Everything new is old, as evinced by Ruth Graham’s recent Slate article admonishing adults who read “young adult” (YA) fiction. Her basic argument is that books like The Fault in Our Stars “could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers,” and that such replacements are inferior to more nuanced stories by “literary” and “canonical” authors. Stories from Shakespeare, the Brontës, Dickens or Megan Abbott are better, Graham argues, because they evoke “satisfaction of a more intricate kind.”
At heart, Graham’s argument is equivalent to Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal article from last December upon the death of Elmore Leonard, to which I responded here. Teachout’s distinction of “pop” vs. “high” art is very similar to Graham’s delineation of “young” vs. “mature” adult literature. (Graham goes even further in trying to distinguish “transparently trashy” YA fiction — i.e., stuff that obviously isn’t literature — from “realistic” YA fiction without offering any substantive generic criteria beyond the presumption that “nobody” defends it as literature.) Likewise, both Teachout and Graham offer prejudicial arguments based on absurd caricatures of the books that make up these subjective and ill-defined literary subsets.
That said, Graham offers a couple variations that aren’t covered by my response to Teachout, which I will address below. Incidentally, while writing up this post, I happened to hear an interview with Graham on Weekend Edition Sunday, in which she responds to some criticism of her criticism. I thought the interview might give Graham a chance to clarify her argument in a positive way, but it turned out that her clarifications are even more elitist and dismissive than her initial article.
The satisfaction of complexity
In the Season 3 episode of Doctor Who “Blink,” Kathy Nightingale asks her best friend, Sally Sparrow, why Sally likes sad things. “It’s happy for deep people,” Sally replies. Similarly conflicting emotions are evinced by popular paradoxical portmanteaux like “bittersweet” and stolen foreign phrases like je ne se quoi (the expression of an attractive but ineffable quality). Complex ideas are interesting, and Graham is right to say that many readers “find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit.”
Where Graham errs, however, is in the conflation of “more complex” with “more mature.” Not all complexity is equal, and there is such a thing as needless, arguably less “mature” complexity. In life, people frequently embrace gratuitous complications (think the slang definition of “drama”), and achieving maturity is often a matter of reducing those complications, not increasing them. In literature, stories can likewise contain needless complexities — as Dan Brown has demonstrated time and again. Identifying complexity with maturity is itself ironically simplistic.
Graham’s larger problem is in asserting that “YA endings are uniformly satisfying…wrapped up neatly, [with] our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” In other words, she seems to be perfectly fine with things that are satisfyingly complex, while stories with satisfying endings are shallow and dull. Alas, like Teachout, Graham is not lamenting some universal truth, a Platonic ideal of “Literature,” but the fact that some people tend to disagree with her preferences. The idea that everyone should find greater fulfillment in complexity than simplicity is absurd.
Furthermore, even if it were true that YA endings are simple in the ways that Graham avers, that does not necessarily make YA stories simple overall. Chess has only two possible endings — checkmate or stalemate — yet few would argue that chess isn’t a complex game. Dr. Amy H. Sturgis’ secondary bibliography on YA dystopias shows that there is a good deal of critical and intertextual discussion about the complexities to be uncovered within YA literature. And as for the maturity of YA themes, consider the use of the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games by protesters in Thailand.
The fallacy of false choices
In her NPR interview, Graham acknowledged that there may validity to the argument that “the best YA is richer and more sophisticated than I give it credit for,” claiming, “I would never say that, you know, all YA is on one side of that spectrum, and all adult literature is on the other side.” However, her article implies exactly the opposite. Specifically, Graham notes only two kinds of YA literature: “transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature” and “the genre the publishing industry calls ‘realistic fiction.’” If Graham considers any subset of YA literature to be “richer and more sophisticated” than these two, she has not indicated what it is.
