Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reading YA as an Adult, or, Why You're Not Doing Books Wrong

Within the last year or so there has been a backlash against young adult fiction (or YA), or more specifically, against adults reading YA, as exemplified by Ruth Graham’s article Against YA.  Although I suspect there are several who secretly (or not so secretly) agree with Ms. Graham, many have made it clear that as far as they are concerned there is nothing wrong with reading YA.  There have been some truly great responses to Ms. Graham in particular and the backlash more generally.  Some of my favorites include "YA bashing": sexism meets elitism on the blog Alpha Reader, Julie Beck's The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction, and Lyndsay Faye's very funny Slate Nailed It: YA and Detective Fiction Are for Rubes

Like many, I find this YA backlash condescending, snobbish, ignorant, and misguided.  Nevertheless, I must admit that this backlash did make me think my own reading habits and reading past.  It has also got me thinking about the purpose of art.  Although I detest the snobbishness of telling people they should feel bad about reading YA, I can understand the impulse to challenge oneself.

I have always been a voracious reader, desperate to get my hands (and eyes) on all that I could.  I have also been a sometimes insecure reader, worried that my formal education was insufficient, that I wasn’t well read and that I hadn’t read enough. (There are just so many books, how could anyone ever read enough?)  And so at various times in my life I have set about making plans to further my education.  This process usually begins with preparing a list of books and authors to read and read more about.  A 1997 list included the authors Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Gloria Steinem, Albert Camus, and Henry David Thoreau.  Upon graduating college I was appalled by the fact that I had somehow earned two college degrees (a bachelor of science and of arts) without reading Moby Dick and that what I knew about War and Peace came mostly from the Charlie Brown New Year’s cartoon special.  Glancing at shelves of Barnes & Noble classics in the bookstore one day I realized there were so many I had as of that moment, failed to read.  In each case, I made a list of books and authors and set about reading them. 

My self-education did not only focus on classics.  At various times I have been interested in the Black Panthers, the Kennedys, Ernest Hemingway, the Harlem Renaissance, and running (not all at the same time) and read all I could about them.  I decided to read everything Charles Dickens wrote (still working on this) and am slowly working my way through Shakespeare's plays (not sure I can do the poems).   This year I finally got around to reading The Secret History and The Emperor's Children.  Through it all, I have loved the challenge, loved learning, and loved crossing things off my list. 

Here's the part YA bashers and other snobs would hate:  In between classics, literary fictions, and nonfiction I read romances, travelogues, science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, always mysteries.  I get Ms. Graham’s point about reading challenging books.  I like challenging myself.  What I don’t get is the judgment.  I read what I read because I want to and I enjoy it.  Sometimes that means reading The Secret History and Team of Rivals, but it also means reading everything by Agatha Christie and Rex Stout.  It means reading romances even though they may be predictable and stories about vampires, werewolves, and witches which are often fairly predictable as well.  It means rereading childhood favorites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Catcher in the Rye, and James and Giant Peach.  It means reading Gossip Girl series, the Hunger Games trilogy, and other YA books.  It also means reading comic books and graphic novels.  Although I love these books - the challenging and the less challenging, the adult, the YA, and the juvenile - I totally understand that other people, for whatever reason, may not be inclined to read either War and Peace or John Green's Looking for Alaska, and I'm fine with that.

The backlash against young adult fiction has also made me think about the purpose of books, and art more broadly, as everything that Ms. Graham wrote about books could be said about every other type of art.  I could be reading Submergence as Ms. Graham suggest instead of Shadow Kiss (Book 3 in the Vampire Academy series which I'm about to start).  I could be watching a documentary or whatever is considered a difficult film instead of a rom-com or the latest action movie.  I could watch PBS exclusively.  I could spend hours trying to figure out abstract art or just marvel at the pretty sunflowers.  Any of these activities, in my opinion, are acceptable and are things I would do.  (Well, okay, I'm not going to watch PBS exclusively.  I watch it a lot, mostly Masterpiece Mystery but I did watch the entire Roosevelts miniseries.  That has to count for something.)

Art can be challenging and inspiring, and it is great when it is but it doesn’t have to always be that.  Art can also be comforting.  It can be escapist.  It can be fun.  Sometimes art is all these things at once.  I see nothing wrong with enjoying books or other art for whatever reason a person wants.  If they want a challenge, that's great.  If they just want to escape into a world where everyone is paired up at the end and there is always a happy ending, that's cool too.  Articles like Ms. Graham's seem to me a big reason why so many people don’t read books at all.  She makes reading and art sound like a job.  She makes it sound like you can do it wrong, and that to me seems more wrong.

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