Snooty Snobs Should Shut Up

Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

The more I thought about that, the more pissed-off I got so I had to do this post to refute it.

The largest group of buyers in that survey—accounting for a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

Gee, Graham, you know who else you’re surrounded by?

Adults who read the comic strips in newspapers!

Was Peanuts not to your taste? Shoe? Calvin & Hobbes? The Far Side? Bloom County? What about Doonesbury? Or Dilbert? Would you have been embarrassed to look at anything other than an editorial cartoon? Or would you seek out only those by the esteemed Oliphant so you’d feel sufficiently “adult”?

You’re also surrounded by people who still read comic books!

Ever try Batman: Year One? Or Watchmen? Or how about Maus? Would Maus have enough gravitas to pass your Snoot Test even though — my god! — it has drawings in it. Of animals playing the parts of people! Maybe you’d give Maus a pass because of Animal Farm? Or is Animal Farm now considered YA since it’s generally assigned reading in schools to, you know, young adults? It’s so hard to keep track these days of what’s “YA.”

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls “realistic fiction.” These are the books, like The Fault in Our Stars, that are about real teens doing real things, and that rise and fall not only on the strength of their stories but, theoretically, on the quality of their writing. These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

Oh look at you, up on your self-appointed throne, passing our indulgences and blessing certain books and types of stories like some Book Pope.

What self-aggrandizing egocentric hubris!

A better writer than you — or I and many other people — will ever be, had this to say about “serious literature” and “literary fiction” of the kind your type goes all soft and delirious over:

Interviewer: When did you decide to become a writer? When your teacher said that you were good?

Writer: Uh-huh. I forgot all about that. I decided to become a writer when I started reading the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s — two magazines with supposedly good writing. The New Yorker too. I would read these short stories they’d publish and they were absolutely nothing. They said nothing, they did nothing, they . . .

Interviewer: John Updike.

Writer: Yes, I include him. And they were terrible, they just bored me. There was no life to them, and yet, these people were getting famous writing these stories, and I thought, I know their secret: They try to write about nothing at all, in the most boring way possible. No, I really felt that. I said, this must be some kind of snob inner circle secret. I must write something very boring that says nothing at all for pages and pages, and say it so boring that everybody gets bored. Then you think, this is really good writing, because I’m so bored, and nothing is said. So I tried the other way, I tried to say: A guy comes home from work, his wife screams at him, and he murders her. Like, a factory worker. They didn’t want that. So . . .

Interviewer: They? Who are they?

Writer: The editors. I don’t know, I guess I became a writer, not so much because I thought I could be a writer, but because all the known writers that were famous seemed to me to be so very bad. But for me to just stop and let them take over with their dull badness seemed to be an atrocity. So I started typing, trying to say it the way I thought it should be said –what was happening, but in a simple way.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

My god! Who would dare say such a thing?

You’ll find out later.

In the meantime, Graham, it’s your type who are driving people away — far, far away — from books.

Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern “literary” best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read — Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn’t have a recent prize jury’s seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I’ll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose — “furious dabs of tulips stuttering,” say, or “in the dark before the day yet was” — and I’m hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

And:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction” — at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most “genre” novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

And:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid; no one of Oprah’s intelligence ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence. This didn’t stop the talk-show host from quoting her friend’s words with approval. In similar fashion, an amateur reviewer on Amazon.com admitted to having had trouble with Guterson’s short stories: “The fault is largely mine. I had been reading so many escape novels that I wasn’t in shape to contend with stories full of real thought written in challenging style.”

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers don’t make sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren’t worthy of them.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

Now the reveals.

The writer in the interview was Charles Bukowski.

I can see your haughty sneer from waaaay over here, Graham.

Now to wipe it off your smug face.

The long passages I quoted above are from The Atlantic magazine. Is that more to your standard? Are the intellectual chops of B.R. Myers sufficiently “adult-like” for you? (If you can’t think of any answer, you’ll probably Google and find this: The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers which, I warn you now, contains this sentence: “To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum.” — maybe because it can’t be. So don’t even.)

I don’t flatter myself that this obscure blog that has lately become a meeting place for those interested in inexpensive Chinese tablets will ever pass before the sanctimonious eyes of Ruth Graham. God forbid! She might need eye surgery (further up and back and under the bone is where repair would perhaps more fruitfully be attempted but ECT has come a long way since the old days so there’s always that first). But I had to have my damn say about this.

Read whatever the hell you like. Read whatever the hell interests you.

Leave the prissy Ruth Grahams of the world to their sentences of “strangled ways.”

They fully deserve that pretentious shit that will never have the longevity of Dickens or, my god!, the fictional father of all genres: Sherlock Holmes.

20 Comments on Snooty Snobs Should Shut Up

  1. “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    —C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (PDF)

    • And from elsewhere in the same essay:

      “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

  2. By definition, whatever the “cultural elite” say about literature is true. They freely admit that it is THEY who decide what is “great” literature and what is not (this is why the category can change over the years). The only thing wrong with this is the word “great”. It would be best if it was replaced by, say, academic, or some other term meaning “chosen by a small clique of people”.
    But if you really want to annoy the “cultural elite” then start talking about Science Fiction books. Mention Margaret Atwood’s Science Fiction novel The Handmaid’s tale, or George Orwell’s 1984, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stress that these are typical, traditional Science Fiction stories and watch as they become red in the face trying to deny it. I even read somewhere recently that they are trying to call Jules Verna and H G Wells non-Science Fiction writers!
    Even better, just ignore their recommendations and read something worth reading instead.

  3. Graham’s opinion is only as valid as others let her think it is. “Read whatever you want,” she says, and then implies, “I won’t judge you — but of course you’re beneath my contempt and you know how important whatever *I* say is to *your* future well being…” Me, I’ve never heard of her before this, so her opinion is only worth what I paid for it, i.e., nothing. If she pays me to consider her opinion, I might (I can use the money), but she shouldn’t expect her ego to be stroked for anything under, say, $1 million… 😉

  4. Wow, that’s quite a rant. I hope the author feels better now. I read what I like and I don’t get exercised about other people’s judgements. I enjoy the classics, literary fiction, some bestsellers, some YA, and some children’s picture books.

  5. Let me quote my favourite writer:
    “In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.”
    ? Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

    I personally have learned to run away from anything that is called “Great Literature”. Last time I thought that a Pulitzer winner must be a good book I was suckered into reading “The Road”.

  6. Nate, I strongly suspect the writer of this blog was trolling for hits, and you are helping him or her out. I for one am not clicking through. In fact, I hope this article was a troll job, otherwise it reflects poorly on a very sad person.

  7. Sturmund Drang // 7 June, 2014 at 6:14 pm // Reply

    I’ve read everything Dickens, Tolstoy, Twain & Hemingway wrote. I love Conrad, Anne Bronte, and Alexandre Dumas. I’m currently reading Thomas a Kempis, St Augustine, and Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. Yes, the last is a YA novel. What I won’t be reading is Slate. And I’m not embarrassed.

  8. I have enjoyed reading the Hunger Games trilogy and cried as I read The Fault in Our Stars. One should read what one likes.

  9. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter what you read. It matters that you read. I really dislike elitist attitudes like this. This is why most kids don’t like to read. Someone makes fun of what they are interested in.

  10. Amen, brother. Amen.

  11. My opinion on adults reading YA is close to what I thought about Disco way back when. I didn’t like and very much but enjoyed poking fun at people who listened to it. Maybe that makes me a cad, but it was long ago and it’s hard to get worked up about it now. Besides, Disco has more or less fallen to the wayside as will the fad of adults reading YA. As the great poet once said, the women come and go talking of Michelangelo. Only they’re it’s Miley Cyrus nowadays. Tomorrow someone else. The big reading fad from the 80s was Tom Clancy and his knockoffs. He fell from on high and hadn’t been top dog in decades before he died.

    I personally find YA fiction jejune and can wait out the fad. Adult fiction is still being published and nobody has a knife to my throat making me read it.

    • The Lord of the Rings was written for young adults. If adults have been regularly reading YA fiction since the 1950’s I don’t think you can call it a fad.

    • A lot of what people call “literature” today was written as YA when new.

      Also, your use of the word “jejune” comes across as quite snoody. You could’ve used “simplistic” or stuck with some non-arcane word choice, but nooo, you had to get all sesquipedalian on us.

      Seriously though, it’s not a fad, and a lot of people are turning to YA precisely because what the “cultural elite” is calling “literary” is just plain boring. Or, it’s so existential or eclectically constructed that it’s borderline nonsensical. YA is typically full of straightforward, tight, and clear prose. The good novels still have plenty of depth, and are often profound.

      There’s also a propensity to mislabel something as YA because of the age of the protagonist. There are plenty of books out there that weren’t intended to have a YA classification (like Harry Potter or Eragon) that ended up with it anyway because of the protagonists.

      Books you probably forgot were “YA”
      – To Kill a Mockingbird
      – Tom Sawyer
      – The Secret Garden
      – Jane Austen’s books

      Maybe if we gave the label a new name, you’d approve? Perhaps you just don’t want anyone to think that you are anything but a hyper-intelligent master of the written word?

