Thursday, June 5, 2014

YA: A Response to Ruth Graham

In a recent article for Slate Magazine--which was bylined "Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children"--Ruth Graham assesses the current status of young-adult literature in American society, especially where adult readers are concerned. Building arguments off her experience reading John Green's wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars, which has been on various bestseller lists for more than a year and has found a strong readership among adults, Graham chides those who populate their shelves with books written for the under-18 crowd. Unfortunately, her arguments against this cross-generational practice, while varied, do little more than make Graham seem like a self-appointed keeper of the cannon--a pesky Internet librarian rolling her eyes at you from behind the check-out desk when your selections do not meet her stern, devastating criteria.

For starters, Graham's definition of what constitutes "literary fiction"--that is, the books against which she is comparing YA fiction--goes undefined, though she leaves quite a substantive list of qualities that she finds less than appealing in young-adult literature: endings that are "uniformly satisfying," the teenager perspective presented in a "fundamentally uncritical way" because the writer abandons "the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults," and stories that do not grow with you into adulthood, as the stories of other authors--Updike, Wharton, Dickens, Munro--do. By writing an article devoid of concrete definitions, Graham is trying to have it both ways:  denigrating an entire genre of literature and praising another without defining where the boundary between them lies. Does she believe it's simply the intended audience that defines "literary" versus "non-literary"? Is it the author's purpose? Is it the subject-matter? If John Green announced tomorrow that The Fault in Our Stars was actually written for middle-aged adults, would that affect Graham's assessments in any way? After all, a publishing company and its army of authors can advertise a book to whomever they want; the audience that reads the book, on the other hand, cannot be controlled.

Similarly, Graham seems to believe that "literary fiction"--however it's defined--is more redeeming to its reader than young-adult literature, and as examples she name-checks the aforementioned greats. However, I am also an adult who has read all four of those revered authors, and I must admit, many of their works leave me wanting more. Updike, for one, wrote with such suffocating focus--immature, libidinous white men struggling to survive the banality of middle age and the middle class--that almost every novel he wrote over his half-century career will be out of print long before colleges decide to abandon him. The same applies to Edith Wharton, whose entire literary output has been narrowed down to two lone novels, both of which are kept in print simply because of university reading lists and high school AP classes. Young adult books, on the other hand, survive solely because they have a following--they will be kept in print based on their ability to sustain a readership and not because they are forced on unsuspecting undergraduates, which should be the true measure of a book.

And before a question is raised as to my pedigree when it comes to literature, I should add that my list of personal favorites includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O'Connor, Toni Morrison, and Jerzy Kosinski. I consider One Hundred Years of Solitude to be arguably the most perfect book ever written, and Flannery O'Connor to be the single greatest writer the United States has ever produced. A lightweight I am not, and yet I enjoy young-adult literature with the same enthusiasm as I do the works of Nobel Prize-winners. I would never consider elevating any genre of literature--or author, or subject, or intended audience--above another, as it inherently devalues a form of art that is, by its very nature, personal and subjective. Furthermore, the truths inherent in many of these authors' works--the frailty and dangers of love, the disappointments of adulthood, the empty promises of dreams, the utter aloneness of bravery and justice--are just as prevalent in young-adult novels, however more blatantly presented they may be.

For instance, what makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower any less powerful than Catcher in the Rye? Having read the latter in high school and then again in college, I can attest to the fact that Holden Caulfield is an arrogant, delusional, whiny young man who cannot process the world beyond himself. Reading Salinger's novel through the eyes of Caulfield is a torture in itself, and whether or not this was intentional on the author's part--giving us someone to identify with as teenagers, then dismiss when we reread him as adults, as a representation of what it's like to grow up--it isn't worth the 200-page commitment that his novel requires. Call it a classic if you want, but I would prefer to read Stephen Chbosky's adaptation-cum-ripoff; at least there we have a narrator whose sense of alienation is founded in reality, as is the emptiness felt by his two friends, and the cause of his problems is one that many young readers might find uncomfortably familiar and therefore more redeeming. 

In addition, the idea that ridiculous, eye-rolling moments are only a staple of young-adult literature speaks to Graham's total unfamiliarity with other works of literature. Regardless of a novel's reputation and history, each has at least one moment in which the author, perhaps caught in a flurry of emotions, commits themselves to a line or two that is inherently guffaw-inducing. (Sometimes these moments come about purely by accident, or due to the passage of time, when something once considered serious and profound becomes little more than silly.) A perfect example of this can be found in the novels of Charles Dickens, a pinnacle of serious "literary fiction"whose works are nevertheless haunted by some of the most maudlin and irritating lines imaginable. Or, for a better comparison, the works of William Shakespeare, which are far more overblown at times than any problematic line John Green might write. For instance, a line from The Fault in Our Stars that Graham isolates as exemplifying this problem--“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things”--expresses the exact same sentiments, albeit in a different way, as Shakespeare more than four centuries earlier when he wrote as part of a sonnet, "My love is as a fever, longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease, / Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, / Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please." In essence, the love our speaker has for another is so powerful it cannot be denied. Same sentiments, same motivation; the only difference is that they were written across epochs and oceans, and one has the benefit of having been around 400 years longer than the other. And perhaps it goes without saying, Shakespeare was far from a literary legend in his day:  his plays were staged for both royalty and common-man, and they drip with adult humor and purposely indulgent lines. 

