YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”

By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.)  I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:

Image

And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:

ImageMore often than not, I’m reduced to outraged sputtering, but every now and then I am able to find and use my words, and I will show you the life of the mind, even within the limitations of 140-character posts.  But Twitter is so ephemeral that I wanted to collect my thoughts on this topic somewhere more permanent.

Firstly, on whether YA fiction has merit: of course it does.  It has the same percentage of bad, mediocre, good, and transcendent as any other category (and it is just that, a marketing category).  I challenge anyone to deny that Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are serious, important books; or that the characterization and sense of place in Beautiful Creatures are exquisitely nuanced; or that the impact of socioeconomic privilege on the characters in The Raven Boys is poignant and boldly truthful.  But even beyond the merits of subject matter and of craft — what of imagination and fun?  I find Middle Grade and YA novels to be imaginative in ways that many adult novels are not; their target audience, after all, is not assumed to have figured out who they are or how the world works or what is and isn’t possible.  (Not that any of us adults really have either, though a lot of us like to make a good show of it, either for our own peace of mind or for the sake of conformity.)  As someone who’s always becoming, always questioning and growing, I find a great deal to relate to in MG/YA books — we’re all “coming of age” in one way or another, wherever we are in life, and I love the sense of possibility inherent in stories about young people.  It’s not that possibility only exists for the young; it’s just that a lot of us stop seeing it at some point.  Whether that point feels like comfort/stability or stagnation/suffocation depends on the person.

I can’t begin to tell you how many adult novels I’ve read — mostly for various jobs I’ve had — that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life.  Certainly, this is a subcategory of book the same way, say, faery stories are a subcategory of Fantasy or space operas are a subcategory of Science Fiction — but if you think I have one ounce of sympathy for the privileged one-percenter chafing at the restrictions they placed on their own lives when they chose conformity (or just accepted it, being unaware of any other options)… ahahahaha. Stories like that might as well be science fiction compared to my rural upbringing and an adulthood spent struggling to create my own life as I want it to be rather than as I’m told it must be.  But, “the 1%”/”the 99%” aside, those books are about people who are miserable because they don’t see possibilities in their lives. I’d always rather read about the people who discover possibilities, and who set off on their own paths before falling into that grey flannel prison.  It’s not escapism, it’s inspiration.  (For some, it’s salvation — the number of readers who have gotten through difficult times in their lives with the help of “escapist” or “lowbrow” fiction of various kinds must be in the hundreds of thousands at least.)

Secondly, on attitudes fostered by Internet echo-chamber culture: I don’t know what angers me more — Slate-ism (“everything you love is inferior because you love it and are therefore not thinking critically/like an adult”) or Tumblr-ism (“everything you love is harmful because everything harbors *isms of various sorts and you are doing harm by choosing to see the good in flawed work”).  I’ve had a hate-on for Tumblr-ism for some time now, but Slate-ism is akin to the elitism of the college English department I fled without looking back, the favoritism of certain subject matter and media in the fine art world, and the blinkered attitudes of some media critics towards non-“Prestige” television; I’ve been fighting it longer and on multiple battlefields.  Both seem to boil down to the following ideas: love is blind, joy is infantile and good is a fairy tale.  Pernicious lies, every one, born in the festering cynicism of holier-than-thou intelligentsia, disillusioned idealists, and the kind of people who have bought into the ideas fostered by the “Eat your vegetables” approach to reading that’s taught in what I imagine is a majority of high schools and colleges.  It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes.  Anything else isn’t really adulthood.  Which seems a rather juvenile and simplistic view of adulthood, don’t you think?  Especially considering that childhood and adolescence are Serious Business too, especially when you’re right smack in the middle of them — a fact that MG/YA fiction illustrates exquisitely, whether in realism or in metaphor, time and again. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, I want to address the great, steaming mountain of bullshit that is “Should”.  All this policing of what is and isn’t appropriate to read or wear or do or think or say is contained in that one miserable little word.  If we’re going to throw around ideas about what is and isn’t adult behavior, let’s start there.  That’s what adults do, right? Ask the hard questions and examine their own lives? Serious Business, remember?  So let’s unpack our “Should”s. Where do they come from? Our parents? Our communities? Our religions? Our jobs? Ideological choices made long ago, when entertaining the possibility that there was more than one side, more than one option, was too much for us to consider?  Who decides what “Should” and what “Shouldn’t”? What you “Should” read, watch, listen to, eat, do? Who you “Should” love, hate, marry, work for, emulate? Who you “Should” be? I’m sure a lot of the people who are raising holy hell over the fact that — gasp — people over the age of 21 are reading books that are meant to be marketed to younger people — would be the first to stand up and call bullshit on outmoded sociopolitical “Should”s. Some pretty sweet irony, that.

