The internet seems rife with literary debate these days. If we’re not arguing about what our writing and artwork is worth we’re arguing about who is allowed to read which genres. Which is silly if you really think about it.
Let’s take a break from literature and discuss music for a moment. Here’s a boy, he’s 15 years old, he’s white, he comes from a good home with both parents and a few siblings, hell they even have a dog and a white picket fence. This boy listens to rap music. Can you imagine a society where only black underprivileged teens can listen to rap music? Okay, maybe some people like that idea since they don’t like rap music and don’t want their kids listening to it, but then consider this: if you don’t live in a city center you have to listen to country music only. If you do live in a city center then country music is off limits. You can’t listen to jazz if you’re white. You can’t listen to Latin dance music if you’re white. And all this rock and pop music inspired and flavoured by international sounds? Forbidden! If you’re not from that country you can’t borrow from their musical traditions. Oh, and if you move, you’re musical tastes automatically change.
Right. Does that sound realistic?
Food? Shall we discuss food? How many people here like Chinese cuisine? I love it. My family is descended from various parts of Europe so there’s no Asian in me anywhere. No Italian either so pizza is out the window. No tacos. Hell, no perogies! I love perogies! But I’m from the wrong part of Europe to be eating that.
If we let age, gender, nationality, geography, or hair colour determine what we listen to, or what we eat, or yes, what we read, we’re limiting our experiences, and the experiences of others.
Let’s get back to literature. I am 28 years old. I am female. I am white, of mixed European decent. I have lived in Canada all my life. Am I only allowed to read books about white, female, not yet middle-aged, Canadians? Where do we draw the line, and why?
Why draw the line at 17? Because you’re legally an adult at 18? Does that mean the line in the USA is actually at 21? Is it because you’re graduating from high school and need to leave young life behind you as you step into the read world? And what about the 18-30 year olds? What are we, anyways? We’re adults, sure, but we’re not middle-aged, we’re not old, we’re not seniors? The term New-Adult has been coined to cover that gap. YA fiction is about 14-17 year olds, while NA fiction is about 17-30 year olds. But the line is blurry, and it depends on many things, not just age.
It depends on a person’s comfortable reading level, it depends on their maturity, and (before you think I’m insulting the maturity of 30-44 year olds who read YA fiction) it depends on why we read.
Let’s go back to the original article, which can be found here should you wish to read it: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/06/against_ya_adults_should_be_embarrassed_to_read_children_s_books.2.html
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. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.
Hey, I like a happy ending as much as the next person. Yes, I want some satisfaction from reading a book. And just because it has a nice, satisfactory ending doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it. Books with neat, happy endings are fun to read, they’re easy to read, they’re the sort of books you read in order to relax and escape for a little while. And they don’t have to be happy all the way through. We want struggle and pain and trials so we can see a character we care about triumph over something. And maybe that triumph includes loss, but it includes growth and conclusion as well.
The joy of these books is that they do make us think and feel, but in such a gentle, subtle way that we don’t even notice it. We get to experience growth and loss and difficult situations and by the end we’ve enjoyed so much more than a good story, and we didn’t have to work too hard at it.
I’ve read Dickens, and several other big name, long dead, authors during my university career and yes, they were wonderfully crafted books. I’ve never had the urge to go back and read them. But genre fiction? YA fiction? NA fiction? I read those over and over again. Stephen King, Anne Bishop, Patricia Briggs, George RR Martin, Spider Robinson, Laurel K Hamilton, to name a few. I read storytellers who tell an engaging and compelling story and I find that some of the classics are too slow, too LITERARY, full of heavy devices that slow the reading down. I will never try to diminish the importance of Dickens and Chaucer and Shakespeare (actually I adore Shakespeare) and the Greek classics. They are important, they should be read and studied. But they aren’t the be all and end all of what’s out there.
Lauren Davis wrote a lovely rant in response to the original article, and you can find it here: http://io9.com/really-are-we-still-genre-shaming-people-for-the-books-1587118225?utm_campaign=socialflow_io9_facebook&utm_source=io9_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow
In her words: Certain books seem to be particularly vulnerable to finger-wagging from the so-called literary elite: science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, “chick-lit,” and now young adult fiction. Fiction that has been traditionally aimed at women and young people is particularly vulnerable to the criticisms of not being serious enough, not being mature enough. We don’t typically see the same criticisms of, say, spy thrillers, even though some books in that category tick off the boxes on Graham’s no-no list: Namely, that they tell complete stories with nice, neat endings, and may idealize situations rather than teach us big truths about life.
