The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ashamed of reading YA? The fault lies not in our stars but in our stores.

And now they’re in theaters, too! (James Bridges/20th Century Fox)
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Ah, the arbitrary divisions of the bookstore.

Now it’s “Young Adult” and “Serious Fiction for Older Adults” and “Romance” and “Science Fiction.” In Dickens’s day, “Books About Winsome Orphans” and “Books About Prostitutes With Hearts of Gold” stood where “Teen Paranormal Romance” and “YA But Specifically YA About Finding Yourself” (a category I actually saw at a Barnes & Noble recently) stand today. I’m sure they evoked about equal measures of sneering. (Dickens was especially gifted and managed to get his book stocked on both shelves, guaranteeing that “Oliver Twist” would be a platinum-level bestseller.)

The complaint that the people around you are not reading what you think they should be reading is almost as old as reading itself. Possibly it is older. “WHY ARE THEY STARING INTO THESE MANUSCRIPTS?” someone no doubt fumed. “Isn’t an ORAL tale told by a bard the way tales are meant to be told, with all that rich nonverbal nuance that comes with a bard, appealing enough for these shallow fools?”

But time passed and there we were. Every generation brings its new set of unforgivable stylistic offenses and apparent malfunctions of taste.

“Hwaet,” the contemporaries of Unknown Anglo Saxon Poet Behind “Beowulf,” said, “if we have to see any more authors of Somebody’s Arm Gets Torn Off In A Mead-Hall Narratives being wuldres wealdend, we are going to — rip some guy’s arm off. Dislike.”

The Greek and Latin classics fell out of use as people sought out stories in their own vernaculars. “Stories you don’t have to translate out of a language no one speaks aloud any longer?” their schoolmasters asked, in alarm. “These easy reads will rot the minds of the kids.”

“Alle my Contemporaryes are reading Ye workes of Shakespeare and while Hee hathe indeed a certaine waye about Himme, Hee who readeth himme recketh no rede. Whye notte a goode Epic Poeme or no Phrase of Virgil? Hee hathe not livved who hathe not redde ‘Ye Aeneid,’ ” people griped in 1601.

Of course, the balkanization of the bookstore has not helped matters. Young Adult Paranormal Romance has seceded from regular Young Adult and formed its own peninsula, with a trading relationship set up with Young Adult Nonfiction and Self-Help. Do you dare venture into genre fiction? What about poetry? Which is “The Faerie Queene“? It’s a poem, but it’s also a fantasy romance. But no, it’s over in Classics.

And now, Ruth Graham, at Slate, has suggested that those adults who read YA “should feel embarrassed.”

Possibly. But then again, possibly not. At the Atlantic Wire, writer Jen Doll notes that, “One thing Y.A. is not is a genre; it’s a category, as with adult literature, containing all sorts of types of writing, from fiction to nonfiction.” Still, it is marketed to teens and generally written about teens. And it tends to be — heaven forfend — enjoyable. Maybe it’s a problem that so many people are reading enjoyable books about teenagers that offer “satisfying” endings. Maybe it’s an instant-gratification thing. If we’re only going to read books for and about teenagers, we’ll get to keep only half of Shakespeare, and not anyone’s favorite half. Or maybe it’s darker and more sinister. A.O. Scott said the problem was the “cultural devaluation of maturity.” (Maybe we all read Young Adult literature at age 47 because we still want to think of ourselves as Young Adults!) Maybe there’s another question, one that also touches on gender in publishing — what gets a book about one teenager coming of age shunted into the YA case and another hailed as Serious Literature? Why hang such significance on this particular border-line in the (former) Borders?

Still, most of these complaints, if you are not careful, boil down to “I am, at the moment, lonely in my reading.”

I am sympathetic to the underlying point: There are so many great books out there, and you will eventually die, and you have to parcel your time. One of the most depressing things I ever read was by Linda Holmes saying it was impossible to actually get through every book you wanted to in the course of your life. That had been the assumption under which I was living, and I had to spend several weeks secluded in a dark room, keening loudly and rethinking my life. The point is, you don’t actually have unlimited time! Be sure to save room for “Swann’s Way“!

This doesn’t necessarily mean Don’t Read Young Adult Literature, though. It’s not an Either-Or. You don’t get sorted into one house or the other at the beginning of your career, like someone in — well, perhaps too many YA books. Read good books. Good books are satisfying and do something to expand your view of the world — whether it’s the depth of reference that Graham alludes to, or the kind of instant emotional wallop or plot-payoff she seems to regard less highly.

My favorite genre, for instance, are the kind of books where the author briefly notifies you that there is a plot of some kind going on, but mostly spends his time rambling about his particular interests and obsessions. (“I have just deposited the Narrator at his Grandmother’s house. Let’s talk about TRAIN TRAVEL and PLACE NAMES.” “Whoops, Jean Valjean’s in the sewers! Let’s talk about WASTE MANAGEMENT, GUYS!” “Here comes Moby-Dick! But first, let’s have some erroneous 19th-century information about BALEEN.”) But in each case, there’s still an emotional payoff. Unsatisfying doesn’t necessarily mean great. Great books, “Classic Books,” with a capital C and a fancy binding, have had to drag their way to the present through a kind of Hunger Games of memory. If there isn’t enough richness in their pages to keep people interested over centuries, they don’t make it through. If you’re reading classics the way you eat fiber, because you think they’re a kind of needed roughage for your literary diet, not because you actively adore stewed prunes, you’re missing the point. They can speak for themselves. These books are hardened survivors. And boy, have they got a story for you, even if their authors aren’t able to make many promotional appearances or engage you on Twitter.

No matter what you read, though, there is a certain frustrating solitude to reading. It’s hard to live-tweet. You can counteract this in part by reading what everyone around you is reading. But if everyone around you is reading “An Abundance of Katherines” (no harm meant to the Abundance of Katherines) and you are sitting there slogging through, say, Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three”– you start to feel a creeping sense of — something like superiority. (Also, it does little to discourage your tendency of yelling at the book as you proceed. Why not? you figure. I will not ever be able to discuss this with another live person, ever. I might as well yell at Victor. (The fact that you now refer to him as Victor is just one more sign of how deep this goes.))

But, unfortunately, one of the problems with discussions like this (“You are consuming the wrong thing!” “No, YOU are consuming the wrong thing! You should be consuming what I’m consuming!” “I don’t WANT to consume what you’re consuming! I think it’s the WRONG thing to consume!” “Well.” “Well.”) is that you run into an impasse pretty quickly. You can’t make someone like something by yelling at them loudly enough. If only! That would be so handy! The book has to find a way in on its own.

These discussions also have the tendency to turn pretty personal pretty quickly. Taste in books is an intimate thing. It’s a question of your mind’s most cherished food. An attack on your reading can feel like an attack on you, especially if it’s framed to say you should be embarrassed.

But disapproving of what other people are reading because it is Not As Difficult As The Things We Used To Read is an old, old problem. Nonetheless people keep reading. Nonetheless great books continue to be written. Why not celebrate them where we find them, accept that the satisfaction of one shelf should do little to discourage you from browsing the other?

Why pit one against the other? Put “Romeo and Juliet” back in YA where it belongs. Sell “Julius Caesar” and “The Fault in Our Stars” as a companion set. Open the borders in the bookstores and let the books speak for themselves. Or, at any rate, let their covers speak. We have to judge them somehow. Just read all you can.