I’m not casting any stones here — I have “Should”s, present and former. We all do.  But, for the love of all that’s precious and important in the world, FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again.  I don’t care whether you’re fifteen or fifty; if something brings you joy and causes no harm to others (which, memo to the intelligentsia: that does not count readers’ love of MG/YA hurting your feelings), you should do that as often as you possibly can.  Adulthood is serious business, and to get through it all and take on the responsibility of making the world what we want and need it to be, we need to feed our whole selves — we need those reserves of hope and joy, we need that catharsis, we need those reminders of possibility and who we were and who we could be.  And whether we find that in Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or the new Jay McInerney or a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye — or, hell, all of the above; we are human, we contain multitudes — doesn’t matter at all, as long as we find it.

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74 thoughts on “YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”

  1. Hear, hear! Ruth Graham’s article presupposes that her “should” somehow exists outside of culture or history. I found it fascinating that she held up Dickens as an example of something of great literary merit that we “should” be reading, when at the time he was denigrated for his incorporation of “low” artforms like burlesque, melodrama, etc. Graham seems to pride herself on making important distinctions (and value judgments) between one type of culture or another — yet presents herself as totally outside of our time/place. (And also makes almost no distinction among YA books except “trash” and “realism.” Culture’s not static — one period’s “low” art is the next’s high, etc. I feel like it’s been widely acknowledged since at least the 50s that it’s disingenuous to think one can shake one’s finger and moralize when we basically live in time of postmodern collapse between high/low art. I think, too, there’s a couple of other factors: people have realized what Twitter power the YA community has, and they’re waving red capes to get them worked up to click and comment, which boosts ad revenue. So easy to fire some cheap shots at people who write for an audience who don’t really go online and speak for themselves — and likely don’t hobknob with them at literary parties! Also, it strikes me as so narrow-minded to condescend to kids. As a longtime English teacher, I can say that some of the most thought-provoking readings of books (for kids AND adults) come from kids/teens. Thanks for this!

  2. Thank you for this. It echoes thoughts that I have been pre-occupied with for some time now.

    There is absolutely a deeply embedded culture of cynicism towards things which are “good”; perpetuated by those who believe they are sophisticate enough to see how bad everything really is. Yet it smacks to me of pseudo-intellectualism and people aggravated at seeing anyone enjoy something without needing an ulterior motive. As the pseudo-intellectual has spent so much time and energy trying to appear cultured and above the low-born masses.

  3. This article was masterfully written and extremely poignant. I specifically enjoyed the “that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life,” part. I like your writing because it has a strong voice.

  4. I’m with you there on this. I’ve read “adult fiction” with is basically literary fiction. As if when you hit a certain age you’re supposed to read this kind of stuff about ordinary people doing ordinary things and yet somehow it’s supposed to be deep. Like the stuff written by Junot Diaz and Cormac McCarthy. And really, it’s stuff like that I don’t get. Reading about real life dressed up as fiction just seems to be a form of Reality TV dressed up as art and put into print form.

  5. I just have to wonder if Graham has kids, a husband or regular work hours. If not, maybe that’s how she devotes all her time and energy into sophisticated reading.

  6. I don’t really read YA lit–I just prefer adult stories, and stories written at a linguistic level which is a bit more complex than books that are written specifically so youthful readers can keep up with them. But all of us YA-abstainers are not elitist.