      Well, my BA in English and Master’s and writing say this: there’s a lot of very good YA out there, and there’s a lot of really awful crap. The same can be said about ANY classification of writing, “literature” included. Find what you like to read, and read it, but don’t downplay other people’s tastes just because you feel that they are “jejune.” Also, if you’re going to break out your thesaurus just to bash YA writing, you should probably try reading some of the good stuff before passing judgment. Try The Hobbit, Ender’s Game, or Harry Potter (with an open mind), then get back to us.

      Good day, sir.

  12. Awesome rant! But I don’t read that article in Slate as an attack. I read it as something more akin to “if you never move beyond YA, you’ll never know what you’re missing.” There is a lot of great fiction out there and life is short.

    In one of the quoted passages you provide, Somerset Maugham is mentioned. Of Human Bondage would never be seen as YA. It deals with complex relationships that an adult can understand, but tweens and teens would have difficulty fully understanding. And there are plenty of YA novels that understand the tween and teen mindset, and write to that romanticized view of life in a way that an adult won’t fully appreciate.

    Ruth Graham’s point is that novels written for adults may be more meaningful to adults than YA, and adults that don’t read past YA should see what they’re missing. It’s not about snobbery, and it’s not a bad message. But of course the title of the article is atrocious!

    And the point about comic books: there are great comic books out there. But there is also great short stories, novels, and poetry. It’s really the same point. Be open minded and try new things.

    Now adults should not be embarrassed to read YA! I really think that if that title was anything else and some of the wording was more diplomatic, that Slate article would be better received.

  13. Woah…sounds like the Slate article touched a nerve there. While the title is pure clickbait and Graham makes a few ridiculous statements, I mostly agree with DavidW interpretation of the article, i.e., “if you never move beyond YA, you’ll never know what you’re missing.”

    Btw, if you really want to lose your head, you should read your competition’s take on YA: http://goodereader.com/blog/commentary/the-real-reasons-why-adults-read-ya-fiction. Honestly, I can’t make up my mind as to if he is serious or just trolling.

    • I refuse to click on the link but I can tell you with near certainty that he is just a troll doing what trolls do.

  14. I’m only a humble computer programer, but “jejune” can be found, off the top of my head, Proust (in translation) and David Foster Wallace. Is it otiose (see novels Anita Brookner) to use a vocabulary above the 8th grade level in today’s society? Probably so. But obstinance should be a virtue in this case.

    As for the “good” YA recommended: been there, done that.

    The Hobbit: read in junior high school and thought is was OK; attempted to reread in middle age and set it aside unfinished.

    Ender’s Game: good but not great science fiction; preferred Speaker for the Dead.

    Harry Potter: read the first four for a book group and thought the first a cute story, less so the next three with increasing disappointment. For whatever reason I attempted the fifth on my own but decided the GOOD little boy wizard fighting the machinations of the wicked, bad, naughty, EVIL wizard was just like the stuff on the ground in a horse pasture.

    The thing is, I don’t read for entertainment only, but to nourish the starving mind, and YA isn’t nutritious to fulfill the need. If simple stories were enough, I would be satisfied with watching movies.

    Typos courtesy of thumbs on small iPhone screen.

    • I was mostly being snarky about the language. Honestly, I agree with you, and we shouldn’t dumb down speech (in most cases) for the edification of others.

      That being said, the books I’ve mentioned were game changers:

      With The Hobbit (and the subsequent LoTR), Tolkien practically invented modern fantasy stories (including movies), which is a literary achievement.

      Ender’s Game is pretty great in my opinion, but I actually agree with you about Speaker for the Dead. I also like Xenocide, but neither of those were really YA.

      Even if you don’t like the story behind Harry Potter, the writing is actually bloody brilliant, and if you analyze the prose, you’ll find a lot of very thought provoking things in it (especially over the span of the series). For example, Rowling gradually changed the voice of each novel based on Harry’s age. She did it subtly, so that it’s actually pretty hard to tell unless you skip a few books or really concentrate on it.

      I, too, read for more than just entertainment, but I would posit that reading with any kind of regularity, no matter what you’re consuming, actually has inherent intellectual benefit. I also think that assuming all YA is bad is unnecessarily closing one’s mind off to possibly great material. That’s the point I was trying to make, really. Sure, a lot of the big names (I’m looking at you Divergent) might not exactly be great, but I can say that about books from any classification or genre.

      For example, I would argue any day, with any who want to listen, that Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” was a terrible book. 🙂

      Kudos, by the way, for the rational, non-troll-like response!

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