Sunday Salon: Are We Still Debating Why Adults Read YA Lit?

The answer is yes.  We are still debating whether or not adults should read Young Adult books.  At least the people who write for TheAtlantic.com and Slate.com are.

I’ll be honest, I’ll go out on a limb and state an opinion that won’t win me any friends.  I often wonder why anyone who is not a teenager, or has a teenager living in their house, or works with teenagers as a teacher or a librarian, spends their time reading Young Adult novels.  I teach 7th grade, so I do read Young Adult novels for professional reasons. After 24 years in the classroom, I have found myself reading them for pleasure at various times, too.  You’ll find lots of YA books in my reviews.

However, I don’t really care what other people read except that what’s popular drives the market, and I really would like to find more books written for people over 50.  I turned 50 this year, and it’s really hard to find a good book about someone over 50.  No one ever sends an AARP member to the Hunger Games or puts them in a giant movable maze or wants to deal with the fact that even people over 50 both get cancer and fall in love, sometimes at the same time.

But I digrees into whining.  It happens when you’re ranting.  This is a rant.

So this week Ruth Graham published a piece against reading Young Adult literature if you’re not a teenager on Slate.com.  I read it. You can save yourself the time.  It’s a well written piece, she makes a couple of decent points, but nothing you haven’t already heard a dozen times.  At this point, you either buy her case or you don’t but you can probably recite it by rote.  I know I can.  There’s really no reason to keep beating this horse, Slate.com. It’s dead. Find one that’s still alive.

I found myself kind of agreeing with Ms. Graham up to a point.  She thinks Young Adult books are primarily escapist in nature.  For me, this is largely true.  One thing I really enjoy about reading Young Adult novels is that I can read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one two-hour sitting.  Stretched out on my couch, Bassett Hound at my feet, I can get through almost any YA novel appropriate for 7th grader in an enjoyable afternoon’s reading.  That’s a wonderful escape even if the book leaves me in tears.

So I was sympathetic to Ms. Graham’s argument until she sort of took a swipe at people who read detective novels and watch Nashville.  While I don’t watch Nashville anymore, I just had more than my fill of that whiny teenager, I do read detective novels.  I love detective novels.  If I could only read one genre for the rest of my life it would be detective novels.  When I retire from teaching, I will probably never read another YA book again, because I’ll have so many detective novels stacked up on every flat surface of my room at the home.

So much for Ruth Graham.

She did get thousands of comments, (Over 2600 and counting) almost all of them taking her to task. Okay, that was hyperbole, I didn’t read enough of them to make that statement.  I read through one page of the comments, probably 40 or 50 comments, and they were all against Ms. Graham. Some of them were not very nice.

Enter Noah Berlatsky at TheAtlantic.com for the defense. Mr. Berlatsky writes the usual defense of Young Adult novels.  His defense is also well written, he makes some good points, but again nothing you haven’t heard before.  You know the argument as well as I do.  As well as everyone in the entire English-speaking (reading?) world does by now.  That’s more hyperbole.

Mr. Berlatsky builds his defense of adults who read Young Adult novels around one book, Dive by Stacey Donovan.  Heard of it?  Heard of her?  I had not, so I’m not really sure you can use Dive to build a case in defense of an entire genre.   Mr. Berlatsky claims that since Graham made a blanket statement against YA lit, he need only find one good counter example to call her entire argument into question.  I guess he’s never heard of “the exception that proves the rule,” but I was willing to let that go.  Until I read his replies to the comments.

He also got comments, by the way, (80 when I last checked) not all of them supporting his case.  One of Mr. Berlatsky’s detractors mentioned the work of Grace Paley and John Cheever as examples of what you’re missing out on if you don’t read adult fiction.  His reply:

Good grief; John Cheever and Grace Paley? That’s your standard? Mediocre genre fiction for boring suburbanites who want to mull endlessly on how boring the suburbs are?

Lewis Carroll has 20 times the complexity and insight of that sort of drab program fiction boilerplate crap. C.S. Lewis as well.

John Cheever and Grace Paley…sheesh. For god’s sake. Have some pride, would you?

Them’s fighting words, Mr. Berlatsky.  I’ve been a fan of John Cheever since I first read him when I was 15 and could have been reading all the YA lit I wanted to guilt free. As for Grace Paley she my new favorite author.  I started reading her stories this year, and I’ve yet to find one set in the suburbs.  I don’t think you really understand what genre fiction is, either.  By the way, neither Lewis Carroll nor C.S. Lewis ever wrote a single piece of YA lit.  While children and adults enjoy stories with talking OCD rabbits and intelligent beavers, teenagers tend to shy away from them in my experience.

I was willing to consider his argument before reading this comment.  To dismiss both John Cheever and Grace Paley as “drab program boiler plate crap” and to claim that both Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis are somehow 20 times better than both of them is to sum up the case against adults reading YA in a nut shell.

That Mr. Berlatsky then goes on to trash Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as crap in a later comment frankly marks him as a book critic who should not be taken seriously. My 7th graders would back me up on this one.  When we read Old Man and the Sea as a class last year, I had them on the edges of their seats waiting to find out what would happen next. When the sharks arrived, there were gasps in the room.  (Trashing certain classic authors is an unfortunate way to establish your hipster credentials these days.  So is calling literature set in the suburbs boring.)

You may not like Grace Paley, or John Cheever or Earnest Hemingway, but critics who write for The Atlantic should  be able to recognize quality even in things they don’t like. Isn’t that really what adults who read and enjoy Young Adult literature want from people who don’t.  Many times in my life I have read very good books that I didn’t like.  Lolita comes to mind right away.  It’s a great book.  I don’t like it.  The Harry Potter books are wonderful, too but I’m not a fan.  I liked the first two, but that was enough for me.

