Ruth Graham (to Put it Politely) is Completely Full of ...It

Here's Why: An Appreciation of "Young Adult" Lit


While I hesitate to encourage the clicks, this article is a direct response to Ruth Graham's anti-YA screed on Slate (rhymes with "hate bait").  To sum up, she believes that adults should be ashamed of reading books that are "written for teenagers" enough that she took to a high-profile internet forum in the effort to shame them.  Now, I don't really have to prove that ALL Young Adult lit is appropriate of ALL adults, because that's not the point I'm making.  Graham, however, DID go to some pretty foolish extremes in her discounting of everything under the YA sobriquet, as relates to adults in general.

I have read all kinds of books, all by myself and by my own motivation in my adult life.  I have, on occasion, tried to catch up on the "classics" omitted by my education.  I've read genre fiction.  I've read biographical non-fiction.  I've read the kind of contemporary adult fiction that people who feel it's their place to tell other people what they should be reading tell other people they should read.  And after a couple decades and change of reading those things, I've settled into a fairly comfortable and regular relationship with that which we call (despite its poor definition) "Young Adult" lit.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state up-front that I am a writer and illustrator currently trying to carve out a sustainable career in the field of children's books and YA lit.  The reasons it appeals to me as a writer are much the same as the reasons it appeals to me as a reader, but where necessary, I will attempt to distinguish which of these factors informs a given perspective.

The first and biggest fault in Ms. Graham's logic should make many of the rest irrelevant, but those others will be addressed primarily in the interest of praising something I love (on the internet!  Can you believe it?)  Graham's core premise is that YA books are "written for teens."  This means that she either knows, or is assuming she knows the precise thoughts and intentions of every author working in the field.  Since she neither offers evidence of that knowledge, nor even acknowledges the extent of her presumption, we have to conclude that she is simply deciding what all of these other authors were thinking while they were creating their works.  The classification of "Young Adult" is a marketing distinction, not an authorial one.  As a simple matter of fact, Ruth Graham has no idea for whom any given book was written, much less ALL of them.

Speaking specifically for myself, I can tell you that I am constantly aware that I am writing for a larger audience than the "12 to 17 year olds" that she presumes.  I put things in there that only an adult will fully understand, but represent issues that teens and even 20-somethings will grapple with from their less expanded perspectives.  I take into consideration the thought that it will be read by mothers and daughters, or initially by a child and then later by the man that he becomes.  I can't speak for the rest of my profession in the same way that Graham feels comfortable doing, but I would bet that I'm not the first writer to take this into consideration.

So on this point alone, I have a hard time taking the rest of her suppositions very seriously, other than as a serious offense to sensibility.  But as long as I have a good head of steam up, let's continue.

She pretends to play fair by excluding "trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight" but then goes on to mock a single line of corn pone prose in Eleanor & Park.  E&P may not have supernatural elements in it, but it's still romance, and prone to the tendencies of romance.  While I don't believe that it's acceptable to shame people for enjoying YA lit (a broad catchall for a full range of genres), I do believe there is a case to be made against romance fiction as a conduit for unhealthy acculturation of monolithic gender roles -- not that that does or does not apply to E&P, which I have not read.  As such, I'm neither going to defend nor deride Eleanor & Park beyond saying that romance does tend to be self-indulgent.  It does bring out some pretty cliche feelings in us, even as complex adult human beings in the real live world.  And it does often make us feel like goofy teenagers all over again.  It frankly makes a lot more sense to read about teens going through all of that than a lot of romance for grown women.  Library section notwithstanding, E&P comes off as a much more mature consideration of romance than, say, 50 Shades of Grey.  That's actually a fairer comparison than Graham makes at any point during her piece.

When Graham talks about "you," what she's really saying is "me."  Consider:

"I will say that my own life as a YA reader way back in the early 1990s was hardly wanting for either satisfaction or sophistication. Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I have no urge to go back and re-read them, but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader."

"I have no urge."  "I am a different reader" therefore you are not unless you're different the same way I am.  Really, Ruth?  I'm a very different reader than I was too, and yet my own path allows me not to care about things like "should" and "supposed to" and other people's arbitrary sense of shame.  I'd be more ashamed of telling people how they should be living their lives.  This is the logic of the opponents of marriage equality.  "It's not for me, therefore it's not for you."

"I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying 'Oh, brother' out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?'"

