Don’t Finish That Book! Spare yourself the suffering.

Today I was checking Twitter on my lunch break, like you do, and I was scrolling through the usual jokes and promos and discussions, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but this gem from The Atlantic: “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through – and so does literature.”

(insert needle-scratching-on-record sound)

Or, to borrow a phrase from the late Amy Winehouse: What kind of fuckery is this?

As it turns out, more of the same elitist, prescriptivist bullshit I ripped to shreds when it appeared in Ruth Graham’s Slate article. Indeed, author and New York Times editor Juliet Lapidos devotes the fourth paragraph of her own essay to that very article and the “Adults should be ashamed to read YA” controversy. Lapidos admits herself that her always-finish-what-you-start philosophy is unusual, and once I read the article, it was easy to see why. She breaks her case down into three major points, so in the interest of consistency, I’m going to do the same here.

I'm getting tired of this.

Not THIS again.

Pleasure: Lapidos argues that if you stop reading a book part of the way through, you might miss something amazing later. She suggests that reading multiple hundreds of pages of a story you don’t enjoy in order to get to something good is a worthy use of your time. I would be interested to know what working professional has enough time for recreational reading that this seems like a good proposition. My suggestion? Chucking the book you can’t stand after fifty pages and picking up something that engages you in five or ten or twenty pages is a great deal more pleasurable.

Fortitude: I laughed out loud at this one. Here’s an actual quote from the article: “It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength.” To whom? Who, exactly, are you supposed to be proving this strength to? Lapidos says in this section that the “ability to endure intellectual anguish” is beneficial to her job as an editor. And I can relate to that — I’ve been a freelance script reader for over a decade. I’ve paid my bills and put food on the table by writing synopses (which means reading every single word) and critiques of everything from sitcom pilots to 500-page nonfiction tomes about the Iran hostage crisis. Some of them were great. Some of them were godawful. Guess what? Not one of them improved if I still didn’t like them after 20 pages. Not one. And some of them were good and then botched the ending and you do not want to be within earshot when a text I’m engaging with crashes and burns, whether I’m reading for work or for pleasure.

Liz angry. Liz SMASH.

WTF kind of ending was THAT?!

Respect: You are not disrespecting the author, the act of authorship, anyone or anything by putting down a book unfinished. Well, maybe if you know the author personally, but even then some authors will understand. Lapidos suggests that starting books gives you “intellectual cachet” and not finishing them is “one step above saying ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’” On what planet, outside of maybe certain New York publishing-world cocktail parties, is this even an issue?

This last argument sounds suspiciously like the Internet Uber-Fan argument of “You aren’t a TRUE fan if you haven’t read every comic/seen every episode/listened to every B-side/etc.” — which is something that has stuck in my craw for ages. Who gets to be the arbiter of who has what kind of “cachet” or “cred” or whatever term the community in question likes to use? Who are we trying to impress by attempting to earn this “cachet”? If “cachet” is required for a person to view you as an intellectual equal, do you really want to interact with that person anyway?

As I said above, I’m a professional script reader. I’m also a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, a published author and a copywriter. My ultimate goal is to write for television drama, specifically in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural and mystery. Consequently, I have read, watched and critiqued pages upon pages, hours upon hours, of creative works that I did not enjoy in the slightest. You know what the result was? For a long time, I didn’t read recreationally. At all. I was burnt out. This happens to a lot of people somewhere around high school, which seems to be the peak time for being forced to finish books we don’t enjoy… so why on earth should adults with limited time and/or resources attempt to recreate the experience?

There are many, many things happening in the real world, either in the news or in our own lives, that cause us “intellectual anguish”; why heap more on top of that? It’s just as baffling in my eyes as continuing to watch a television show after you’ve started to hate it – and, as a future hourlong-drama writer, I have a vested interest in as many people watching as many of the shows I love and/or may work for as humanly possible! It’s in my best professional interest for people to cause themselves intellectual anguish if they have a Nielsen box and the source of that anguish is Grimm or Agents of SHIELD or (insert other beloved show here)… and yet, I shudder at the idea of anyone doing so. Because I am a writer, I want people to love story, in whatever form, and the best way to cultivate love of story is by reading (or otherwise partaking of) stories we love. Stories that engage us. Stories that don’t make us want to hurl our book or Kindle or remote or laptop across the room after we’ve devoted significant amounts of time to them. Stories that we aren’t merely slogging through in the interest of earning some mythological “cachet”.

Life is not an MFA program. There is no assigned reading. Engaging with art and story is not homework. Treating it as such does nothing more than poison people’s hearts and minds against the intellectual and emotional rewards of narrative. I can only hope that a majority of readers continue to find pleasure in whatever narratives speak to them, have the fortitude to ignore naysayers, and respect their own instincts enough to make choices that resonate with their souls rather than obeying the poisonous shoulds of the elite.

Advertisements

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.