Friday, June 6, 2014

"Against YA" - the rebuttal

I'm a little late in jumping on the bandwagon on this one because I was at work all day and therefore only had time to catch the occasional glimpse of Twitter. But on Slate today, an article was published stating that "Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children".

My problem here is not with the sentiment, because everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I totally understand that YA doesn't float everyone's boat. And to clarify: I'm not butthurt about this. I'm really not. I totally get where the author is coming from. But to SHAME people for their reading choices, to effectively argue that anything other than literary fiction isn't worth reading is completely baffling. So there were a bunch of statements in the article that made very little sense to me and that I think warrant addressing in some detail.

Defining YA 
First of all, I think the author's definition of Young Adult ("books written for 12- to 17-year-olds") is flawed. There are many YA books that I wouldn't DREAM of recommending or lending to a kid under the age of sixteen. There are plenty of middle grade books in there to pave the way between children's fiction and full blown YA. The general rule of thumb - at least based on what I was taught in my librarianship course - is that the age of the protagonist in a YA book should give you an indication of the age of the recommended audience.

By that logic - and, indeed, as would have likely been the case during my high school years - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been reserved for upper high school readers instead of being readily given to primary school aged children as it is today. This doesn't make Harry Potter into children's fiction. On the contrary, it means that primary aged children are reading material that they shouldn't be exposed to. That, in many cases, parents have no idea what they're handing their kids. Hell, just this afternoon I was discussing with my boss how she deals with The Hunger Games in a primary school library. There are hundreds of 11 and 12 year olds out there who've read the series and had weeks of nightmares as a result. But because the movie is seen in a "it has teenaged protagonists, therefore must be for children", these kids are being exposed to it far too early.

"These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame."
Um. What's to say that these adults would have been reading "literary fiction" in the first place? Who's to say they don't STILL read literary fiction? I mean, I read YA. But I also read general fiction and literary fiction and sci-fi and fantasy and adventure and fanfic and crime and paranormal fiction. Who's to say which of those is the most significant, let alone which of those has the biggest impact in my life?

Furthermore, how is literary fiction defined? Both Book Depository and Bookworld lump it in with general fiction, while Dymocks features YA books such as The Book Thief in its literary fiction category. Hell, if you look up General and Literary Fiction on Bookworld, one of the first things under best sellers is Divergent, which the author dismisses as "transparently trashy". Clearly, literary fiction is itself problematic and sometimes aimed at teenage readers.

" own life as a YA reader way back in the early 1990s was hardly wanting for either satisfaction or sophistication."
The author references Tuck Everlasting and The Westing Game as influential books during her teen years, while failing to mention that both of those books were first published in the 1970s and are generally considered middle grade books. YA during the 1990s existed largely in fantasy form, at least in my experience. Australian YA was a little better off, thanks largely to authors like John Marsden, Catherine Jinks, and Melina Marchetta. And all of those books stand up very nicely on reread.

"I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds."
Uh, yeah, I would NOT give The Fault in Our Stars to a thirteen year old. I'm sure many a thirteen year old has read it, but that doesn't mean they should have. And there are many books that fall into this category. Code Name Verity is repeatedly classified as a YA book, but I'm not convinced that the story is suitable for anyone under 17.

The author goes on to say that she had numerous "Oh, brother" moments while reading TFiOS. I'm sure many teenagers did too. There were certain moments that were overdone and a little weird, like Hazel telling 911 that "the great love of my life has a malfunctioning G-tube" (p. 245) , which is something that would be said by NO ONE EVER. Saying "oh brother" to those moments doesn't make you an adult. It makes you a critical reader.

"Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering."
Okay, did you actually read The Fault in Our Stars? I'm not sure anyone who has could say that ending was "uniformly satisfying". The same goes for Eleanor & Park, of which she's equally dismissive. I'm also not convinced you could say that the "transparently trashy" Divergent trilogy could be considered in any way to have a uniformly satisfying ending. The same goes for The Hunger Games. Yes (SPOILERS), Katniss marries Peeta. But they effectively brought down one corrupt and broken government only to find it immediately replaced by other, and they both spend their lives physically and emotionally traumatised by what they went through.

Furthermore, since when are the endings of adult books NOT of the neat package variety? I've read more adult books - whether they be crime, fantasy, literature, science fiction, or general fiction - that had neatly tied up happily-ever-after endings than I have YA books. Look at the literary greats - Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, and Bronte all had a tendency to tie up all the loose ends and provide their characters with their appropriate endings - happiness and true love for the heroes, death or general misery for the villains.

"The heroine of The Fault in Our Stars finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying."
I wouldn't say anything of the sort about Hazel. Yes, her favourite book ends in mid-sentence and she wants to know what happens next. That doesn't mean she doesn't appreciate the ending. I, for instance, wanted to know what happened next in a large number of books, whether they had ambiguous endings or neatly tied up ones. It doesn't mean that I find the endings annoying or unacceptable. It's just the nature of human curiosity.

