Ruth Graham, Not Quite Wrong: Why Liking YA Literature Doesn’t Make It Great

Do you read? Do you also read the internet? If so, you might be aware of an article posted on Slate by Ruth Graham, pegged to Fault in Our Stars mania as a film based on that ultra-popular, mega-beloved John Green young-adult novel was poised to make a killing at the box office (it did, albeit in a more Twilight-y way that some might have expected, given its mostly positive reviews). Graham’s piece discussed the phenomenon of adults reading YA literature, and her argument against it. It was dismissive, maybe even a little haughty, and outfitted with a sensationalist headline (backed up by some actual sensationalist prose) about how adults should be embarrassed to read these kinds of books.

And a part of me agreed with her.

Let me be clear: I do not agree with the idea that anyone should be embarrassed by what they read. Though I don’t use my degree in Library Science (I prefer the Dark Arts of Libraries, but that’s not what the diploma says) often, one thing I did take away from my professors, many of them with experience as school or public librarians, was that reading is reading is reading. It is a net positive, no matter what it is that’s being read. We all have things we read that we could, in different contexts or historical periods, be embarrassed about: comic books, Choose Your Own Adventure, romance novels, Garfield books, Animorphs, Twilight, Slate. There is no reason to be embarrassed by what you read because whatever it is, you have it over on someone who does not read at all.

Strangely, although reading is generally seen as a more worthwhile pursuit than watching things, the stigma attached to watching the “wrong” things seems far smaller, far easier to laugh off. People talk about how they watch those Real Housewives shows all the time. As a movie guy who prides himself on having pretty good taste, I’m not embarrassed to have seen Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and I’m not even embarrassed to have seen and enjoyed a number of Resident Evil movies. I’m sure some people would be, but I wonder if the general academic/education notion that sitting in front of the TV (or, now, screenamajig) was generally bad for you (save the occasional ingestion of PBS) was in vogue for so long that some are still working through the distinction between bad TV and just TV, in terms of potential embarrassment. I understand that the alleged extremely high quality of television gets a lot of press these days, but I’m speaking in terms of culture-at-large perceptions here, not necessarily of the pop-culture-studies AV Club audience.

In any event: on the matter of embarrassment, regardless of how tongue-in-cheek and/or attention-baiting its use was intended, Graham is incorrect. Friend of and hopefully future contributor to Jen Vega wrote a very smart piece further dismantling much of Graham’s argument in a thoughtful, measured way. Graham is wrong about a lot.

That said, again:

A part of me agreed with her.

I do not know a lot about YA fiction. I’ve read some, but that tends to be filtered through a team of publishing-savvy friends who can steer me towards the best — or through my library school coursework, where YA was a speedy-reading joy for classes that wanted me reading a book every week or so. But it’s the very pleasure I’ve taken and the writing I’ve admired that makes me agree, to some extent, with Graham’s assertion: YA does not seem very challenging, at least in terms of style or voice. The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written and very compelling and tackles a difficult subject and addresses it in a complex way. It is also easy: easy to like, easy to read, easy to polish off in a few days. I stayed up until 2AM finishing Eleanor and Park: again, beautifully written, and deeply involving. But does that make it a great book?

Of course, there’s no need for every or even half of or even ten percent of the books you read to be great. Very few books I read from any genre, demographic, or format are great in that Great Gatsby/Visit from the Goon Squad/Ice Haven sort of way. But yes, as good as the best YA books I’ve read are, you can tell that they are written for teenagers. Teenagers who are or will become smart and literate, for sure, but still teenagers more as a demographic (however respected and care for) than as a part of a broader readership.

It’s difficult, I think, for a book written toward a demographic to be great the same way “adult” literature (which is to say: literature) can be great. Not impossible: there is real comic poetry in, say, Frog and Toad Are Friends, though it’s aimed primarily at children. Roald Dahl was a magnificent writer – though I think maybe the best children’s books are, in their way, almost more likely to contain artistic merit than the best YA books. Graham cites The Westing Game as a book written for children that influenced her while not at all being something she’d want to revisit; I did revisit The Westing Game as an adult after loving it as a child, and I found that I understood it better, loved it just as much. Having not read The Fault in Our Stars as a child, I guess I can’t say whether, as an adult, I was experiencing dimensions to its story that would have been concealed at twelve or thirteen. But I tend, perhaps uncharitably, to think not. A book for a younger audience can smuggle in all kinds of themes and subtleties. A book for teenagers doesn’t need to do that, while still being “for” an audience that probably isn’t getting exactly what the adult-targeted (or anyone-targeted) version of that story would get. To me, it’s the difference between a Pixar movie and something made more explicitly for tweens or teens, like Degrassi. It’s not that the latter shouldn’t exist, or can’t be appreciated by adults. In fact, I love Degrassi. You guys, seriously: I have hundreds of episodes of Degrassi. But in a lot of ways, the Pixar folks have more freedom, even though Degrassi deals with more “adult” themes.

