Should You Be Embarrassed to Read YA? The Best Debate on the Internet
Ruth Graham’s Slate piece, “Against YA,” has everyone asking, “is YA embarrassing?” We had to weigh in. Below, two contrasting opinions of the debate of YA validity. We can’t wait to hear where you stand!
Grown-ups: We Are Better Than This, by Ester Bloom
“Embarrassment” is not a productive emotion, and “should” is not a useful word, so it’s understandable that Ruth Graham’s recent piece in Slate, “Against YA,” subtitled “You should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,” rubbed so many people the wrong way. Generally speaking, no one likes being what to do or not do, or how to feel, especially by finger-wagging strangers on the Internets.
Graham doesn’t do herself any favors when she derides pleasure as a primary motivator for reading.
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. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists. Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.
Aristotle, whose Poetics delves into the social function of art, might point out that adults, as well as children, benefit from catharsis. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “Aristotle criticizes orators who write exclusively from the intellect, rather than from the heart,” which is precisely what Graham is doing when she dismisses the intense emotional power of empathizing with other characters to the degree of weeping over and/or cheering for them. And Graham is not even consistent in her argument. She rolls her eyes at contemporary YA-favorite Eleanor & Park while seeming to give a thumbs up to campy network television and genre fiction:
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.
Could she possibly sound more grudging? I know. And yet. AND YET. Remember what the Dude says to his friend Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski? “You’re not wrong, you’re just an a**hole!” Sometimes people raise valuable ideas in awkward ways, and that can be a shame, because a lot of nuance can get lost in the indignant, knee-jerk response people often have when they feel criticized and shamed.
Kathleen Hale captures that nuance in her response on Nerve, “A Young Adult Author’s Fantastic Crusade to Defend Literature’s Most Maligned Genre,” which is so brilliant the Pulitzer Committee should invent a new category of Satire so they can give her an award. She skewers YA (“We locked eyes. We stared at each other so hard that we went blind. Then we listened to The Smiths and regained our sight”) while simultaneously making all necessary counterarguments to the anti-YA snobs (“Cultural arbiters have always been the richest, whitest, most male-dominated groups. Buying into this anti-commercial mindset that heralds esoteric writing reinforces patriarchal models. The more you lobby for the literary status quo, the more you reinforce sexist paradigms.”)
YA is comfort food. In this, it is like many other cliché-ridden genres, including Mystery, which for some reason escapes Graham’s censure; and there is nothing wrong with comfort food. We like it because we know what to expect, because, as Graham says, it’s satisfying in a primal way. But as Dumbledore puts it, at some point we all face a choice between what is right and what is easy. As an adult, you do not have an obligation to expand your mind, to challenge yourself, to expose yourself to new and potentially difficult ideas. But it is often the right thing to do. Graham’s tone sometimes gets in her way, but that’s all she is really trying to say.
Mature readers 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. A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love. I’ve also gotten purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton, whose age and canonhood have not stopped them from feeling fresh, true, and surprising. Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long.
Dickens, Wharton, Updike, and Munro all make Graham’s cut, even though, as many people have pointed out, Dickens was considered totally middlebrow back in the day and Updike has written about sexy witches. (More than once!) Graham is not saying “Eat your vegetables.” She’s saying, “Try some fruit.” She’s not urging us to give up fun, only to look for it in less expected places, in books that can teach us grown up lessons in addition to ones fit for teenagers.
Of course, books aspiring to the canon can be laughably self-serious, heavy with ornate description and lacking in any kind of “So what?” factor. I’d much rather read good YA like The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars than supposedly quality books like The Bonfire of the Vanities or Sister Carrie. But most of the time, as Lev Grossman has argued, the distinction between “genre” reads (escapism) and “literary” ones (art) is neither clear-cut nor especially important.
In that spirit, here is a sampling of great books written for adults that you might enjoy if you like YA. These novels are approachable, entertaining, well-written, exciting, and even occasionally feature elements of the supernatural. Don’t read them to please Ruth Graham, though that might be a fringe benefit. Read them to please—and also nourish—yourself.
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
City of Thieves, by David Benioff
In the Woods, by Tana French
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
Kafka on the Shore, bu Haruki Murakami
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker
The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine
The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Quick, by Lauren Owen
The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Time-Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Time and Again, by Jack Finney
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
Against Being Against YA, by Dahlia Adler
There’s a strange phenomenon in the journalistic world of reporting on Young Adult literature: reading it doesn’t seem to be a requirement of writing about it. All you really need to do is throw around the word “vampires,” either implicitly or explicitly discuss the silly trivialities of being a teenage girl (whether or not you once were one, because of course You’re Very Above That Now and aren’t teen girls silly, thinking they’re real people), and assess whether John Green is YA’s savior or if the category is just beyond saving. Voila! Instant byline.