This is a problem because Graham pits her chosen examples of YA literature against the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and the Brontës (the latter of which I personally can’t condone). This sort of false comparison is rhetorically deceptive — it’s like saying, “Your plastic bracelet is worth less than my platinum necklace, therefore bracelets are of less quality than necklaces.” The only fair comparison would be to compare the best with the best. Of course, it’s impossible to compare the best of anything if your attitude is that it’s all terrible. At least Sturgeon had enough grace to allow a 10% margin on quality.
I won’t be so audacious as to suggest which YA works might be able to go up against the big, recognized names of “Literature,” mostly because it doesn’t matter — a near cousin of the false choice is the false dilemma. Even if the best work of YA literature, whatever it may be, doesn’t quite reach Shakespearean standards, that doesn’t mean it lacks complexity or that adults should be embarrassed to read it. Complexities abound in YA literature, and missing them says more about the reader than it does the book.
Which brings me to my next point.
The boundary of literary criticism
Literary criticism is — ahem — the criticism of literature. However, literary critics seem curiously prone to criticizing things beyond the boundaries of literature. For example, if you call a book (or an entire subset of books) unliterary, then by your own definition you are not engaging in literary criticism. Furthermore, if you criticize readers rather than books, you have escaped the province of literary criticism and ventured into the larger realm of social criticism.
It’s unclear to me exactly what type of criticism Graham thinks she is doing. Given that her article posted in Slate’s Book Review section, it would seem to imply that she is doing literary criticism. However, she spends an awful lot of time in her article focusing on what she expects from people, rather than from books. A lot of people took offense to that, and Graham doesn’t seem to understand why. In the NPR interview, she said,
[T]here’s this whole other strain of criticism that boils down to, ‘How dare you tell me what to read.’ I guess I find that a little bit troubling. You know, the job of criticism is to make a distinction between good things and bad things, and between complicated things and simplistic things.
I can’t quite tell if Graham is being willfully obtuse here or if she truly believes that it’s “troubling” to criticize her criticism (what’s that saying about geese, ganders, and what’s respectively good for each?). Graham does identify some books (or authors) as good and bad, complicated and simplistic. However, she also includes statements like the following:
- “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”
- “These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.”
- “But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?”
These are not comments about books, but about their readers. If Graham is identifying what is good and bad, she is saying that people are good and bad because of the books they read and the reactions they have to those books. Not surprisingly, such statements are alienating.
I would contrast Graham’s comments about readers with those of C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. In the opening chapter, Lewis categorizes readers as “literary” and “unliterary,” based not on the books they read but on their general approach to reading. “If the few [‘literary’ readers] have ‘good taste,’ then we may have to say that no such thing as ‘bad taste’ exists: for the inclination which the many [‘unliterary’ readers] have to their sort of reading is not the same thing and, if the word were univocally used, it would not be called taste at all.” This is to say that, in Lewis’ view, it’s pointless to call out most people for not reading “Literature,” because when they read, they are not engaging in a literary pursuit. This is neither an insult to any reader nor a debasement of their maturity, but a recognition that people have different objectives with respect to books.
Graham, however, wants all adults to be “literary” readers. She seems unable to conceive of a more complex world in which people have divergent desires with respect to books. And since those people aren’t embarrassed enough for her liking, she attempts to shame them. This sort of criticism is definitely not literary — nor is it particularly useful or effective.
How the story ends
In a YA story, according to Graham’s view, the obdurate critic would have a liminal experience that causes her heart to soften and helps her rediscover her own childlike passion for reading “simple” stories, while still enjoying the more complex novels she has learned to appreciate. Think Pixar’s Ratatouille with books instead of food.
However, in this complex world, where most people tend to entrench themselves in their positions without truly analyzing why they might possibly be wrong, I suspect that we’re not inclined to get any satisfactory ending. I’m not so sure that makes for a better story, even if it’s a truer one.
As I said above, everything new is old (including that adage). Even if Graham does somehow shift her thinking, someone else will make the same argument in a few months. The circle keeps spinning.