In Defense of YA, and of Positivity in General


I thought I’d better say something about the infamous “Against YA” article in Slate, since, you know…I have a degree in this subject.
A few days ago, Slate contributor Ruth Graham wrote a piece in which she chided adults for reading young adult fiction. YA is alright for teens, she says, but grown-ups should be “embarrassed” if the bulk of their library consists more of YA than adult literature. She laments that about half of all YA books are purchased by readers who are above the target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds. To her, that’s a problem.


It would be hard to find any article with which I disagree more thoroughly—and not just because I happen to write the genre that she’s suggesting adults abandon. I find her argument flawed in nearly every paragraph, and feel the need to defend a genre that adults are finally beginning to wake up to.
The first thing I disagreed with was her ham-fisted usage of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars, which she simultaneously misinterprets and manipulates to suit her own argument:  

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.

Absent, of course, is any mention of what Fault In Our Stars is actually about. Props to her for finding the one detail in the book that sounds stereotypically teenage-ish and wording it in the shallowest way possible. She conveniently omits that it’s a book about a teen with cancer who struggles with the knowledge of what her death will mean to her loved ones, and can’t seem to find any meaning in what’s happening to her.
But I guess no one wonders about life and death, or worries about hurting people, or gets cancer past age 13?
It’s actually quite ironic that she uses the age 13. That’s the age I was when I watched my grandmother die of cancer. And all those questions that are central to the book—about the meaning or not-meaning of death, the messiness of death, and our struggle to live with its reality—were not resolved in my mind when my grandmother died. They were only beginning. They never truly got resolved, and they never can be, which is why the book haunts me so at age 30. Why she thinks a preteen is the only one for whom this book is appropriate is beyond me. If she figured out the answers to death at age 14, I sure wish she’d come share it with me.
She also has this to say:

But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. 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.”

I’m not sure what she counts as a “myriad” since she doesn’t explain who she polled and/or interviewed, but I don’t know anyone who would self-identify as reading YA for instant gratification. Believe me; anyone who was into Harry Potter while the series was unfinished understands the utter futility of wishing for instant gratification.
But on a serious note, I’m baffled as to why she made this claim. General YA readers truly don’t, in my experience, say that the books allow them instant gratification or are primarily about nostalgia. Most readers of YA read a book because the protagonist is interesting and the story is captivating. Isn’t that why we read anybook? Also, how does the word “pleasurable” imply escapism or nostalgia? I find many adult books “pleasurable” that are far from escapist or nostalgic, and plenty of YA, too.

But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.

I’m not even sure what she means here. She seems to imply that viewing the world from a teen perspective becomes obsolete once you gain enough life experience.
But who says? Who says that teens see life in a fundamentally different way from adults? Yes, it’s true that we (hopefully) develop a more nuanced understanding of the world past age 18. We learn to take social slights with a grain of salt, we quit stressing about pimples, we start to see our parents as people rather than decrepit caretakers. But there are many things about life that we do see accurately as teenagers. By the time I went to college, I had done much observing of life and death and hope and spirituality and social dynamics and dreams. Whatever immaturity hang-ups teens have, it doesn’t disqualify them from also knowing good and true things. In fact, sometimes I think I was wiser about certain issues—such as my work-life balance—at 17 than I am at 30.
Ironically, there’s even a scene from Fault In Our Stars that makes this very argument! (The scene in the Ann Frank House, anyone?)
Furthermore, when I’m, say, 50, should I stop reading adult literature that has 30-year-old protagonists? After all, I will have outgrown the 30-year-old perspective on life, according to Graham’s theory. Should we divide adult literature into “middle-age” and “elderly” genres and get snooty about the age groups directly below ours?