This addresses another of Graham's arguments, that young-adult literature is not as critical of its subjects than it should be. In essence, she wants the authors of these books to not only write for a specific audience but attack that very same audience in the process, if for no other reason than to make it more palatable for adults. But that's not why adults read YA novels--they are not searching for a vague sense of validation, that the local teenagers are in fact a wily and hopeless bunch of idealistic dreamers, clueless drug-users, or wild social animals. Adult readers, just like all readers, read for their own individual reasons, and trying to assign one lone motivation is an arrogant task in itself, as it allows Graham to bestow a level of intelligence and understanding on herself that no person, regardless of their background, could possibly attain. Furthermore, the belief that YA novels are inferior because they lack the insights gained by adulthood demonstrates a total lack of understanding about what literature is supposed to be:  not a representation of reality but an exploration of possibility. (If all novels were based in reality, the local bookstore would be like one million reality TV shows rendered in print.) 

If Graham believes that "literary fiction" must convey what it means to be an adult, based on adult experiences and understandings, then she must also dismiss Harlequin romance novels--a billion-dollar industry---for their baseless ideals about love and sex. She must dismiss fantasy novels for their complete detachment from the insights inherent in our own reality--after all, ogres and wizards and dragon-slayers who operate by foreign codes and strange social norms can in no way be representative of our own human experiences. And she must dismiss science fiction for being so overt in its imbuing of other life forms--extraterrestrials, androids, clones--with human qualities, as any attempt to depict the humanity in all of us must be couched in heavy symbolism and ambiguous endings in order to be taken seriously. These other genres do not follow Graham's paradoxically strict yet unexplained criteria for being "literary," at least not more so than the young-adult novels she references, and therefore her list of "acceptable" works of literature becomes even smaller still.

Reading this argument, you get the sense that Graham would very much like to stand outside the nearest prom and berate its teenage attendees for the hollowness of their puppy-love, all the while waving statistics in their face attesting to the failure rates of high-school relationships and questioning the logic behind the entire endeavor. ("How much did you spend on that dress?" I imagine her saying as she corners a 15 year-old girl. "Do you know how much you'll need that money when you're 50 years old with two kids in college?!") The idea that writers of YA literature are not worthy of adult validation because they do not write critically of their subjects is entirely absurd, and it suggests that Graham believes herself entirely complete as a human being now that she is no longer a teenager. She is done growing, done learning, done experiencing new emotions or needing to untangle complicated feelings. Apparently, Graham does not believe that the very issues that so thoroughly haunted her and everyone else as teenagers--love and loss, death, shame, pride, jealousy, friendship, infamy--are constant for the rest of our lives.

Which is yet another instance of Graham unwittingly undermining her own argument. Anyone who has read even a fraction of the "literary fiction" Graham so passionately extols understands that those very problems experiences by teenagers become amplified in adulthood. Take Under the Volcano, about a man whose alcoholism destroys his life. Or Of Mice and Men, a look at how we're all damaged in some way, and it's those damages that would make us worthy of one another if they didn't also drive us away from each other. Or 1984, about the importance of thinking for one's self, even as those around you compromise freedom for illusions of comfort and safety. Anyone who has spent time around teenagers--or, for that matter, remembers what it's like to be young--knows that these experiences affect them just as much as they affect us, which is part of the reason YA novels are so popular:  they speak to a reality that often goes overlooked by writers of more "serious" books, as adults are often trained to dismiss the problems of teenagers as insignificant, temporary, or exaggerated. Anyone who has read any young-adult books by Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, sees that this is not the case, and anyone who has ever spent time with teenagers who are not their own knows it with certainty.

I say this not just as someone who loves reading fiction--any fiction--but also as a high school English teacher who, semester after semester, sees just how deeply his students are affected by the YA books they read. Yes, many of the plot-lines and characters are cliched--just like many of the plots and characters in non-YA books are cliched--but I've never had a single student hold up their Sarah Dessen or Mike Lupica book and extol how much they'd like to live in its pages. No, teenagers are smart enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality, just as they're smart enough to understand that what they're reading now is not something they will read forever. My students read their fill of young-adult books, but they also move effortlessly into works by other, more "literary" writers:  Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen, Tim O'Brien, Cormac McCarthy. They may not like what some of these authors write, just as they may not like the newest book by Nicholas Sparks or find that Rick Riordan is becoming a little too repetitive for their taste, but that's what makes reading an adventure that is forever surprising. What I see are teenagers--future adults--who are finding connections in the books they read, and as far as I'm concerned, in this age of short attention spans and instant gratification through a myriad of digital sources, the fact that they're spending hours hunkered down with a book gratifies me to no end, and I couldn't care less what they're reading or why.

Teenager are much more intelligent and discerning than Graham gives them credit, and the simple fact that she bases much of her understanding of YA literature on her own experiences, along with random samples of Internet fandom, underscores the complete lack of research she undertook in trying to understand the appeal of books like The Fault in Our Stars. After all, if I were to base my own understanding of adult readers on what I read on the Internet--say, an article from Slate Magazine--I might also reach incorrect conclusions of my own...namely, that some adults are too caught up in their own egos to actually understand that the wider world does not revolve around them. Which would make someone like Ruth Graham the perfect audience for young-adult literature, if Ruth Graham is to be believed.