07 February 2014

In Which I Take A Hater to Task

It’s happened yet again. Another writer has published another essay in another major paper about how Young Adult literature is so very bad for Literature (with a capital L).

Pardon me while I roll my eyes.

The latest offering, Michelle Dean’s “Young Adult Dystopia,” was published on January 31st in the New York Times. No, I don’t care to include a link. No sense driving any more traffic that way. 

The essay makes the usual moves: lamenting the lack of originality in the literature, citing from a few narrow examples, generally critiquing the level of writing. In some ways, it’s nothing new. Actually, in pretty much every way, it’s nothing new. The fact that The Grey Lady continues to devote space to an argument that has already been made (and refuted) and made again (and refuted again), however, makes all the parts of me seethe. The writer. The reader. The scholar. The professor.

So bear with me, dear reader, as I refute these charges against Young Adult literature once more, using all of the many caps I wear.

Let us start with the me that is a writer. Well, to be quite honest, this part of me thinks that it might be better to say nothing at all. To sit quiet and play nice and let the whole mess blow over, but then I see that Ms. Dean seems to think that all of New York Publishing is out tracking downevery young person with an aspiration to write a dystopian or fantasy epic.” I was unaware that this was occurring. Perhaps I should do something to make myself more conspicuous. A flare perhaps? An ad in the Times? Perhaps my strategy for becoming a published author has been wrong all along.

After all, as Ms. Dean insists, the pressure to find the next Hunger Games seems to have created “a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication.” The thoughtful editors who have kindly had to pass on my work for very specific reasons might say otherwise, but who are we to ask them? It is not as though we expect our news sources to actually use sources or do research any longer. And, yes, I realize Ms. Dean’s piece is one meant for the Opinion Pages, but one would assume that fact would hold court there as well.

But these thoughts, I’m sure, are nothing more than the writerly side of myself feeling a bit down—and perhaps jealous?—of the success of others.

Well, then. Let us go on, shall we?

You see, before I put my humble pen to paper in the dream of becoming one of these hacks who are ruining Literature, I was a reader. It was my love of reading, all sorts of reading, that led me to become a scholar. For a decade, I learned the discipline of Literature. Specifically, I specialized in understanding the cultural importance of the book in America and how that understanding shaped our understanding of Literature (there’s that capital L again). My poor, neglected dissertation actually looked at the business of literature—that “lousy racket,” as Hemingway once famously called it. So I am, if I might say so, just a bit of an expert about the larger cultural and historical forces that shape the canon.

The scholar in me cringes when Ms. Dean starts with Dante and Milton, interjects W. Somerset Maugham somewhere in the middle, and ends with a smattering of C.S. Lewis. Of course, she throws in L’Enge and Lowry for good measure, and one can only appreciate her lovely turn of phrase as she alludes to Yeats as she laments our “endless stumbling,” but one gets the feeling that Literature, as defined by Ms. Dean begins and ends with old white men.

Not that I don’t admire many of the old white men who are our bastions of all that is Great in the Western Canon (see afore mentioned dissertation), but please pardon me for saying that her comparisons feel out of date and more than a bit out of touch. They also assume a unified, singular definition of greatness that just does not—historically or culturally—hold water.

Literary Greatness (capital G) is a function of time, reception, and market conditions. It is not a forgone conclusion upon publication. It was as recently as the 1970s, after all, when critics were still calling The Great Gatsby a “third-rate novel.” And perhaps it is, though we’d have a hard time of arguing that to the thousands of high school teachers who introduce it every year to their students.

No. It seems to me that the greatest weakness of Ms. Dean’s argument—at least from a scholarly perspective—is that it does not ever give the concise criteria it uses to declare its victims “threadbare, starved orphans.” On what grounds does this evaluation take place? Are we to look for the poetic nature of the words? The intricacy of plot and narrative? And who is it that is responsible for setting (and judging) these particular criteria? (What, exactly, is Ms. Dean’s expertise again?)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at ‘low culture,’” Ms. Dean writes. She is, however, the kind of person who declares something “low” as an aside, without qualification or definition. This seems to be her intent—to thrust most of Young Adult literature (or at least that which makes money) into the dreaded realm of low culture. Honestly, though, anyone who has ever once read Bourdieu would understand that most Young Adult fiction is much better defined as middlebrow (and I say that with an undying appreciation of and love for the middlebrow). In short, her definitions and declarations simply are uninformed at best and incorrect at worst.

