Sunday, June 8, 2014

Young Adults

How has LA been? Just dandy. Yesterday I stayed in bed all day and binge-watched True Detective. I liked it, but I felt the end was anti-climactic. Today I took a six-mile walk. I saw a decaying house, a yard full of metal giraffes, a bike bent and nailed to a tree. I also passed several gorgeous mansions on Adams, many of which appeared to be owned by something called the "Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness." I assumed it was just one of those wacko cults that rich people join, and hey, Wikipedia informs me that I am correct! Why are people with money so gullible?

Anyway, that's not what I wanted to write about. I've been following the internet chatter about two recently-published articles: Ruth Graham's "Against YA" on Slate, and Mark Shrayber's response on Jezebel, "Hey, Everyone! Read Whatever the Fuck You Want!" I find the discussion intriguing, so I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

Essentially, everyone is mad at poor Ruth Graham for suggesting that adults should not want to read Young Adult fiction, that they shouldn't find it satisfying. Ultimately, I'm more on Shrayber's side; as long as you're reading, what business of mine is it what you read, YA or otherwise? However, I feel that people are missing some of the subtleties of Graham's argument. She brings up some interesting points.

First, I should say that I've read my fair share of YA fiction, as a young adult and as an adult. I'm an old lady, so my adolescence was filled with the Harry Potter series and Tamora Pierce's The Song of the Lioness quartet as opposed to Twilight and Divergent. This is not to say I haven't read Twilight, though--I'm afraid I did read that whole series, every poorly-written word, in 2009 when I was 21. In my defense (assuming I need one), I was in China at the time, and English-language books that weren't just about China were somewhat hard to come by. My roommate had the whole Twilight set. Furthermore, I was going to stop after the first two, but then I googled how the series ended and I thought to myself: "No. Somebody could not have actually written a plot that stupid. I must see for myself." And it was true! Gloriously, gloriously stupid. I don't want to spoil anything for you if you choose to read it one day, but I would definitely put the series in the category of "so bad it's good." I mean, except for the part where it kind of condones abusive relationships. That's not so good.

I've also read The Hunger Games--I liked the first book, but the trilogy petered out from there--and the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Do those count as YA books? Probably not. I was mad at those ones. The writing was atrocious, and they weren't sex positive at all. But that's another story. I'd like to get to Divergent one of these days--dystopian future Chicago sounds like it would be fun to read about.

Does reading these books mean I have poor taste? If so, then the rest of the book-buying population does, too. Mostly I read them because I want to see what all the buzz is about when they do get so popular. I did the same thing with Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, although that is obviously not YA fiction. Mostly, though, the YA fiction that I truly love is the YA fiction I read as a young adult. I. Love. Harry. Potter. LOVE. This will never change. I will continue to re-read the Harry Potter series for as long as I live. And as Leta and Gena know only too well, to this day I am adamant that George, that charming, roguish thief, was the correct choice for Alanna. On the other hand, I do not love Twilight. I doubt I'll ever read those books again, unless it's for some very good reason that is not yet known to me.

At one point in her article, Graham writes:

"But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It's not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character's emotional life--that's the trick of so much great fiction--but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults. When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of 'He'd never get enough of her,' the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?"

I agree with this. When I'm reading new YA fiction now, most of the time I think it's pretty awful. Sure, these authors often know how to spin a good, compelling, fast-paced yarn (and that may be all that matters), but often I become critical not only of the manner in which they are written, but of the simplicity of the relationships and conflicts. If I like a YA series now, I'm more inclined to throw it into the "so bad it's good" category. There are occasional exceptions. I've never read The Fault in Our Stars, but I hear it has a lot of heart. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation was quite well-done--although perhaps it says something that I never bothered to pick up the sequel.

I never feel this way about Harry Potter, but I suspect that's because I grew up reading it. I was going through adolescence while all the characters in the book were also going through adolescence, so the relationships in the books seemed to make sense. I sometimes wonder whether I'd like Harry Potter so much if I picked it up now for the first time. I don't think I'd call it "so bad it's good"--I feel that J.K. Rowling is a better writer than that, at least in terms of world-building--but you never know. I may just be sentimental.

Later, Graham makes this point:

"But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn't have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There's a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It's the thrill of growing up."

I agree with this as well. My whole life I was itching to read beyond my reading level; I remember in first and second grade I enjoyed reading Goosebumps, but it wasn't long before I wanted so badly to move onto R.L. Stine's Fear Street series, largely because I knew it was for older kids (so it must be scarier!). I read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries for the first time in seventh grade, and I loved them. I still do. I love lots of adult literature, even long, Victorian novels like Jane Eyre, and though I can't say I particularly liked Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I can confidently assert that I enjoyed the challenge of reading it--a challenge that YA fiction could never provide, simply because of its nature.

Ultimately, I don't think this has to be an either-or situation. Read YA fiction! Read adult fiction! Read whatever you damn well please! Read it all! And I don't think that the recent boom in YA fiction is in any way dangerous to adult fiction or the classics. Charles Dickens isn't going anywhere. (Actually, I think Charles Dickens is horribly dull, except for his villains. Maybe he should go somewhere.) I think, though, that people have been a bit too harsh in their responses to Ruth Graham. I believe she is correct in her (somewhat obvious) assertion that YA fiction is not as sophisticated as adult fiction, and that you're missing out on something wonderful and important if all you read is YA fiction. That is, however, your choice. And quite frankly, the masses could do worse than Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. They might not be able to do worse than Twilight, though. That might be a literature low, even if it is so-bad-it's-good.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please say hi.