I can absolutely guarantee you that no one cares how YOU reacted to the book as much as you clearly care how everyone else reacted to it, Ruth.  Your reaction to the book is irrelevant, but it's your reaction to everyone else's reactions that make you anything BUT a grown-up.  This is an important realization that is dawning upon me as I re-read your words.  YOU are afraid of what people think of YOU.  YOU are desperate to validate YOUR adulthood and as such, feel obligated to cloak yourself in joylessness and an unearned authority to judge those who either haven't attained your position of lofty superiority, or those like myself, who have simply grown PAST you.  I don't feel the need to define myself by what I like, or even more pathetic, to allow others to define me by it.

Graham goes on to quantify readers who read for enjoyment as less than.  Adulthood is complicated and joyless, hence our literature must be as well.  Or MAYBE adults have experienced that complexity in their own lives and crave a well-crafted story that makes a little more sense by the last page.  Or MAYBE you're assuming an awful lot about how YA books end, because I seem to recall that, despite his accomplishments, Harry Potter ended with both hope and sorrow, much like real life "victories."  Prices were paid, lives were lost, not all misdeeds were punished, and that series is targeted much younger than many under the YA umbrella.

Or, for example...
Harry Potter leads me to a much bigger point which is less a defense against Graham's ineffectual jousting, and more a praise of YA in general.  This is a concept that I find best explained through film by comparing the films of Pixar with those made by almost any other studio, but I notice it most with Dreamworks, and it reaches its most exemplary form in the Shrek movies.  What makes, say, Toy Story so different from Shrek?  They both attempt to appeal to "all ages" but they do it in very different ways.  Toy Story and the other Pixar films tell stories that tap into universal themes and issues that almost anyone can relate to.  They are given depth through character development and the comedy is born out of situations and behaviors that reveal and challenge them.  Shrek and its ilk use story as a vehicle for setting up gags.  It's separated into the parts that are meant to appeal to kids (read: dumb kids) and the gaggy in-jokes that are meant to merely make the "dragged along" experience palatable for adults (read: dumb adults).

What the Pixar films do so well is what good YA lit does well.  They may deal in large themes (and that's not a negative.  A lot of us LIKE large themes.  Large themes are interesting!) but they mine them deeply for essential experiences and considerations.  Look, I read (for example) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen because I was supposed to, and you know what?  FUCK The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  It wasn't about anything but a narrowly defined sense of being lost in one's own adulthood, and frankly, I've got that one covered in ways that I can relate to much more personally.  The more narrowly defined our oh-so-elevated adult fiction becomes, the less it speaks to all of us.  You want to talk about "not weeping" over The Fault in Our Stars?  Those authors smiled upon by the New York Times Book Review leave me (and a great many grown-ups who don't feel the thrill of academic masturbation) totally cold, but that doesn't mean I'm going to scold Ruth Graham and Oprah Winfrey for having such restrained tastes.

Pssh, "kid stuff"
I'm only going to make one more point about this lest it devolve into a rant.  The "reading for pleasure" derision, I'm going to skip altogether because it's a weightless punch.  That point applies to two particular books; Great Expectations, and Catcher in the Rye.  In her article, Graham lists Dickens as an acceptable author for mature adults.  Let's all pause for a moment and consider when, where and at what age most Americans read Dickens...  That's right, in high school.  And why do we still read Dickens in high school in this day and age?  We're told, because of the universal themes.  Me, I'm pretty sure it's just because abuse tends to perpetuate from one generation to the next.  Another book people often read in high school is Catcher in the Rye.  Both are considered classics of English language literature.  Both are about young people (see also: Hamlet, etc.)  These are what we're supposed to be reading, per Graham.  And yet she casts her scorn upon books about young people because they are books for young people.  One could almost reach the impression that she was merely flailing out from a fairly limited personal perspective without really giving a full consideration of what she was saying.  Perhaps the art of the essay isn't the same thing as the scientific method, and a seemingly well-structured debate isn't the same thing as a fact.

Okay, I have time for one more book.  Now that I think about it, I really should have just opened with it and dropped the mic.  That book is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation by MT Anderson.  Books, actually.  Book one is subtitled The Pox Party and book two is The Kingdom on the Waves.  They tell the story of a slave before and during the American War for Independence and they are high among the best things I have ever read in my life..  They also happen to be shelved in Young Adult fiction.  They're "Young Adult" the same way that, say, Roots and Red Badge of Courage are "young adult."  Yes, there are young people IN the books, and yes, young people can get a lot OUT of the books, but that doesn't mean that they're FOR young people alone, or that their effectiveness is diminished when being read by less-young adults.  If anything, it's increased, and the ending is far from tidy.


As, sadly, the ending of this public display of ignorance is sure to be for Ruth Graham.  She done messed around in that there briar patch and come up with her hands full of tar.  Here's hoping that she learns the moral of her own story since she missed the message of so many books for young people, "Live and let live, because nobody likes a judgmental asshole."

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