The YA Readers Doth Protest Too Much

slate-ya-articleLet 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: JezebelThe 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 f*ing cause.

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.

Gun Crimes Have One Common Factor, and It’s In the Name

Here are some things that other developed nations have:

    • people with untreated mental illnesses
    • social stigmas against seeking help for depression, alienation, etc.
    • violent video games
    • violent movies
    • public spaces where people, by law, may not carry guns

Here are some things that no other developed nations have:

    • virtually unrestricted access to all kinds of firearms
    • our insanely high rates of gun killings (by an order of magnitude or two)

It’s not actually that complex.

Freedom-Loving Comic Artists Sure Do Miss That CCA

Even for The Wall Street Journal, this was a weird op-ed: two comic book artists complaining about how moral relativism and political correctness have ruined the comics industry, and lamenting the loss of the industry’s long-standing, draconian, and much-reviled self-censorship guidelines.

In “How Liberalism Became Kryptonite for Superman” (yes, really), Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche bemoan the sad state of affairs brought about by shocking comic book storylines like Superman renouncing his American citizenship. As they put it,

…today’s young comic-book readers are being ill-served by a medium that often presents heroes as morally compromised or no different from the criminals they battle. With the rise of moral relativism, ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ have lost their meaning.

comics-code-authority-cca-sealThey then promptly go on to bemoan the weakening and eventual abandonment of the Comics Code Authority, the infamous self-censorship guidelines that kept American comic books from depicting anything but simplistic, black-and-white, good-versus-evil storylines for the latter half of the 20th century.

Among other things, the CCA banned presenting “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” required that “crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal,” and outlawed any mention of “sex perversions” or “illicit sex relations,” which yes of course included homosexuality and did you even have to ask?

Basically everyone who works in comics today recognizes that this was a terrible idea, except apparently for Messrs. Dixon and Rivoche, who seem entirely sincere in complaining that

The 1990s brought a change. The industry weakened and eventually threw out the CCA, and editors began to resist hiring conservative artists. One of us, Chuck, expressed the opinion that a frank story line about AIDS was not right for comics marketed to children. His editors rejected the idea and asked him to apologize to colleagues for even expressing it.

This seems like as good a moment as any to pause and point out that Chuck Dixon’s big claims to fame are helping to create Bane, the psychotic supervillain who cripples Batman by snapping his spine over one knee, and a lengthy stretch of work on The Punisher, a comic about a brutal, gun-toting vigilante who uses torture, kidnapping, and murder a-plenty in his one-man war on crime.

But those guys never talk about AIDS, so, you know. All cool.

It’s the impassioned cri de couer at the end of the op-ed that really makes you ears ring with cognitive dissonance, though:

We hope conservatives, free-marketeers and, yes, free-speech liberals will join us. It’s time to take back comics.

Yes. Because nothing says “free speech” and “free markets” like a return to industry-imposed censorship of creative content. Those were the good old days, when men were men, women were cheesecake, and enough critical thinking skills to maintain basic ideological consistency throughout a half-page op-ed were apparently not needed to get a job in the comics industry.


I overshare my happiness. I undershare my sadness.


I overshare my rage with structural and systemic injustices, and undershare my anger at wrongs done to my person specifically.


I overshare my food and my drink and my hospitality. I will overshare yours, too.


I overshare the fact that I think you are pretty, and that I would be delighted to make out and/or go to bed with you (although usually not until I have had some beer for courage), and I wish that you would do the same. I undershare the amazing extent to which said making out and going to bed is smiled upon by all current participants in my romantic and sexual life, but only because it seems rude to talk about them when I am with you.


I will probably overshare “the deets” with said participants, but purely from a mental and physical health standpoint.


I overshare on digital spaces that feel like they are mine: my blog, my own Facebook feed; my writing. I undershare on all other social media.


I think you should do the same. Especially re: Facebook.


I overshare about anything pretty willingly, but only if you ask me directly. I undershare when I’m making my half of the conversation up as I go along.


I overshare about things I have read recently that I thought were interesting. This is not to show off; it is because I cannot carry all the interesting things I have read recently around with me all the time to give to you when it seems relevant. I would be happy to clip an article or e-mail you a link if you would rather read the full text and form your own opinions.


I overshare clippings and links, too. This seems to be embedded on the paternal gene.


I undershare the degree to which I worry that you have not contacted me recently because you are angry with me, or have decided you do not like me for some reason, rather than because there has been no real reason to contact me and you have other things to do with your time. Or I did until now.


I overshare my business cards. Why not? FedEx sells them in lots of like 250, and I don’t meet that many new people.


I overshare love.


I undershare love.


But I am, on the whole and when you come down to it, generally in favor of more sharing rather than less.

What about you?

People Who Do Stuff are the Peoplest People (A Reunion-Inspired Ramble on Self-Betterment)

College reunion! That magical moment when those battered and bruised by real life can crawl briefly back to the sheltered academe, where the most stressful decision is whether to go to the 2:30 lecture or just lie on the grass in the sun and make out with someone cute for the next hour.


A time for seeing old friends and meeting new ones, drinking like you’re 18 and getting hangovers like you’re not, testing whether the dorm beds can still hold an intensely active two or even three or more (they can), and finding out whether you can ride a mattress down a flight of stairs standing up without hurting yourself (you can’t).

The re-creation of our college days was pretty faithful, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.

