Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Adults and YA Fiction: An Open Letter to Ruth Graham


"Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children."

That is the tagline from an article that was posted to Slate.com earlier this month. I'm not going to give the author the pleasure of providing a link but it is easy enough to find if you wish, though I'm sure many of you have already at least heard about it. I initially was not going to respond to the article because, to me, it is pretty obvious what a load of BS it is, but the more I read responses to it (all awesome) the more I wanted to add my piece to the conversation. So here were are.

To start, Ruth Graham, the author of this article, insists that YA is a genre full nothing but shallow stories that offer nothing but escapism and that no mature adult reader should be wasting their time on. Lets start with that, shall we?

Ms. Graham, let us pretend for arguments sake that the entire YA genre (this is literally thousands of books we're lumping together here, you understand) provides nothing more than escapism wrapped up neatly in simple and shallow endings. Take a look at the world we are living in right now. Take a look at the world that your generation has created and left for mine. (And make no mistake, while my generation is not the only group of adults still reading YA, we are the largest; we are the generation of current twenty and thirty somethings who roam the YA shelves at Barnes and Noble and are therefore the primary group you are attacking in your article.) Ms. Graham I was 8 years old when the War in Iraq started; I am now 21, a senior in college, and men and women my age are now all grown up and dying in a war that started when I was in third grade. And speaking of college, my generation also enters the adult world that you are oh so fond of already tens of thousands of dollars in debt, because your generation, which was able to afford college through part time jobs, decided education was a privilege reserved for those who could afford it. And best of all, when we graduate from university we find that all those jobs your generation insisted our college degrees would open up to us are not there. To be frank, Ms. Graham, the world your generation left mine sucks; could you really blame us for seeking out an escape?

Of course, the idea that this is all YA offers is ridiculous to begin with. I could easily list a number of books off the top of my head that disprove this crock theory of yours. Ms. Graham, your assertion of this obviously incorrect belief tells me one of two things must be true: either you have not actually read any of the books you are so fiercely attacking, or your critical thinking skills are virtually non-existent (which, by the way, removes all likeliness of you being the oh so mature reader you proclaim yourself to be). It just so happens, Ms. Graham, that one of the degrees I am putting myself into debt to earn is in English Language and Literature, so I feel quite confident informing you that that your understanding of the YA genre, and quite frankly literature as whole, is disturbingly inaccurate.

Judging from your article, your beliefs about YA fiction seem to have very little to do with YA books themselves, and everything to do with your already obviously skewed perception of the genre and its worth. There are two passages that I think make it very clear what you are actually saying in this article.

"The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?"

If you will allow me translate, you are essentially insisting that you are too good for such books because you, as you mention over and over again, are a grown-up. It seems to me that your lens is the problem, not the literature. If you go into a book thinking you are too good to be reading it, that is the experience you will have. And that does not make you a grown-up; it makes you a text-book example of a stuck up reader. The issues that Hazel is confronted with in TFIOS do not end one day as we are magically transformed into adults. If anything, many of them become more prevalent. Love, death, loss, and grief are all things that everyone has to deal with regardless of how old they are, and they are important themes in many of the "mature grown-up" literature that you revere so much. You are just refusing to acknowledge it because you believe yourself to be too grown-up to take anything meaningful away from a story about teenagers; in short, you believe you are too good for the protagonists of YA fiction. 

Here's the other one.

When I think about what I learned about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life—from the extracurricular reading I did in high school, I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes.

Once again, it is about your preferences. You are attacking adults and an entire body of literature because you have different preferences. I am very happy for you that you had John Updike and Alice Munro to teach you about all of, you know, life. But see, the fact that you learned all those lessons from those books that mean so much to you, does nothing to change the fact that most books in the genres that "never makes [you] roll [your] eyes" bore me to tears. They are just not the kind of books I usually fall in love with. But that doesn't mean I'm missing out on the great experiences that you seem to think I am. I learned about all those same "grown-up" things, plus much more, from reading books I love. Books by Markus Zusak, Lauren Oliver, Khaled Hosseini, J.K. Rowling, and John Green. These authors, to name only a few, have written books that have shaped me as a person and drastically altered my outlook on life. And I read most of their books when I was exiting what you consider to be the cut-off point for proper YA readership. 

I have actually read quite of few your grown up books. I am a big fan of historical fiction; I loved Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. I'm looking forward to reading another Dan Brown book after having read The Da Vinci Code. But growing up and reading "grown-up" books has done nothing to lessen my love for YA. I don't suspect anything every will. And while I do walk down your preferred isles when I visit a bookstore, it is always the YA section that ends up coming home with me. 

When I was little I was always convinced there was a distinct difference between children and adults. I believed that one day I would be an adult and I wouldn't like swimming anymore (adults don't go swimming, they go "for a float"), I wouldn't like playing Nintendo games (grown-ups only play first person shooters and bejewelled), and I would have to give up my love for books about dragons and dystopian futures. Well, Ms. Graham, today I am indeed an adult. But somehow I still love swimming, I still play Pokemon, and I still love YA fiction. I cannot imagine ever giving up my love for books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and certainly not for so ridiculous a reason as I got too old or because some snobby stranger on the internet told me to. 

You wrote this article because you fear for all the adults out there missing out on all the great books in the world. I'm responding to tell you not to worry about us; we're all doing just fine. And I hope for your sake that some day you are able to get over yourself and join us.

P.S. Don't you think the number of people in your generation fawning over Fifty Shades of Grey, which depicts a textbook example of an emotionally manipulative and abusive relationship (with downright terrible writing to match), is a bit bigger of a concern than the number of adults who read John Green and J.K. Rowling? Because I sure do.

8 comments:

  1. THANK YOU!! This was all of my feeling put into words I couldn't find!

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    1. Happy to help! It took me a few days of commenting on other people's responses to figure out exactly what it was I wanted to say, haha. Glad you liked it and thanks for commenting! :)

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  2. Quote:
    "P.S. Don't you think the number of people in your generation fawning over Fifty Shades of Grey, which depicts a textbook example of an emotionally manipulative and abusive relationship (with downright terrible writing to match), is a bit bigger of a concern than the number of adults who read John Green and J.K. Rowling? Because I sure do."
    *claps hands*

    And...just imagine how ashamed I should be for reading YA in my 40s... *proudly displays her shelf contents*

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    1. For shame! How dare you read what you enjoy! Tsk Tsk. ;)

      I just keep thinking about all the books adults like her must be missing out on. Like by that definition millions of people would never get to experience the work of art that is harry potter, and that is a shame. What a way to live to be putting age limits on stories.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment! :)

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  3. I think it's a matter of personal preference. I'm not too into John Green and still haven't finished TFIOS (maybe I'll actually finish it one day), but I don't think I'm too good for it. I believe in the freedom to read whatever you want to read. I love YA, and I don't think I will ever "grow out of it." Whatever that means...

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I definitely agree. I personally love John Green's work but I have friends who aren't huge fans. But they would never in their life dream of saying they disliked it because "its a nicely written book for 13-year-olds". It is all about personal preference and no one has the right to say anyone is wrong for enjoying the books they enjoy.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  4. Hello, Katie! I loved your post and agree whole heartedly. I'm also writing a response to the article (which I haven't read, but I'm aiming my post toward the whole argument in general) and I was wondering if it was okay to quote something you wrote. I'll be sure to link back to this post, of course!

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    1. Thanks so much! And yes of course you can! Look forward to reading your response too!

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