Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have seen an abbreviated version of this earlier in the week, but given that weird crazy book snobbery continues to run rampant (they’re even coming for Donna Tartt!), it’s still relevant. Basically, some people have noticed that we are having fun when we read, and they just can’t stand it.
When that ridiculous Ruth Graham piece in Slate ran, telling adults they should be “ashamed” to read YA literature because it was simplistic, the YA and wider reading community mostly reacted with very appropriate outrage. We all hastened to list examples of YA novels as finely written and complex as most adult literature: CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein was my personal pick, but there are so many others. Yet it occurred to me that we’re leaving out an entire side of the equation when we say, “Yes, YA can be deep and serious!” — and in so doing, unwittingly bolstering Graham’s most noxious assumption.
This assumption: People do not, cannot, and/or should not read purely for fun.
For some reason, there is this strange cultural belief that reading is/should be in and of itself highbrow — something you do solely to educate and challenge yourself, and therefore properly divorced from any but the most intellectual pleasure. This belief doesn’t apply to any other media, so far as I can tell: For instance, I don’t think i’ve seen a piece from a music critic saying that, because Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony exists, you should be ashamed of listening to Beyonce. (I’m sure there are such reviewers, the world’s supply of jerks being ever renewing, but they appear to be on the margins, unlike the book-shaming literary critics.) Everyone understands that Beethoven’s work is on a grander scale than pop music, and yet at the club nobody particularly wants to dance to “Fur Elise.” Everyone understands that it is possible (even probable) for a music lover to enjoy both. And certainly music critics love to point out the artistry and skill involved in creating pop music.
Music critics understand that some music is meant to be purely enjoyable. Same goes for movie critics, tv critics, etc.: These fields have their snobs, but I don’t see any of them claiming the fun stuff shouldn’t exist, or isn’t for adults, or must automatically be garbage.
Not reading, though! Ruth Graham and her ilk seem to believe that reading – whatever else it is for – is not meant to be enjoyed for its sake alone. And I say to hell with that.
Yes, many YA novels are rich, sophisticated, intelligent, challenging, and this is wonderful. They deserve all the praise they get, and all the readership, and the people who read them (teen or adult) are enriched by the experience. And many YA novels are written purely and simply to entertain you, and that’s okay.
Now, I would agree that it’s good to challenge yourself – to seek out books, movies, etc. that are more complicated, less easily digestible.* Mental challenge, like any other kind of exercise, leaves you stronger for the experience. But the assumption among many book reviewers seems to be that this is the only kind of reading that is worthwhile. That’s not at all the message I get from most avid readers, adults or teens. I find that most of us read many different kinds of books, from the obscure to the mega-popular, from the challenging to the fluffy. And readers who truly love reading all recognize that different kinds of books suit different moments and moods. Sometimes, a book that’s only for entertainment is the one you need.
I always say that I write escapist YA literature because, if memory serves, there was no time in life from which I more desperately wanted to escape. People usually laugh, but it’s not a joke. When you’re stressed out, or depressed, you may need to take a step away from reality for a bit. You might want to spend a couple of hours with Ayla’s clan of Neanderthals, or visit Tris and Four, or watch Hercule Poirot solve another improbable crime. Or maybe you’re just happy and relaxed – on the beach, let’s say — and you want a book to match your bubbly mood. Time for some dragons, or a romance novel starring a hot fireman! (Or both. If anyone writes a book with a hot fireman AND dragons, please alert me immediately.) There are all different kinds of scenarios where you just want to read for fun. Why is this supposedly a bad idea? Why do so many book critics disapprove? I just don’t understand it.
Unless, of course, these people don’t like reading that much, that it’s not what they think of when they imagine relaxing and having fun. In which case I would have to say, if you don’t enjoy reading as much as the rest of us, you’ve got a lot of nerve telling us WE’RE the ones doing it wrong.
Right now, a lot of the criticism is focusing on YA because (a) whatever the kids are into these days, it MUST be bad and (b) YA is gaining a huge share of the market, fueled largely (though not solely by any means) by the kind of escapist books critics love to sneer at. But the “how dare you entertain me?” phenomenon doesn’t stop with YA lit, or even with pop lit. The pieces criticizing Donna Tartt’s latest, THE GOLDFINCH, seem to center on the notion that this adult, literary book is so enjoyable that something must be wrong with it. This is where the criticism flies straight into the realm of unintentional self-parody. “People are reading this with delight! Stop that!”
Read for education. Read for understanding. Read for fun. It’s all good. Just read, if you want to read, and don’t let anyone make you ashamed of what you enjoy.
*(Though I wish more critics would acknowledge that the best of these are entertaining, too. When I finally read WAR AND PEACE, I was astonished to find not some dry philosophical tome but a juicy, fascinating story with its intellectual arguments wrapped up in love triangles, comedy, battle sequences and plot twists galore. Nobody tells you WAR AND PEACE is fun. Why not?)