If there was every a literary ‘debate’ I wish would die, it’s ‘Is YA literature actually good literature?’ Now, this is hardly a novel (heh) trend. For as much adults like to criticize the younger generations for not reading more, they tend to get a bit uppity when it comes to the quality of the literature at hand. However, post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight, and now with the enormous commercial and critical response to novels like The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars, and the subsequent film adaptations, the literary divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture grows ever wider, if the constant barrage of think-pieces (which tend to be woefully short on actual thinking) are to be believed.
To use an old cliché: this is why we can’t have nice things. You’d think more people could follow in the advice of C.S. Lewis, who wrote, ‘When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’
But, here we are. Again.
Earlier this week, Gawker published a piece by the film critic and journalist Glenn Kenney entitled, The Pleasures of Reading Difficult Novels (And Maybe The Goldfinch). Kenney’s essay is a breath of fresh air, if for no other other reason he champions reading ‘difficult’ (often synonymous with ‘sophisticated’) literature, while pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of the ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ debate concerning fiction, particularly YA fiction. Kennedy notes,
‘Didn’t high-low get settled around the time Susan Sontag admitted that she also kind of liked the Supremes? Well, there’s the rub, maybe. After various profile writers and personality-mongerers wouldn’t let go of the meme of The Highbrow Who Likes Motown, Sontag, whose self-seriousness one might say tended to increase over the years, distanced herself from pop appreciation, complaining that overemphasis on her lack of uptightness tended to make her look kind of trivial, something she didn’t appreciate. And these days, it seems, there are two fronts in a cultural war I don’t think is worth fighting all that earnestly: The “serious people read serious books” front… and the “don’t you try to define my seriousness for me, pal” camp, which, at first glance, has the defensive numbers to counter the oppositions highbrow guns.’
This paragraph was a response to The New Yorker article, Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate, by Christopher Beha. To those who have yet to read Beha’s piece (lucky souls), he writes movingly about his passionate love of Henry James (I love the man’s work, too) before segueing to… why Y.A. fiction is contributing to a culture where we are all big immature babies. Sigh. Beha may not be as actively churlish and wrong-headed as some like Ruth Graham, who argued that any adult who enjoys YA fiction ought to to be embarrassed, but while he aims to reasonable, he still falls victim to the categorical assumption that ‘adult’ literature is ‘serious, rich, and thought-provoking’ (or any combination of serious buzzwords) while YA is hopelessly childish and simplistic.
Throughout his article, Beha talks about this ‘cultural war’ between ‘high’ and ‘low’ with frequent references to James, Y.A. fiction, the divided response to Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, and A.O. Scott’s essay where he talks about what he perceives to be the mass infantilization and fetishization of adolescent ideas concerning love, death, relationships, and destructive behavior in pop culture today. With all those interesting resources at hand, it is doubly disappointing that Beha’s essay is a rambling, jejune mess of half-baked ideas and a seeming inability or unwillingness to engage with the subject at hand. The majority of the essay is him fawning over James, while smugly intoning the simpleness he associates with Y.A. fiction:
‘It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange.’
This assessment is strange in and of itself (not to mention more than a bit supercilious), especially when a few paragraphs later he expresses his hatred for The Goldfinch. He writes, ‘It was boring not because it was insufficiently “literary” but because it was overly “literary.” Not a single character or moment in the book felt lived in any meaningful way. The picture of life that it gave was so obviously false that it seemed designed to appeal to someone who hadn’t lived very much of it, and thus couldn’t tell the difference.’
Beha expresses his dislike of Tartt’s novel, an ostensibly ‘adult’ piece of fiction, but he never conflates The Goldfinch with being representative of all ‘adult fiction.’ In sharp contrast, he does not extend similar generosity to YA literature, opting to end his essay with one final potshot:
‘Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.’
The condescension is almost unbearable (and clearly Beha has yet to learn that not all sex is great; on a similar note, the asexual community extends a giant ‘Fuck You!’ to his insipid equivalency of sex and ‘serious’ literature). To Beha, and other writers like Graham, YA is a faceless boogeyman: an embarrassingly childish genre and marketing tool, the literary equivalent to a bunch of empty calories. However, there is a stubborn elitism, an unwillingness to acknowledge that, I dunno, some YA fiction may be good? If something like The Goldfinch (which I will admit I have not read) can be ripped apart and yet not held up as representative of all adult literature, surely a similar degree of charity can be extended to YA? Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Much like science fiction, horror, fantasy, or any form of genre writing, YA will be seen as inferior to the ‘serious’ adult literature. Sadly, it seems Beha and company have to yet to realize that writers like Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, and Jacqueline Susann are frequently found in the fiction (aka, ‘adult’ fiction) section of the library/bookstore. Those aren’t writers I would say are necessarily of the same calibre as authors like Martin Amis, Sarah Waters, Thomas Pynchon, or Janice Galloway (and that’s excluding the classics), but if the books are found in ‘fiction,’ no additional label included, it must be serious.
The most disappointing aspect of think pieces by writers like Beha and Graham is they touch upon interesting ideas regarding the sheer pleasure of reading and the larger question literary debate of escapist fare versus headier writing, but are willing to truly engage with those topics. Beha makes more of an effort to appear interested in this argument than someone like Graham, but he still sets up a categorical dichotomy of ‘YA is X, Adult Literature is Y, and Y is greater than X, even when examples of Y are boring/poorly written.’ It’s lazy analysis masquerading as serious discourse.
So, where does this leave us in the debate between YA and adult literature. As Kenney noted in his thoughtful Gawker essay, there are two vocal camps: those who decry the genre and those who cheerleader the right for people to read what ever the please, sans judgement.
Obviously, I lean more towards the latter, but I do think there should be a discussion about YA fiction and its place in the broad scheme of literature. However, this discussion should not be declaring YA fiction largely worthless, and merely a stepping stone before a person can read ‘good literature.’ Nor should it be lumping all YA literature as escapist fluff. I would suggest talking about YA as predominantly being used as a marketing tool, how fiction, both good and bad get associated with it, and most importantly, how to dispel the notion if literature is ostensibly aimed at adults, it means its automatically good.
Growing up, I read and loved books like Arabel’s Raven, Matilda, and Superfudge. I also enjoyed Animal Farm, The Tale of Genji, and even my Mum’s copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary. While I may hold some of those aforementioned novels in higher critical esteem than others, all were important in developing my love of reading.
If only more people, particularly those who allegedly love reading, could see that merit.