Nobody asked, as usual, but I thought I’d give my two cents on this whole Ruth Graham is-it-a-controversy-I-can’t-really-tell thing brewing over Young Adult fiction. I say so because the backlash, which surely won’t linger around for very much longer at the rate the internet gets enraged about stuff, seems to have transformed one opinion piece into a mini-dramatization of one of the issues of our time: mainly, the idea of what “growing up” means nowadays.
First, the basics: Graham’s piece, in case you haven’t read it, is entitled “Against YA” and contends that the genre of literature aimed at teens is pitched at their level and not at an adult’s. Citing John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars as an example, Graham doesn’t say that adults can’t read books written on this level, but that they shouldn’t because they have more appropriate things to contend with in the realm of “literary fiction.”
The piece had some, like one friend in my Facebook feed, seriously reconsidering their cultural intake, but it has made far more strike back, and now pretty much every news source on the internet has some counter-article with a title like “Yes, It’s OK to Read YA. Don’t Cry. The Big Bad Slate Lady Can’t Hurt You.” Many people are, probably rightly, condemning the piece as clickbait, and I run the risk of prolonging this whole thing more than it needs to be by even linking to the original article, but I think there’s more to the subject than that.
Now, don’t worry: I don’t agree with Graham. I’ll admit straight away that I am not going to argue for her position. Heck, as a late-twenty-something who gets paid to write about old adventure games and cartoons, I’m one of the last people who can condemn the adult embrace of childhood pleasures. Also, “literary fiction” as a category is bullshit. Some of the best genre fiction is literary, some of the best “literary fiction” is genre, and we should worry less about labels than what it is we’re actually reading.
While I definitely find Graham’s position overly reductive, there’s one point I do think needs to be stated: we are infantalized by the media on a regular basis. And a lot of us like it. But the danger in this has nothing to do with what we consume, and rather how we go about consuming it. I read a piece a while ago about superhero movies, where the author said that it used to be children wanted to watch movies that were made for an adult crowd, and now it’s the other way around. The problem comes when people think that the YA label means “leave your brain at the door,” or “it’s just simplistic kid stuff.” It doesn’t, and it isn’t.
I think what troubles Graham is the idea that we might wave away more complex issues because we’re too busy projecting ourselves back into the minds of teenagers and abandoning our “adult” selves. But you can read books and watch television and see movies that are all “meant” for that age group without sacrificing your current mindset. The important thing is critical thinking, whether or not you get anything new from the experience.
Too often I hear the phrase “It’s entertainment!” thrown around as a defense for a superhero movie or something that someone feels I don’t like because it’s not “intellectual” enough. Well, I can recognize something’s purpose and whether or not it succeeds at that. I can also see if there are any discomforting tropes or messages tucked away in there that others might take from it. And I can enjoy something as entertainment even while recognizing these aspects. I can do all that, because I have an adult brain. Here’s a tip: a Young Adult brain can do that too. It’s all in how you use it. Plenty of hifalutin intellectuals have won over new followers by wading into the muck of “mass entertainment,” and plenty of people reared on loud music and trashy films have gone on to create important artistic works.
When I was the librarian’s definition of a “young adult,” I didn’t seek out books that were explicitly written for that market, but I didn’t necessarily avoid them either. I was more interested in what they were about. While i delved into Harry Potter, I also read authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and Dave Barry and Kurt Vonnegut and Roger Ebert. All of these guys have something in them that arguably makes them, shall we say, outside the realm of traditional “serious literature,” and some wind up on the reading list of younger crowds. But they aren’t necessarily explicitly marketed as “for teens,” either. They are what they are, and teens may or may not gravitate toward them. And my guess is the average young person doesn’t pick a book to read simply because it’s got YA on the margin, but because they want to read it (or they’re being forced to by their evil, cackling English teacher).
Ebert wrote many movie reviews where he acknowledged when he was not a film’s target audience but still gave his honest opinion and evaluated it for that crowd. Why can’t the average Old Adult do the same thing? I stand by a philosophy of omnivorous consumption when it comes to art: go everywhere, try a little of everything, and get outside your comfort zone.
That being said, I have the feeling I would hate The Fault in Our Stars, and would have hated it even more as a teenager. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it.