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Friday, 6 June 2014

On that YA-hating Slate article

This morning over breakfast I found myself reading Alice's tactfully balanced post about this click-bait Slate article condemning YA literature.  ALL YA literature.  Which you should be embarrassed to admit to reading, ever, apparently.  And I got to writing a comment, which turned into a longer comment, which eventually I just gave up editing and turned into this post instead.  Hello!  Just a quick heads up: you should probably go read the article first, then come back.  Ready?  Okay...


So, let's get straight into this.  The thing that REALLY bugs me about this article is the way that everything is set in absolutes.  No mention is made, for example, of the many people out there who read occasional YA and also a lot of other adult books.  In a similar vein, according to Graham, all YA is trashy and all adult books are not.  Rainbow Rowell is lumped in with Stephenie Meyer, just as in adult fiction, Sophie Kinsella is universally recognised to be on a par with Charlotte Bronte.  Orrrrrr not.  You can't make sweeping accusations about how all young adult literature is mindless froth any more than you can posit that reading a John Grisham novel is on a par to reading something by Ray Bradbury.  And OH NO YOU DIDN'T just include The Perks of Being a Wallflower as an example of an inconceivable crappy modern page-to-screen success story. 


Now, don't get me wrong, if this article had been written in a more balanced, less deliberately offensive manner, I might have agreed with parts of it.  For example, I absolutely agree that it's sad to see a lot of grown women, in particular, writing off anything from the general fiction section of a bookstore as being 'too hard', and seeming quite proud of their determination not to so much as LOOK there for something they might enjoy.  I heard this in my bookshop several times, I've heard it while browsing in Waterstones, I've heard it in my local library...  In taking this particular stance, YA readers are guilty of the exact same thing as Graham and other YA-detractors: dismissing an entire section of the literary world as not being worthy of their attention. 

My problem is that Graham (and many of the commenters) leave no room for ANYONE over the age of about 17 who ever reads and enjoys a YA novel to chime in without feeling ashamed about it.  People who occasionally read the popular novels making the transition to the big screen got shamed in the comments for deigning to give them any attention.  Even someone who had only read Harry Potter got slammed because she didn't have kids, therefore THERE WAS NO EXCUSE FOR SUCH SLOPPY BEHAVIOUR.


Whatever happened to 'everything in moderation'?  I mean, I love risotto and strawberries and broccolli and grapes, but DAMMIT give me a donut or a hamburger every once in a while and I'll be a happy camper.  Especially if it's red hot outside or I'm super-tired or I've just finished something heavier and more virtuous.  And sometimes I will sob all over that donut and proclaim that it's one of the best things I've eaten all year, right alongside the aforementioned strawberries, because YUM.

This metaphor just got weird.

The point is that for me, YA literature usually does make for easier reading (though that doesn't mean there aren't profound messages and hard-hitting subjects being tackled, or that the writing is any less skilled or even beautiful), because YA is designed for a younger audience - but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it as part of my reading diet.  I certainly don't feel ashamed or embarrassed by it.  Sometimes I go two months without picking up a single YA novel; sometimes I have a run of several together - but I'm most definitely not going to cut out a swathe of potential reading material just because I'm over 18.

Yes, I do sometimes wish that solely-YA readers would broaden their horizons and stop being so blanket-dismissive of adult books; likewise I wish people who are outright hostile to YA would find a handful of really good ones to enjoy and realise that a YA label isn't synonymous with a mark of poor quality.  Personally I'm glad I've found a middle ground where I can walk into a bookshop or library and explore EVERYTHING; as a result I know that there's something on my bookshelves for every reading whim, covering both adult AND young adult or children's literature: when I want to learn about a particular subject, when I want a classic to curl up with, when I want a compelling modern read, when I want drama and complexity, and when I just want a page-turner to splash out on a sunlounger with for a few hours or race through during a readathon.  I win, as far as I'm concerned.  :)

Over to you!  What do you think of the Slate article?  Are you a devout YA-er, a firm reader of adult books, or do you believe in a happy medium of just sampling a bit of everything the literary universe has to offer?  Do you find yourself having to defend your reading choices, and how does that makes you feel?  Which books would you recommend to YA readers who want to branch into adult fiction, or for adult readers who are sceptical of what YA has to offer?
 


