Let me start with a bit of irony for you all: almost every time an article about reading and literature goes viral on the internet, the lede references a book that’s been recently made into a movie.
Roll that one around in your heads for a minute before we dive into Slate’s recent critique of YA literature and the adults who read it, and the furor it sparked.
We can make a compelling case for America’s staggering illiteracy without ever touching on the nebulous concept of “young adult,” is all I’m sayin’ here. But touch on it Slate did, and was there ever a backlash! If you want to read essays vehemently defending not only the right of adults to read whatever they want (which no one ever disputed) but also the inherent nobility of adults who read YA literature, help yourself: Jezebel, The Atlantic, Bustle; pick your poison.
This strikes me as overreaction.
The arguments boil down into one of two camps:
1. Reading is fun, and people should read whatever they think is fun to read.
2. YA books can be challenging, significant works of literature.
If you believe #1, you’re done here. Given the premise that reading is fundamentally a leisure activity, and that the pleasure it brings is the best measure of a book’s value, then of course YA literature is just as valuable as anything else, so long as the reader enjoys it. Slate‘s concerns about the superficiality of the themes and attitudes in YA books don’t matter, because you’re not reading to think about themes. You’re reading to have fun.
The problem is with #2. Once you feel the need to defend YA literature as not just entertainment but as a tool for intellectual challenge, you’re inherently accepting the premise that literature derives value from more than just the entertainment it provides. And that’s a test most YA books — and most books in general, for that matter — fail.
The vast majority of YA books are crap for making you think about the world in deep or significant ways. They just are.
Sure, there are exceptions. But we’re talking about books for teens, here. If serious emotional or intellectual complexity makes it in there, it’s because an editor wasn’t paying attention, not because that’s what publishers think teens want.
That one really moving YA book by an up-and-coming author that made you think in ways you never thought before (and that you’re going to mention in the comments) isn’t what pieces like Slate‘s are talking about, and you know it. They’re talking about the hundreds of other books on the YA shelf that are treacly, simplistic crap, and you can’t pretend those books aren’t there, in vast quantities.
It’s not a cause, and you don’t need a button.
Now, if we’re being fair, we shouldn’t give adult fiction a pass here, either. There’s no real superiority of a Tom Clancy thriller to Twilight in terms of emotional complexity or intellectual challenge, beyond requiring a little more familiarity with the structures of adult life. And mindless entertainment makes up the bulk of adult book sales, too.
The difference is mostly that publishers can and do publish challenging fiction for adults, while they actively shy away from doing so under the YA label. So if you’re one of the few people who really is looking for something intellectually stimulating in your reading, you’re much more likely to have success outside the YA shelves.
And if you’re not looking for intellectual stimulation, why do you care if someone else thinks your summer reading isn’t intellectual enough? That’s not what you’re reading for! Their arguments do not apply to you! Go about your life in peace!
Life’s too short to worry that someone else thinks you’re not getting enough out of your reading. But if you’re worried that you might not be getting enough out of your reading…then yeah, it’s time to move beyond the YA shelves, and don’t shoot the messengers for saying it.