Reunion is also a time for everyone to polish their “what I’m doing now” speech until it gleams. You spend a lot of time repeating the basic catch-up schtick, in greater or lesser circles of people who thank god they’re wearing those dorky nametags because you remember them as “dude who was super quiet and dorky in class but then always ended up right at the center of the loudest and craziest dance parties” or “girl who was always crossing the train tracks heading west when I was coming back east from my history seminar that one semester,” and what the hell were their real names again?

So having heard an awful lot of those thirty second life-summaries and the conversations that followed them, I have come to a fairly obvious conclusion, no less true for its simplicity: if you do stuff, you are a better person to be around.

grinnell-college-honor-gBy “do stuff” I mean get out in the world and interact. With the world, with people; whatever. Having things that take up your time and that aren’t specifically designed as entertainment (TV shows, games, whatever) is really fucking good for you.

This was observable from the conversations. It wasn’t just an issue of having more things to say words about; it was that the people who spent a lot of time on the road or engaged in their community or whatever were better at saying words. There was more give and take. Conversation flowed more naturally.

Grinnellians being, by and large, a go-out-and-do-stuff bunch (I felt woefully under-travelled by the end of Reunion), that meant that nearly all of the catching-up conversation circles were great. They were lively, fun, and very equitable, with lots of genuine interest in what people were doing, mostly because what people were doing was awesome.

I have had other conversations with other social circles that make a noticeable contrast. People who do not go out and do things, and who mostly interact via products designed specifically for entertainment, are much more prone to lapsing into silence or forgetting to offer the basic conversational prompts that keep things moving along.

Go out and do something.

Seriously. Whatever you want, but make it a thing, for its own sake, and get into it.

Hike a bigass trail somewhere. Go to Burning Man, or a foreign country, or a meditative retreat, or anything/where that’s not a business trip. Volunteer with a non-profit. Work a political campaign (no, just kidding; that was an utterly shitty experience in my brief brush with it, but at least it was a thing!). Join an improv group. Play rec-league sports. Whatever.

Because the corollary to my observations this last weekend is that it doesn’t seem to matter too much what you do. If you’re out doing a thing, you’ll come back from it ready and able to engage with other human beings.

And if you’re not out doing thing, you’re kind of not ready. So maybe work on that.

Housekeeping: MA101 on the Road

MA101 is on the road!

Mostly US-151, as it happens. I’m headed down to Iowa for my college reunion.

There will be posts while I’m down there, potentially even about classes, since the college is good enough to run cute little “Alumni College” seminars for those of us that haven’t held a spiral notebook in far too long.

The most visible effect for readers will be a delay in comments appearing. (I’m back to approving them individually for the time being, since we talked about violence against women this week and any post with the “misogyny” tag automatically gets you an influx of dudebros screaming about whores, cunts, and fags, which I’ve been efficiently filing in the “Trash” section as fast as they come.) I’ll try to go through and approve everyone’s at least once a day, but no promises.

Other than that, content will limp along at its usual semi-regular pace, possibly punctuated with endearingly Iowan sights.


“Not an Enemy” Isn’t the Same Thing as “an Ally”

It’s amazing just how much friendly advice social justice advocates can get about keeping the people unaffected by a given injustice happy.

Mention any sort of structural inequality in the status quo on your social network of choice, and you’ll see more than you ever asked for:

“Don’t offend your potential allies.”

“Just because people have privilege doesn’t mean their needs aren’t important too.”

“It’s hard to be part of a movement that insults you just for existing.”

We’ve all heard ‘em. (Well, I use the term “we” loosely. Some of you have said them, rather than hearing them.)

Here’s the thing about “allies,” though: Allies are part of a fight.

They’re involved. They’re active. They’re potentially at risk themselves. That’s why we use a word with some weighty, military associations. (Which I’m unfond of, peacenik pacifist that I am these days, but there you are.)

If you are a straight person who is cool with gay relationships, that’s great! If you are white and don’t consciously think that non-whites are inferior, good job! If you’re a male who’s never threatened a woman with sexual violence, keep up the good work! You are all successfully maintaining a minimum level of “Decent Human Being.”


Here, have a cookie.

But you know what?

That’s all those things get you. They get you “not deliberately causing new problems.” They get you “not an enemy.”

They don’t get you “ally.”

And that’s fine. It’s a free country. No one is obligated to speak out, to organize, to vote, to volunteer, or to do anything else for the benefit of people that aren’t them.

You can walk past the collapsed building. You can drive by the wreck. You can hear screams and not look out window. People make those choices every day, and you know what? They’ve got their own shit going on. Maybe there are good reasons they didn’t get involved. Maybe there aren’t, and that’s still their choice.

But don’t expect anyone to think you’re a hero just because you heard the screams, or saw the wreck, or walked by the building, and didn’t do anything to make it worse.

You are not an “ally” if your main contribution is doing no conscious evil.

And again, that’s fine. You don’t have to be an ally. But don’t get huffy when it seems like a movement you’re not involved in doesn’t take your needs and feelings into account.

No one owes you a thank-you for not exercising your “being a dick” potential to its maximum. That’s between you and your basic self-respect.

The structural injustices you’re sick and tired of hearing about will not be changed by passive not-enemies. They will be changed by active, aggressive challengers attacking the status quo in direct and meaningful ways.

If that ain’t your struggle, fine. Move aside. But don’t whine about feeling excluded, because that was your choice.

You can pick up a shovel and join the trenches any time you decide it’s worth your while.

And then you’ll be an “ally.”


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