Don’t tell me what to read.

funny-Jack-Nicholson-careRuth Graham over at Slate thinks it’s shameful that adults are reading fiction aimed at kids:

Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books.

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

I have two words for Ms. Graham: Fuck you.

I don’t read a lot of fiction because — and this is something I’ve said many times in the past — I’m very picky about what I read and I have the bad habit of judging books by their covers. The vast majority of my personal library is composed of non-fiction books, usually of a scientific bent. There are, however, authors whose books I will buy without even asking what they’re about simply because I’ve enjoyed their work in the past. Some of them are “young adult” authors such as J.K. Rowling. I don’t care if they’re not aimed at my demographic, I only care if I’m entertained by them. It’s the same reason I often go see “kids movies” like How To Train Your Dragon or Toy Story or Kung Fu Panda even though my own kid is now 23 years old.

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.

Again, fuck you. Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve never completely grown up, but I’m of the opinion that if someone is enjoying what they’re reading then we should probably be happy they’re reading at all. My wife reads all manner of vampire and werewolf stories from authors I’ve never heard of that to me all look like the same story over and over again, but she’s happy reading them. Meanwhile, I tend to buy every book Neil Gaiman puts out regardless of whether it’s aimed at kids, young adults, or adults. I don’t understand the popularity of shows like American Idol, but I’m not going to begrudge someone’s enjoyment of it. Especially when I occasionally tune in to watch a kid’s show like Adventure Time.

I’m a huge fan of Mark Twain, but I’ve never read any of his classic stories. I have read a lot of his essays and talks and magazine articles. I’m a fan of his in spite of not having read the things he’s most famous for. The other night I realized I had a book containing a collection of his stories that included Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I have no idea where I got it, probably a gift from someone who knows I’m a Mark Twain fan, but there it was and for the first time I opened it up and starting reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Interestingly enough, in the preface to the story Mark Twain had this to say:

Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.

I wonder what Ms. Graham would have to say about that? Tom Sawyer is considered a literary classic and yet Twain says he aimed it at children. Should I be embarrassed to be reading it now that I’m 46 years old? I know some who might argue I should be embarrassed that I’m haven’t read it sooner.

Perhaps I’m not very sophisticated about the entertainment I consume. If so, then so be it. I often dismiss “serious” movies because they don’t have enough explosions for me to spend the money to see them in theaters. I generally don’t give a shit which ones win “Best Movie” at the Oscars because it’s often stuff that bores me to tears. I don’t pay attention to the New York Time’s Best Seller lists. And my musical tastes are often off-kilter to what’s popular.

I’m not ashamed by any of that. I don’t see why others should be about what they’re into. And anyone who thinks I, or anyone else, is worthy of being looked down on because I’m not into the same shit they are can go fuck themselves.

12 comments

  1. I too read what I want – not what others think I should want.
    I read some stuff that was geared for much younger people and thoroughly enjoyed it – the Artemis fowl (foul?) series. Written by Eoin Colfer? (going from memory here).
    IT was a hoot. And far more entertaining than the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift or Tom Corbett.

    Have read & thoroughly enjoyed – Black Company (Glen Clark) Raymond Feist’s Rift wars sagas, and the Under-dark series by R. A. Salvatore. Greats reads – Great fun.

    I’ve even read and enjoyed 2 series that later on I discovered were written by women (oh the horror) Lol !!

  2. And The Hunger Games. My favorite book was written by a kids Sci-Fi author, though you will find it in the literature section of the Library: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” by Robert Hinelein. Interesting history note: the Manson family thought they were following the philosophy of that book, though they CLEARLY didn’t understand it.

  3. Heh. I once had someone look askance at me for reading a YA graphic novel in a library. I looked down my nose right back at them and intoned the magic words “I, madam, am a librarian.”