Now, I myself have fallen into the “genre bashing” game when it comes to romance, and that’s because I found romance novels lacking in a strong story, they were too cliched. Turns out I was reading the wrong romance novels is all. Now I’ve even written a few romance novellas. (See my Books page here on my blog for a list of those novellas – end shameless promotion). I felt the same way about romantic comedies. And you know what, I don’t really have a problem with people who like them, they’re just not for me. So I have stopped bashing and simply voice my opinion as what it is, a single opinion that defines me, but cannot define others.
So many books these days are breaking down walls between genres. The wall between science fiction and fantasy was probably the first to go. Romance can be thrown into any genre now. As can mystery and thriller. Now books with a touch of horror are labeled “dark” – Dark Fantasy, Dark Romance etc. And YA isn’t even a genre, it’s a targeted audience based on the age of the protagonist.
We were all 17. We can all relate to being a teenager, even if we didn’t all have cellphones and social media in high school. We can’t all relate to being a high priced successful lawyer. We can’t all relate to being a spy. We can’t all relate to being a wizard. But somehow being a teenager (even if the character is a teenage spy, or a teenage wizard) transcends whatever else is going on in the book. The teenage character encapsulates those feelings of awkwardness, of fear and insecurity, of change and growth both physical and emotional, of newness and discovery, of failure, of boundaries and wanting to push past them. Even Ruth Graham admits to these feelings in her original article.
I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine.
That’s right, as a teenager she wanted to reach past the boundaries of YA literature and read those unreachable adult books. So why didn’t she? I was reading Stephen King at 12. I was reading Tolkien at 12. I was reading Poe at 12. I was also reading Roald Dahl at 12. And occasionally I picked up my sister’s Bailey School Kids books. My parents didn’t see the boundaries the way the literary world did. If I was mature enough to handle the language and the themes then I could read the book. It didn’t matter the age of the protagonist, or the gender of the protagonist, or when it was written or where it was written.
We make the boundaries. We can break them down. We can let people enjoy the reading process, and study literature, and read a multitude of books.
Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.
Why does she assume we’re ONLY reading YA lit? Why do we have to be put into neat little slots? Why can’t I read fantasy this week and “serious” lit next week and science fiction the week after? Why do I have to pick only one favourite? Okay, she says “substituting” so she is making a distinction here. She is pointing the finger at those over 18ers who ONLY read YA fiction. Yeah, they’re missing something. But so is she. There is so much out there that’s new and fresh and deep and thought provoking in every genre, targeted at every age group.
I read a children’s picture book about a mom dealing with cancer!
Bridge to Terebithia has a child dying! The best friend of the main character dies!
Writing is supposed to tell a great story and in the process discuss some aspect of life – whether it’s coming-of-age, or dealing with difficulties, or sacrifice, or pain, or loss, or great joy, or true love. Some deal with multiple aspects, some don’t. Some deal with those aspects in settings we find familiar, some don’t.
To take away from a book’s value because of the target audience is to tell a teenager that their problems and issues, their interests and likes, are not valued. They are not valued because their stories are not valued.
To take away from a book’s value for any reason is dangerous. Obviously some books are better written than others, and time will separate the classics from the one-hit-wonders, it will separate the good from the bad, and it will do it naturally without genre shaming, without age-shaming. If you don’t like a book, explain why.
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?
That’s right, it’s written for a younger audience, and maybe Ruth Graham didn’t enjoy it, but that doesn’t make it a bad book. I didn’t enjoy Twilight, my sister loved it. We’re only two years apart. And I love paranormal creatures, and I still read YA books. It had nothing to do with genre or target audience or my age at the time (because I loved Shiver, Linger, and Forever which are also YA books with werewolves). There is so much within a genre and especially within the range of genres written for YA readers, that it seems impossible to write a review of it, as Ruth Graham has tried to do. If she had written a review of The Fault in our Stars and stated “That’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds” I don’t think it would have caused any controversy. I often say, “it’s a good book, I guess, but it’s not a genre I enjoy” OR “it was too easy a read” or whatever complaint I have. Many books I’ve read, or started reading, haven’t been for me. But very few of them have been down right BAD.
I think it’s time to tear down the boundaries. Yes, marketing agencies are still going to target us by gender and age group, but we need to read what appeals to us, regardless of how it’s labelled, and we need to reach outside our comfort zone every now and then to see what else is out there.
Give it a chance. You might like it. You might be surprised by what’s out there.