Book Shaming

As I was working on my Pick of the Week for tomorrow (More on that tomorrow, shockingly enough.  And, Spoiler Alert, the Pick is a book.), I ran across the fact that this particular book had been selected as one of the Best Teen Books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews.  This surprised me because I hadn’t really considered the book to be aimed at teens.  Yes, the point of view character is a young woman, but she’s for all intents and purposes an adult in the novel and interacts with adults.

From there, I fell into one of those Internet rabbit holes where one article leads you to another to another, and ended up running across the debate that has cropped up about adults reading Young Adult books.  This isn’t new.  Similar discussions happened when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were bringing in millions of readers, young and old alike.  I’m fairly certain that I uttered a sentence along the lines of, “I know it’s for kids, but it’s really good!” at least once as I tried to both defend my reading choice and convince other adult friends to try the books (I am an entertainment pusher after all).

Perhaps the most pointed criticism of adults reading YA books comes from the article “Against YA” written by Ruth Graham that was published on Slate last year.  In it, she basically argues that most YA books are overly simplistic and view the teenage years without the critical eye or perspective that comes from adulthood. I think that’s probably an overly broad brush to use to paint the entire collection of books that are classified YA, but, even if it’s accurate, I’m not certain that it’s a problem.

Graham says that people read YA for escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.  Escapism seems obvious.  That’s why most people read anything, watch TV, or go to a movie or show.  I’ll be honest that I have no idea what she means my instant gratification.  In the case of the Harry Potter series, readers had to wait a decade to get then whole story.  Sure that’s nothing compared to the folks reading A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s far from instant.  As for nostalgia, sure people like remembering the good times of the past, but I don’t think nostalgia is really what’s at play here.

I think of nostalgia as being more of the moment.  For me, seeing a vintage Star Wars action figure takes me back to my childhood playing with those very same figures on the front porch of my parent’s house.  Reading John Green’s Paper Towns, one of my favorite YA novels (The film version will be released July 24, 2015.), didn’t take me back to a particular moment in my adolescence as such.  I could certainly relate to the main character.  More than that, though, the theme of the book, how we tend to see people as we want to see them rather than for who they really are, hit me because I knew that I’d been guilty of the same behavior when I was the protagonist’s age.  I feel that I needed my adult perspective looking back on my own life and mistakes to truly appreciate the events of the book.

My enjoyment of Paper Towns wasn’t nostalgia.  It was identification coupled with a certain amount of “If I only knew then what I know now.”  I don’t think the value of identification can be overstated.  Good writing can make a reader identify with anyone from a 17th Century Russian aristocrat to 41st Century a robot repairman from planet Jellinex.  I may not be an accountant with three kids and a gambling problem who has just learned that she’s dying of lung cancer, but an author can put me in her shoes and make me empathize with her.

YA does provide a short cut in some ways.  We haven’t all been whalers serving under a madman obsessed with bringing in Moby Dick, but we’ve all been teenagers trying to deal with first loves.  Does that make one inherently better than the other?  Absolutely not.  But Graham fears that YA books are somehow hurting literature.  She says of YA, “These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers.” 

I have an English degree.  I am all for literary fiction, and the value of reading great works.  I also understand, though, that some books that are considered literature are about as entertaining as your average colonoscopy.  I mentioned Moby Dick a little bit ago.  I hate the book.  Hate it.  Reading Moby Dick was an incredibly painful experience for me, made even more so by the fact that I had a “kids version” of the story when I was young that I loved.  I’m not alone, though.  My mother, a woman with a Master’s in English herself, had the book removed from the English curriculum at the high school where she worked and replaced with something else because it was, in her mind, just that awful.

Let’s be honest.  For the most part, outside of school assignments, people read for enjoyment, not because it’s good for them.  Great literature can and should absolutely be enjoyable.  If you don’t like Moby Dick, put the damn thing down and go try something else.  Maybe Beloved would be more enjoyable, or try A Farewell to Arms.  This isn’t and shouldn’t be like taking medicine.  Life’s too short.

That said, I don’t believe Graham’s assertion that YA is replacing literature in adult’s lives for one second.  It’s not as though literary works were dominating the best seller lists before J.K Rowling came along and ruined everything.  Instead people were reading books by authors like James Patterson, Sue Grafton, John Grisham, Robin Cook, and Charlaine Harris.  These very popular writers produce what one of my college creative writing professors disdainfully called “genre fiction.”  Maybe somebody skipped the latest Alex Cross potboiler in favor of reading Looking For Alaska.  My bet is that Ernest Hemmingway’s fanbase wasn’t affected either way.

If people are reading, I’m not going to quibble too much about what they choose to spend their time with.  Maybe I’ll try to point them to something else that I think that they’d like (Did I mention that I am an entertainment pusher?), but I applaud them for wanting to read at all.  Elitism isn’t going to help anybody.  

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter