“Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter.” ~John Milton, Areopagitica
Over the past couple of weeks, the book-lovers of the internet have been abuzz with opinions and reactions to Ruth Graham’s recent article on Slate entitled “Against YA.” In the wake of The Fault in Our Stars’ great success, Graham questions why so many adults are big fans and avid readers of the YA genre. In her striking byline, Graham declares,“Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
As you may have guessed, YA readers and writers did not take kindly to being told that they should be ashamed of their favorite genre.
Kathleen Hale, author of No One Else Can Have You, responded with a wonderfully strange piece in which she and Graham enter into a debate amidst an absurdist parody of Young Adult fiction. In the article, Hale makes serious critiques of Graham’s argument, set within a humorous story that appears to be a combination of every popular YA novel ever. One of her serious points is that “Cultural arbiters have always been the richest, whitest, most male-dominated groups…The more you lobby for the literary status quo, the more you reinforce sexist paradigms.” Another point she brings up is that the novel of the 19th century was largely written by and for women, and was therefore snubbed by the intellectual elite of the time. While Hale’s strange tale highlights the absurdity sometimes found in popular YA fiction, it does even more to highlight the absurdity of trying to tell other people what to read based off of arbitrary and elitist notions of what constitutes literary value.
In a recent facebook post, Maggie Stiefvater, author of the Shiver trilogy , The Raven Cycle, and The Scorpio Races, reacts against the notion that the only reason for reading a book is to become smarter. She suggests that “books can—and are meant to—fulfill all kinds of purposes.” But her main point is this—“Books aren’t smart: stories are.” Stiefvater points out that “someone who writes smart stories can put them into any form, any medium, any length—and they do.” Since good stories can be found anywhere, why should we limit ourselves to one shelf in the bookstore?
Even the Barnes & Noble Book Blog weighed in on the debate. In a “Point/Counterpoint” piece, BN included two articles on opposite sides of the debate. Ester Bloom comes in with a softer version of Graham’s argument, suggesting not that adults abandon YA completely, but that they supplement their “comfort food” YA with some healthy adult fiction. Dahlia Adler, on the other hand, points out that many critics of YA haven’t read much of the genre and are making vast generalizations based on only a few works that they are familiar with, while missing out on the breadth and depth of the genre.
So here’s my two cents. Yes, I’m still pretty close to the YA demographic where it might still be “okay” to read YA literature by Graham’s standards. Nonetheless, I have absolutely no intention of narrowing my reading options as I grow older. John Milton, one of the most respected literary authors of all time, encouraged the people of the 17th century to read whatever they wanted. Now, Milton was arguing against religious censorship by suggesting that good people cannot be corrupted by bad books and that readers should be entrusted to make their own judgments. I would like to expand upon Milton’s thoughts to address the current debate. I say: A smart reader cannot be dumbed down by books that are:
- Below their “reading level”
- Designated for a younger audience
- Generally judged by critics or random people on the internet to lack “literary merit”
If you approach any book as an intelligent reader with an inquisitive mind, you can gain something from it, regardless of its genre or critical acclaims.