    I don’t consider what I read to be boring, high-fiber, conventional, or conformist, and I don’t read things just because they’re at the top of some critic’s list, either. I get legitimate pleasure from the works of authors like Michael Chabon, Karen Russell, Dan Chaon, or Kate Atkinson, who are doing some bold, outlandish things in fiction right now. Even the queen of literary broccoli, Alice Munro, can throw a curveball like “Too Much Happiness,” about a 19th century female mathematician.

    Also, I don’t care what you read. Maybe Ruth Graham does, but I don’t. I’m not saying anybody who loves YA needs or *should* check out these authors, and I’m especially not saying that you *should* abandon YA for these authors. I just hope that it would please you all to know that all adult fiction is not about quiet desperation.

  7. I so agree with you. I don’t understand the genre bashing either. In my opinion, YA novels take far more imagination and skill to write than adult novels, as they are being written for young audiences with abundant imagination and creativity. I personally love YA and adult, and judge a book based on its context, and not the genre.

  8. I “should” write with such succinct clarity. Thank you for that. I feel like I just read most of Robin Williams’ internal teacher monologue in “Dead Poets Society”. Makes me want to start a revolution in my school system.

  9. Wow…you just echoed the entire stuff which has been playing on our mind….tremendous job…yes it is end of the day we are human…multitude and arrays of emotions but still….I am following you…if you get time..visit mine

  10. Wasn’t sure what to expect clicking into this, as I would not say YA fiction is my favourite genre. But you are so right. Maybe I just identify with your thoughts as I get the same kind of flak for wanting to read fantasy novels. God forbid my reading taste isn’t hard-hitting like stories about teenage abortion or mid-life depression. My reading taste is what it is,and that is clearly the natural and healthy way o go about it. Great blog post!

  11. Ehhh… I agree that people shouldn’t (:v) be shamed over the stories they enjoy, but I think you go too far. There *is* a difference between escapism (which *most* YA stuff — and most genre stuff actually — is, though I’m sure there are exceptions & transcendental stuff in all genres) and adult fire-from-the-sky ‘deep exploration of humanity & society’ stuff.

    It’s the difference between medieval Europe+dragons bog-standard fantasy and A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s the difference between banal post-Sandman Niel Gaiman geek chic crap and the divine craziness of Promethea. It’s the difference between Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick. It’s Bella Swan and Aragorn versus Anna Lensky and Ursula Brangwen. Simplistic, escapist fare is inherently distancing; it doesn’t require you to open up your heart & soul, to engage with the text in any meaningful way. It’s an opiate, a numbing drug: fine in moderation, even psychologically useful, but it won’t help you grow as a person, and it won’t provide any real insights into the world.

    Now, I’m not really up on contemporary YA fiction, so it’s entirely possible that the genre has got a lot better in the last few years. I’d be happy to be convinced, and I’ll have finished the book I’m reading now fairly soon (The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence, by the way — it’s amazing and available for free from Project Gutenburg) so I can put aside a couple of weeks… what books would you recommend reading as the very best of current YA?

  12. Pingback: YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should” | girlwithravenwings

  13. I really enjoyed this and agree with many of your points – middle-aged wistfulness as subgenre, escapism as salvation, Slate-ism / Tumblr-ism, and the great sentiment of “follow your bliss”.
    I’m also trying to navigate my way between the joys of high and low culture and your talk of “Eat your vegetables” and “the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no taste” attitude to reading reminded me of a post I wrote last year,

    http://inconspicouscreation.com/2013/05/16/proud-pleasures/

    even though I might tend more towards the Slate-ist end of the spectrum.

  14. Thank you for this post. My favorite part was, ”Drop the Shoulds”

    I banish two words in my life…should and must. It makes life so musch mor fun. Even wrote a post about it called ”Learning to Love”

  15. Book snobs are the worst kind. They make me sick and should be ashamed – surely in this day and age the fact that people still want to pick up books is a credit to the novelist, no matter what their genre or ability. Great post.

  16. I was shocked to learn some books that was categorized as YA, like “Code Name Verity.” I’ve always been annoyed with how books are categorized anyway (see young girl in 1995 looking for fantasy when it’s all categorized under science fiction, it’s not the same, people!). But can’t we just be happy people are reading without getting all judge-y about it?

