If you follow even, like, one Harry Potter fan on Twitter, you probably came across a little gem from Slate yesterday titled Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children’s Books. In it, professional blogger Ruth Graham explains all about the dark, scary problems of a world in which adults are reading YA novels instead of mature, complicated literary fiction. A lot of people really hated it, and her. A lot of literary snobs really loved it, and her. But the most interesting logical flaw in Graham’s tremendous, Nobel-worthy string of logical flaws, that can only in the loosest terms be framed an argument, was this basic assumption here: the trend in adults reading YA fiction has deterred these YA fiction-reading adults from reading literary fiction.
Adults aren’t reading literary fiction because literary fiction fucking blows.
Graham cites only three, real quality markers for what makes a ‘good’ work of fiction, as opposed to something like The Fault in Our Stars, which commits many sins but none more grave than the sin of being popular. Her grading rubric for quality holds roughly thus:
1. Ruth Graham has to personally like a book for it to be objectively good. (As evidenced towards the end of her piece by, “When I think about what I learned about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life—from the extracurricular reading I did in high school, I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes.”)
2. A book needs to be “complicated,” by which Graham means cynical, for it to be objectively good. (As evidenced by, “ When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?”)
3. A book must have a shitty ending for it to be objectively good. (As evidenced by, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.”)
While Ruth’s first rule for ‘good’ literature holds with a basic narcissism local to the internet and its culture (and no judgment from this guy over here, with a selfie library as fat as mine, for narcissism), her second two points are most concerning. For a body of work to be ‘adult,’ it cannot be sentimental, or simple, or pure. A woman can’t feel love without also, I suppose, acknowledging that all love is temporal by nature, that it is fleeting, that it is weak. Man is a liar, a phony, a coward, but is sometimes okay, I guess, if you catch him in the right light. Um, okay. It’s obvious here that Graham has been made cynical by her own old age, and she equates this cynicism with truth, with understanding, with maturity. But this is a lie, to herself and to her reader.
Amazingly, then, we have Graham’s assault on “satisfying” endings (“weeping or cheering” at a works’ conclusion). Amazing, I write, because she just cited Shakespeare as an example of what we’ve lost as a culture, as if ten years ago everyone over the age of twenty-five was running around with a copy of The Complete Works under his arm, writing sonnets and discussing art in the garden (hi, remember me?). But even were that the case, Shakespeare never wrote an unsatisfying ending in his life. Where was the ambiguity in Romeo and Juliet? Love was true, and what the lovers’ families did to it was tragedy. Graham cites the Brontës, sure. But let’s be real, they were only ever trashy Austen, and can you think of even one of my girl Jane’s titles that didn’t end with lovers in love, happily? You can’t, because that title doesn’t exist.
Graham’s argument is absurd. The problem isn’t adults reading YA fiction; the problem is we no longer have literary authors who speak to the human condition.
Surprise, if you write a cynical novel with an ending that completes nothing, a plot that isn’t plotted, and an unlikeable protagonist, nobody will read it. This isn’t because it’s too “adult” for them. It’s because you’re a bad writer.
Reading shouldn’t be painful. A work of great literature reveals the human spirit, and elevates us. People are reading YA fiction because it’s the only fiction that’s doing this. Literary authors should not be lamenting the fact with their noses upturned, writing about it to their echo chambers. They should be learning, and they should be producing something better. Because right now? Their work is just embarrassing.