I’m glad I read YA as a teenager.  I still enjoy reading it now and then.  And I’m glad I grew up, too.  When you turn 15, you can see how awesome John Cheever’s stories are.  When you reach 50, you can find authors as wonderful as Grace Paley.

Now, can we all just agree to disagree and move on to another topic?

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11 Comments

  1. trish422 says:

    Great post! I’ve always found this argument to be rather pointless as the obvious answer is to read both YA and adult lit. Sometimes you need to read a book that challenges the mind (and I’ve read YA books which do so) and sometimes you need some escapist lit (definitely some adult lit falls into this category as well). People who so narrowly focus on one type of lit (i.e. I only read paranormal young adult romance or I only read esoteric literary fiction) are really missing out.

    1. As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re doing it for school, for work or to complete a specific project, all novel reading is escapist. The act of reading itself is an escapist act at heart. You escape the world around you and enter the world of the book. Back when the novel was new, this was the main case against it. It funny to see how closely the arguments against adults reading YA lit match up with the early arguments against reading novels altogether.

  2. Lisa says:

    Most of the new fiction I read these days consists of mysteries. I enjoy the series that can really delve into the characters’ lives and backstories – and move those lives forward – though I also enjoy stand-alones (while always wondering what happens afterwards in their lives). And there is such a diversity, of ages & cultures & personal situations – and also of time periods. They’re not all I read, but they’re a big & enjoyable part. Anyone who dismisses the entire genre of mysteries has pretty much lost me as a reader.

  3. That’s the problem with the broad brush. It’s also a sign that the critic does not really know what she is talking about. I do have to say that trashing Grace Paley, John Cheever and Hemingway in the way he did is also a sign that the critic does not know what he is talking about.

  4. TracyK says:

    I have to comment, but this is such a large topic that I cannot do it justice. I loved your rant. You said many good and important things. I liked what you said in the comment above about most reading being escapist, and that is certainly true for me. I am not going to spend much time on the classics just to educate myself, but I will read them if they are entertaining. I often read mysteries for education (about a historical period or a place or a subject), but if they don’t entertain me, I won’t stick with them. I get plenty of serious reading (related to computer technology) in my work life; maybe if I did not, I might spend time reading some non-fiction to be more educated. But non-fiction can be fun too. See, can’t do the topic justice, but it is a very interesting topic. I am older than 50, and when I was a young adult, I read adult fiction. I have nothing against YA fiction, but I think most people of any age will read what they are interested in, regardless of labels, if they enjoy reading.

    1. I agree. It can get tricky when someone forces you to defend what you’re reading. I think the best path is to refuse to defend your reading. I can recognize that I’m reading something that’s really not very good, but it’s something I enjoy reading. I can also recognize when I’m reading something that is very good, whatever the genre.

  5. Teresa says:

    I don’t care where a book comes from in the library, as long as it’s good, and there are a lot of ways for books to be good. I read YA books once in a while because some of them are pretty darn good.The thing that bugged me about Graham’s article is the broad brush she uses to set up the YA vs adult “debate.” I’ve come across plenty of YA books that are as complex as a lot of adult fiction and plenty of adult fiction that’s utterly light and frothy. True, YA books are going to be James Joyce complex, but I don’t want that all the time.

    The other thing that bugged me is the idea that we should feel guilty about doing something that’s fun and escapist. The whole notion that we *must* focus on self-improvement and productivity all the time, and anything that isn’t for the improvement of ourselves and others is something to feel bad about. I refuse to feel guilt for focusing on my own enjoyment once in a while (or more than once in a while).

    1. There are several schools of thought that believe reading is good for you and/or reading certain books will make you a better person. I saw this in Graham’s article, and in Berlatsky’s too for that matter. It’s not always a bad notion–I see it in the various diverse reading memes on the book blogs, for example. But I got the sense from Graham’s article and from Berlatsky’s comments that they each see reading certain books as markers of coolness or intellectual achievement. I think both of these notions are problematic.

  6. I am so far from this debate that I think a young adult is a 22 year-old, but I have to say, Lewis Carroll is a relevant (and crushing) counter-example. The Graham piece is topped by an illustration from the Alice books. She brought it up.

    Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe a genuinely ill-educated editor or intern did. One thing I learned from this debate: doubt bother submitting a piece to anyone else. Some idiot will ruin it. I’m better off on the blog, where all of the mistakes are mine.

    Has someone in the Atlantic comments gently – actually, I hope, ruthlessly, viciously – corrected that other idiot about Grace Paley and “suburbanite”? Or are the Bronx and the Upper East Side of Manhattan now suburbs? The Atlantic was once a great magazine.

    I turned 50 this year, and it’s really hard to find a good book about someone over 50. This is crazy talk. How much Beckett and Bernhard do you have on hand?

    1. I’m not going to grant the Alice counter-example. Alice is children’s literature. Many adults love it, it’s wonderful as literature, but the intended audience was never teenagers or Young Adults. I don’t think Graham mentioned it in her article, I’m not going to go back and check at this point, so I’d blame the editors. C.S. Lewis did not write the Narnia books for teenagers either. He’s pretty ruthless in his distaste for them, actually.

      I was going to mention the point you make about the suburbs and Paley but thought I had already gone on and on long enough. I haven’t checked this point either, but I’d lay even money that either Paley or Cheever, maybe even both of them, were published in The Atlantic back when it ran short fiction.

      As for Beckett and Bernhard, I’ve lots of Becket but I’ll have to look up Bernhard. But I still stand by my point though all I have are visits to my local bookstores to back me up on it.

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