  4. I’m surprised at the vehemence of your response, Les. Ms. Graham’s article was thoughtfully written. She didn’t say “fuck you for being too dimwitted to read adult stories instead of those written for and about children”. But your response is “fuck you for suggesting that I might want to, as an adult, occasionally read stories with an adult point of view”. So, why did her suggestion make you so angry? I mean, you could have just read the article and dismissed it: but you chose to write this response. So I’m thinking it must have triggered some emotional chord.
    For the record: I tried reading the Harry Potter books. And found them childish. Same with the Twilight books. Too simplistic. Do I begrudge others their enjoyment of these books? No. But I do wish that they might try something a bit more demanding. Something like “Crow Lake” or “The Other Side of the Bridge”. Or “After You’d Gone” or “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”. But I’m not going to say “Fuck you if you don’t like what I read”.

  5. Susan, I suppose it did strike a nerve. I grew up back when being a nerd or geek wasn’t cool and I took a lot of shit for liking things like Sci-Fi and Dungeons & Dragons. It took me a long time to get to a point where I stopped giving a shit about what others thought about the things I liked. These days it almost seems to be in fashion to be a geek so when I see someone like Ms. Graham shoveling the same shit I used to have to deal with it annoys me to no end. I’ve tried her “serious” literature and I find it boring and a waste of time. She can keep her tut-tutting to herself.

  6. I honestly don’t get why it is any of anyone’s concern what I read, what movies or TV shows I watch or what I do with my time, so long as its legal. I don’t understand the mindset of people who have to go around and criticize what others do with their free time. If you don’t like young adult books, don’t read them. Likewise, I don’t have any interest in Ms. Graham’s column, therefore, I won’t bother.

  7. I was SO infuriated by that Slate article. However, I found the responses to it to be really boring. Just pages and pages of people saying how much they enjoyed YA and giving examples of YA they liked.

    So somehow the responses failed to address whatever it was that offended me. Thinking about it, I think the thing is that I was not offended that the writer criticized YA fiction. I like hearing why people like or dislike particular types of books. I especially like it when people talk about types of books I like because then I can compare what they say with my own experience.
    My ego isn’t so fragile that I will be devastated to hear people mock SF or mysteries or romances. I can accept the justice of the criticisms and continue to like the books. I don’t think other people have to like exactly what I like.

    I think my reason for being angry was solely that ” adults should be embarrassed” line. Was ” ashamed” thrown in there too?

    Preventing people from reading YA by making them feel social opprobrium is terrible. If you have an argument against YA, then give that argument and people will decide if they accept it. Trying to exploit people’s fear of having other’s mock them is not a good way of arguing.

    I have an image of a crowd of happy people reading books and having a good time, and then people like this article writer coming in like an evil wave of poison and explaining to the readers how wrong they are to be enjoying themselves.

    If the writer had just stuck with ( I paraphrase) “all the enthusiasm these days seems to be for YA and I wish people were reading more complex books instead” than I would have been much happier. What difference spdoes she see between YA and more complex books, I would wonder? Is it really true that people used to prefer high quality books given that complaints against book quality seem to go back as far back as books have been published? Does liking a book with immature themes really mean that the reader wants to be immature? I mean, I like romances but they portray relationships that are nothing whatsoever like what I would want or expect in real life. I like The Lord of the Rings but I certainly don’t believe that good and evil is as black and white as in those books.

    However, instead the writer chose to start off with the very provocative statement ” adults should be embarrassed” and so made me too angry to listen to anything else she said.

  8. How could the writer not know how many people have been scarred by, say, high school experiences of being mocked for not fitting in with the cool kids? How could she prod at that sore spot and not expect people to react emotionally? Do you think she was trolling? If she was, then it worked, she got a reaction, but I am disgusted with her as a human being.

  9. I’d already read this, and Susan’s response, and Les’s reply to Susan’s response, and at the time I’d figured I didn’t have anything more to add. But it popped up again as I was checking Les’s latest, and as it turns out, on further consideration…I kinda do.

    Honestly, Susan, I’m a bit surprised at your surprise – but as you seem to have inadvertently struck the exact same nerve that Ruth Graham did, that seems to suggest a good reason for your take on this (and your surprise at the, to me, pretty justified and expected reactions).

