If you haven’t read the Slate article by Ruth Graham, here it is. In it, the author argues that adults are too old for YA, and should instead be reading “real” literature. Among her favorite adult authors, Graham mentions Dickens, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, and John Updike – far “superior” authors to those cranking out the YA literature of today, and far more suitable reading material for today’s mature adults.
My friend and I actually got into a somewhat heated argument about this article. My initial reaction was anger. The teacher in me lashed out at this Graham woman, immediately countering that no one should ever, ever feel embarrassed about reading. And I still feel that way. My friend, however, quasi-agreed with the article, saying that 20-somethings and up really shouldn’t be relating to teenage romances. Once the dust settled, we came up with what we think the author meant (which is basically what my friend thought) – that an adult reader shouldn’t be identifying their present self with a teenager. And I do agree with that.
Look at this way: you’re 30. You’re reading Fault in Our Stars. You’re completely swept away by Augustus Waters and want to date him (or whatever). There’s something wrong with that. Augustus is a teenager, and your fake relationship is Mary Kay Letourneau-esque. Not ok. Also, you’re 30. The teenage angst the protagonists of some of these novels are enduring should not be your present angst. So yeah, Ruth Graham, if that’s what you meant, ok. However, that doesn’t mean that adults can’t read YA fiction and look back. That they can’t remember what it was like to feel a certain way, or identify with the characters in terms of their past self, their past friends, or their past life. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with YA literature. Yes, I said literature.
The only other main point in defense of the article I want to stress is that it doesn’t constitute an attempt on intellectual freedom infringement. It just doesn’t, guys. Compromising intellectual freedom means denying people the right to read – banning a book or censoring material. All Graham is saying is that adults shouldn’t read YA novels, not that they should be prevented from doing so. But, as my mother often told me, “don’t should on yourself”. I believe the same is true for others. Stop, “shoulding” on people, Ruth Graham, it’s not nice and it smells.
Whatever scraps of agreement I may have with the article aside, I think it’s really mean. So you read Dickens and Updike, huh? That’s great for you, Ruth Graham. Really, really great. Me too. I’ve also read the Brontë sisters, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Henry James, Sylvia Plath and I could go on. And guess what? Sometimes they’re boring. Just like sometimes YA is boring. And just because you found some amazing eye-opening material in one of your “literary” books, doesn’t mean that others can’t find the same material in a different work.
In fact, that’s where I’d like to start. Besides Fault in Our Stars, Graham mentions very few YA novels, which leads me to think that she doesn’t know the genre very well. She claims that when she was reading YA (in 1990), the books weren’t sophisticated, and that she was “desperate to earn [her] way into the adult stacks”. Though she doesn’t believe it, the field of YA literature has changed in the last 20 years. Books by Ellen Hopkins portray teens with eating disorders, drug use, rape, addiction, and other extremely “adult” themes. Counting by 7’s (Holly Goldberg Sloan) deals with the loss of parents, and features points of view from adults who struggle with the mediocrity of life and whom are very difficult to feel any empathy towards. In Cormier’s The Chocolate War, readers are faced with adults who are arguably the villains in the story. They turn a blind eye toward bullying, neglect their children, and feel so horribly real. The Chocolate War also directly contradicts Grahams assertion that YA novels are “uniformly satisfying”, and have neat endings. I put down that book and was depressed for days. Also, reading it as an adult opened my eyes to a lot of issues that both teenagers and adults face – issues I certainly missed when reading the book in junior high. However, since Graham has apparently only read Fault and Eleanor and Park, I’ll stick to those.
Fault, despite Graham’s reading, is not just a teenage love story. It’s about death. Hazel Grace has no idea how long she has left, and faces the death of a loved one with Augustus is sick again. Dealing with death is not a kid’s issue. It’s not neat and tidy – it’s difficult, and the book was much more about knowing your family is about to mourn you (which is a very adult issue) than it was about a “tender deflowering”. Sorry you were fixated on the teenage sex, Ruth. Additionally, one of the best things I liked about Fault was when Hazel Grace finally meets her favorite author, and he’s an utter disappointment. That’s life. Sometimes, you put all the energy you possibly can into something, and it just falls apart. Adults will relate to that situation in a completely different way than a teen will. Now, I’m not saying that Graham is wrong in her “oh brother” moments. Of course there’s going to be some. But I bet I could compile a list of “adult” fiction that had just as many “oh brothers” as any YA book out there.
