Friday, June 13, 2014

Just Read All the Books. There, Solved.

Did you read this Slate article from last week about how grownups who read YA fiction should be ashamed of themselves? Well, what the author actually says is that adults who read fiction intended for young adults should be embarrassed, which makes all the difference in the world. I read the article before I read any of the backlash, and I didn't think the author was YA-shaming, although butthurt and snarky articles have appeared all over the internet arguing that she was.

I don't really have a dog in this fight. Which may be why the article initially made almost no impression on me, aside from a feeling of justification that I stopped reading Slate entirely after its format change. (It's too busy, and I haaaate their new font.) Some lady thinks YA books aren't complex enough for grownups. So she's a snob. Yawn. But the more I thought about this, the more it troubled me.

Did I write here about Code Name Verity when I read it last year? [quick search] Look at that, I sure did.
I recently read another book that I adored in exactly the opposite way: with my heart, my whole heart, instead of mostly my brain. It was Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, a historical YA novel set in WWII - and two out of three of those criteria make the book really not my sort of thing at all. Still, I'll never look on its like again. What a treasure. I don't want to tell you about the time that my heart stopped and didn't really get going again for another two chapters, or the time I cried, or the other time I cried. It's all too spoilery. Just read it, one page at a time, and DON'T read the summary on the jacket.
I don't remember the last time a book broke my heart the way that book did. So I'll be recommending it to people for years to come, but I'll do it on the same criterion that I recommend other favorites - namely, whether I think the person will like the book - with no real regard for where it's placed in the bookstore.

Is this too complex a way to look at the world, Ruth Graham? Too adult of me, to judge individual books by their content and not their classification?

That's mostly what bothered me about the article. Not that it was judgy about adults who choose to read YA, but that it painted all YA with the same brush. After falling in love with Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, I picked up a couple of his Keys to the Kingdom books, but they were not for me. Too simplistic, too YA-Hero's Journey, without the interesting characterization present in the Abhorsen books. But the fact that the same guy wrote YA that's too simple for my taste doesn't take away from my belief that an adult fantasy fan will probably like the Abhorsen books. Nor from my belief that Code Name Verity is as good as reading gets.

I also think any argument that rests upon "we're better than this" is doomed to fail. No, we aren't. And not every adult reader is a sophisticated one; some people read YA because that's all the complexity their brains can handle. That's just true, and it's not something that can be judged good or bad. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon, either. People who are qualified to write book reviews in national publications are already in a minuscule pie piece of the population (even if all their friends are there, too), and I think the author of this article kind of forgot that. Besides, even sophisticated readers can enjoy simple books. It's like Shaker furniture vs. Louis XIV; sometimes simple stuff has its own beauty, even if you can plainly see the joints.

But I can't dismiss Graham's article completely, because I see her point. Sort of. If her point is "there is more to life than YA," I see her point. She's right, there is. But there are Very Adult books that are patronizing and didactic (Charles Dickens, "fresh and surprising"? What the Dickens did you read?), and there are YA books so sophisticated that I think the editor who designated them as such should have his head examined. Graham's note that if grownups invade the YA section there'll be no safe place for actual young adults to explore literature is a pretty smart one, although that's why I was reading Stephen King when I was 12, because I was in a hurry to grow out of YA books, and I don't think I've ever known a kid who wasn't in a hurry to grow up. So if she has a point there, it's a muddled one.

Also, she should reread The Westing Game. I read it every couple of years and it's as good now as it ever was. Not so for the books of Bruce Coville or Betty Ren Wright or many of the other names that danced throughout my youth, books I read over and over and over, books that are decidedly for young people, to help them climb the steps to the big people's library, sentence by sentence, book by book. But The Westing Game, that one's ageless. You should read it.


Bret Hays said...

This post was a pleasure to read, and not just because it reinforced some of my pre-existing views. Loved your furniture analogy and mention of The Westing Game, which has a special place in my heart, though it's no The Phantom Tollbooth.

The thing that puzzles me is that apparently some people are taking Slate articles seriously. In my reckoning, they moved from the "news" column to the "entertainment" column a few years ago. I wonder if their writers think I should be embarrassed for enjoying some of their articles?

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks, Bret. The Phantom Tollbooth is a book I think adults should turn to when they feel lost or overwhelmed. Forget Dr. Phil; listen to Juster and he'll cure all your ills.

Also, ooh, such a sick burn about Slate! But I can't really argue.

KP said...

Oh, that article made me SO MAD. From her "today, I am a different reader" (duh) to her assumption that if adults read YA they MUST be substituting those books for the 'great literature' out there...god. (I am a proud YA reader by the way AND married to a teacher of YAs who reads those books as well...)

I am also someone who read FAR FAR beyond my means as a young adult, but who craved - and still returns to - the comforting, sometimes challenging, mostly satisfying YA literature time and again. I am not a worse reader for having read Twilight; nor can I never ever re read Katherine Patterson's or Natalie Babbitt's books in my adult life. For me, it boils down to - as a young adult, I used 'great literature' and adult books to stretch myself and develop into the reader I am now. In my adult life, I use YA novels to remind myself of my youth, to comfort myself, and above all, to return to friends time and again and again. Isn't that the point of reading?

Katharine Coldiron said...

KP, I couldn't have said it better myself.

Melanie Holmes said...

I'm wondering if Harry Potter and Hunger Games are considered YA(?) I read every one of the Potter books aloud to my daughter, I enjoyed every moment. Hunger Games too. We all have our tastes when it comes to reading, why must anyone be looked down upon for picking up YA books? Isn't Catcher in the Rye considered YA? Reading is never a bad thing. Never. Ever. I've read Tolstoy and Voltaire. Quite frankly, I'd choose Rowling or Collins over either one of those "classics." I think it's important to read all genres, if you are so inclined. Sometimes, we can read things just because we want to get lost in another world. Isn't that the goal of fiction, getting lost in another world, using your imagination?