Why Ruth Graham Is Dead Wrong - By Lev Butts

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Slate by Ruth Graham titled "Against YA" in which she argues that adults should be embarassed by reading young adult literature. She writes this article as the film adaptation of John Green's young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars hits theatres to positive reviews and spurring sales of his novels, all of which are targeted towards teenaged readers.

Now, as you all are already aware, I am not John Green's biggest fan. In fact, I've never so much as read a single book by him. And, honestly, I'm not likely to: from what I've seen of the latest film and heard from readers, he does not appear to be writing much of anything I'd be interested in. This is not, however, because he writes young adult literature. I quite enjoy several young adult novels (the Harry Potter books are still one of my favorite modern fantasy series). No, I don't have any interest in reading John Green's stuff because  John Green apparently writes really good rom-coms with young protagonists. This is simply not my bag.

The Fault in Our Star Wars
Since I've never read him, I cannot even say with any degree of certainty that his books are well or poorly written. I'm told they're fantastic, but I was also told chicken liver tastes good and was sorely disappointed.

Garnish it however you like, it still tastes like it looks.
I can say that telling anyone, regardless of age, not to read something solely because it was meant for a-whole-nuther audience is asinine, and I'm calling bullshit.

Actually, I'm calling chicken livers.

It's Kind of a Crap Thing to Say.

Graham claims that even the "good" literature written for young adults is bad for older adults because it is written to appeal to a very specific audience that is not made up of mature adults. How is this not offensive as hell?

Seriously, it's like telling people they can't read Invisible Man or One Hundred Years of Solitude because they're neither black, nor hispanic. Or The Women's Room because they're not women. Or Great Expectations because they are not British or Victorian.

Or Mein Kampf because they're not genocidal psychopaths.
Even if you don't find it offensive, it's still a stupid reason to not read something. And besides...

What the Hell Is Young Adult Lit, Anyway?

Graham, herself, admits that it is increasingly difficult to define young adult literature, but that "it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds." Now that sounds pretty damned definable, right? It's young adult literature if it was written for young adults. Fair enough, Ruth. You got me there.

Except wait a minute...

Hey, do you guys know what these books have in common?

  1. They were each written for young adults, and 
  2. They are now considered straight-up literature for all audiences. 
Catcher in the Rye, in fact, is considered by many to be absolutely inappropriate for anyone under the age of twenty-one. You can start smoking before you can read that one.
Speaking of "adult" literature...

Why Doesn't It Go Both Ways?

If it's inappropriate for adults to read young adult literature, you would think it would be equally inappropriate for young adults to read "adult" literature. However, I can tell you from personal experience teaching a high school literature curriculum that not only do we apparently consider it imperative that young adults read adult works, these works often contain material young audiences simply are too inexperienced to really get:

Few 16-year olds are going to truly appreciate
either Gatsby's decades' long obsession over Daisy or
Nick's burgeoning mid-life crisis when he turns 30.

Similarly, few 16-year olds are going to firmly grasp the brutal tragedy of war,
even if they can get past a novel told from the point of view of "the enemy."
A group of kids left to their own devices on a deserted island
resort to tribalism, violence, and near cannibalism.
Okay, maybe the kids will understand this one. 

Three words:
Breast-feeding the homeless

Now I am not saying these books shouldn't be taught in school or that kids shouldn't be encouraged to read them. Quite the contrary. If "our" books are appropriate for "them," it just seems a bit disingenuous to say across the board that "their" books are not appopriate for us.

Hell, what do you make, then, of authors who write both adult and young adult fiction? Neil Gaiman, for instance, or Terry Pratchet? For that matter, where does Douglas Adams fall? I read him in sixth grade, identified completely with Arthur Dent, then grew up, read him again, and identified with Ford Prefect.

Still wanted to punch this guy in the noses, though.

Gaiman's work, particularly, is hard to differentiate. Best I can tell, his young adult work is slightly shorter with marginally younger protagonists. His plots, dialogue, and writing style is exactly the same.

Guess which one's the kiddie book. Go ahead, I dare you.
And What Does It Matter As Long As Folks Are Reading?

It's no secret that literacy rates are on the decline. We live in a world where the most popular pastime is watching reality television. People, young and old alike, can't even be asked to think enough to follow scripted entertainment. Carl Sagan said it best:

Ruth Graham can stick her nose in the air and read all the hi-falutin', hoity-toity Literature she wants; she will not change that fact. In fact, shaming people for reading young adult novels is equal to shaming people for reading. Shame on her.