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

I take it she’s never read Hunger Games, which ends with the PTSD-riddled protagonist becoming estranged from the former lover involved in her sister’s death, and struggling to make a relationship with a man who formed a trauma-induced attachment to her.
I guess The Hanged Man is not on her shelf. It’s about a girl who comes to terms with being molested and ends the novel plotting how to save her best friend from a self-destructive fate (we never see the outcome).
Let’s assume she skipped my friend Sara Farizan’s book If You Could Be Mine, which ends on an emotionally devastating note when a character realizes she married someone she can’t love, and can’t do anything about it.
Do these books count as the “nowhere” that the ambiguity of the real world is evidenced in YA fiction?
For that matter, has Graham read any adult fiction? If emotionally “satisfying” endings that look to the future are a sign of immaturity, then we must re-categorize popular adult works like To Kill A Mockingbird, Rosie, Lord of the Rings, and Gilead, as being overly-simplistic YA. All of these have very satisfying endings and thus don’t fit her vision of the supposedly adult, supposedly real, world.
To be honest, this article got my dander up so hard because I hate when satisfaction and hope are seen as childish fantasies that one outgrows. If one seriously believes this, why would one even get up in the morning, let alone stare at a glowing monitor and type a series of symbols in hopes to create meaning and communicate with fellow creatures about the genre of meaning-making symbols they read?
You may think I’m waxing philosophical, but really. We walk around and form attachments and contribute to society because we think there is some spark of hope in what we do, some meaning, and we follow that instinct in spite of ambiguity and hardship. It’s not that kids enjoy hopeful endings because they haven’t learned better; it’s that people enjoy hopeful endings because their hearts just won’t stop yearning that direction.
Let’s finish this train wreck. Graham proves that she hasn’t actually understood Fault In Our Stars when she claims that the protagonist Hazel “finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying,” (even though Hazel is the character who constantly reminds others that the prospect of death is pointless and messy and irresolvable through platitudes). Graham gives hollow lip service to politeness by claiming that she doesn’t wish to shame anyone’s reading list (this is the blogger’s equivalent of the “No offense, but…” routine, in which yes, one actually does mean offense). She encourages adults to read about protagonists they can’t empathize with (I guess Ann Lamott will now have to be considered a YA writer, because Lamott is famous for stating in her book Bird by Bird that “I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.”) And finally, she states that adults are “better” than all this satisfying YA crap.
If being an adult means going beyond hope, satisfaction, and empathy, then, my friend, I am not along for the ride. I will remain a young adult for the rest of my life, along with many of the most famous adult writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
And that’s really where the subject touches home for me. It’s not just about the lack of knowledge of the YA genre, nor the logical fallacies in her article, nor the frustration of a writer arguing about books she doesn’t understand, or even the hair-tearing at watching someone claim her insults aren’t insulting. This is also about whether adults are allowed to be hopeful—whether cynicism is the mandatory mantle of the high school graduate. She seems to think that with increased intellect and life experience comes decreased satisfaction and hope and pleasure.
Probably the best thing I can say in response to that, is this:
J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius. Really, the man was no dummy. He invented, in one lifetime, the kind of mythology that typically takes centuries to develop. He was fluent in several dead languages, and snored his way through school at Oxford, where he ended up teaching.
This extremely intelligent adult also had a very hard life. He grew up with no father and lost his mother at a young age, forever scarring him emotionally. As a teenage orphan, he was separated from the love of his life for many years due to the short-sighted decision of his legal guardian. When he later found his love and married her, they often had a difficult home life, strained even further when he went away to the horrors of World War I. He saw friends die. He lurched through middle age carrying the emotional battle scars and living what most would consider a drab and unremarkable life, lost his wife years before his own death, and finally passed away without fanfare or trumpets in the 1970s.
Yet this remarkable man, much smarter and more acquainted with the sorrows of the world than I or Ruth Graham will probably ever be, coined the term “eucatastrophe,” which means a sudden and unexpected reversal from bad circumstances into incredibly good ones. It is described as a sudden “turn” from sorrow to joy.
Tolkien once commented on how frequently we experience eucatastrophes in real life…and how infrequently in the modern novel.

  13 comments for “In Defense of YA, and of Positivity in General

  1. June 6, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Well done and well written. Good arguments.

  2. June 6, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Sigh. I bet this woman doesn’t even KNOW any teenagers. Or real YA people. Or anything about being human. (WAIT IS SHE A ROBOT THAT WOULD EXPLAIN SO MUCH.)

    I’m just going to be over here thinking about our professors and how awesome they are.

  3. June 6, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Thanks Jan!

  4. June 6, 2014 at 11:02 am

    She could be. I’ve also considered the possibility that she just wanted to create controversy for Slate pageviews.

  5. June 6, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Brilliant response, especially for knowing (and obviously having much love for) Professor Tolkien!

    The original article made me so mad, but after calming down for a day or so, it’s easy to see it for the click-bait it is. I mean, novels can’t have hope? Really? Has she not read, what many consider “The Great American Novel,” The Great Gatsby?

    Give me a break.

  6. June 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you! Yes, Tolkien has saved my butt quite a few times in conversations like this. 🙂

  7. June 7, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I’ve said this a couple times this week, but I’ll repeat myself: I love you. I thought of writing my own response to that garbage, but I never would have written something as in depth and particular as this.

    Just to add… YA book with “unsatisfying” ending: Tiger Eyes
    Adult book with “satisfying” ending: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

    I don’t know if she reads books.

  8. June 7, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    I love you too Ange 🙂

    I agree: does she read? If so, what?? I really do wonder if this article was written so crazily to be click-bait, because it seems so strange to me that her logic is that bad.

  9. June 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Yes. Just yes.

  10. June 8, 2014 at 10:36 am

    I’ve been on a tear about this article since I read it. Thank you for adding your voice—and brilliant points—to this conversation.

  11. June 10, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Alright, so I haven’t even read the article, but based on the context, I find a glaring irony within. By saying that all YA is overly simplistic and all adult literature is decidedly ambiguous and cynical; and also by saying that all adults need to adopt the latter and ditch the formerly, she’s oversimplifying and generalizing the subjects she’s discussing. She’s becoming what she’s ranting about–overly simple, black and white.

    I also love this “I take it she’s never read Hunger Games, which ends with the PTSD-riddled protagonist becoming estranged from the former lover involved in her sister’s death, and struggling to make a relationship with a man who formed a trauma-induced attachment to her.”

    Wonderful article, babe! 😀

  12. June 10, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Personally, I get more than enough of the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world” IN the real world. But that’s not what stories are for– simply to reflect real life as we experience it. Cameras and mirrors will do just fine for that. Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books contain emotional and moral ambiguity, but also a pretty strong dose of hope and satisfaction, said once that “stories are how we tell ourselves who we are.” And “who we are” is a group of beings who need meaning and hope. That’s part of who we are. Denying that is the kind of reductionism that loses sight of the actual thing that it so merrily deconstructs– the human being– as if it were nothing more than the sum of its components.

  13. June 11, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you for adding this, Kristen. It’s a point I had neither the time, space, nor energy to address, but it is true; stories are not simple parrots, rather, they exist to show us ourselves in a new and transformed way.

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