Book Girls vs. Shame on you for liking YA lit

If you read these two articles, you’ll hear something that shouldn’t surprise you. Young people like books and they might not be the same books older people like. But the two articles also have (different) somewhat troubling baseline premises: One article (Holmes) champions young readers (girls not boys) as the next best thing in civilization, and the other (Graham) shames grownups for reading books written for the not-yet-mature-minds of young adults.

What I want to know is why do we have to have this conversation at all — as if there were better books and worse books for one group or another? Pop culture is pop culture, whether it’s a book or a song — and it can be well written or badly written. “Literature” can also be badly written, manifestly hated by many readers, and is very often targeted to a particular group (don’t get me started). I would argue that a writer can get into trouble if he or she (1) writes badly from hubris or laziness; or (2) tries to pass of his or her work as something it’s not. Readers, however, can’t ever be in trouble if they are reading. They’re reading! That safe, sacred place.

Frankly, I think it’s okay for adults to read young adult (YA) books. And for Holmes to suggest that it’s not implies that Young Adults shouldn’t (sometimes) (try to) read at a level “above” the books targeted to them — but that would be just stupid. Raise your hand if read Shakespeare or Jane Eyre as a teenager. Raise your hand if you like trashy/fun/relaxing summer or beach reading once in a while — take a break from your high-brow stuff and let yourself read for no good reason (except that safe/sacred place). If you’re the kind of person who wants Emily Dickinson or James Joyce, you’ll go back. (I might object if a high school literature class started teaching YA books without placing them in a broader literary context, but we’re not talking curriculum here. Don’t get me started.)

And, please don’t call my daughter or niece a book girl. If Ms. Holmes’ intent is to suggest that the newest generation of readers is more willing to feel things more sincerely or talk more honestly about life because of the books they read, and that their desire for books that are in harmony with those qualities is fueling the appearance of better books, all because those readers are girls and not boys, well, I’d like to see the data. I’d say “book human” might be a better way to describe discriminating readers, honest feelers and deep thinkers.

Who Are the Book Girls (npr.org) The Muscle-Flexing, Mind-Blowing Book Girls Will Inherit The Earth. By Linda Holmes.

“They are readers, and in this particular case, they are girls and women. In fact, one of the sadder things about observing the Book Girls in action is realizing that they – walking from author signing to author signing in happy gaggles, toting friends and sometimes parents – are having their voracious reading habits and their devotion to the importance of talking about your feelings socially reinforced in a way that one fears may be far less common for boys with similar impulses. (Learning that it’s okay to talk about your feelings is an important theme for many of the heroines in the books they love.) There are boys and men and older women who love many of the books that the Book Girls do, but it is the Book Girls who scream at authors the way people screamed at the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”

Against YA (Slate.com) Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children. By

“Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. 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. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this. I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”

The image is Portrait Of The Artist’s Daughter, Alethea Garstin by Norman Garstin.

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