A Halfhearted Defense of (My Own) Snobbery

In the midst of all the media hoopla surrounding the release of the Hunger Games film, Joel Stein attempted to piss everybody off by suggesting that adults should leave young adult fiction to the, well, young adults (read: kids). This was part of a New York Times online forum on the subject of the surging popularity of YA fiction among not-so-Y As. Stein writes:

I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

His argument boils down to a question of time. If I’m going to spend my time reading something, oughtn’t it be something of literary weight? Since I haven’t finished reading the complete works of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Austen, Kafka, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Shaw, O’Connor, and Nabokov, not to mention Saramago, Fuentes, Borges, Coetzee, Allende, Bukowski, Munro, Updike, McCarthy, Fo, Morrison, and Murakami, do I really have time to read something written for kids? (Barring, of course, whatever I read with or to my own kids).

Lev Grossman disagrees. Writing on the same forum, Grossman points out that YA fiction is more concerned with “strong voices; and clear, clean descriptive prose;” and with storytelling. He also turns to praise Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, saying that such stylistically dense grown-up literature is rewarding but “demands a lot of work from the reader, too.” He goes on to say:

Bottom line, there’s one thing that young adult novels rarely are, and that’s boring. They’re built to grab your attention and hold it. And I’m not as young as I once was. At my age, I don’t have time to be bored.

This last is, of course, a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s interesting that Grossman also frames his argument in terms of time. Who has time to be bored?

I am trying very hard not to judge you, sir.

Grossman comes off in the better light here. He’s funny and easy-going, and he goes out of his way to not be a snob. I think I’d rather be his friend than Stein’s. (Also, Stein’s thumbnail photo makes him look like he’s trying too hard to be cool, whereas Grossman’s looks like he’s embraced the fact that he’s goofy and bald). Grossman seems to have a larger view of the role of literature. For him, literature possesses the tools to both enlighten and entertain, sometimes simultaneously, but if not, that’s okay too. He’ll take whatever.

I admire this broad-mindedness in Grossman, and I’d much rather be like him, and yet I find myself, for all practical purposes, in the Stein camp. And it makes me feel like a jerk. I don’t read young adult literature. There’s too much else to read, and I don’t feel I have time for it.

Here’s one line of reasoning; you can judge the level of snobbery for yourself: I worked in secondary ed for a number of years, so I know that the quality of YA literature has increased dramatically in the last few years. I was (and am) glad those books are there, and I was delighted to see my middle schoolers reading them even without an assignment to prompt them to. But I didn’t teach those books in my class. (The students could get credit for reading them to satisfy an “outside reading” requirement). I taught Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Bukowski*, Li-Young Lee. I tried to give them accessible entrance points into adult literature. And that’s how I think of YA literature too: a wonderful, accessible entrance point into the wide world of literature, but a stepping stone to eventually be moved beyond. So, while I was happy to see my students reading The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, and the like, I was even more excited for the students who, unprompted by me, chose to read Housekeeping or The Road** for their outside reading assignment.

Here’s an analogy, raising the snob quotient a bit, perhaps: It may not give this new guard of better YA lit enough credit, but I can’t help but think of YA lit in the same way that I think of my 18-month-old daughter’s board books. Some of them are wonderfully well-written, beautifully illustrated, and great fun to read with her. And, in some ways, they’re more ambitious than standard grown-up literature since they have to fulfill both literary and pedagogical aims (teaching her about reading and books while, simultaneously, telling a great story). But I also recognize that I’m not the intended audience. I read them with her and for her, and when she’s not there, I read something else.

How young is the young adult in your life?

Maybe the real distinction is that, unlike Grossman, I don’t read (or write) primarily for entertainment. Sure, reading is fun, and there’s nothing wrong with reading for fun. No doubt it’s better for your brain (and probably your soul) than watching TV, anyway. As you can probably tell, I feel conflicted about this. I don’t think it makes me a better reader or even a more sophisticated reader. At worst, it makes me a snobbier and more insular reader.

Grossman’s strongest argument is a side-point. He points out that, at its best, YA literature can do everything old adult literature can do. It can engage, enlighten, emote. That’s true. I know it’s true because I remember those experiences from when I was a kid reading YA literature myself. Those were the experiences that taught me what to expect from adult literature and how to gauge the success of adult literature. So, yes, YA literature is unboring. It can move the reader and even be beautiful. But I can say the same thing about The Runaway Bunny, and it probably makes me a snob to do so. Feel free to tell me so in the comments; I feel certain I deserve it.

*Yes, I tried to teach Bukowski to middle schoolers. This was a mistake.

**Yes, I had middle school students who, on their own (or with some nudging from literary mom and dad, perhaps), chose to read Housekeeping and The Road. Their reviews: Housekeeping was boring and confusing. The Road  was awesome (“They ate a baby!”).

6 Comments

  • Laura Ender says:

    I think a lot of people read things like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter for the same reason they read The Da Vinci Code–to know what everyone else was talking about (not that I read The Da Vinci Code–I was too much of a snob). I know that’s what got me interested. Because isn’t it nice to have something to talk about at parties? I know a lot of writers surround themselves with other writers and can chat about James Joyce over cocktails, but my friends are mostly engineers and other left-brainers who don’t really read. But they did read Harry Potter, so we for a while we could talk about that. What kept me interested in these books might be the same thing that motivates me to watch kids’ movies though I do not have a kid: something like Peter Pan syndrome. My inner kid has a lot of pull with me. And I do have time to read them once in a while, especially since the whole Hunger Games trilogy took me less time to read than The Unbearable Lightness of Being, all four of which I read in one week.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      That’s true. Some books just have so much pull in the culture conversation of the moment that it feels like you’re going to be getting a lot of the “you’re from Mars because you didn’t read Harry Potter the moment it came out” look. This is why I appreciate that most of these get made into movies.

  • Amaris says:

    Can I just say that I find it bizarre how polarizing this topic is? Why is YA lit like Comic-Con and Lord of the Rings, where, when people suss out that you don’t get their Harry Potter reference, a wall goes up and they get defensive? Geek out to whatever makes you happy, but don’t foolishly say that authors within the canon aren’t interested in writing “strong voices; and clear, clean descriptive prose” and storytelling.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Maybe that’s the bigger truth about this whole conversation: no matter what side you take, you end up framing some massively reductive view of the other side.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    You know why I don’t read YA lit? Because I’m an old adult. There is nothing remotely interesting to me about reading The Hunger Games or any Harry Potter book. When I see adults in public reading that stuff (with no children in sight) I wonder if they are on their way home to watch Sesame Street. And if reading that kind of stuff is part of some social requirement to be part of a conversation, I’d rather not be part of that conversation. Young people have not caught the scent of mortality and therefore value their time less. There are some advantages to this, but being open to reading books written for people half your age is not one of them.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Yeah. This is the gist of the Stein argument. Although he doesn’t make your (good) point about the limited perspective of adolescence. My favorite scathing thing he says is: “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.”

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