Ms. Dean seems quite concerned with the very population she has set out to slay: “We don’t worry about the performers once they step off, and we instantly forget what they’ve been saying, because the show’s producers have endless supply.” Ah, my dear Ms. Dean, this is the story of the literary market since the beginning of time. Do you truly believe that YA writers are the first to be put in the uncomfortable position of a limited shelf life? The archives are filled with best-sellers you’ve never heard of, with Great Works no one remembers. This is the nature of the beast. It always has been. Don’t believe me? Try to find something by Kaye Boyle that’s still in print. What? You are unfamiliar with Ms. Boyle’s work? Ah, then my point has been made.

Finally, we turn to one of Ms. Dean’s most ridiculous claims: “Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears.

We shall ignore that Mary Shelley was barely 20 when she penned Frankenstein.  Fitzgerald was but 24 when he published his first novel. Hemingway barely older at the time his first was published. Old news, perhaps, but Bret Easton Ellis was the same age as Veronica Roth when his first book was sold to the movies, and the Man Booker Prize committee didn’t seem to think that Eleanor Catton’s youth was a factor in deciding her novel The Luminaries was worthy this past year. But I shall stop with the examples.

Put simply, it is a cheap shot to go after Ms. Roth because of her youth. Worse, it is also not entirely correct. Yes, age can often help us become better at our craft, but no amount of years will make up for a lack of talent. There are many in their later years that are not nearly as well read or intuitive as some twenty-year-olds I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

So let us talk about those twenty-year-olds—and those who are younger still. Give me a moment more of your time to put on my final cap, that of professor—of teacher. Though I do not know it for absolute certainty, I would bet quite a lot of money that most teachers, when asked, would be happy to see their students read. Period. While those of us who teach literature would love for them to oohh and ahhh over the turn of phrase in Morrison or Woolf, what we truly want is for them to become readers. To be literate in the very best sense of the word. To crave books the way that they crave the latest bit of technology.

Young Adult literature is meant, first and foremost, for young adults. It is a testament to the absolute quality of the writing that it has also achieved a market with adult readers, but when a writer decides to write for the Young Adult market, he or she does so because they believe in young people’s absolute intelligence and they want to speak to that intelligence. They want to speak to—not at—those readers.

 The sheer variety in the rather large, rather amorphous category “Young Adult” is a testament to the sheer variety of its readership. Not all young readers will be drawn to the same texts, but it seems to me a rather small-minded thing to call out the thousands of readers who have purchased (not borrowed or pirated) Veronica Roth’s books. Every one of those consumers became a reader. It does not matter at all what you or I or anyone else believes about the Divergent series in terms of quality or importance. When you can get a person—not just a child—to read, you give them tools. They learn vocabulary and grammar and fluency and they think critically, and as a teacher I understand the importance of these things.

Other teachers understand this, too. And I, along with many of those other teachers, say thank God there is another writer—or another 75—behind Roth in line for his or her turn. Because that writer will create another reader. Another chance to teach another mind about the beauty of escaping into words. Another chance to create that spark for learning, for reading. If that means that someday they pick up Dante, lovely. If they do not, that is lovely as well.

I assume that Ms. Dean meant well in her attempt to call all of publishing to a greater standard as the “golden age of YA” spins onward, but her judgments, her half-articulated criteria are remnants of an older way of understanding the literary. One filled with canons and Great Books and (mostly) dead white men who wrote about things important to dead white men. It smacks of the same sort of arguments one finds about romance—or any art form that women create in large numbers.

Reading is reading is reading. (See, I am also capable of obscure poetic allusions!) Most writers (though I will make an exception for those very narcissistic sorts who write only for eternal fame and glory) write in order to be read. We respect the intellects of our readers—of all readers. We understand that the beauty of literature is that there is such variety.

I will not say here that Young Adult literature deserves equal recognition. I should not need to say it. I do not need to say it. For those of us who write and read and admire it, it is understood. At that, my dear Ms Dean, my dear New York Times, is quite enough.



  1. I freakin' love this blog post. My older brother made a crack about reading "grown up" books a few months ago and every part of me bristled at it. I hate it when people think that just because something's written for the young adult market that it's somehow of lesser quality - that it can't be better than a novel written for adults, especially when they've never read a YA novel in their life. I can't really speak for the adult market much because I'm not as widely read in it, but I can say that the young adult market is catching the eye of many adult readers as well. It sounds as if Ms. Dean hasn't read many young adult novels because I could name quite a few that are of better quality and substance than a haled classic like The Red Badge of Courage. But then again, literature is quite subjective, now isn't it?

  2. Totally. And it's meant for different markets, so to judge all by one standard-- some idea of "Greatness"--just doesn't make sense. And for what reason? What is Lit supposed to *do* that anyone requires that kind of qualification before a reader should be allowed to enjoy it?