Friday, June 6, 2014

I'm a Grown Woman, I Can Read Whatever I Want!

I know I shouldn't reward this click bait by giving it exactly what the author wants, but, hell, isn't that a good two-thirds of the internet by now? Click bait getting more than it deserves?

Ruth Graham has a post at Slate bemoaning the fact that adults read Young Adult (YA) fiction and (the horror) enjoy it!

She tries to justify this bit of snobbery in a couple of different ways. First, she's concerned about our use of YA lit as inadequately motivated:
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.
Secondly, she reminds us that the real world isn't as simple as that portrayed in these books:
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.  
Wait, what?! You mean life isn't just a series of Katniss Everdeen-inspired montages? Real life is hard? If only I hadn't wasted all that time reading The Giver I might have been better prepared for applying for that home loan!

As someone who just downloaded The Fault in Our Stars on Audible and who read The Hunger Games in three days, I have to say how much I vehemently disagree with this author's stance. Reading YA fiction as an adult is a pleasure for the very reasons noted in this piece: escapism, satisfying (even if sometimes simplistic) conclusions, and a quick read.

My main problem with arguments like this one is that it treats reading as an all or nothing activity. If you read YA fiction, then you can't possibly also read Foucault or Shakespeare or Woolf.

It's ridiculous, and it's something that we don't extend to any other of life's activities. I watch Knocked Up and Citizen Kane. I eat macaroni and cheese from a box and gourmet pasta marinated in a reduction sauce. There have been times when I was running while listening to The Hunger Games and reading Hannah Arendt in the same day.

I guess you better not come to my dinner party, Ms. Graham.

I read YA literature, and I'm not ashamed.

This isn't just a personal defense of my own tastes, however. (I have watched Con Air more times than should be legally allowed and realize that I'm not in much of a position to protest my own bad taste). This is about the way that we police the boundaries of acceptability when it comes to literary practices. Reading is good for you. It's good for your brain, makes you more empathetic, and is fun! It's one thing to not enjoy YA novels yourself (though I have to say, I think thou doth protest a bit too much, Graham), but actively saying other people should be ashamed for finding enjoyment in reading is mean-spirited and irresponsible.

As a teacher of developmental English, I have plenty of adult students who have tons of life experience, intelligence, and accomplishments. They are often, though, not readers. Reading has often been an intimidating, boring, laborious task. Many of them find some respite in YA literature that leads into more comfort reading in other contexts. And if it doesn't? Well, then I'd rather people find the pleasures of reading where they can get them than not at all, and shame on Graham for trying to take that away.

Photos: cheri, Pearl Pirie


  1. Pssst, you can use to link to sites you don't want to help increase their ranking in search engines.

  2. I think YA Lit is far more harmful for YAs than adults. Adults can see the escapism and easy endings for what they are. Teens are more likely to internalize what they read and use it to form their worldviews. I think if an adult wants to read Twilight, that's fine. But for a teen girl to read it and think that the obsessive, abusive relationship between Edward and Bella is romantic is problematic.

  3. This is the same B.S. train of thought for why people shouldn't read romance novels or graphic novel - it's not realistic, it's shallow, it's immature, it's not literature etc.
    As someone who reads YA, some romance (you can pry my trashy paranormal romance from my cold dead hands, thank you very much) and a fair amount of graphic novels, I'm always left wondering how people who proudly proclaim that they don't read the genre, think they can actually talk about the genre in authoritative ways.

    YA is uncritical with pat endings? Really? Have you read Accidents of Nature or Between Shades of Grey? No? Why not?

    Basing an analysis of YA on a handful of popular series/title is like saying that adult fiction is wholly represented by Dan Brown and Clive Cussler.

    But of course she goes, there too, and sneakily decries the reading of popular adult fiction as well. "And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose." But bashing popular adult fiction, in this instance detective novels, is not as acceptable as bashing YA.

    It seems like YA, and other genres associated with children or women, are always targets of these types of criticisms. If it's really about how terrible it is that people are reading for enjoyment instead of some ambiguous growth/education goal, then where are the articles bemoaning how all of these grown adults are reading military thrillers, westerns, true crime novels, horror, or any other genre that is not clearly marked as for children or women?
    This feels much more like a lashing back against a particular type of popular culture that is breaking the rules of who gets to have cultural power. Children are not supposed to have cultural power, and so when their fiction starts to become a part of the cultural economy, it could be seen as threatening. If you feel like you personally gain cultural capital by being "well-read," then shifting boundaries of what people expect you to have read can feel personally threatening.

    Not all reading has to be profound. Not all reading has to push your understanding of the world. Not all reading has to be a deep experience.

    If it's not okay to read for fun, then people will never develop the patience and reading skills it takes to get into a dense "literary" (I hate how this word gets used to mean anything that's not accessible) novel.

    To borrow a line, life is short, and there is too much fun to be had with books to worry about what other people think of my reading choices.

  4. Pretty much every time an article bemoans The Sad State Of Literature Today, the author attacks female-centric stuff: YA (primarily written and read by women), romance, paranormal fantasy but not urban fantasy, SF written by ~~ladies~~ etc. If the author isn't attacking specific genres, but instead low brow lit in general, the authors he mentions by name tend to be female. It's EXTREMELY gendered. These articles aren't written about Dan Brown, John Grisham, James Patterson, etc. There's a whole lot of poorly written escapist "beach reads" out there, but they're really only dragged through the mud where women are concerned.

  5. "Children are not supposed to have cultural power, and so when their fiction starts to become a part of the cultural economy, it could be seen as threatening."

    I think you are absolutely right. Dismissing children's literature as irrelevant is all about cultural power and economy and a means to maintain power for the status quo. It's funny because that's essentially the exact reason that fiction in general was dismissed as "not serious" enough. We're still trying to shore up the same boundaries of power, but--thankfully--I think they are ever widening.

  6. A few years ago, I spent a year teaching a basic high school ESL class. Essentially, these were students who had difficulty writing an academic sentence in English -- but had the overall social and mental maturity of the adolescents they were. The readings in the district-approved textbook were stripped down, simplified, and -- well -- boring as fuck.

    So we found supplemental readings. We read Esperanza Rising, Gingerbread, The Outsiders, and The Chocolate War. And you know? They read. Books. They were motivated to read because the content was interesting and relevant to them, and they were motivated to analyze because they wanted to really understand what they'd read. (It's so much more interesting for students to answer questions like, "Why is this happening?" or "Why does this matter?" rather than, "What happened in chapter X?")

    The coming years showed that their standardized test (yay, mandatory state testing! *barf*) scores and graduation rates were in line with the general population of the school. Not perfect -- but then again, one could only hope to find such a satisfying conclusion at the end of a YA novel. ;)

    And you know? Of those four books, only one -- The Outsiders -- was one I'd read as a child/adolescent myself. If I hadn't continued reading YA lit into adulthood, how would I have known which novels to choose for my students?

    Dear Ms. Graham, please stop demeaning some of the most important professional development I do. :P

  7. Stephanie WhitenerJune 24, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    I love this. It is sad to think that there are haters out there for people who are reading. Regardless of what is being read, people are taking the time to read. And as you said, it does put people in these boxes that if they read YA one time, they must be reading YA ALL the time. Sometimes I read these books because I want to connect with my students and have something to talk about with them. (But I will admit, that a majority of the time it is out of my own personal pleasure.) Nothing wrong with diversifying your taste. I still watch Disney movies, but that does not make me a child.