A good story is good regardless of genre or intended audience. I say if a book inspires people to read more (whether it's Literature, young adult novels, or comic books) then that's a win for everyone, Ruth Graham included.


Susan Price said…
You're so right, Lev. 'The Fault In Our Stars' sounds like something I would have hated as much as a teenager as I do now. - Sorry to sound smug, but as a teenager, I was reading Joe Orton. Should I not have been allowed? - And do I have to give up Pratchett now? - I won't do it!
madwippitt said…
Madness ... if you can read and enjoy a book, then surely it is appropriate for you, whatever your age?
Lee said…
Your assumption here is that reading -- any and all reading -- is better than none at all. Maybe.

If it's only about a good story, there are sources other than books. If it's about critical thinking, information, empathy, enrichment etc. then not all reading matter is of the same calibre.

It certainly seems to be true that a good proportion of teens who read YA novels later go on to broaden their reading horizons. But does reading YA novels as an adult encourage someone to read more deeply? Of course there are adults who already read eclectically, but what about those who don't?

I've been known to write YA novels. I read a large number of them. But I'll be the first to admit that most of them -- no, not all! -- have a limited perspective and certain conventions which reduce rather than enlarge my experience of the world.
CallyPhillips said…
Great post Lev, and something I've been looking at myself a lot recently. Both the 'fascism' in the fashion in fiction AND more specifically what is children's or YA fiction. One book I would heartily recommend to the many AE'ers who are children's authors is Roger Lancely Green's 'Tellers of Tales' (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tellers-tales-childrens-authors-1800-1964/dp/B0000CMJ1M/) It's an eye opener. He's somewhat a) partisan and b) inaccurate in places BUT it shows a whole range of books that were considered 'childrens' in 1950's 60's which will amaze. As will the number of authors one has never heard of who had immensely successful careers. I'm off to root some out and I hope other AE'ers will be inspired to do the same. Give project Guthenberg a run for its money and lets see what we can find from the past eh? Also interesting is how frequently he refers to writers 'privately publishing' which I think is rather a more dignified approach than 'self' with the 'vanity' sneer we get stuck with today! Good post. Good book. Good read!
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Lev, this is a great post. Thank you. I'm sorry if my ensuing comment sounds like a grinding axe, but that's just how it is. I have the third edition of the Guardian Dictionary of Publishing and Printing (A & C Black, 2006) open in front of me as I write and their definition of a Young Adult Book is as follows: 'a book written for adults but considered suitable for adolescents.' That seems to be about right, though many would think it's the wrong way round. I don't think 'suitable for adolescents' necessarily implies any diminution of subject or scope or any immaturity in the author's mind. Well for some young adult writers I suppose the first two qualities may, though the third doesn't, despite what one or two critics have publicly said.

It doesn't apply to our Sue or our Jan, I think. Nor for a writer like, for example, Meg Rosoff. And not, to take one at random,for a writer like Mal Peet, who, though he is published by Walker, an avowedly children's publisher, writes novels which could be shortlisted for the Booker. If you doubt me, just read his 'Keeper', the most brilliant and profound novel which, though it's about football, gets nearer to the roots of humanity than almost any book I know. And his 'Tamar', his 'Exposure' and his 'Life, an Exploded Diagram'. I could make a list. Read Linda Newbery's 'Set in Stone' and tell me in what way that isn't an adult novel which once again goes to places many, many 'proper' writers wouldn't dare to even though it won the children's book section of The Costa Prize. Didn't Mark Haddon's 'Curious Incident' actually go on to win the big one? I don't want to continue with this list because this comment would never end.

I was known as a children's writer because that's how I started and that's what I was. But I remember Cally's review of my 'Spirit of the Place', which appeared in both IEBR and Eclectic Electric, and her discussion about what constitutes an 'adult' as opposed to a 'young adult' book. I think any author who tries to write serious young adult books would tell you that they don't trim their sensibilities to suit the market. In fact most of the time they don't think of their market. I'm remarketing 'Spirit of the Place','Out of the Mouths of Babes', Ellen's People' and 'Divided Loyalties' as adult books because that's what I think they are. Scholastic and Walker published them as young adult books so that's how they are defined. The only sops, I think, to suitability for the young adult sensibility, if in fact there is such a thing, is that there's only the merest smidgeon of explicit sex and some of the characters are young. So what? I hope the generous AE reviewers of 'Spirit' and 'Babes' didn't consciously lower their sights as they read.

