Let's All Just Read More Great Books, YA Or Not

Today The Fault in Our Stars, based on a bestselling book by John Green, will debut in theatres across America. No cultural phenomenon can go unpunished by the good folks at Slate. So we get a piece with the thesis, "Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."

Sigh.

The argument Ruth Graham makes is either muddled or obvious. First, the confusion: it's indicated by the fact that in sentence two of the piece she declares that The Fault in Our Stars isn't "bad" but goes on to remark, "If I'm being honest, it also left me saying 'Oh, brother' out loud more than once." She's welcome to the latter opinion (I happen to like the book but reasonable people disagree), but it's not the same as the former one.

Matters are made worse when she seems to position her personal taste as obviously being based in objective standard. Graham says she's only really focused on condemning "realistic" YA fiction like Green's or like Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park. She makes some idiosyncratic and largely unelaborated attempts to critique them. But the point she hits over and over again is the intended audience of the books, which she seems to believe is what makes them bad. All of her analysis of particular books is devoted to making them sound juvenile.

The problem with dismissing things as "juvenile" is that "for the young" is only a stable category when used as a marketing technique. It isn't particularly original to observe that lots of "children's books" clearly have higher aims. They operate on several planes of maturity. The Narnia Chronicles are a good example of that; so are Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books. Those books tend to reach out to other texts like the Bible and Paradise Lost; reading them as adults reveals hidden meaning. And so, as many adults have come to understand, those books are not "just for kids" even though any marketer would position them that way.

Another problem is that what seems to count as "maturity" in Graham's world is an uncertain ending:

YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

I'll leave aside the totally empirical question (and totally uninterrogated assumption by Graham) of any alleged lack of "emotional and moral ambiguity" in YA fiction, other than to say that Graham should have read Sherman Alexie on the subject of "Why The Best Kids Books Are Written In Blood."

But the idea that there should be no emotional or moral resolution in adult fiction is a fairly controversial assertion! Particularly given that later in the essay we read that Graham is an admirer of Dickens, a man renowned for having written many books whose bitterness was nonetheless laced with sentimentality, and well-resolved endings.

The Dickens thing leads somewhere else, too: sentimentalism is not totally unknown in great literature. There's a lot in Wharton that qualifies as melodrama. There's a lot in Jonathan Franzen that does, too. There are very few literary writers who don't anchor their work in some kind of sentiment, and very few readers who don't respond to it.

You can argue, as Graham does, that what appears in these YA books is a debased, too-literal form of that. But I don't think of books as easily sectioned-off as she makes it out. The Fault in Our Stars, for example, is laced with references to David Foster Wallace, and particularly to his Kenyon commencement speech. And Wallace's work often swung back and forth between raw emotion and high literary artifice, neither really surviving without the other, in my own reading of him. There's a continuum there, not a rupture between completely, utterly irreconcilable kinds of books.

And after all, pretty much everyone, in my experience, reads mostly to console themselves. That consolation takes different forms for different people: escapism, challenge, learning, self-indulgence. I don't believe all books are equally "good," or even believe that quality is a totally subjective question. But there are so many other pieces of the quality calculus than "age of intended audience" worth exploring.

Granted, it's a lot easier to skip straight through that complicated stuff to repeat without reasoning, "great books are written for adults." Which is a pity, because all Graham really wants, when you boil it down, is for people to read good books rather than bad ones:

Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long.

Snip out "for adults" and you have an inarguable statement. But then it raises the question of why she made this about "books for children" or "YA" at all.

[Image via Shutterstock.]