The reactions to Graham’s piece (which did not make the best possible case, and would not have been as widely read if it had) had plenty of predictable anger and outrage over the prescriptive tone. But I also detected an alarming amount of defensiveness over the very notion that maybe something written for teenagers might not be as good as something written “for” adults — over, indeed, the very notion of presuming the ability to criticize something that some people really, really like. Setting aside the foolish idea of embarrassment, it’s not so radical to suppose that maybe The Fault in Our Stars does have limitations based on its intended audience, and that there may be something regressive about wholeheartedly embracing those limitations.

I realize a lot of YA categorization is based on how a book is marketed, not necessarily the intentions of the author; I’ve always found it odd that anyone refer to it as a “genre.” That seems like calling animation a genre. But I’m beginning to think maybe the reason YA has been able to pass as a genre is because of those self-imposed limitations. You can find people who claim that Catcher in the Rye is YA (capturing, as it does, the voice of a teenage protagonist, and inviting, intentionally or not, its audience to relate to that voice), as well as people who claim that this is ridiculous because YA was essentially invented decades after Rye was written. I don’t really like either of those options. Either way, Rye has beautiful sentences and style, and while John Green and Rainbow Rowell and plenty of other writers can turn a vivid phrase (more vivid and immediate, certainly, than what I can usually manage), to me there is a palpable difference in reading Salinger. Maybe because I’ve been able to read other stuff he wrote that’s not from a teenager’s perspective. Maybe because the book itself feels less limited, even when it’s going deep inside a teenager’s head.

Westing GameCatcher in the RyeCity of bonesgoon squad

Obviously no one has to read anything they don’t like, and I’m of two minds about the way lots of schools go about a reading curriculum: better, perhaps, to let kids read and analyze books that interest them, so as to encourage reading and analysis in general, even if it’s not related to the literary canon. Then again: maybe liking something shouldn’t be a primary goal of education or even necessarily reading. Education can be prescriptive sometimes. That’s unavoidable and I don’t think that’s always so bad.

So Graham was, to some degree, telling people what to read, yes. But she was also saying (or at least I extrapolated that she was trying to say) that liking or enjoying a book isn’t the be-all end-all of its worth (obviously a subjective and possibly deranged concept, but one that many people are happy to indulge in virtually every area of our art-consuming lives). The reactions to her piece brought to my mind not just the honorable librarians who fight for kids’ access to books they want to read but also the case of Jennifer Weiner. Weiner has written and spoken a lot about gender inequality in the literary world. As one of the most popular writers in the country, she’s in a unique position to do so, and has doubtless done a lot of good for bringing attention to that issue. But so often she yokes together the idea that women are under-reviewed as writers and underrepresented as reviewers (per VIDA, this is pretty much inarguable) with the idea that so-called “chick lit” books — and likable, enjoyable, snappily written popular novels in general — are woefully and snobbishly overlooked by the likes of the New York Times Book Review (a summary of various literary spats related to both topics can be found in this fascinating profile).

I don’t know for sure whether Jennifer Weiner’s writing deserves consideration alongside, say, Jennifer Egan’s or Amy Bloom’s or Jonathan Franzen’s or whoever else’s (I’ve only read bits of Weiner’s fiction, and I saw the movie of In Her Shoes, which I liked, and had many signs of working even better on the page) (for that matter, I haven’t read much of Franzen, either). But the idea of getting indignant over commercial fiction not receiving glowing (or any) New York Times notices seems, to me, churlish. It’s not enough that Weiner has the adulation of millions of readers, apparently; she should get critical respect, too, because people like her books, and by the way, it’s also annoying when books feature characters who are unlikable, and it’s annoying when writers think likability is boring or coddling. From there, it’s just an easy stroll to the inevitable claims that critics like elitist, difficult, critic-friendly stuff and are out of touch with what real people want to read.

There was a strain of this idea in Jody Rosen’s recent New York piece on shlock in music, which rolled its eyes playfully at the initial rock-critic dismissal of Journey and “Don’t Stop Believin,” noting, because of the way the song has “sunk its teeth into our collective unconscious,” that it now “sounds irrefutable.” I had no idea this was what irrefutability sounded like, and I’m not sure if we necessarily should be excited about songs that sound so ominously unstoppable, but I can read between the lines: Journey, or at least that one Journey song, officially became too popular for mere criticism.