It is, I'm convinced, a false distinction and has meant that so many of us have been banished to the children's departments of Waterstones and company where our potential readers wouldn't be seen dead. It's about time that we YA authors weren't regarded by some critics as big kids with arrested development.

Rant over.
Nick Green said…
Let people read cereal packets if they want to. This isn't freakin' North Korea.

Susan Price said…
Lee, everyone bows down before the great Shakespeare, but Shakespeare had 'a limited perspective' and 'followed certain conventions.' Compare, for instance, his 'Merchant of Venice' and Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta.' I would argue that Marlowe's play, though casting the Jew as a villain, is arguably less anti-semetic than Shakespeare - certainly less 'vonventionally' so.
'The Bard' also uncritically upheld the political system of his day.
Our present day 'literary fiction' also follows its own conventions and has its own limited perspective. How can it not? We're all of our time. Even when we think we're bucking it, we're still within it.
Not everybody likes books and reading. (Pause for present audience to absorb this shocking fact.) Those who don't are probably never going to read anything more than easy, light 'airplane' fiction, to while away a few hours. They just don't want to read much.
The rest of us - well, sometimes we're up for a challenge, and sometimes we feel like taking it easy. But that isn't to say that the 'easy' choices are rubbish. I will often turn to Pratchett when I'm feeling a bit low or off-colour - but although entertaining and easy to read, his books are often sharply critical of our age, and can be read on more than one level.
So I don't think that setting up some elitist barrier between 'good' and 'bad' books, or between 'children's books' and 'adult books' is at all helpful, to anybody. If you like reading, then read the books you like and enjoy. Read fiction and non-fiction, classic and modern, children's and adult. Follow your interests. You'll come on some very challenging books. You'll find yourself becoming bored with the easiest. You'll develop critical muscle. Go your own way.

Come on Lee, surely you can't disagree with going your own way?
Oh Nick, you articulated precisely what I was thinking! I learned my first French from reading HP sauce bottles - sadly, the French description of 'this high quality sauce' isn't there any more. Lev, couldn't agree with you more. And with the increasing sameness of so much traditionally published 'adult' fiction these days, the place where there seems to be real depths and experimentation going on is so often in YA. I've seen Graham's piece before - it was reblogged on The Passive Voice where it got short shrift as the clickbait it undoubtedly is. But Lev has demolished it beautifully. Most of these labels - and trad pub is becoming increasingly prescriptive - seem to be aimed at branding rather than anything else. But you shouldn't then use them to berate adults for what they can and can't read. Besides, many people, young and old, who enjoy books, read different kinds of books at different times. If I'm knackered and fed up, I'm more likely to reread the Wind in the Willows or a volume of William Brown stories than anything else. But that isn't what I read all the time. I know lots of people who feel exactly the same. And the fact remains that what I enjoy reading is nobody else's business but mine.
Chris Longmuir said…
Lee, you seem to be suggesting that to read a book only for the story, then 'readers' or should I say people, should seek their stories elsewhere rather than in the pages of a book! Surely, as writers, we should welcome all kind of readers including those who only like a good story!

As for myself, I read on all kinds of levels. For relaxation I read a good story, something with pace and suspense, a page turner. For my research I read nonfiction, I'm currently reading a book about Sylvia Pankhurst. I have studied subjects at university level and have the degree to prove it.

However, there is one type of book I might be liable to throw in the bin, and that is literature with a capital L, the kind of book with no story, no plot, and where nothing much happens, because apart from the beautiful writing and turn of phrase, I find a lot of these books to be pretentious.