"But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks..."
Yep, I remember that feeling too. But it wasn't because young adult books weren't fulfilling my needs. It was because young adults books effectively DIDN'T EXIST once you'd gotten beyond the Judy Blume years. There was a void between middle grade fiction and adult fiction, and very few books to fill it. Perhaps this was why I clung so tightly to John Marsden and Melina Marchetta when I stumbled upon them - they gave me stories about people my age, people who lived in the real world, who didn't wear armour or fight off dragons. People who I could relate to, with their problems about school and their family dramas and their potentially problematic friendships. But this doesn't mean that I turned away from adult fiction. Hell, I read A Tale of Two Cities when I was ten, for crying out loud. It just means that I could appreciate the benefits of both types of literature.

"But the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books."
Um. Have you ever actually met a teenager?? If there's one thing guaranteed to get them not doing a thing, it's the knowledge that grown-ups are doing exactly that. Adults start using Facebook? GET ME AWAY FROM IT. My mum thinks this is cool? EW, GROSS I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. If anything, teenagers are more likely to stop reading YA and start pushing on to the next thing if only because they don't want to be associated with what their parents are reading. Furthermore, teens are regularly reading what the author terms "grown-up reading" courtesy of...oh, I don't know...HIGH SCHOOL.

"But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film."
I'm going to go ahead and call the quote that was used in the article as - to quote an episode of Buffy - a radical interpretation of the text. If you look at the original interview with Woodley, what I suspect she was actually saying was that, at the age of 22, she feels she's too old to play a teenager. It's no different to Daniel Radcliffe making his mark by moving from Harry Potter to roles that featured him kissing men and appearing naked on stage. It doesn't mean that he eschews all things YA. It just means that he - and likely Woodley - don't want to end up as actors who are in their late 20s and still playing teenagers. Just look at Bianca Lawson - she was still playing 17 year olds at the age of 34.

In summary
Yes, there are a lot of adults reading YA today, where ten or twenty years ago it would have been unheard of. But to assume that these adults are EXCLUSIVELY reading YA is incredibly narrow-minded. As is the assumption that literary fiction is automatically superior to YA. There's an awful lot of pretentious, wanky literary fiction out there, just as there's a lot of cookie-cutter same same but different happily-ever-after literary fiction on the market. On the other hand, there's a lot of YA that's beautifully written and multi-award winning, and it shouldn't be discounted just because the protagonist doesn't have a wealth of maturity under their belt.

It seems that what the author is essentially saying is "I'm an adult and I don't like YA, so no other adult should like it either". But to put one genre of fiction up on a pedestal while arguing that another should be ignored completely once you reach a certain and completely arbitrary age is nothing short of baffling.

Have you read the article? What did you think? 

K xx


  1. YES. So many good points here. I wrote something similar a few years ago after reading another article that made the same argument:

    My larger issue with shaming people for what they read is this: why would you ever discourage someone from reading? I don't care what a person is reading, even if it's a book I think is awful, because it means THEY'RE READING. They're keeping the publishing industry going. When books have never been more threatened, I'm not picky about specifically what people read.


    It's everything I felt but couldn't articulate, what with all the rage and sputtering I experienced after I read that asshole article.

    Thank you for writing it. <3

  3. 1) Yes to everything here. Well said.
    2) I have to be honest that that line about the G-tube is one of my favorite lines in the entire book and I was sad it was not in the movie. I don't think I can explain why in any coherent manner, but I am pretty sure it was THE moment that first made me start crying while reading the book.

  4. I ABSOLUTELY AGREE WITH YOU AND THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS. I only read that article this morning and I am still so so angry. I think half of those statements in the article were misinformed anyway. And the article-writer assumed that everyone has the personality and preferences as THEM. What? Everyone is different. That writer presumes all the world should be like her. Which is nuts. I'm very angry. Grrah!! >.<

  5. I honestly wasn't going to bother replying to the article at all until I stumbled on the author's Twitter feed. She was basically replying to anyone who sent her "Dude, WTF?" tweets with more condescending bullshit.

    There was one particular conversation I saw where a teacher had used the "at least they're reading" line, and her reply was something like "Would you use that excuse if your students were reading the backs of cereal boxes? AT LEAST THEY'RE READING!". Um. What.

  6. I strongly suspect that this woman a) spends no time whatsoever near teenagers, and b) is indescribably pretentious.

  7. When I first read the G-tube line, I really liked it because it was partly Hazel reassuring Gus and partly Hazel reassuring HERSELF while also giving 911 the necessary information. But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more I was like "......yeah, that line is kind of bizarre." So I totally understand why you like it!

    But yes, to each their own. Contrary to the author's opinion!! ;)

  8. I honestly think the thing I'm most baffled by is the assumption that adults are ONLY reading YA books. That or her condescending replies to people on Twitter who've been all "Dude, WTF"...

  9. Reviews from a BookwormJune 7, 2014 at 9:35 PM

    Brilliant rebuttal and I completely agree with it all. That article made me so mad and it was really hard to get through. I think that the writer of the article should be ashamed that she's trying to make anyone feel ashamed of reading what they love. As someone who loves adult fiction and YA fiction, I will never be ashamed of reading either as reading them makes me happy, engrosses me in a story and has introduced me to some truly amazing and talented authors.


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