In Defense of Adult Readers of YA Fiction, or; You’re Not The Boss of Me, Ruth Graham

Tonguegirl    Recently, Slate magazine published an article by Ruth Graham, berating adults for daring to be seen in public reading Young Adult fiction.


Before you load all your copies of The Maze Runner into a black windowless van and dump them at Goodwill in the middle of the night, let us sort this mess out. Let’s start from the top, shall we? The article, entitled “Against YA”, opens with this:

“As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.”

*sputter* What?!?

Like most things that start with “Once Upon a Time”, this statement is a fairy tale, because there never existed a time when adults were ashamed to be seen reading children’s fiction.  In fact, up until and well into the early twenty-first century, there was no real division between adult and children’s literature. Brothers Grimm, anyone? There was no such thing as YA literature, because it was ALL just considered…well… literature, and long occupied a perfectly acceptable place in the hands of adults. Consider the following:

The Swiss Family Robinson, Oliver Twist, The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, The Outsiders, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Little Prince. All written for young readers. All read by adults.

The author then continues with this:

“These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.”

Ehm….no. I don’t think it can plausibly be said. Not really. If anything, it has brought more readers to re-discover reading. Now, I do agree with her on one point. It WOULD be a shame if it WERE true. A damn shame. But it isn’t. Not yet, I don’t think. Granted, I don’t have the scientific research to back this up, but the last time I checked, Barnes and Noble still hadn’t converted the adult classics section into a drop-off area for hordes of 30-something YA readers. The author seems to be under the impression that once adult readers pick up a copy of Hunger Games, they’ll never again read A Confederacy of Dunces or Love In The Time Of Cholera. As if YA were the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. This is not only a ridiculous assumption, but it’s insulting as well.

Then there’s this:

“As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called ‘YA for Grownups,’ put it in an essay last year, ‘At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.'”

First of all, no, it doesn’t. At it’s heart, YA aims to be cathartic, which is why teens love to read it. As a result, it is a pleasurable experience to read. But more to the point, so what? Doesn’t  most literature seek to be pleasurable.  Here’s a secret: People don’t like to read stuff that they don’t like to read, no matter the genre. Hell, most people can scarcely work up the interest to read the warnings labels on their medication, and some scary shit happens if you don’t read that!

As a 40+ reader/writer whose literary tastes run from Dr. Seuss to David Foster Wallace, I can assure Ms. Graham, that adults are not rushing to read YA literature in search of life’s meaning. They do it because sometimes we all need a story with a happy ending. Sometimes we just wanna have a little fun. Grownups like to have fun too, ya know. So stop worrying about whether or not Divergent is going to turn us into a blathering emotional simpletons. It’s not. I promise you. Put your pointy-shaming finger down and  relax. It’s all going to be OK. Really.

On a side note, if you want the public to pay for the pleasure of reading your stuff, which I’m assuming you do (unless you’ve got a trust fund to float you through life), it’s best not to start your career off by insulting them. But hey, what do I know?

“But don’t take my word for it. 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.”

*eye roll* Yes. You’re a big girl now. You’ll have to excuse me. I’ll be over here with the adults, re-reading my copy of Alice in Wonderland.

Note: As I have technically cherry picked from this article, here’s a link to the whole undercooked enchillada. Enjoy. Just don’t let anyone see you reading it in public.

Addendum: In a recent interview on NPR in defense of her article, Ruth Graham asserts this: “[I]…would never say that, you know, all YA is on one side of that spectrum and all adult literature is on the other side. You know, ‘Huck Finn’ – you could say…Is YA…But in general – the two that I focused on the piece because they’re the two that have gotten the most attention in the last year or so – one is ‘The Fault In Our Stars,’ which – obviously, the movie opened this weekend. And then ‘Eleanor and Park,’ which is realistic fiction – a teen love story. And they were perfectly pleasurable to read, I guess. But I – it was obvious to me they were written for it teenagers. I’ll put it that way.”

Back pedal. Back pedal. Back pedal.

Well, yeah, actually she did say YA is on one side of that spectrum. And what’s worse, she implied that it’s readers are too.

She also says this:

“But then there’s this whole other strain of criticism that boils down to how dare you tell me what to read. And I guess I find that a little bit troubling. You know, the job of criticism is to make distinctions between good things and bad things and between complicated things and simplistic things. And, you know, in my – I’m making an argument that YA is more of a guilty pleasure”

Agreed. Nobody should pillory a literary critic for expressing a literary opinion, but that’s not what she was doing here. She was not making a distinction between good things and bad things. In fact, she states that The Fault In Our Stars is not a bad novel. What she did do was make a distinction between good adult readers and bad adult readers, and that’s entirely different. See the problem here?

Hell. Writing is hard, Ms. Graham. All of us word wranglers know that. Perhaps you should consider a less challenging form of writing than literary criticism. Perhaps…oh I don’t know….Young Adult Literature?



One response

  1. That article was absolutely horrible and completely ridiculous… No one can tell people what they can and what they cannot read. YA literature often is a lot of fun… As a teenager myself, I probably cannot speak up about this subject, but years of mandatory literature have taught me that I do not like to be forced to read anything. This is even worse.

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