  17. “It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes.” – Brilliant!! I love reading a good rant and this is spot on!

  18. Thank you, thank you!! This is fantastic! As a 20 something struggling to find her place in the world as an adult, I can only thank you for taking up the banner cry of those who dare to be individuals! I work in a creative field, but I often feel juvenile when I look at other adults my age. But then I remind myself that inside they are just like me, only they choose to play dress up in pant suits and ties. Well, no thank you, I refuse to kill my feet in heels, to work in a cubicle or to give up on Harry Potter and YA novels! And that does not make me any less intelligent, of any less worth, and certainly not any less of an adult than my so-called counterparts!

  19. What a wonderful article. As one of those people who studied literature in university, and fine art, and goes to the opera and the ballet, I would like to throw my support behind the YA novels. I read the Narnia books, the Harry Potter books, the L.M. Montgomery books, and I have a wonderful collection of Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature. I enjoy seeing how “big ideas” can be presented to younger readers. If people are reading, and thinking and talking about what they are reading, then that is a success. Literature, like music and art, should be about inclusion, and not some sort of badly defined snobbish standards. There is room for all kinds of books on my shelves, and I welcome them all.

  20. I was unaware there was actually any real…sustenance, thing, movement? concerning the belief that an adult, on becoming so, must take his or her toys and burn them and never look back at the ashes. I knew some people believed that, I did not realize there was a whole -ism to it.

    I so agree with you wholeheartedly…and honestly, this is why I never claim to be an adult. I sometimes claim excitedly that “I did an adult thing” or that “I acted like an adult” or even “I was an adult for a little there”, but…because of the belief swirling unspoken around me that an adult is the most boring thing there can be, I do not claim to be one. I will insist the next book my husband and I read together is The Candy Shop Wars and its sequel, and I will have a fangirl moment when we hit the climax of book one again, squealing about how perfect the villain is and how they defeated said villain is just…so…gaaah, perfect for the book. No one can take that from me.

    Honestly, I’ve always liked (nearly all) vegetables – but my mom knew how to cook them really well and served them with other well-prepared parts of the meal. I think that Srs Bzniss books (I can’t take serious business seriously in this sort of context) are not too different – they can be delightful to consume, but only when prepared in a way other than taking a can and dumping it into a pot for a bit and then on your plate. To pretend you actually -like- it when your vegetables, metaphorical or not, are soggy and flavorless is to live a lie. It’s to be an automaton. It’s to die. As long as raisin-bran is what it means to be an adult, being an adult, to me, means to be dead, to say to your humanity, “Eh, I don’t need you” and to slip into a useless stupor of gray.

  21. People should read whatever they want to read. Books are often labeled into certain categories just so they are easily identifiable by the core group that will buy them the most, but it’s not like those categories become stone walls that separate readers from the books. People should read whatever they want.

    In conclusion, shameless plug for my blog:

    http://bookshelfbattle.com/

  22. So I never read that article (I hate 99% of Slate articles, anyway.) However, I did go through a phase in college where I decided I was too old to read fiction, and would only read nonfiction from now on. Right after I graduated, my friend convinced me to read The Hunger Games. I decided to make an “exception”, and soon realized that my idea was dumb.

    • I also agree with your stance on YA fiction – YA fiction has some awesome characters and stories. I actually only associate fiction with YA – I have no idea what is considered adult fiction (with the exception of classical literature.) My adult lit consists of nonfiction and recipe books..

  23. …I think I love you….LOL!….you are 100% correct, well childfree women like me are seen as “immature” (so….the fact that I have more independence than you and don’t care about should makes me less mature?), and so are cosplaying “nerds” like me (okay it’s more acceptable now but still). And I’m also tired of the fake intellectualism which tells us that “good” and “happy” are inferior…I see those types as sheltered because if you’ve seen so much suffering in the world you don’t want to see it in fiction, especially if you do things to reduce the world’s suffering because then gloomy crap gets annoying (At least for me).
    And no, you don’t go too far 🙂 people have the right to read what they want, screw other’s opinions.

