In June of this year, Slate
ran a now-infamous piece called "Against YA
," in which Ruth Graham argued that adults shouldn't read young-adult fiction, and should be embarrassed if they do. A flood of posts and essays were written in response; my own response is here
. In the short term, as far as I can tell, not a single writer agreed with Graham.
Despite this lopsided showing, some headline writer (possibly here
) dubbed this "The Great Y.A. Debate," and the name stuck. There must be people out there who agree with Graham - surely hers was not an original idea - but one cranky article does not a debate make.
I did find a few interesting essays that used Graham's piece as a springboard to unpack some interesting ideas and cultural trends.
A. O. Scott, in The New York Times Magazine
, is one reader who found himself agreeing with Graham, and asking himself why. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture
joins the crowded field of "things ain't what they used to be" stories, gazing fondly back on a time when a cultural elite drew a very bright line between "high" and "low" culture, a line that, if it still exists, is too blurry to locate and carries little cultural currency. Scott, however, reflects on his nostalgia and acknowledges its curmudgeonly (and sexist, exclusionary) nature. It's a nicely ambivalent essay... and it has very little to do with youth fiction.
In Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate
, Christopher Beha, writing in The New Yorker
, uses the same so-called debate to muse on the state of the novel, how literature from different eras reflect entirely different worldviews, and why the work of Henry James is still, in Beha's view, relevant to the contemporary reader. It's a good piece, worth reading, and again, none of its ideas are stated or implied in Graham's essay in Slate
Beha offers this comments on A. O. Scott's piece....Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence.
He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”
This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.
The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.The New Yorker
also pointed to a 2008 article by Jill Lepore (one of my favourite writers in that magazine's circle), illustrating the long history of self-appointed reading gatekeepers. This one was a librarian who was horrified by E. B. White's Stuart Little
. And not just any librarian: it was Anne Carroll Moore, who invented the idea of the children's library. Great reading: The Lion and the Mouse
Throughout, I am left wondering if anyone on the "against" side of "Against Y.A." has read any youth fiction other than The Fault in Our Stars
or The Hunger Games
and has read any children's fiction other than Harry Potter. Often I'm left wondering if they've read even those, or merely read about them.
These essays are all worth reading... as are many youth novels.