Monday, June 9, 2014

Review Of Ruth Graham's article "Against YA"

YA stands for Young Adult fiction. Titles like The Call Of The Wild, The Hobbit, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Outsiders, Anne Of Green Gables, Flowers For Algernon, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Book Thief, Hunger Games, and Fault In Our Stars could all fall under this genre (see the NPR list), but I think Ruth Graham is specifically targeting YA in the last couple decades starting approximately with Harry Potter. So, why is Graham up in arms about YA? Because it’s written for teenagers, with simplistic plot and character development, rudimentary ethics, and falsely tidy resolutions.
In other words, adults should be wanting more.

“…mature readers…find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all. A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love."

The qualities of good stories that she mentions are what we all should want out of a truly challenging and growth-stimulating book, but it would be hard to regard these traits as exclusive to the books Graham is specifically advocating for (which are what exactly?) and not present in some degree of concentration in some YA. And that’s the problem I have with her article: it’s too categorical and dogmatic.

She does, however, make some great points, like her eye-rolling take on a feature of Fault In Our Stars:
“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.”

Yeah. That’s kind of dumb. It’s not that she’s criticizing the juvenile nature of juvenile literature, but she’s mostly concerned about adults who want to continue to mentally and emotionally exist as a child and not raise the bar on their expectation of the world and their behavior in it. Besides that, she says it may not be fair to kids to spoil their fun by having adults over-indulge in their world—which is sort of a neutral, experimental ground between innocence and responsibility—at the cost of annoyance with, and loss of confidence in, adults.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine.”

Bam. Here’s the crux: adults have a hard time being adults, just like teenagers have a hard time being teenagers. But what would we as adults think of teenagers who wanted to keep solely reading Dr. Seuss? Sure, it’s good that they’re reading, but are they learning?  Let’s be honest, we want kids to learn to read at least some material that helps them come to grips with their changing situations, and challenges them to think, grow, and become more complex, capable beings. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia—which is, in essence, an appreciation of the formative events and warm relationships in a person’s life—but when it amounts to an obsession with the past, or an obsession with someone else’s experience and stories, it begins to run the risk of a denial of one’s own life. Escapism on a small scale can be healthy as it gives us a chance to dream a new situation and plan our acts accordingly, but a constant avoidance of present problems becomes a type of brain-candy that makes one feel that everything is okay when it isn’t, and can be positively harmful.

Graham is probably going to catch some flak for sentences like, “I’ve…gotten purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton…” I know what she’s saying, and I agree, since I love Charles Dickens, but that might be viewed as a form of escapism and nostalgia itself, since, much like YA, it deals with some problems specific to its own age. Graham might opine, “But much of it is still relevant in principle even if some parts suffer from outdated style, language, and ideas!” True, as does YA fiction.

So, while I agree with much of what Graham writes, I also believe a certain caution might be in order to not leap to an absolute condemnation of YA. There’s a lot of good there. And who am I to say that adults who have not learned to delay instant gratification, or who aren’t as ideologically oriented as I am, shouldn’t spend more time on teen literature, even if it seems a backward step for other adults. I would rather a person be honest and read at the level they are at, albeit, with options and encouragement (which I think Graham is advocating for) for growth and advancement when they are ready. Telling adults they’re ready for more, and all adults actually being ready for more, are two different things. There are a lot of adults who haven’t really developed intellectually or emotionally beyond the teen years, so should we really be censuring all adults for reading YA? Or should we be encouraging adults to continually try challenging material and helping them learn how to get more out of what they’re reading?

I think the latter. And I think, for the most part, that is what Ruth Graham is interested in, even if it sounds like she slips into a pontifical, elitist attitude from time to time in her article to create a scandalous—and therefore sellable--read. I applaud her for recognizing the need for adults to ‘grow up’, and for sounding the call to a greater thought life. I especially love her more positive approach to provoking adults:

“There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up…But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film. “Last year, when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence,” she told New York magazine this week, explaining why she is finished making teenage movies. “But I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a woman.””

Ruth Graham is concerned about people not challenging themselves to grow, and, frankly, I am too; but for those who are reading challenging material—material appropriate to their personal stage of growth and supportive in their personal progress—then there is no need to only read one genre or one age level. I’d say read it all and enjoy it all, from Green Eggs And Ham to Hamlet. Imagine a world where adults no longer appreciated The Giving Tree because it was for kids! We don’t want to slip into a denial of those foundational principles on which we build our complex ideologies—that’s nonsense. As long as you’re challenging yourself, reading for fun is healthy and beneficial.

My conclusion? The title of Graham’s article, Against YA, is, much like some Young Adult fiction, a bit over-the-top, like I’m sure she meant it to be.


  1. Couldn't agree more. You were more generous with her in your article than I was in my own mind.