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27 September 2014 @ 09:46 pm
another one of those "why are grownups reading YA books????" concern pieces  
Only slightly related thoughts about literary enjoyment:

- Yesterday, one of my students remarked after class that although she could see that Hemingway was really good at what he was doing, and there was a lot to uncover about his writing, she still hadn't found a way to like him. I have not yet found a way to like Hemingway, either, but I think I would have said the same thing to her even if I had: that it's okay not to like things, because if we didn't like some things and dislike others, we wouldn't have taste. And that as long as she was taking the material seriously and not just dismissing it without thinking about it, then she was doing all I could ask from her as a student. I think this made her feel better, although perhaps she really wanted an actual way to like Hemingway instead.

- Maybe it's because I'm suffering from stuffy cold-brain right now, but I can't seem to make sense of this piece in the New Yorker by Christopher Beha about reading Henry James and (not) reading YA:
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/henry-james-great-ya-debate

Beha writes at the very end: "Putting down 'Harry Potter' for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child."

The one thing I genuinely never understand about these silly debates is the idea that reading is some sort of zero-sum game. By Beha's terms, I am a person who doesn't exist in the universe: if I have read Harry Potter as an adult, then I cannot also be a person who has read Henry James for fun. Now, admittedly I haven't gone through his collected works like Beha has, and I'm still waiting for my brain to work well enough to be able to deal with later-Jamesian syntax (seriously, what was anyone even talking about in those first fifty pages of The Ambassadors that I read while studying for the generals?), but I liked "In the Cage" and "The Aspern Papers" and The Europeans, and I've got a copy of What Maisie Knew waiting for me (though it has been waiting for a couple of years; my book purchases are often more ambitious than the amount of free time I have, and James is not a quick read). But the fact that I sometimes - even often - read books with teenage protagonists and magic in them has not prevented me from also spending some of my reading time on other things. Strange, huh? It's almost like what someone is reading at the moment you see him or her doesn't actually tell you anything about that person except what he or she happens to be reading at that moment.

Then there's this bit:
the [YA] label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange. If someone told you that he was an American-history buff and that his favorite work of American history was “Johnny Tremain,” you might not think this a cause for embarrassment but you would probably suspect that he didn’t know as much about history as he thought he did, and you would wonder why his interest in the subject had not led him to adult treatments of it. In some sense, you might even think he was missing out, that the simplified treatments of history that we give to children are not just less true but less interesting because of their lack of complexity.


Well, no: actually I'd just wonder why this person doesn't understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. But mostly, [citation needed]. Seriously, can you find me one of these YA books that so greatly simplifies life? Or are you just talking about a bunch of books you haven't in fact read? And let's say you do find a book that simplifies life - like The Goldfinch, apparently, which Beha mentions in his piece because of that review that said it was basically a YA novel or whatever - does that mean that it's simplified because it's for teens? The fact that The Goldfinch can be criticized as simplified means that books for adults can be simplified too. In fact, it looks to me like a simplified book is a sign of a bad book, not an inherent quality belonging to YA novels exclusively. In order to make this comparison work, both Beha and John Wood (the original reviewer) have to set up a syllogism that relies on an unproven assertion:
a) The Goldfinch presents a simplified view of the world.
b) Young adult novels present simplified views of the world.
c) Therefore, The Goldfinch is basically a YA novel.

But neither Wood nor Beha actually proves the second part of the syllogism - they just take it for granted, because YA novels are for teens, right? They're obviously simplified; how could they not be? I feel like this argument is being had more and more often because a small handful of YA novels have gotten splashy, successful big-screen treatments, so we're probably going to keep seeing it with more frequency, but I always find it curious that the argument always seems to be about whether or not it's okay to read these "lesser" forms of entertainment, without the suggestion that maybe a lot of really talented writers are working in YA because the genre (if you can even call it that, really) is more flexible and lets you get away with more than the traditional literary fiction genre?

There's sort of a companion piece on the Tor blog (or at least a companion to another NYT piece that seems to have inspired Beha's) about what this "lack of adulthood" looks like in the SF world (look at all these grownups collecting Pokemon!), but this line really stood out to me: "adults are seeing fewer and fewer compelling reasons why they should live out their lives consuming media only produced for adults" (emphasis in original).

(piece here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/09/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture-nerd-culture-edition )

That's what strikes me, most of all: if good, compelling stories are being told in YA fiction, by writers who care about their craft (I don't understand the assumption that YA writers don't, just because they don't write prose like Henry James. Newsflash: nobody writes prose like Henry James. And plenty of qualified, all-dues-paid-up adults really hate his prose), why should I not read those stories? What is an actual good reason that I shouldn't? And why do columnists seem so concerned about what other people are going to get a chance to read, anyway? Because if I actually want to make time to read the works of Henry James, all the YA fiction in the world won't stop me from doing it - and if I don't, then taking away all the YA fiction and giving me a house full of James isn't going to make a dent in my desire not to.

tl;dr. Basically, I am still waiting for one of these pieces to boil down to something other than, "But whyyyyyy are you guys having so much fuuuuuuuuuuun?" or "But whyyyyyyy aren't you guys more like meeeeeee?" Christopher Beha, I'm happy that you seem to have found so much fun reading all of Henry James, but that is not actually a mark of adulthood. That just means you like Henry James.
 