These articles that denigrate YA based on minimal knowledge and palpable bitterness at the category’s success pop up about as often as Now, That’s What I Call Music! comes out with albums, and after a while, they become like flies at a picnic—they’re everywhere, they sure aren’t welcome, and they’re just leeching off of other people’s sustenance. But ultimately, they’re so irrelevant that you halfheartedly swat at them and ultimately learn to deal.
Then along came the Slate article “Against YA,” and it wasn’t just about the books: it was about the people reading them. It was a call to adult readers to feel ashamed for our love of YA. It was, perhaps, the most condescending, patronizing, shaming article yet, disguising itself as maintaining a shred of credibility because unlike those other articles, which waste their time making claims against “the transparently trashy stuff,” this author didn’t like The Fault in Our Stars! Or Eleanor & Park! Now that’s real YA derision.
Way to dig deep, Ms. Graham. Alllll the way into…the New York Times best sellers list. Maybe I’ll get embarrassed to read the brilliant work of authors like A.S. King and Melina Marchetta when you get embarrassed that you wrote an article disparaging readers and could only address titles coming to a theater near you.
The thing about book-shaming—whether YA or Romance or comic books—is that more than anything, it just declares to the world that the person doing the shaming isn’t well-read enough to have found the gems. Because every category and genre has them. And if your response to 50 Shades of Grey is to go off on how Romance is awful, rather than saying, “Maybe I’ll try The Siren instead,” or if Twilight makes you think all YA is about vampires (and even if it were, at least try Holly Black’s Coldest Girl in Coldtown before making blanket YA vampire declarations), how have you managed to convince yourself that you’re any kind of literary expert? In what world does the equivalent of “That was bad pizza—Italian food sucks” make you a legitimate critic?
For me, the most hilarious irony of the very existence of this Slate piece came to me in the form of it having been posted while I was knee-deep in I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, an incredibly beautiful YA novel that comes out this September and blows many, many works of “acceptable literature” out of the water. And as I was reading it, blissfully unaware of this stupidity happening on the internet, I thought, “This is exactly the kind of book I would recommend to anyone who ever thought YA was ‘Less Than.'”
Then I went online and thought, “Never mind, you don’t deserve it.”
When an article includes claims about the universality of “likable” protagonists in YA, those of us who are actually familiar with the category have to think, “Who on earth are you reading?” Because you’re not reading Courtney Summers, one of my absolute favorite YA authors, who’s notorious for her wonderfully layered, “unlikable” characters who never get neat, easy endings. You haven’t read Pointe by Brandy Colbert, one of this year’s best debuts, which is rife with explorations of the consequences of poor decisions. You certainly haven’t approached any of the thoughtful, brutally realistic books addressing the complexities of living in a culture of sexual violence, such as Fault Line by Christa Desir, Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian, or Leftovers by Laura Wiess.
But literary merit aside—and I could go on about YA books with unquestionable literary merit—there are so many reasons for adults to read YA that have nothing to do with wanting things to be “satisfying.” (Though I’ll unabashedly cop to liking that “general feelings of malaise and suburban ennui, with an affair and some metaphors in there” would never fly as a sufficient plot for a YA novel. And as much as I love contemporary fiction, I do mean unabashedly.) As a woman in the same 30–44 age bracket as the author of the Slate piece, I may not be or feel adolescent, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still possess rawness and malleability as an adult. Who you are as a teenager doesn’t completely and utterly disappear in ten or twenty years. The frank, emotional, at times brutal delivery of YA speaks to me as a person who still feels, as a person who enjoys reliving experiences of youth, as a person who appreciates the ability to look back on her life through a variety of lenses, as a person who thinks teenagers written like teenagers are very worthy subjects.
I’m thrilled that Ms. Graham agrees with me that there’s no shame in writing about teenagers, although in her version, it’s only okay if done for adults. Looking at a slightly more modern example than “Shakespeare,” Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt has a teenage protagonist, was marketed as general fiction, and has been roundly and rightfully applauded. But the truth is that had it been marketed as YA, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you don’t think those kinds of deeply complex relationships or social issues are all over YA, you’re just. Not. Reading it.
Which we already knew.
You should try it sometime.
Is reading YA embarrassing?