An article in Slate by Ruth Graham that appeared last week decrying the popularity of YA fiction among adult readers has created quite the backlash from other media forums (including to name a few, Esquire, Flavorwire, CNN, and the Washington Post). While both sides of the issue—scholarly proponents of a higher culture of readership and hayseed YA apologists—have solid points to make, I was arrested by a particular portion of Graham’s article that I think proves her unquestionably correct. After stating with an almost visible squirm in her belly that she is “surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online,” a circumstance approximating that of being surrounded by clowns with blood on their razor-tipped teeth and which deserves the deepest sympathy from her readers, Graham produced a passage so telling, so profound, and so well-written, that I am honored to reproduce it here:
There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.
Ruth Graham is right, and she expresses herself with heady eloquence on the subject. May I add before moving on to dissect the nuances of this argument, if people are reading The Secret Garden instead of Dark Places, then so be it, I suppose. If people are reading Paper Towns instead of The Name of the Rose, then let them, if they must. If people are reading Lord of the Flies instead of Bleak House, be it thusly, whatever. If people are reading A Ring of Endless Light instead of The Hound of the Baskervilles, thank God, or something. If people are reading Clifford the Big Red Dog instead of committing violent crimes, that’s better, I guess.
First, we are to understand that the “serious reader” does not truck with YA fiction—but if they do truck with YA fiction, at least they aren’t reading detective novels. Graham is correct, but let’s unpack this notion a bit further so that I can explain why her detractors have gone after straw men instead of comprehending the very valid point she is making:
There are readers, and then there are serious readers. Mark the difference: a reader will allow his or her eye to wander over text indiscriminately, reading, for example, this year's Edgar Award winner for Best Novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, the price of Spanish sweet onions at the grocery store, stop signs en route to work, the headlines on the cover of the New York Times resting in the basket at the Starbucks, the words on the Starbucks cup, the New York Times itself, and potentially, even the instructions on the back of the microwaveable instant Thai noodle bowl planned for supper. Of all these infractions, the reader should, of course, be most ashamed of deliberately picking up Ordinary Grace and turning the pages one after another, because it falls under the mystery genre, and it is the “juicy plots” of this genre that cause the amateur reader to lift the tome and squeeze it like a blood orange, allowing hedonistic juices to flow recklessly down his or her arm, and proceeding to lap the nectar like a feral, flea-ridden cur.
What’s that you say? Graham said “detective novels,” not “mystery novels”? I apologize: please substitute The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler for Ordinary Grace in the above example and go with God.
Readers are omnivorous plebeians, who want tidy endings that are either happy or sad, black or white, donkey or elephant, and they are dissatisfied with morality and happiness existing on a grey continuum, which is why comparing YA’s simplistic world view (the novel Hate List by Jennifer Brown, for instance, which is about the girlfriend of a boy who opened fire on their school cafeteria, is all easy answers) to crime fiction makes so much sense. It is well known that crime fiction, like YA, is the genre of tidy moralizing, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, or anything written by Tana French.
Crime writers, like YA writers (I hesitate to call creators of such pap authors), fail to understand the subtle shadows lurking within the human soul, and the complexity of motives that can lie behind cruel actions, and the potential for artistry within the conclusion of a plot, which is why they write crime fiction in the first place, because you don’t have to own insight into humanity in order to describe footprints and blood spatters and dames with stems. Oh, sure, on occasion you’ll find a pretty artful sentence, as when Reed Farrel Coleman writes in Gun Church, “I’d burned bridges between us that had yet to be built,” but leave a monkey in a room for long enough and he’ll produce Hamlet, so surely it’s a fluke that Coleman also wrote in the same book, “When you feel the stitches holding the illusion of yourself together begin to stretch and pop, and you can’t sew fast enough to keep the stuffing in.” Readers devour such tripe whole cloth, because they aren’t taking this seriously, and would as soon sully their brains reading a gate designation in order to reach their flights on time as peruse the stories of Vladimir Nabokov.