As to Eleanor and Park, Graham complains, “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.” Aww, you didn’t find that romantic? Cool. You don’t have to. I didn’t find the relationship in Wuthering Heights between Heathcliff and Catherine to be particularly romantic either. And some of those confessions of love between the two of them were definite eye-rollers. Does that mean I’m too much of a grown up to read it? I’d also like to point out that Graham ignores the fact that Eleanor is surprisingly grounded in her relationship with Park, and frequently tells him that the two are teenagers and “forever” is probably not going to happen. Graham may complain that when reading YA adults, “are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults”, but I found my adult maturity saying “Way to go, Eleanor! Forever’s not a thing when you’re a teenager.”
All in all, I think that Graham was trying to make a bold statement about a genre she really knows little about, and that she feels is insignificant in comparison to literature. At one point, she says, “if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose.” That “I suppose” really irks me. As a former reading teacher, I understand the importance of letting people read what interests them. Some adults are on a YA reading level. That’s just where they are. If they don’t want to read Updike or Munro, that’s totally fine. Some people don’t have the reading skills to keep up with classics. But you know what builds reading skills? Reading. Reading anything – classics, newspapers, YA, picture books, anything. The quickest way to turn a person off reading is to saddle them with something they find boring or too difficult. And writing snarky articles about how someone should be embarrassed to be caught reading a certain kind of book just adds fuel to that fire.
Early on, Graham prefaces her argument with “at the risk of sounding snobbish,” as if she hopes not to sound snobbish. Well, you do sound snobbish, Ruth. And condescending. Graham frequently speaks about the “complexity” of adult literature in favor of YA, and associates reading “literature” with “the thrill of growing up”. Actually, Ruth, the thrill of growing up means you get to do whatever you want, so long as you earn a living and pay taxes. To me, this article really came across as “you’re a grown up now, so eat your vegetables”. Well, being a grownup means you can eat dessert first, or leave a light on in a room you’re not in, or leave the refrigerator door open, or read YA. Graham’s real problem is that she’s an elitist who feels that her taste in “literature” is better than others, and who was given a stage. I personally am not arrogant enough to determine what is or isn’t literature, or what constitutes acceptable reading material. Ruth Graham is, though. I also think it interesting to add that some of the “classics” Graham advocates about were considered “trash” in their day, especially when compared to religious texts. So, somewhere, Ruth, somewhere in time, someone is saying that you’re “better” than Dickens, and offering a list of far superior material for your adult maturity.
Whatever you feel about this article, the bottom-line is that people are talking about it. Using sensational and condescending language, Graham earned herself some time in the spotlight, which I’m sure was her intention all along. Congratulations, Ruth, you’ve used the age-old tool of slamming others’ choices in order to get attention. You’re now in league with teenage bullies – often present in YA.
Oh, and P.S., Ruth, quoting Shailene Woodley was not your best move. Graham advises readers to, “Listen to Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film. ‘Last year, when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence,’ she told New York magazine this week, explaining why she is finished making teenage movies. ‘But I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a woman.’” Yeah, because 22 is the pinnacle of adult maturity and not a young adult at all. Also, you can’t be a young adult and a woman. Really glad she cleared that up. We should definitely listen to her. Also, Shailene Woodley is the actress who stated in an interview with Time that she’s not a feminist because, “[she] love[s] men.” I’m not sure feminism has anything to do with hating men. Based on that, I’m also not sure Woodley knows what “adolescence”, “woman”, or “young adult” means either. Way to follow up your pretentious list of authors with a quote from someone who has no idea what she’s talking about, Graham.