I'll stick with the good story, at least it won't send me to sleep.
Chris Longmuir said…
Forgot to say I've read most of the books featured in the column with the exception of the first one, and Mein Kampf! And I too, like Terry Pratchett, he's been a favourite for a long time. I agree with the statement - 'What does it matter as long as folks are reading'.
Lydia Bennet said…
Lev, a great post, fun and ranty, and I love your signature use of pics and captions. There are lots of brilliant YA books which are just as satisfying for adults, in fact the only real differences are less violence, naff all sex and young protagonists, but that's fine now and again! The Just William books I recently reread, and it's hard to believe they were written for children, the sophisticated vocabulary and yes, social commentary are very adult, yet children (including my father as a boy) loved them from the start. So funny! I love Swallows and Amazons books which are my default comfort read if ill. Lots more I still enjoy and value. I too was an inveterate reader of sauce bottles and cereal packets, and I don't think it matters what people read, or even whether they read, it's up to them, and I resent people making anyone feel bad about their reading choices (apart from Mein Kampf perhaps)
I cannot tell a lie. I did attempt to read Mein Kampf at one point, purely for research purposes, but I can report that it is totally unreadable.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm in the same situation, Catherine. And I agree, Mein Kampf is totally unreadable.
glitter noir said…
Perfect timing. Am about halfway through a wonderful book by Sue Price and am loving it. By the page, my conviction had grown that we need to break down the barriers that block YA novels this good from contending for major awards. In Sue's case, the fantastical story is perfectly balanced by very 'adult' mastery of rhythm, structure, rhetoric, etc. Great writing, period, damn the age categorization.
madwippitt said…
Yeah! What's wrong with reading simply for pleasure?
Jan Needle said…
purely on a point of order, madame la chaisehomme (i'm in france, and the heat's boiling my brain), if mein kampf is unreadable, how come so many people not only read it, but let it alter or mould their lives? i think we might need to rethink the power and place of fantasy-lit, especially for YAs and the terminally suggestible. and another thing - mein kampf is still selling. food for thought? excusez moi, mon verre est vide encore. toodle pip (comme disent les francais...whoops! pardon)
Debbie Bennett said…
I love YA fiction. I rather enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars (my 18 year old thought it was rubbish). But then there *was* no YA when I was a teenager. Beyond Nancy Drew it was straight into Heinlein & Wyndham.

I read anything that looks interesting. I don't do labels.
Leverett Butts said…
Chris, the omnly book I ever stole from a bookstore was Mein Kampf. I took it home, read about a quarter of it, gave up, and got caught trying to put it back on the bookstore shelf.
Lee said…
Sue, you said:

'Follow your interests. You'll come on some very challenging books. You'll find yourself becoming bored with the easiest. You'll develop critical muscle. Go your own way.'

But that is precisely my question: do adults who read only (or mostly, perhaps) stuff that isn't challenging become bored - develop critical muscle - or merely read more of the same?

Chris, I didn't say readers who who read for a good story should seek elsewhere - only that the need for a good story can't be used as an argument for the primacy of reading.

'What does it matter as long as folks are reading'. Well, I happen to feel that it does matter. I would prefer the world to be run by people who don't read only the Bild Zeitung - let me see, what's the UK equivalent? Daily Mail?

(And no, I'm not claiming that YA lit is the equihvalent of the DM. But yes, I do think it odd that there are adults who read mainly YA lit. Life doesn't stop at 20.)
Lee said…
Jan, I'm a terrible cynic. I believe most people are terminally suggestible - here as elsewhere, I'll dare to add.
Leverett Butts said…
I have to admit, that while I, too, would rather the world not be run by folks who read, say, only the Bible, if given the choice between being ruled by those folks and being ruled by people who read absolutely nothing and get their intellectual stimulation only from American Idol and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I'd choose the bible thumper.

I do believe that any reading is better than no reading at all.

But admittedly, I'm a lit professor, so I may be a tad biased.
Lee said…
I ought to add that that there are probably a number of reasons why so many adults are reading YA novels - not just for a good story, for example, though this undoubtedly plays a role, but also as a result of our attitudes towards youthfulness and ageing.
Nick Green said…
Some will read excellent literature.
Some will read excellent YA literature.
Some will read YA trash.
Some will leave home and go and join ISIS.
Some will read Mein Kampf.
Some will embrace its message.
Some will read the sequel, 'Mein Kampfing Holiday', a hilarious account of Nazi hijinks on one rainy Bank Holiday escapade.

It's a big world.
Jan Needle said…
i tried a kampfing holiday down a mein once, but the coaldust got in the sausages.
Lee said…
Nick, some will always do something. That's not social criticism.

Don't you find it noteworthy -- and at least in my own case, of concern -- that an ever more ageing society is staking claim to the books written for its teens?
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