22 comments:

  1. Love this. I don't read YA except on the odd occasion when, more often than not, I don't enjoy it because it's just not for me. But just because I don't read YA, doesn't mean I would ever berate anyone else for doing it. My best friend reads nothing but YA and we can still have brilliant conversations about books. It shouldn't change anything. I would always encourage people to step out of their comfort zone and read something different and I try to do that myself. But if reading YA makes you happy, why change? Reading Wilkie makes me hella happy and I ain't gunna stop that.

    It's an interesting article and I doubt I reacted to it like many will, but I agree, absolutes are way to absolute.

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    1. I've definitely had hits and misses with YA literature, but I think that's mostly because I only really started reading it again when I discovered the blogosphere because it's so prevalent here. I didn't really know what I liked yet, plus the only publisher sending me ARCs was a YA one, so I was getting books that I probably would never have chosen otherwise and being fairly indiscriminate with my own picks as well. There were some definite (and sometimes surprising) hits, but also some colossal misses. Now that I know YA literature a bit better, and my reading has balanced back out, I'm more likely to pick ones I'll enjoy, so the hit to miss ratio has definitely tipped in my favour!

      I'd probably use that personal adjustment in any advice to YA readers scared of reading adult books, or adult readers sceptical of YA. If you know your broad tastes in your current reading - fantasy, contemporary, historical fiction - then it's not hard to translate that to books on 'the other side' of the adult/YA divide if you don't know where to start. Hit the library, get the books for free - no money lost, no commitment made, it's a win-win situation!

      LET US READ ALL THE THINGS, ELLIE! I don't really care if someone only reads adult books or only reads YA books, as long as they don't look down on me for mixing up my reading and daring to venture onto the other side of the fence. Then we have a problem. *attempts to look menacing* *fails* *goes back to book*

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  2. Hello,

    Bit of a blog lurker here but just wanted to say I love this post. I entirely agree with your balanced diet proposition. Actually the original article also has a little snide comment in it about crime fiction as well as YA! So I guess they are on the “real literature” is the only “worthy” reading choice. I think we all have comfort read books be they chick-lit, fantasy, crime, YA etc. but the important aspect is to include something different now and again and occasionally something challenging too. Exactly how we should approach life in general really!

    I recently had a discussion with someone I would think to be around 26-30 at a book-swap group who said she had *never* read an adult book as she had not felt it appropriate to move from the YA section yet. I was absolutely flummoxed to be honest. And several of us chatted and made recommendations of books that were available at the swap (ones we thought relatively mild of course!) but she wouldn’t even considered trying a book that wasn’t labelled as YA by the publisher. I tried having a bit of a twitter convo after this about people who only read YA but everyone got very defensive and of course I didn’t mean she was wrong to but that I really couldn’t understand never having read an adult book.

    Personally I don’t find YA particularly fulfilling as reading material but I don’t think it is bad for adults to read it, I would just expect (and hope) it would be one part of a wider reading profile. Maybe some more emphasis needs to be put onto advertising/suggesting how people graduate from YA to adult so it is less scary ….

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    1. Thank you Hannah! Yes, I think it's fine to know what we like in our reading and choose our books accordingly, but a 'never say never' approach is definitely the best way to avoid shutting yourself off from some great literature. I take the same approach to everything in life, so maybe it's just me - I normally hate horror movies but there are a couple I've really enjoyed; there are some genres of music I don't listen to much, but a few songs I love from those genres... In book terms, if a book sounds interesting enough it doesn't really matter which section of the bookstore it's in, I'll give it a go!

      I think this someone you mentioned would be the kind of person who bugged me in my bookshop. The kind of person that would make sweeping and dismissive statements about how there was 'nothing to relate to' in the adult section, or how 'all adult novels were boring'... or whatever section their particular prejudice was directed against. You get the idea. How can anyone look at a swathe of bookshop shelves filled with THOUSANDS of novels and say with confidence that there's NOTHING there that would appeal?! *sighs heavily* As with any extreme opinion, there's just nothing you can really do to appease people who feel so strongly about it that they won't even LOOK.

      I definitely agree that easing the transition between YA and adult novels might be helpful - because there ARE lots of readers who'd quite like to branch out into something a bit different but have no idea where to start. We can help, say, a general reader who fancies trying science fiction but wants recommendations for a good starting point - so why not a YA reader wanting to branch into adult fiction? It's surely no more scary than trying a new genre or a new author for the first time?

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  3. "My problem is that Graham (and many of the commenters) leave no room for ANYONE over the age of about 17 who ever reads and enjoys a YA novel to chime in without feeling ashamed about it."

    Yeah, agreed. I ignore comment sections 100% of the time, but I'm unsurprised people were saying that. If you completely shut yourself off from an age range of fiction, you're going to miss some really wonderful stuff. But that door obviously swings in both directions. Step it up, YA people.

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    1. It makes me sad whenever I hear ANYONE say "Oh no, I ONLY read X" or "Oh no, I NEVER read Y." I used to get it in the shop all the time. "I only read autobiographies." "I never read fiction." I tended to bristle a bit at ANY of these statements, because the attitude was basically "No, nothing in this entire arena of books *gestures expansively* will ever be worth my time." How do you know if you don't try something new every so often? You could be missing out on the best book of your life!

      As far as this example goes, if someone is so entrenched in their mindset that they WILL ONLY or WILL NEVER read YA, then that's their loss. I just can't understand people who won't at least accept a couple of recommendations to try. Not all adult literature is scary just because you've heard Dickens is difficult. Not all YA literature is crap just because you've heard Meyer is rubbish. Y'know? *shakes head sadly*

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  4. THIS is the balanced response I hoped to see when Twitter blew up yesterday. Had the article been written more like this, perhaps some of the majority-YA readers could have been swayed toward an adult book or two...but nothing about it was going to make them run toward the nearest piece of literary fiction. I've written a post or two with adult recommendations for YA readers and they're generally pretty well received, but I do think it's pretty easy to get caught up in your own niche, especially in the world of book blogging.

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    1. Haha, thank you - I didn't even know about it until I read Alice's post this morning, and I haven't seen anything on Twitter at all! I think maybe a more nuanced look at WHY young adult readers can be so reluctant to read outside that box might have been more helpful than just yelling generalisations about shame and stupidity and YOU DON'T HAVE KIDS WHY IS THE HUNGER GAMES EVEN IN YOUR HOUSE IDIOT. Is that necessary? Really?

      I'm fairly sure I've read some of your recommendation posts and that's EXACTLY the kind of positive approach that might actually help YA readers to step outside their comfort zone sometimes, or make the transition up to reading more adult literature in general, if that's what they'd like to do. I think sometimes people just don't know where to start. Who are good authors to try, or which classic might be most accessible, or they liked X so what might be a similar kind of read but from the adult sphere? Yell at them and call them dumb and you're pretty much just going to get a 'well fuck you, I'll stay here then' response, is my guess. :)

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  5. Agreed so much with this! Especially "I do sometimes wish that solely-YA readers would broaden their horizons and stop being so blanket-dismissive of adult books; likewise I wish people who are outright hostile to YA would find a handful of really good ones to enjoy and realise that a YA label isn't synonymous with a mark of poor quality."

    Cos really, there is room for all of it and no reason to shame people for their choices. And I think that's my biggest problem with the Slate piece, that it was so judgmental. I don't think it's a good thing for people to only read YA because that's easy reads and as an escape (for those that she said gave that as their reason) but that doesn't mean it's WRONG if people do read YA or something just as light.

    Also your metaphor made me hungry.

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    1. I think there's a tendency for articles like this to pander to the rather unenlightened idea of stubbornly 'superior readers' that YA is some swirling, giggling mix of Twilight, dystopian trilogies and that one John Green novel. No one ever seems to mention children's and young adult classics like The Outsiders, The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables, or more diverse and well-recommended books by authors like Laurie Halse Anderson, Malorie Blackman and Sherman Alexie. It just reinforces the stereotype of YA as whatever trend is being overdone right now.

      I have no problem with raising the question of why some YA readers seem to be so unwilling to occasionally venture outside that section of the literary world. Possibly articles encouraging them to see the parallels between YA novels they love and their adult counterparts would be more useful. Something with a few pointers or ideas for those who'd quite like to try something new but don't know where to start - tips like trying the local library, where you're not investing any money in the books so you can give ANYTHING a go, and if you hit a dud, just take it back and pick up something else. That's how I made the transition up to teen and then adult books as a kid.

      P.S. I made myself hungry, actually. There's a choc chip brioche and a punnet of strawberries downstairs with my name on it. :D

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  6. This is going to make me the worst person ever but I actually kind of agreed with the article. I don't think adults should NEVER read YA and I certainly agree with you that it's perfectly acceptable to read YA sometimes, but I think the author of the article had a point.

    And by the way, she actually didn't say that all YA was "trashy." At the beginning of the article, she drew a clear line between trashy YA and good YA. She didn't lump them together at all.

    She also wasn't saying that YA isn't good: she was saying that it wasn't appropriate for adults because it is too easy, too light, too fun, and too perfect. It's escapism. It's appropriate for teenagers because it makes sense for their lives, but it doesn't make much sense for us as adults.

    I do think you're right that the article came off as way too hostile. I think it's just fine for adults to read YA sometimes--as long as they accept it for what it is; that is, fluffy escapist literature (when it comes to adults reading it). Sure, it can explore interesting themes and be very well written, but in the end it's generally not at all heavy enough. And adults should learn to appreciate books that reflect the adult world of tough decisions, no real endings, and imperfect, uncomfortable stories.

    But I do agree that the article was rather pretentious and I would have liked it to have been written more persuasively.

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    1. It doesn't make you the worst person ever, because I think a lot of us sort-of or even MOSTLY agreed with the underlying principle of the article; unfortunately, the execution was blatantly intended to stir up outright hostility and extreme opinions rather than a more balanced discussion.

      I think it was the movie part of the article that particularly seemed to lump together anything popular in a derogatory 'what the hell are adults doing reading this?' manner. Personally I think it's far better if people see that a movie is being made and make an effort to read the book as well, rather than just seeing it on the screen, but even that isn't exempt from Graham's scorn (as well as the less measured venom of the commenting masses).

      YA is definitely 'lighter' reading for me (though some novels I've read have still knocked me for six) but then again, so are chick lit novels and page-turning crime thrillers - yet it's always YA that seems to get this press treatment.

      And you're right, it's the hostility and snobbish tone that really got to me; taking low blows and insulting the intelligence of a broad swathe of the reading public was a bit unnecessary. If even I, a completely eclectic reader who will happily pick up just about anything if it catches my interest, can be made to feel a bit funny about my occasional foray into YA, I can't imagine how pissed off more devoted YA readers must be feeling.

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  7. The snobbiness was what bothered me primarily, too. Because, yes: A steady diet of any one thing is boring and you should consider branching out to some other category of thing instead. YA is not unique in that regard. It's snotty to pretend that it is.

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    1. The biggest problem, of course, is that if you're writing because you'd genuinely like to encourage people, ANY people, to read more diversely, then yelling at a large number of them that their book choices (including books they outright adore) are dumb is only going to make them defensive. And what do people do when they get defensive? THEY STICK EVEN CLOSER TO WHAT THEY'RE DEFENDING. Own goal, innit?

      Anyone who came into my shop, stuck their noses in the air and said "Oh no, I ONLY read X" or "I NEVER read Y" used to make me want to throw books at them. :)

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  8. Your post and the comments here completely echo my feelings on this subject. I felt that the Slate article was very condescending and came across completely (as Jenny stated) snobby. Do I enjoy YA fiction? Yes. Because every once in a while I need a story with a happy ending that is also easy to read. Do I only read YA fiction? No. Because I think it's important to vary your tastes and be exposed to what is available out there. Now...from another perspective, what would Graham say about those readers who read only adult romance novels? They aren't geared for teenage readers, but they aren't exactly challenging to read either. Would she shame them as well? They aren't my cup of tea, but I still think it's better than not reading at all. Regardless of the genre you are undertaking, good on you for being a reader. That's my stance.

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    1. "Do I enjoy YA fiction? Yes. Because every once in a while I need a story with a happy ending that is also easy to read. Do I only read YA fiction? No. Because I think it's important to vary your tastes and be exposed to what is available out there."

      HALLELUJAH AMEN SOMEONE GIVE THIS WOMAN A BISCUIT. See, that's the concise version I COULD have just left in the comments on Alice's post and had done with it - but I ramble too much. :)

      I definitely think there's a kind of hypocrisy when it comes to outright condemning YA but barely casting a glance at the reading range within adult literature. As you say, someone who (for example) only reads Harlequin romances has surely had less exposure to the wider benefits of reading literature than someone who has only read YA, but has read voraciously WITHIN that section. Both might be reading for escapism and pleasure, but the YA reader is actually MORE likely to have learned something about history, about cultural issues, about diversity, about the world in general, along the way. Does that make sense?

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  9. The article brought me back to the wonderful days of my uni undergrad when the other lit students would stick up their nose and poo-poo Harry Potter or Stephen King because they made bank, and therefore couldn't be "real" literature. Because real literature means the author has to be starving and mentally ill and only existing on the pure passion they have for words and telling stories and ugh, VOMIT.