 
 
the cold genius: i haven't got time to read this crapangevin2 on September 28th, 2014 03:13 am (UTC)
People like that clearly need to read this passage from C.S. Lewis (I have a lot of issues with C.S. Lewis but I like this):

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn't grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.
tempestsarekind: a sort of fairytaletempestsarekind on September 28th, 2014 05:12 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! It doesn't make sense to say that you have to give things up as an adult, just because you're an adult. There are all sorts of things we stop liking or grow out of, for all sorts of reasons, but the idea that we have to set things that we still love aside, simply because we're "too old" for them, is silly. And it's kind of amazing to me that critics are still doing this, year after year after year.
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tempestsarekind: ofelia readingtempestsarekind on September 28th, 2014 05:06 pm (UTC)
Well, part of the problem is that you say "YA" to people and they immediately think of dystopia, which is just a small (albeit highly visible) corner of what's going on in YA. But what I've written about YA could probably apply to any genre that isn't literary fiction, and in past decades, critics have been just as confused about why people are reading those books instead of focusing their attention on the so-called "grownup" pleasures of the 20th-century literary novel. If you wanted to read about Girls Who Do Things (as Robin McKinley put it in her Newbery acceptance speech), your best bet was always some other genre: first romance, now YA as well. Likewise, if you wanted to write something where the world was different, your home turf wasn't going to be the literary novel, which was (and I think is, although at least now we get the occasional historical or speculative novel that the critics have to grudgingly accept as good) wedded to a very specific and narrow view of what an acceptable story is. If you wanted to write a story, in which one of the pleasures is finding out what happens, literary fiction was right out: critics are still opposing the "readability" of genre novels against the…whatever of literary fiction. (Style, I suppose, although the articles are always less than clear about why readability is so childish and why we should give it up in favor of something more "mature" but totally undefined.)

Then, too, I think writing for a teenage (or genre) audience allows a different kind of storytelling: one that focuses on growth and change rather than on ennui and stagnation. This is a vastly unfair simplification, of course - but at the same time, I can't tell you the number of times I've picked up a "literary" novel in a bookstore that looked interesting, only to reach the end of the blurb and find out that it was another one of those books about middle-class infidelity and people's lives falling apart. Of course, one of my theories about genre is that it all boils down to Comedy vs. Tragedy in the end: even YA dystopias tend to be about the hope that the characters can change things for the better, but the world of literary fiction seems to save its highest praise for the "reality" of despair. (There are always exceptions, of course: this is why I love Barbara Kingsolver so much. But I've had a hard time finding another author I like as much.)

Finally…this is more about the reading community than about the books, but the YA world lets its passionate love for books be visible (this is definitely also the case with the speculative community as well). I can certainly understand that if you grew up with your mainstream reading experience having been defined by the excited love people had for Harry Potter, you would be a lot less willing to "grow up" and move into a world where it looks like the best you can hope for is detached enjoyment of what you're reading. I have hopes for things like the Reblog Book Club on Tumblr taking that energy and making it a part of people's reading experiences as a whole, in any genre - but that's definitely not the spirit reflected in all of these chiding articles in Salon and the New Yorker and the New York Times.

So I guess I don't think that writing in YA is completely, qualitatively different from writing in any other non-literary genre, but it just happens to be the latest thing that literary critics are racing to tell people they should feel bad about reading, because of course those things couldn't actually be any good; it's just about the dumbing-down of our culture. A couple of years ago, people were writing equally puzzled articles about speculative fiction:
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/how-zombies-and-superheroes-conquered-highbrow-fiction/246847/

(I actually found this article again by Googling "whiz-bang readability," which was such a ridiculous thing to say about, you know, books, that you read, that I still remembered it.)
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tempestsarekind: ten is a bookwormtempestsarekind on October 21st, 2014 09:14 pm (UTC)
Well, thanks! I got a bit carried away. :)

You're so right about 19th-century novels; so many of those writers thought that you could be Serious and Moral and also have a Plot; that you could write beautiful prose and also be readable… I just can't understand the way that the critical community behaves as though those things don't belong together - or are surprised when they happen in the same place.

I guess the difficult thing, for me, in choosing fantasy novels, is that it's very easy to see the tropes: wizards and magic and warring kingdoms… I suspect that there's just as much derivative "literary" fiction, but it doesn't seem quite as obviously derivative because it's drawing on the familiar real world.

I probably don't read as much fantasy as I would like to: it's actually my favorite genre, and it's what I would want to write if I wrote things: I grew up imprinting on fairy tales and folk tales like "Tam Lin" and "The Snow Queen" and "The Crane Wife," and being in love with quirky time-slip novels like Charlotte Sometimes and Madeleine L'Engle's books. But I just bounce, hard, off of things like Game of Thrones and dystopia; it can be hard to find things that I think I'll enjoy. So I get a lot of recommendations from the list of Mythopoeic Award winners:
http://www.mythsoc.org/awards/

(My favorite book of all the books, Peter S. Beagle's Tamsin, won in 2000.)

The Reblog Book Club is the "official book club of Tumblr":
http://reblogbookclub.tumblr.com

They seem to have a lot of fun, and it's gotten a decent amount of press.
Neaneadods on September 28th, 2014 10:00 pm (UTC)
Well, this takes me back. In college, one of my professors, when complaining about youth these days, snapped "You can't like rock and classical music. It's like saying you can like Shakespeare and comic books!"

I didn't have the heart to tell him.
tempestsarekind: facepalmtempestsarekind on September 28th, 2014 10:10 pm (UTC)
It's like saying you can like Shakespeare and comic books

…I…am just going to repeat this to myself helplessly for a while.

But yes, it's that same incomprehensible impulse - and I have to wonder, what are these guys so afraid of, except that they will stop getting credit for being special enough to love the works of Henry James (or whoever), if the culture stops genuflecting at those particular shrines exclusively?
Neaneadods on September 28th, 2014 11:41 pm (UTC)
…I…am just going to repeat this to myself helplessly for a while.

Yeah. All the words are English, but they don't quite line up into a coherent sentence, do they?

I think you're right about the fear.