  24. “FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts” That’s some great advice right there. For everything, not just books. I heartily agree with the rest as well. Thank you for speaking up!

  25. This is a great post! I agree with so much of what you’ve said here.

    Somehow I managed to miss this Slate article, and I’m glad I did, because it would have just angered me. There seems to be this perception that YA books are inherently inferior to those marketed to adults because they’re considered less sophisticated. While some YA books, such as The Hunger Games, have prose that is understandable to primary school-aged children (though its themes made me pause and think), many others, at least in fantasy, have the same calibre of writing as in books geared to adults. Indeed, there are series, like Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, where I honestly don’t know if it’s a YA series or an adult series. And I don’t care. What matters is that I enjoy it. It’s not that I’m not a discerning reader, either; I have an English literature degree from a prestigious university, which automatically makes me more qualified than 90% of the people I know who think YA books are a waste of time 😉 More importantly, I read widely and voraciously, and just because I enjoy Jane Austen doesn’t mean I can’t also enjoy Kiersten White.

    One of the reasons I read a lot of YA is that, like you mentioned, the themes resonate with me. I *am* a young adult – 24 years old – and I do still feel like I’m trying to find my way in the world. And I remember quite vividly what it was like trying to fit in in high school, even though that’s not the case with me anymore. Adult books are more likely to deal with things like parenthood and past regrets and, while that doesn’t mean I can’t sympathise with these characters, I don’t identify with them in the same way that I do, for instance, Hermione Granger or Clary Fray.

  26. T’was a great piece, and the most memorable line, for me? ” FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again.”
    A lot of Adult literature all seems the same, with no variety, but YA seems full of life, with so many stories and a lot of imagination.But at the same time, YA sometimes can get a bit stale as well. Dystopia, for a while, seemed everywhere. Every YA seemed like Dystopia the last 5 years. Eh. Trends. They happen in all genres, I guess.
    This was great.

  27. AWESOME!!!!! I LOVE THIS POST!!! I am an avid reader, always have been. Nothing pisses me off more than someone telling me what I “should or should not” read. I read just about any type of book…YA, literary fiction, classics, historical, non-fiction and right now I’m reading “The Game of Thrones”….. why? Because I damn well can. Who cares what people read…as long as they are reading!!! Again, AWESOME!!!

  28. This was just perfect. I really have no words. I bow down to you to express my incredible respect towards you for writing this insightful and amazing post. OK, that may be too much. But the point is, I really liked it and thanks for sharing it because I thought I was alone in thinking many of the things you have written down. Have a nice day. xx

  29. Fantastic! This was also my experience growing up. It was so frowned upon to read Fantasy when I was a teen. (What a geek, etc.) One day, I finally threw up my hands and said, “Fuck this! This is what I love, what makes me happy, and I’ll continue to read what I enjoy.” And that includes YA. There are so many wonderful, talented authors in YA.
    Hear, hear to you and your great post!

  30. This makes me so happy. Fuck the Shoulds. It makes me feel better about my love of YA literature and also television shows geared towards YA..I wonder sometimes when I will stop identifying with the high-school crowd, and I hope that I never will.

  31. Fantastic piece, I have really no limits on what I read but I often catch myself making self deprecating distinctions between books I’ve read in conversations. It’s irritating that I feel like I should make clear that I am aware of what passes for ‘literature’ and what doesn’t.

  32. Brilliant piece, it sums up my feelings exactly. Horrific snobbery exists, people feel embarrassed to mention they are reading certain books. If it’s good and you enjoy it, forget everyone else! Especially YA, I think some of the best books are in that category at the minute.

  33. Wonderful. I’ve really only just discovered YA when I discovered that every story I’ve ever written or wanted to write for into this category. My first reaction was “I don’t want to write YA fiction. Oh I’ll never be a proper writer.” And I struggled a bit, and am still struggling in the background of my brain, with embracing this.

    As I now read YA fiction, even the gob smackingly awful stuff is difficult to put down. It’s enjoyable. So enjoy it.

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