    I'm pretty eclectic in my reading tastes so I've never really understood anyone's complaints against another genre. I can completely understand people not wanting to read horror because they don't like to be scared, but to say that X is ew, gross is so stupid. There are genres I don't read a lot of, and I might go so far to say they aren't my cup of tea, but I'd never blanket generalise about an entire genre when I hadn't really read any of it. Then again, I do think it's weird when people *only* read one genre. Maybe it's because of my eclectic taste, but I think I'd get bored only reading (or watching - because I think the same arguments can be made for film) one type of story.

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    1. Oh yeah. There's always a handful of people in any university literature course who will spend the entire time drifting around with their noses in the air talking about how they just finished Ulysses for the third time and they've read every Man Booker winner ever and WHAT THE HELL IS THAT NON-CLASSIC BOOK DOING ON YOUR SHELF? Call yourself a literature student? Those people quickly find themselves with no friends, because NO ONE likes to be looked down on for the things they love. Gently ribbed, fine. Asked questions about it, maybe. Patronised? HELL NO.

      This is exactly my point - everyone has reading preferences, and things they naturally gravitate towards more than others, but to outright say "Nope, nothing there for me" about an entire swathe of the bookish world (or anything else) is very narrow-minded. There's too much variety for that to even be possible! Never say never. It's not like you're doing something dangerous or scary by picking up a different kind of book once in a while because maybe something about it catches your fancy, y'know? IT'S NOT GOING TO KILL YOU and you might just discover something amazing. :)

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  10. Your post is a really good balanced reaction to the article... I think reading is weird, because people attach so much intellectual value to it, that they don't really attach to say, the kind of TV you watch (in general anyway - there are of course TV snobs out there as well). There's this prevailing attitude that reading classics makes you intellectually superior to people who don't, or in the case of this article that reading adult books makes you superior to people who read YA. It all depends what you're reading for - Personally, I sometimes read for escapism, I sometimes read to educate myself about things that I don't really know anything about, I sometimes read because I feel like I should read a particular book... and I enjoy the majority of what I read, which is pretty eclectic (I will read pretty much anything!), but I don't think I have any right to tell other people what to read, or that they should branch out into new genres or try things that they haven't tried before. I think it makes for a more interesting experience if you do try things that are out of your comfort zone, and I would recommend it if asked, but I honestly don't have a problem with people who don't want to do that, and I don't really understand why anybody else does. Just because they're not the same kind of reader, doesn't make them worthy of anyone's scorn.

    It's exactly this kind of attitude that puts people off reading, there's so much snobbery and looking down on other people for no reason. I understand the impulse to judge people (and god knows I'm guilty of it myself), but I really wish that we could stop looking down on people because of what they are or aren't reading.

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    1. It's definitely interesting to note that this kind of snobbery seems to be seen as particularly acceptable when it comes to reading. I've never heard anyone scoff, "Oh no, I don't watch panel shows - I only watch high-brow Swedish drama" or "Good heavens, I've never seen a rom-com! All of my films are independent art house releases!" And if someone DID say something like that, I think eye-rolling would be a far more acceptable response than it seems to be for people who do the same thing to other readers. Weird.

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  11. I saw rumblings over that article on Twitter, and rolled my eyes thinking "someone else has written an article on something they know nothing about again and upset people who don't get that it's click bait".

    Anyho, I agree with you on the thing that there are just as many people in the YA camp that dismiss "adult" books (that term makes me think they're porn) without reading more than what was forced on them at school. Rainbow Rowell writes adult books (Attachments and Landline are clearly not YA) but no one seems to notice. So either way, don't judge books you don't read, but you can read what you want. JUST DON'T BE JUDGY! *flails*

    Also on the same logic why is it fine for adults to *watch* films for kids? No one gets upset at us watching Toy Story...

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    1. NO ONE THREATENS MY PIXAR MOVIES, ELLIE. NO ONE. *erects fence* *adds cannons* *electrifies everything* That'll do...

      The line between YA and adult novels is an interesting point, actually. There are some novels that I've seen originally published and shelved as adult fiction that have been widely adopted by YA readers as 'their own', yet ironically no one seems to notice - including the same die-hard YA readers who claim to not be able to read adult fiction for whatever reason. The arbitrarily designated shelving space for a book really isn't everything.

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