In Defense of YA Literature
Critics are used to being able to state nearly any media-related opinion with some degree of immunity, but there is one pitfall that they fall into with surprising regularity: Making an a priori declaration about the inferiority of one form of media or another and then attempting to justify it with a posteriori arguments. This is always going to be a mistake. Ebert fell into this trap with his curmudgeonly announcement that video games could never be art, for which he had to apologize. Other critics ought to learn from his mistake, yet they don’t.
The latest curmudgeon is Ruth Graham in this Slate article denouncing adults who read young-adult literature. Her thesis, such as it is, is that all YA books are perfectly good for children and teenagers, but that they lack the complexity to be proper literary fare for adults.
Before I dig in, I’d like to mention that I’m not myself a fan of the young-adult genre. My personal predilections skew towards tome-length classics with bigger casts and more subplots than you usually find in YA, and I don’t relate to most teenaged protagonists. While there are plenty of YA books that I’d classify as “good books,” I’d hesitate to argue that there are any that qualify as “great literature,” and I have a low opinion of many books that get trotted out as examples of high-quality literature for young people, like Harry Potter. Thus, I’m not criticizing Graham because I’m defensive about books I love. I’m criticizing her because she’s wrong.
It’s difficult to know where to begin. Like most people inclined to write off large categories of things out of hand, she doesn’t seem particularly familiar with what she criticizes–she classifies The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting as YA books from her youth, when in fact they are both middle-grade novels for younger children–and it’s tempting to dismiss her criticisms as being simply misinformed. But the real problems with her view run deeper.
There’s the aforementioned a priori versus a posteriori problem. Graham, to her credit, acknowledges that it’s unfair to judge the entire YA genre based on trash like Twilight (although she fails to acknowledge that most adult fiction is also trash; the closest she comes is a sidelong jab at the inferiority of genre fiction), but she nevertheless feels confident making dismissive generalizations about YA: That adults only read it for “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia;” that it “present[s] the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way;” that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence.”
The problem with her reasoning is obvious: She has stated unequivocally that all YA literature is unfit for adult consumption, but then she has supported her position with a number of concrete traits that she claims all YA shares, thereby tacitly admitting that if even one YA book did criticize the teenage perspective or present an ambiguous ending, it would be worthy of adult readers and her whole position would be negated. And, of course, there are YA books that fulfill her criteria. I’d love to see her twist herself into a pretzel trying to explain how Code Name Verity, the entire first act of which consists of a girl being tortured by Nazis, is escapism and instant gratification.
Conversely, as Neil Gaiman pointed out in a deleted tweet, the classics that she presents as examples of acceptable adult fare are guilty of the very sins that she reviles. Charles Dickens, for instance, made likable protagonists, morally unambiguous situations, and tidy endings his stock and trade (and works like A Christmas Carol, written for children, ought to be off-limits by Graham’s standards anyway).
An even larger problem is her silly either/or framing of the issue, which makes the morally correct act not reading the wrong books, rather than reading the right books. Either position is nonsense, of course, but at least putting a moral value on reading the “right” books is, at the end of the day, encouraging people to read, whereas Graham puts the moral value on avoiding the “wrong” books and is therefore fundamentally discouraging people from reading. Reading a wide variety of books is apparently not an option to her; immediately after acknowledging that “[t]here’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader,” she turns around and contradicts herself by saying that people who read YA “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.” This focus on the purported mediocrity of YA perversely places the wide-ranging reader of all genres on a lower moral level than someone who avoids reading the offending books by simply not reading at all.
Finally, Graham may claim that she disapproves of YA based on the experience it gives to the reader, but her essay betrays another motivation: Appearances. She doesn’t like YA because it’s for kids and she wouldn’t want to be caught reading something for kids. It’s right there in the subtitle: “You should feel embarrassed.” The social pressures of reading play heavily into her reasoning. “I know, I know: Live and let read,” she grumbles, like an oenophile who honestly resents that he can’t prevent the diner at the next table from ordering a sauvignon blanc with his steak. Her concern about appearances explains why reading both adult and YA literature is not an acceptable solution: It’s not that reading YA prevents you from appreciating the complexities of adult literature, but that reading YA may give the appearance of not appreciating the complexities of adult literature. Read whatever you like, but if it isn’t great literature, have the decency to be ashamed of it.
Bullshit. If you’ve judged something to be worth reading, embrace it. You should never be ashamed of your own likes and dislikes. An adult would know that.