Friday, June 6, 2014

Guilt, Embarrassment, and Why You Shouldn't Feel Bad If You Like YA Books

So, just to start off, I'm writing this because I read an article on Slate that I didn't particularly care for. The article, "Against YA" was written by Ruth Graham. Basically, the gist of the article is this:

Young adult fiction is more popular than ever. Many of the people who read YA are grown-ups (not the category's target demographic). If you are an adult who reads YA books, you should feel guilt for enjoying them.

I'm not going to link to the article because it's basically incendiary link-bait and I don't really feel like playing along with that game.

I like Slate but every once in awhile, they publish an article like this-

  • You like Game of Thrones? It's dumb. You should feel bad. 
  • You like Harry Potter? It's childish. You should feel bad.
  • You cried reading John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars?" Well it's silly that you read that instead of "A Confederacy of Dunces" or "War and Peace."

Look, I'm a rabid defender of the Intelligentsia as a general rule. I think it's awesome to be smart and I think celebrating dense, complicated books, movies, and music is important. I love museums, and universities, and economics, and science, and history. I think anti-intellectualism (which is the main driver behind anti-nerd prejudice, by-the-by) is a disease that has afflicted American culture since before the nation's founding. I think it needs to be fought, and stamped out in all its forms.

But it's weird to me when supposedly smart people decide to just dismiss entire genres and categories of media as "childish" or "dumb." Specifically when some smart people decide to put down media that other smart people like as childish and dumb. It's really hard to read stuff like "Against YA" and not think that it's basically a petty attempt by a fairly intelligent person to place themselves above other people as a sort of assertion of superiority. Sorry, I'M the grownup here, and let me tell you how bad you should all feel for being so immature in your reading choices.

So let's talk a little bit about YA.

"Young Adult" is basically a marketing category. At some point, a marketing executive at a publishing company sat down, looked at a bunch of books they were publishing that had common tropes, chose a demographic (teenagers) and created wording "Young Adult" that she thought would appeal to said demographic. Like, this is a relatively recent term. If it had existed in say, the fifties and sixties, books like "Catcher in the Rye" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," books that are considered essential works of literature, might have been published in the YA category because they feature many of the essential tropes of that category.

Ruth Graham criticizes the category (and TFioS specifically) for being overly sentimental and featuring unrealistic happy endings. While many books published in YA do feature these traits, many don't and it seems foolish to me to dismiss the entire category. It also seems silly to me to criticize TFioS in particular which features a relatively unsentimental depiction of cancer. It seems flat-out arrogant for Ruth Graham to appoint herself as the judge of genre and category and to dismiss entire books, genres, and categories as childish.

Now let's talk about "guilty pleasures."

"Against YA" says that it might be fine for you to read say, "Twilight" or "the Hunger Games" as long as you feel bad about it. The author wants to bring back the "guilty" in the phrase "guilty pleasures." I have a huge issue with this. I think as a society, we have too much guilt and too much shame and it limits our potential. You spend your entire childhood being told that you shouldn't sing too loudly, dress too provocatively, speak out of turn, or eat food with too much sugar in it. We are taught to feel bad about our thoughts, our bodies and everything in between. Guilt is a major facet in many of our lives.

Do you know what happens when you tell people to feel bad about everything they feel compelled to do in life? It stifles creativity. It limits our ability to think in new and interesting ways. It slows innovation. Telling people  to feel bad about the books they like, or the way they dance, or whatever prevents us from achieving our own creative potential.

That's not to say you should never feel guilty. If you do something that hurt someone physically or emotionally, you should feel bad. If you do something that's exploitative of other people, then maybe you should feel guilty.

Should you ever feel bad about reading a book? Sure if it's hurtful in some way. Like, if it's a book that spreads false information like "climate change isn't real" or slanders someone dishonestly or champions abusive relationships as romantic, then maybe feel bad.

But if you like books with teenage protagonists? Don't feel bad about that.

I don't find this kind of criticism constructive. I think it would have been more interesting to read an article by Ruth Graham that championed the sorts of books/plays/whatevers that she DOES like. Convince me to read the books that affect YOU emotionally instead of crapping on the ones that affect ME. Be a champion for the art you enjoy if you think it's under-appreciated. Do something constructive with your writing instead of setting out to make people feel bad.

That's my two-cents. Read what you like. Don't feel guilty. Don't forget to be awesome.