Live and Let Read.
Young Adult (or New Adult) books have long been looked down on in the literary community, but Ruth Graham’s article has created a sort of war on the internet. Graham attacks the YA genre, denouncing it as “embarrassing”, “transparently trashy”, and “far too simple” in one of the most gag-worthy displays of literary elitism ever published. She goes on to claim that “if [readers] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.” Frankly, the entire article makes me want to punch something.
Adults all over the world have praised YA books and their authors, which leads me to believe that they found something worth reading in them. Graham attempts to shame these adults, claiming that they are “better than this” and should be embarrassed for their choice of books. I can’t help but feel that this sentiment is based on the ludicrous idea that teenagers are somehow lesser than adults. Teens themselves may be rash, irresponsible, and annoying sometimes, but that says nothing about the state of their literature. Graham believes that young adult books are meant purely for pleasure, while adult books are “art” and more complex. Well, unless it is assigned or part of your job, reading books is for pleasure. Why shouldn’t books be enjoyable? In a world where happy endings are all but impossible, why should we be denied the choice to read about them?
Contrary to what Graham seems to be saying, a book can be both pleasurable and thought-provoking. I’ve gone on a few rants myself about the over-simplified plots, instalove/cheesy romances, and neatly wrapped up endings of some YA books. However, I’ve read enough YA to realize that not all teen books are like that — and plenty of them are just as sophisticated as adult novels. In the past year alone, I’ve read YA books tackling sexism, racism, teen pregnancy, homophobia, kidnapping, tragedy, terminal illness, and a handful of important historical events. I learned about these things from what felt like first-hand experience through the book’s narrator, even though I haven’t experience all these things. And I’m more sympathetic and less judgmental for it.
Adult books deal with much of the same subject matter (although often in a different context), but YA novels are more straightforward. Graham’s statement that YA books are made for “instant gratification” is, in some ways, correct. In YA, the story starts right away, whereas in adult novels the exposition is often long — and tedious. Maybe I’m impatient, but I don’t want to read through 150 pages before I find out what the conflict of the story is.
Citing Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars as an example, Graham claims that YA readers are “immature” no matter their age. “The heroine of The Fault in Our Stars finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying. Her favorite book ends mid-sentence, which drives her to try and find the ‘real’ ending from its author,” she says, “but mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit.” Can we stop and think about this for a second? Whether a book is written for teens, adults, or toddlers, having it end in the middle of a sentence is going to be infuriating. A book that ends in such a way isn’t just “unresolved,” it’s practically unfinished! I have read plenty of books that end ambiguously and loved them, as have my friends and the dozens of people who have reviewed them. Hazel (the protagonist Graham is referring to) even admits that the abrupt ending of the book is part of why she loves it so much. Graham does not acknowledge the difference between an ambiguous ending, where the story could go a variety of ways, from a mid-sentence ending, where you have no hint as to where the story might have gone. Plenty of YA books “confound and discomfit” — just look at More Than This, The Book Thief, or Speak — and their ability to do so has nothing to do with how they end or which genre they belong to.
Graham also claims that escapism and nostalgia are not valid reasons for reading YA, but I disagree. This argument has more to do with why people read than what they read. If you’re reading nonfiction books, you’re reading to learn. And although there are dozens of genres, if you’re reading fiction, you’re probably reading to escape. Escapism is where many people’s love of reading stems from. We all remember our parents reading us Dr. Seuss as kids, imagining the crazy locales in Oh, Baby, the Places You’ll Go! These bedtime stories were our first taste of escapism, and whether we find it in books or movies or hobbies, we have used escapism ever since our childhood days of make-believe. An argument can be made that the need to escape should have been outgrown by adulthood, but in truth no person is free of the urge to escape, regardless of their age. The various stresses of teenagedom make escape tantalizing, but adults are no less subject to stresses and wanting to be “anywhere but here.” Nostalgia, a different type of escapism, is also listed as a reason for reading YA, and according to Graham, it’s just as shameful. I fail to see her logic. Reading a book you remember from your youth, or one that reminds you of those years, is no different from retelling stories or perusing the photo albums you’ve kept, and no one’s about to shame you for that.
Opinions belong only to their owners, and Graham has a right to hers. I take more offense to the ways she insults YA fiction and its readers than her dislike of the genre. The YA and adult genres are not all that different. They both tackle tough subjects and allow for escapism. Books introduce readers to new situations, people, and ideas, independently of where they’re shelved in the bookstore. If a book is written well, people of any age can enjoy it — and should be able to without those like Graham looking down on them. Grown-ups who read YA aren’t hurting anybody, they’re just enjoying a good book.
So, Mrs. Graham, could you please get off your high horse and let us read?