic, is something adults shouldn’t aspire to read about. Wanting the happy ending is wrong. Merely because one is old enough to know better.

In other words, cynics unite!

Part of the reason teenagers seek those endings is because they still believe in the possibility of things, in the potential for happy endings, thanks to everything they are taught from the very beginning of their respective lives (presumably by adults). I mean, we build them up to believe things that aren’t always the way it turns out.

Ideals help shape young people.

But, of course, as Ms. Graham suggests, having those ideals once you’ve become an actual adult is shameful, superfluous.

“Fellow grown-ups,” she adds, “at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this. I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the ‘everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like’ ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. 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.”

What if they’re substituting teen dramas for no literature at all?

As a literate adult who never read a thing as a child (an adult who has read many of the top 100 literary novels as defined by the authorities who make such lists), I will say this: reading “maudlin teen dramas” as opposed to not reading at all is a step in the right direction – whether you are a child or an adult.

Not everyone has had the precocious childhood where reading was an option or a luxury.

When less than 10% of high school students read anything at all on their own, getting them to read something is better than nothing. Passing judgment on a reader, however, based on Ms. Graham’s perception of what qualifies as literature or of what qualifies as a serious adult, implies a rather lofty self-perception.

She’s the authority it seems on what makes a book worth reading.

What about books that present the very things people struggle with (regardless of age) – things like mortality and love and kindness (or a lack thereof)?

What about books that examine protagonists who overcome fear and self-doubt? Teens who face a life-changing crisis with hope? Who strive for the happy ending, not because they’re simple or foolish, but  because they haven’t given up believing it’s possible.

It’s a shame, really, that Ms. Graham must not know this, but there are some “serious” adults who still believe in (and some who have actually found their own) happy endings.

I suppose someone should enlighten those people. Tell them they’re living a lie. Tell them that it’s just not possible.

“But mature readers,” claims Ms. Graham, “also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.”

There’s another study I’m anxious to read? What defines a mature reader? Is she talking about the person who lives across the hall from her who told her this news in the stairwell one afternoon or is this based on some sort of expansive sampling of responses from “mature” readers who have been confounded and discomfited by books?

And what exactly is a more intricate kind of satisfaction? Is it pleasurable, I wonder? Gratifying?

The heroine in TFIOS is a teen not yet ready to accept the reality that life isn’t about clean endings and resolution. It’s called irony. The fact that Ms. Graham doesn’t get that, for all her presumed insights, only magnifies the density of that irony.

Cognitively, teens wrestle with the paradox of life being the way it should be (based on things like logic and reason and ideals that so-called grown-ups tend to teach them) and the way it is (i.e. perceived reality). Lack of closure is vexing for many people regardless of age or adult status, but yes, perhaps especially for a teen who might be about to experience her own final ending without any sense of closure.

For Ms. Graham to suggest that examining a desire for closure isn’t important enough to warrant reading begs the question, what particular intentions are needed to make the reading of any book valuable? Serious? Adult?

Ms. Graham goes on to list some of her recent literary accomplishments, as if reading such works raises her esteem and her ability to talk about such things.

I know scores of people who read Brave New World at the age of sixteen, but reading that serious literature didn’t make them adults. The term Pishposh comes to mind.

I’ve read Shakespeare and Faulkner and Hemingway and Ibsen and Chekov and . . .

So what!?!

The Sound and the Fury, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World. Great Expectations. They’re wonderful works of literature. But literary work is not for everyone. Would I love it if every kid read the classics? Heck yes. There’s so much to be gleaned and much of the writing is gorgeous! It’s often exquisite. I mean, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Wow. But reading for other reasons that art appreciation also has its place.

Jacqueline Woodson, a very talented author who writes for children and young adults spoke at Spalding University back in 2011 and she mentioned that writers often write about the time in their lives through which they’re still working their way.

Authors write as a way of trying to make sense of an often insensible time. Most of those authors are adults. Intelligent. Creative. Serious. Why can’t other adults read those same works as a way of working through those very same times and obstacles?

Is it possible that some adults read such books for the rawness or the authenticity? Or maybe to reconnect with a sense of compassion and hope.

“But don’t take my word for it,” writes Ms. Graham. “Here’s Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film. ‘Last year, when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence,’ she told New York magazine this week, explaining why she is finished making teenage movies. ‘But I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a woman.’”

And maybe that’s the problem. As adults, we’re not expected to empathize with adolescence anymore. Maybe that’s what Ms. Graham resents most? Not just the ability some adults have, but their sheer interest to at least continue to try.

“Jules Verne” photo by mac.rj  is used as per Creative Commons License on Flickr.