Serious readers, on the other hand, do not read willy-nilly, letting it all hang out and embarrassing their friends and loved ones by voraciously consuming Consumer Reports when the time comes to buy a new dishwasher. Serious readers like Graham read seriously. She even tells us about it, inviting the poor plod struggling his or her gap-toothed, mouthbreathing way through all the intricacies of her article to share in a glimpse of what serious readership is like, which I think is pretty darn big of her:
A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love.
Graham, a serious reader who probably wears serious glasses (you can tell the serious reader by the polished half-spectacles, although the ones who prefer not to flaunt their status employ the more subtle identifier of the corduroy elbow patch), tells us that Submergence by J. M. Ledgard is literary and that YA and detective fiction is not. This is undoubtedly true, and I have not a doubt in my mind that Submergence is indeed “literary” (“literary,” I should explain to the accidental reader who might be perusing this while on the toilet, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “words in a row I have read that are objectively better than the words in a row you have read”). How does Graham prove that Submergence, which Booklist describes as “a novel that is at once silly in the James Bond mode, beautiful, and extraordinary,” is literary? She uses italics when typing the word literary, so that we know as serious readers that Submergence is a literary novel, unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, which ain’t.
But Submergence offers so much more, as Graham goes on to explicate:
…which explains why the novel has been “rattling around” in Graham’s capacious head for as long as she claims. Upon finishing this section, I proceeded directly to an online flower site and sent Graham a bouquet written in the Victorian language of flowers meaning, “Congratulations for reading such an important book.” And when, in the article, she described reading John Updike and Alice Munro as a teenager, I purchased an entire sheet of gold stars (recalling my own halcyon days of reading Alice Walker and William Faulkner in high school) and sent her the reward she so richly deserves.
In a knockout left hook of an argument that left me reeling at Graham’s perspicacity, she later suggests, “the YA and ‘new adult’ boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.” This is not merely true of adults reading Harry Potter, a terrible series touching on love, bravery, ultimate self-sacrifice, and a truly unambiguous, almost cartoonish character named Severus Snape; it is likewise true of detective fiction. When I was very young, I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at the behest of my dad, who loved The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. My father’s unabashed admiration for the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have stunted my capacity to comprehend literary fiction, razing my intellect like a nuclear winter, had a half-bespectacled, elbow-patched stranger not bashed me over the head with a first edition Finnegan’s Wake when I was a nubile sixteen years of age. If not for this vigilante illuminati (they have capes, and a lair), I would not now have To the Lighthouse and Beloved open at either elbow so I can read them simultaneously in my periphery while writing this article in praise of “Against YA.”
I would like to end this discussion with a caution to Ruth Graham, who accidentally, while defending the rights of literary authors to write literary words about literary young adults, included the phenomenally talented Megan Abbott on a list composed otherwise of Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters: Megan Abbott is a crime writer. I know, I know, the mistake was an easy one to make, and I forgive the otherwise impeccable Graham for making it. When I read The End of Everything, featuring a lyrically unreliable thirteen year old narrator whose friend vanishes into the ether of Midwest suburbia, I hugely admired it for its style and power while simultaneously congratulating myself that I was reading a novel about youth, not for youth.
Later, however, when I was told by concerned friends that Abbott had won the Edgar Award and been nominated for the Steel Dagger, I soaked my hardcover in bleach and buried it, lest an unsuspecting reader come along and accidentally pick it up to while away their leisure hours. Ms. Graham, I implore you: be more cautious in your recommendations. If a crime writer can worm her way onto your list, what’s next? Paranormal romance? Sci-fi? Westerns? The mind of the serious reader revolts.
Lyndsay Faye is the international bestselling author of the Edgar-nominated Timothy Wilde series from G. P. Putnam's Sons. She has been translated into 14 languages and is part of the Baker Street Babes podcast. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.