Slate Nailed It: YA and Detective Fiction Are for Rubes

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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.

Editor’s Note: A story about a spy held hostage by jihadists? Nope, just not our kind of thing.
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:

—weird facts
—astonishing sentences
—unfamiliar characters
—big ideas

…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.


  1. Angela Korra'ti

    This entire post is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. 😀

    Unrepentant Hayseed Reader of Sci-Fi, Mystery, and Other Novels Which Fail At Being High Lit-ra-cher

  2. Richard Bayston

    ‘I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers’ – Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1944). And round we go; meanwhile, Cormac McCarthy keeps churning out Westerns, the cynical hack that he is; the worst thing about him is the company he keeps. Fancy sharing a genre with ten-cents-a-word vaudeville acts like Annie Proulx and Donna Tartt. Now I must get my teeth into something juicy; where’s ‘For Esme, with Love and Squalor?’

  3. Kristin Centorcelli

    You nailed it.


  4. Chris Wolak

    OMG, how did you know I was reading this on the toilet??? LOL. I haven’t bothered to seek out any of the articles on this brouhaha because, well– yawn–is there anything new under the sun when it comes to book-based snobbery? Love the way you ripped on this, though. Thanks for a most enjoyable read.

  5. Allen

    I am so sorry, I really wanted to read this, but seeing as this is not fine literature, I found myself unable to. I am trying to read more discriminately.

    My sincerest apologies.

  6. Amanda Belmondo

    I think I love you.

  7. SKJackson

    May I respectfully suggest to all “serious readers” that they piss off quietly somewhere with the collected works of Tolstoy, and get out of my sun? I’ve got a stack of frivolous-genre books to polish off and they’re not going to read themselves. They may feel free to avert their half-rim glasses from the barbaric spectacle of someone enjoying themselves with a book as opposed to flagellating it to death, Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding.

  8. K Schneider

    Bravo. In fairness, my reading list in the past few weeks has included The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris, The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Ireland by Frank Delaney, The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan, The Game by Laurie King, and three picture books per night for my kiddos. I also have 70 sites on my news aggregator and if I run through them I will stoop to Yahoo news. Lord knows how I find time to work, I think I need a 12-step group.

  9. Rebecca T.

    As someone who used to be a class A snob when it came to reading books, may I just say that this is spot on. Literary fiction is just a different style. It is not any more important than any other style. There are ambiguous endings in YA books. There are neatly wrapped up plots in literary fiction. People get caught up in what they think makes them look or seem important and forget that it does not actually work that way. Luckily I grew out of the phase by the time I was out of my 20s and by the time YA books that did not revolve around Sweet Valley High were brought to my attention. They are not the same books of yesterday, they’ve evolved into amazingly deep plots and subtlely nuanced characters. Forget snob, Graham is a coward for not even giving them a chance and writing them off altogether.

  10. Newhere

    Well, Graham sure seems to have hit a nerve. Is it because we all wanted to believe that the YA fiction we’ve been reading is, in fact, highbrow? I bet most of us would move an Archie Double Digest off the coffee table before guests came over – mainly because we wouldn’t want our friends to think that that was what we stayed up at night reading. Graham would put YA fiction in the same category of guilty pleasure.

    The Hunger Games, and books like it, are fluff. Perhaps well written and enjoyable, but still fluff. There is nothing wrong with reading it, anymore than there is anything wrong with watching The Big Bang Theory, or other sitcoms. Just don’t delude yourself that it’s anything more than it is – and don’t fly off the handle when it is suggested that expanding your horizons is a worthwhile pursuit.

  11. Bonnie MacBird

    Yes, Lyndsay, yes. Well said, and even…fun to read.

  12. Marleah

    Spot on!

    Re: Newhere – “books like” the Hunger Games is a pretty broad category. Divergent? Fahrenheit 451? I don’t think people want to believe that YA is highbrow — I think people want it to be recognized that YA fiction is a generalization that perhaps doesn’t speak to the greater value found within those works categorized as such.

    When I was going to school (high school, college, grad school) and even as a professional, I remind myself that I get out of things what I want to get out of them. If I go into something wanting easy-reading fluff, then that’s what I’ll take from it (although sometimes something deep will catch me off guard and I welcome that). If I go into something, even if it is YA literature or some other genre, looking for a deeper experience, then often that’s what I’ll take from it. Right now I’m reading a lot of Stephen King who is often counted as “just a genre fiction writer”, and yes, I’ve read his books in the past with that thought in mind. However, when I approach it with more serious motivation on my end, I find so much more — satire, social commentary, philosophical ideas.

    I encourage readers to take from books what they want to get out of them. Maybe literary fiction readers aren’t good enough because they’re not reading enough non-fiction. We can play this game forever, but I think we’d all be better off if we recognized that nearly any book can serve as what you want it to.

  13. Vicki Weisfeld

    Noted literary agent Donald Maas in his book, “Writing 21st Century Fiction” [helpful, by the way], discusses how little use the shopworn distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction has become. The slogan for my website, from Henning Mankell, is “every good story has a mystery in it.” There’s crap in every category, even literary crap.

  14. A Serious Reader

    Let’s grow up, kids.

    Young adult fiction is produced and marketed for young adults. That’s why they call it “Young Adult.”

    Otherwise they’d just call it “fiction.”

    If you have a preference for easy reading, that’s no bother to other adults. But let’s not insult fantastic demonstrations of human creativity and thought by categorizing Melville alongside SE Hinton (whose book was atrocious, by any standard), and Virginia Woolf alongside Stephenie Meyer.

    Somehow, the names of people like Stephen King and Michael Crichton tend to get get mixed into the discussion when people rise up to defend their favorite kids books and need a parallel in the ” adult ” world of fiction to prove a point.

    Let’s not get generous. They’re atrocious too.

    Conversely, let’s not categorize Lord of the Flies and A Catcher in the Rye as YA, simply because the protagonists are teens. These books are quite obviously superbly written and meant for adults, unlike Harry Potter.

    When A Casual Vacancy was published ( which wasn’ t bad!) Rowling told the press that her work was no longer “for kids.” I think when the author herself can confidently state such an obvious fact while “academics” write theses on her kids books, there is a worrying amount if cognitive dissonance going on.

    As an aside, this article above was unreadably overwritten. I’d say the author has some growing up to do.

    Let’s put away childish things. Let’s start reading “good books,” at any age.

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