On Ruth Graham’s Slate Article About YA Fiction

Just a few things to say about this article.

1. It’s one thing to say readers miss something when they confine themselves to reading YA and quite another to say adults who read YA should be embarrassed. The author makes the former point in the second half of her article, but leads with the latter point. So which is it?

2. Graham claims that most YA novels “consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.” She writes this immediately after citing Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars as books that made her roll her eyes. Without posting any spoilers, I can only point out that neither of these books have unambiguous or simple endings, and that if they do indulge in a sentimentality representative of the extreme emotions teenagers often feel, these indulgences occur as counterpoints to some very “adult” situations.

3. Graham also critiques the YA genre by claiming that “[Adult readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Says who? No one says you have to read a YA novel and get no more out of it than an average thirteen year old would. She mentions Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game as having been a book she enjoyed when she was young, then says she has no desire to read it again now that she’s older. However, if she did read that wickedly funny, smart, and observant book now, I’m betting she’d pick up on about a million small things even a highly intelligent teen reader would be apt to miss, and even if such a reader did note such details, he/she would lack the experience needed to fully understand them.

4. So in that case, what is YA, anyway? Graham differentiates between the likes of Twilight, which is considered to be weak literature by and large, and the likes of Eleanor and Park, which was published to near-universal acclaim. Graham is correct to note that there are different kinds of YA, but she doesn’t go far enough. Different kinds of books are often marketed as YA simply because they feature teenage protagonists. To declare that adults should find YA “embarrassing” to read is to declare that readers, instead of making their own critical judgments about books, should simply dismiss many excellent novels out of hand simply because a publisher decided that this was how to best make money on a book.

These are my reactions off the top of my head, but at the very least, I think I can definitely say that Graham’s argument is at best unclear. She does make the point that we lose something by restricting our reading entirely to YA, and on that point I agree, though for YA, you could substitute nearly any other genre.

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9 thoughts on “On Ruth Graham’s Slate Article About YA Fiction

  1. Reblogged this on Spines & Covers and commented:
    Wow, guys. I truly believe the article was posted for publicity. Thought I’d share with you guys since it has been “trending” today, although I am late to the game. What do you think?

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  2. Reblogged this on Spines & Covers and commented:
    Wow, guys. I truly believe the article was posted for publicity. Thought I’d share with you guys since it has been “trending” today, although I am late to the game. What do you think?

    Like

  3. Great post and inciteful comments. I totally agree with you about adult readers getting things that (most) you readers do not. Adult readers if my work frequently pick up on the more subtle aspects woven into the story. And my adult readers read my work for teens because they want a good story. Times are tough for many people and they look to media (of any kind) to be entertained; to escape for a while. And what’s wrong with that? Much of today’s adult “literary” fiction is frankly boring, self-indulgent dribble, uninteresting to most readers. The author of this article strikes me as someone who has sour grapes.
    A writer friend of mine recently said to me, “I can see why your books sell. You write what people want to read.” (She was contrasting me with an acquaintance of ours who has had a tough go selling her “literary” fiction.)
    And there it is. YA authors are creating stories people want to read. We writers should be happy for any writer’s success and be joyful that people are still reading at all (with so much competition from other media).
    Sorry for the rant :-)

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    • Thanks! While I love literary fiction and believe wholeheartedly in its importance, I think shooting down YA, or in fact drawing such an impassable line between it and literary fiction does readers a disservice. No one has to love YA. But if you don’t see the value in it, it doesn’t follow that there is nothing valuable about it.

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  4. I agree with you almost entirely in principle, but I will say, I get where she’s coming from even when talking about, say, Eleanor & Park, a book I really enjoyed.

    Granted, my YA experience level is probably closer to Graham’s than to yours, so I’m certainly not an expert. But as much as I loved reading E&P, as much as I stayed up until 2AM finishing it when I had work the next morning, I do see limitations that come up when you really have teenagers in mind as your audience. Maybe this is something I Imagine when someone is writing a very good book from a teenager’s perspective because, as you note, some YA books could certainly “pass” as “normal” novels. But somewhat paradoxically, I tend to think those who are writing really strong YA will probably be somewhat conscious of it (rather than just letting someone slap that label on their book for marketing purposes — though I’m sure this has happened with good books too), and it’s that consciousness that I feel like I can sense, reading those books, and why reading a lot of them feels to me like eating a LOT of chocolate. It’s delicious and can be extremely well-crafted, but there’s a taste (in this case, the “writing for this demographic” taste) that I don’t always want in my mouth. It might just be a style thing, too: I certainly admire clean and unfussy prose, but I’d love to see something written “for” teenagers that actually challenges them (or anyone) on a style or language level (and I’m sure those must be out there, but I do tend to read some of the most buzzed-about/beloved/critically-acclaimed YA books, as those are the ones that I’m most likely to hear about from my more expert friends and such)

    A lot of the best YA books I’ve read are great at evoking feelings and telling a story, which are not small things, at ALL. But I do think adults focusing on reading YA will tend to prize that above anything else (just as I feel like a lot of TV shows prize story above filmmaking technique). As is their right. But it does make me sympathetic to the idea that it’s… a bit much.

    This doesn’t make them embarrassment-worthy, though; I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed of anything they read (well, short of things that anyone reading them is unlikely to feel embarrassed by — Ann Coulter books or whatever).

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    • The problem I mainly have with Graham’s article is that her article has so many holes it seems almost calculated, to the point where I have an evil urge to pretend to agree just to join in the fun of pissing off so many people. Heh. If her main argument is, in fact, that most novels written for adults are more challenging and offer proportionately more rewards than most YA novels, then I agree with her. But I don’t think she goes about making this point very well. She first alienates her supposed target audience and then tries to bolster her argument by citing two books she seemingly hasn’t read very well and some others she hasn’t read in a long time.

      I also relate to what you’re saying about getting the sense that what you’re reading wasn’t written for you when reading YA. I sometimes feel that way myself, although many other times I’m surprised by characterizations or plot points or tone that seem almost too sophisticated for the average teen. And then still other times I’m impressed by the frank treatment of some topics (abuse, sexuality, mental illness), that, while sometimes not as nuanced as in non-YA-books, can be surprisingly forceful exactly because they’re so matter-of-fact.

      But it’s true that few YA books present any complexity of language or style. I don’t know what a book specifically intended to challenge teens would look like, because as you implicitly point out, those books that may already exist are either dismissed as being YA or else not even classified as YA. Watership Down comes to mind. It’s YA fantasy depending on who you ask because the main characters are rabbits, but I’m not alone in feeling that it transcends that label.

      Anyway, I don’t think even teens should restrict themselves to reading only YA. I would be sad to see anyone of moderate literacy never challenge herself in her reading by getting outside her comfort zone. In fact, as you’re aware from having studied film and from being a highly literate person yourself, you get more out of *everything* when you challenge yourself intellectually on a regular basis. To use Graham’s examples, reading Wharton and Dickens of course helps me differentiate between their level of writing and most YA, but it also give me the insight to see what is valuable about YA and to know better than to ever be embarrassed by it.

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  5. Pingback: Ruth Graham, Not Quite Wrong: Why Liking YA Literature Doesn't Make It Great |

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