I don’t have a problem with defending the mega-popular; ask me what I think of Titanic sometime (it’s a fucking fantastic movie, that’s what). Certainly, I like some of what Rosen talks about as disrespected shlock (Billy Joel!). Less related to Rosen’s Journey love but also worth noting: some anti-populist dismissal of stuff like romance novels and/or “chick lit” and/or romantic comedies and/or actual no-foolin’ garbage like Twilight is rooted in sexism (though as a comparison point for Weiner, there are plenty of traditionally dude-centric commercial fiction authors who don’t get this attention, either). But just as I bristle at the idea that time proved Journey right because idiots scream along with it at bars, there’s a strain of arrogance in claiming that gender-based genre biases are the one and only reason anyone could possibly resist Jennifer Weiner’s writing — just as I’m sure it’s been argued that if Eleanor and Park came out without the YA label, it might scrounge up some more respect from the likes of Graham — who I assume would resist that claim.

So no, Jennifer Weiner, I don’t think it’s a damn shame that the Times isn’t reviewing your books instead of a short story collection that will need that Times boost just to break the 5,000-copy mark. I think you’re actually one of the few people to make money solely from writing books, so maybe demanding conferred prestige along with it is a bit much. I’m sure some filmmakers share those complaints, and I’m equally sure among those filmmakers would be Michael Bay. And if a major film publication chose to ignore Transformers: Age of Extinction or even something better-regarded like The Avengers or Godzilla, few beyond the least adventurous group of moviegoers would bat an eye, or complain that the attention paid to smaller movies and film festivals was doing a disservice to its audience, or even notice. Actually, this isn’t even a hypothetical: there are dozens of extremely well-regarded and well-read film publications that do just that.

Of course, the Times takes great (or at least medium-sized) pains to review every single new theatrical release in New York. But the massive number of films that open in New York is nothing compared to the number of books that become commercially available in New York by virtue of being available online, on Amazon, or, occasionally and we hope more often, in your local independent bookstore. As sure as I am that the Times will tend to skew a little literary-establishment in their coverage, I’m also sure that David Patterson and Jennifer Weiner and Stephen King aren’t the ones who need the boost from a readjustment of that coverage. Residue from my disdain of Weiner’s populism turns to sympathy for Ruth Graham’s point of view, however inelegantly and attention-grabbingly expressed: this idea that if you say something someone else likes isn’t that great, you are questioning their very worth as humans, and doing a disservice to what “people like,” puts me off the otherwise laudable notion that you should consume what you love.

The internet has given voice to so many more opinions, and this is probably a crucial step in dismantling the hierarchical architecture that results in lots of white men reviewing lots of books by white men. The internet also fosters enthusiasm — and its evil twin, snark. These two tones can feed into each other, even reinforce each other, placing the greatest possible emphasis not on ideas or thought or analysis but on liking (even the supposed disliking of the snarky seems to me rooted in a similar instinct: I don’t like this, so I’m going to pithily dismiss it or, even weirder, I like this, but it’s dumb that I like it, so I’m going to both obsess over it and mock it). (I think this is why pretty-good TV shows have suddenly become the most universally revered art form around, but that’s probably a separate and even more contentious essay.) (Or, fine, something one might post on LiveJournal a year and a half ago somehow related to the lack of story arcs on The Mindy Project.)

To me, a work of art is not reaching its highest level by making you like it and want more of it. Make no mistake: I think enough of my personal taste that I try not to distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Moreover, the amount of joy that liking or loving some book or movie or TV show or song or whatever can give a person is an amazing thing (speaking as a recipient here, obviously, as well as an always-aspiring giver), and on a practical level is probably worth a thousand (or at least a few hundred) academic analyses of the same.

But a lot of us, as curious or obsessive or just plain insufferable humans, do like talking about these things beyond saying, well, I like it and it makes me happy. Because doing this, even if it’s just up in your head and not screamed out on some dumb blog, can make you more curious or obsessive and, yeah, probably more insufferable in some cases (hello, I am a semi-professional film critic). It can also lead to challenging yourself, seeking out things you aren’t guaranteed to like because they’re fast-paced or drone-y or ideologically pleasing or any of the other things that might make someone just like a piece of art.

So yes, yes, read YA. If someone refuses to read YA, even beyond my initial sympathy for that refusal, my unsolicited advice would be: read some of it. Maybe not a lot of it, maybe not often, but try it. And my unsolicited advice to people — adults or teenagers — who read only YA or even eighty percent YA would be: read something else. Not to replace it, but because once you’ve made yourself happy, you might realize how much else you and literature and movies and songs and art can do.
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