Books, Opinions
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A Question of Regression


So, this article on Slate came out some time yesterday. It’s simply called “Against YA” and author Ruth Graham’s entire point is: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

Ah, nothing like a literary snoot to ruin your day.

The whole article seems to have been largely inspired by the highly anticipated release of the movie adaptation of John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Leading up to the film release, I began seeing the book mentioned everywhere, later finding out that it spent 119 consecutive weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list.

There’s no use stating the obvious, but let’s do that anyway: I am a big John Green apologist. (I have counted the ways.) I find that in my general age group (I am 25), a lot of my friends who are more “serious” readers have said goodbye to the young adult genre a long time ago, and a lot of them have been thus far, unimpressed with the offerings of YA fiction. And I get that. I understand outgrowing things; that’s just how life works sometimes. However, Graham’s article was so infuriatingly dismissive of the entire spectrum of young adult stories—most of which share no common thread with each other, besides having teen protagonists and themes commonly found, but go beyond, the genre. She is so against adults reading YA, as though people over 17 can find no lesson or revelation from books written for their younger selves.

Graham claims that adults who read YA fiction go to it for escapism and pleasure, waving away the merits of this genre, presuming to know what all “grown-ups” are looking for when they pick up a book and read. The truth is, now that I’m older, I do find a lot of YA fiction insubstantial and frankly, kind of shallow. But, I find the same thing to be true of general fiction. There are a lot of bad books out there, regardless of genre. So why pick on YA? To pigeonhole all of YA as “embarrassing” for adults to read gravely discredits the plethora of well-written, engaging, and thoughtful titles that have thus far been published.

I spent a good bulk of my reading life immersed in YA fiction, but as I grew older, I slowly moved on to other books and other genres. The first “adult” fiction title I met was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which was lent to me by my more well-read friend, Petra, in high school. I loved it and it remains to be one of my favorite books. Just because I started reading books meant for adults doesn’t mean that I can’t see past the YA label and consider the work as good or bad on its own. You can’t compare Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park to freaking Shakespeare and lament the lack of literary complexity in the former. Each of the authors have motivations and intentions that are different from each other, and each of them have written with a different audience in mind, but those things don’t negate the merits of the Eleanor and Park, one of the more well-written books in the world of YA today.

Graham claims that YA endings are “uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering,” and that you, as an adult reader, wanting these kinds of endings “is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with ‘likeable’ protagonists.” This is more than a little unfair, as I have met a lot of YA books that do not wrap up things nicely in a neat bow. Clearly, Graham hasn’t read enough of YA to make this sweeping claim, and it’s clear that she won’t read enough YA. Because she’s an adult. And YA titles are too embarrassing to be seen with. Her stance is so laughably simplistic, as though designation of a title as “young adult” is enough to label it as “not worth your time if you are over 17.” She rejects the stories simply because they were intended for a younger audience.

Graham goes on to make an error in causation, claiming that the boom of this genre may result in fewer teens making the jump into “serious” fiction, because the grown-ups they know don’t read “grown-up” books. That is a stretch, to say the least. A long, bullshitty stretch.


I think that by writing this, the biggest transgression against readers that Graham made was pitting what she deems as serious, literary fiction and YA against each other, creating a “this genre is better than that one” argument, with a clear bias for the former. YA is so beneath her to even take seriously and approach earnestly, because she is such a grown-up. I don’t fully back the notion of “at least they are reading,” because a lot of people read shitty things, let’s be honest. But I think that targeting YA as a crap factory—but only if you’re an adult; reading them when you are a kid is good and well—is a little extreme.

I’ve read a lot of books, and I will continue to read a lot of books, YA or not. That’s just who I am. I’ve often wondered why I am almost always drawn to coming-of-age stories. Not because of sheer, unabashed, pleasurable enjoyment, but because these are the type of stories that move me the most. I found my answer while I was looking for other people who shared my thoughts about Graham’s short-sighted view of YA:

“So how dare anyone tell me what stories I should be ashamed to read? And how dare anyone tell you? If we live full lives, we come of age again and again. And in between, we thread together moments that create the story of ourselves from the scraps of every kind of book we’ve ever held in our hands. Kids books, grown-up books, and, yeah, books about teenage wizards who’ve never had their hearts broken before. Cynicism doesn’t make you smart; earnestness doesn’t make you dumb. All that is gold does not glitter; Not all those who wander are lost. The simple-minded Young Adult fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien said that.” — Heather Hogan on After Ellen, Geek Out: No, Adults Should NOT be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books

I am 25 years old, and I still read a lot of YA lit and I, for the most part, enjoy it. Who fucking cares?

For further reading:

  • “Dear Media, Let Me Help You Write That Article on YA Literature” by Karen of Teen Librarian Toolbox: Helpful primer on YA lit as a genre, from the perspective of a YA librarian, who has read over 2,000 YA titles. (Written before this Slate fiasco.)
  • “In Praise of Reading Whatever the Hell You Want” by Hilary Kelly at New Republic: “But the article’s biggest problem—aside from its snide, nasty, belittling tone and self-satisfied, obviously click-baity headline—is Graham’s exceedingly limited understanding of why someone reads, and why they might choose to read a book that doesn’t challenge them on an academic level. For Graham, we’re all pliable little minds apt to be swept up in a publishing craze, unable to move beyond our most basic instincts for comfort, and coziness, and a nice good cry. Graham confuses literary criticism and review and dissection for smug scolding. She doesn’t unpack why adults would want to revisit their childhood via literature. It’s easier to be snide than smart, I suppose.”
  • “I Write Young Adult Novels, and I Refuse to Apologize for It” by Rachel Carter for New Republic
  • “Geek Out: No, Adults Should NOT be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books” by Heather Hogan on After Ellen “In one of the most apples-to-bananas comparisons I’ve ever seen, she pits The Fault In our Stars and Divergent against Dickens and Wharton. Which, for one thing: If you’re going to put classics on one side of the equation, you’ve got to put classics on the other side of the equation. The juxtaposition she’s looking for is To Kill a Mockingbird (YA) vs. Great Expectations (adult), Little Women (YA) vs. The Age of Innocence (adult). Or you can compare modern New York Times best sellers, in which case you’ve got Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars on one side and Dan Brown’s Inferno and Jim Butcher’s Skin Game on the other.
 You heard me. I said Skin Game.”
  • “Really? Are We Still Genre Shaming People for the Books That They Like?” by Lauren Davis on iO9

Originally posted June 2014.
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