On June 6, 2014, freelance journalist Ruth Graham wrote an article for the online magazine Slate entitled “Against YA” that was published with the tagline, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Using as her main examples John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, she says that, while perhaps more sophisticated than YA lit of years past, the works are still written for teens; they are uncritical of the teen perspective and are simplistic in their endings. She even avows that “the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” (as if that’s a bad thing).
Of course, the backlash was immediate and intense – something that should surprise no one (and one has to wonder if perhaps that’s what she was going for in the first place… I mean, c’mon!). Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post points out that plenty of “adult” reading material is unsophisticated, escapist and “hitting the pleasure centers of the brain and providing endings that satisfy our most childish sense of fairness” (urging us to compare John Green’s teen-aged protagonists to John Grisham’s “blandly handsome crusading lawyers”, for example). And Julie Beck in The Atlantic states, “The best part of a story, to me, has always been watching characters change. And what unites works of YA fiction, whether set on suburban streets or on a spaceship in the future, is how quickly and how dramatically its characters experience change. It makes sense—teenage years are the time of greatest turmoil, of most radical growth. And narratives of change always resonate, even if, as adults, our own changes often happen more subtly.”
A few days after her Slate article appeared, Ms. Graham was interviewed by National Public Radio where she stated that there have been two main “strains” of criticism of her article. The first, that YA literature of today is richer than she gives it credit, she admits is valid. But she says the other line of criticism, which “boils down to how dare you tell me what to read” is troubling because the purpose of criticism is “to make distinctions between good things and bad things and between complicated things and simplistic things.”
I actually find Ms. Graham’s response to those reacting to her article to be more troubling than the article itself. This idea that criticism is to parse the good from the bad, the complicated from the simplistic, is giving journalists such as herself far more credibility than they deserve. She is not a critic. There is practically no scholarly criteria utilized in her argument, no broader basis for her assertions than what she herself believes. She takes her own observations, slathers them with her own opinions and presents them as the way it should be. This is not criticism, this is someone standing on a soapbox. It’s unfortunate that the soapbox she was able to step up onto let her voice carry so well.
As someone who reads a lot, I get frustrated when I see someone – anyone – try to lay out a formula for what one should or should not read based on some concept of “value”. This time around it was Young Adult fiction. Before it’s been other genres, such as science fiction and fantasy. Or fiction vs non-fiction. The classics vs popular culture. Rhythmic poetry vs free verse.
The thing is – what other people think really doesn’t matter. Regardless of who you are, you should read what you want to read and not let anyone else make you feel lesser for doing so, at least those books that you choose to read for pleasure. So what that Ruth Graham thinks you should be embarrassed if you’re an adult and choose to read a YA novel? Who’s she? Some person who got a byline on Slate, period. Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian says that a study proves that reading literary fiction vs popular fiction or non-fiction makes you a “smarter reader”. So what?
When it comes to reading – what you read – you don’t have to justify your pleasures to anyone besides yourself. The “why” is not a question that you need to worry about or feel compelled to defend.
This does not mean that schoolchildren should not be required to read Shakespeare, even if they find the language to be daunting. Nor that anyone who wishes to expand their horizons should refrain from reading texts that challenge their ideas, their abilities, their sensibilities. I would not be the person I am today had I not been forced to read books and authors that did not immediately appeal to me: William Faulkner, Philip Roth, William Carlos Williams, JD Salinger. Without them, I would not have discovered Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Fyodor Dostoyevsky… William Faulkner – those writers who I now treasure.
Without being pressed to read a wide swath of authors in my earlier years, I might not have learned that there is so much wonderful literature out there to explore, sometimes hidden, sometimes quiet. But the most valuable lesson was not who to read, but simply to read, regardless of the who, regardless of the tacit “shoulds” attached. Without this knowledge, I may not now be devouring the Jacqueline Careys, the John Scalzis, the Corey Doctorows, the China Miévilles – or the John Greens and the Rainbow Rowells – and that would have been a grave disservice to the person I am in whom I take the greatest pride: someone who reads. Someone who loves to read, who loves to push beyond the world in which I myself am constrained to walk.
So when I read the Ruth Grahams of the world, my reaction is, “so what?” Who are they to tell me what I should or should not read, to regulate as true that which is valuable according to their own skewered sets of criteria? Their opinions are theirs and they are welcome to them, but they are not my opinions, are not my sensibilities, are not my flights of fancy. Nor are they yours. Read what you want, whether it be Pride and Prejudice, Gone Girl, Fiddlehead, The Empathy Exams, Gone With the Wind, the Harry Potter books or even Fifty Shades of Gray.
Embrace your own opinions. Be free to enjoy what you enjoy, sans derision, sans embarrassment. To quote one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite authors, the voices that tell you otherwise are simply making noise, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The hoopla they stir up truly is much ado about nothing, and it’s fine and dandy to dismiss it as such.