    See – and without meaning any specific offense to you – I find your list of “must-reads” to be tediously, mind-numbingly boring. You look upon those who read Harry Potter (full disclosure: read it, started falling off the train about halfway through the series, no longer a real fan) or Twilight (full disclosure: never read it, would never want to from what I’ve seen) as not reading “demanding” (your word) literature. Whereas I look at people who would turn their noses up at Jonathan Lethem or Neil Gaiman (or any of countless excellent “fantasy-sci-fi-myth-magic” writers) as simply not intelligent enough to grasp truly demanding written works…you know, ones where the sum total of actual knowledge you come away with isn’t limited to (but may certainly include) the romantic, platonic, or sexual relationships between ploddingly mundane (or troperiffically Mary Sued) characters.

    Does this mean I’m right, you’re wrong? Nope. Does it mean you’re wrong, I’m right? Nope. Neither are we both right, nor both wrong. What you’ve stumbled into there is a kind of completely obvious bit of the human condition: preference. You find YA stuff “simplistic” and “childish” – I can (and most certainly do, in fact!) say the same thing about works by authors like Mary Lawson and Helen Simonson, which would bore me to sleep if I could stand them long enough to get drowsy. (I’m not sure what the other title you’ve intended to reference is – probably “After You’ve Gone,” either the Alice Adams one or the Joan Lingard one – but I’d hazard a guess my reaction would still be about the same.) Tellingly, I also say the same about some YA works, while I don’t feel that way about other YA works. What could this possibly mean? (Frightfully overdramatic sarcasm meant for humorous purposes, not to pick on you, I promise!)

    It means that the words you’ve used, like “simplistic” and “childish” and “demanding,” are fully subjective when it comes to literature…but by implying that certain works are or are not “demanding” (i.e., worthy of praise and/or offering deep cultural or personal significance), you’re making the exact same mistake that Ruth Graham did, and painting an entire section of bookshelves with a very broad, very dismissive, very subjective, and very unjustified brush. In short: them’s fightin’ words, Susan! Don’t be surprised when people come back swingin’.

    I enjoy the books I like. I don’t enjoy the ones I don’t. There’s a broad spectrum in there, though like anybody, I have my leanings (which is to say, away from blatant “sweeping romance” stuff or the standard Dan Brown or John Grisham drivel – though I tend not to mind Grisham’s movie adaptations, which boil off his lackluster prose leaving just the plot and popcorn-worthy machinations behind). Someone telling me to try more “demanding” literature like…

    “I came for the newspaper money. The paper boy is sick,” said Mrs. Ali, drawing up her short frame to its greatest height and assuming a brisk tone, so different from the low, accented roundness of her voice when they discussed the texture and perfume of the teas she blended specially for him.

    …makes me want to throw the collected works of Tim Powers at them and watch their lips move as they try to sound out the bigger words. A totally jerk move (and a totally jerk thing to say!) on my part…but can you see how you’re essentially doing the same thing?

    So don’t be surprised by the reactions. A huge demographic has just been told: “The stuff you read is useless, easy twaddle.” As I mentioned, I’d probably say the same thing about your preferred reading materials…but that doesn’t mean I’m right. It just means I’m not into it.

    Two other quick things – first: as a writer and novelist myself, I abhor categorization and the whole concept of “genre.” It’s almost solely a marketing device, but somewhere along the line, the end-users (readers) forgot that. That’s why I’m perfectly happy to read something that Oprah merrily regurgitates if it’s any good, but my knee-jerk reaction is that I probably won’t like it (if an irritating bubble-head like Oprah’s hawking it).

    Second, a true anecdote I know of which shows how maddeningly unfair, counterproductive, and prevalent this sort of thing is: years ago, in a required group therapy session, one very quiet, detached individual was asked (as the psychiatrist went about the room to each member of the group) what the latest thing they read was. When this person started mentioning works of science fiction, the (older, female) psychiatrist said: “No, I meant real books.” Guess how often the detached group member participated after that? And this was an educated, trained psychiatrist? That was quite poorly and pathetically handled on her part. Let’s all try to do better than she did. (And hope she’s retired by now.)

  10. When I was in my mid 40s, I started a project to track down and re-read as many as possible of the books (and movies/tv) that had shaped my “me”. I focussed on those from when I was 11 to 18. It proved a really interesting exercise. Some were crap, some were as good as I remembered, and some had suble philisophical asides I’d completely missed as a a teenager.

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