Wednesday, October 01, 2014

in defence of YA fiction

In defence of YA fiction. Yes, this is me reading Capture the Castle - a wonderful book and apparently YA fiction, too. 

I should begin this post by acknowledging that the original title was going to be ‘In defence of YA fiction, and in fact every type of fiction that does not meet some idea of “important literature” as imposed on society by a panel of fucking wankers literary critics’. But that was too long.

I prefer JK Rowling to Jane Austen. I love John Grisham and in my humble opinion Alice Munro is a genius, her work captivating and unsettling and the kind of thing that you return to again and again. I admire Salinger: Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories are firm favourites. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a glorious read, as is Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park - a book I read earlier this year at the ripe old age of twenty-seven and loved immediately. Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, Margaret Atwood and anything she has ever written, Jodi Picoult and My Sister’s Keeper are among favourites. And The Secret Garden holds a place in my heart and mind no other book can ever take. I’ve read Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and yes, Twilight too. And alongside them I’ve devoured The Road. I’ve also read the poetry of Yeats and plenty of Shakespeare and also much work by Dr. Seuss. What I’m trying to illustrate with this somewhat strange list is that my reading past and present, and by all indications future, is an eclectic mix that refuses to be pigeon-holed or limited simply because by all accounts I’m an adult now.

Why am I telling you all this? Because we seem to be back to genre shaming again, and I’m kind of sick of the debate.

Earlier this year Ruth Graham published a piece on Slate that one would assume was satire, or a piece of click bait designed and written and published for the pure purpose of encouraging skyrocketing hits by way of disgruntled readers. It worked.

You probably know the piece, the one where Graham told all adults that we should be ashamed for reading YA fiction when we could be reading some giant literary classic - as ordained by Graham no doubt.

When it first appeared in my Twitter feed I threw out a few tweets and figured that was the end of that. But it’s back: genre shaming and attacking those of us who refuse to ascribe to a set list of what is appropriate for our age group and instead liken our reading choices to a cross cultural literary journey. And this time I felt a few more than 140 characters were required.

There have been plenty of pieces that deal with the underlying sexism apparent in any attack on YA fiction, the same kind that mocks romance - an incredibly successful genre that just happens to be aimed specifically at women. Knock me down with feather.

I’m not going to address that here because my biggest issue with the attack on YA fiction is the way that it presumes to posit reading as an elitist activity one must undertake as an adult to educate ourselves about serious issues. To challenge our preconceived ideas, increase our vocabulary and ensure we can maintain witty banter at the dinner table. And while these are all, somewhat, valid reasons to read, (if you want to increase your vocabulary may I suggest a dictionary or one of those word of the day calendars) they are not the only reasons to read. In fact, they don’t even begin to cover the gamut of reasons one may choose to pick up a book, any book, and read. And they are also all things that can be achieved with YA fiction.

The desire to differentiate between ‘important literature’ and everything else also raises the issue of who decides what constitutes important literature? The critics at the New York Times Review of Books? The bookseller? The publisher? An Amazon algorithm? Or maybe, heaven forbid, the reader? 

Within this debate it’s also important to remember that YA fiction is a category invented by publishers to market books. Consider classic works like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, The Diary of Anne Frank - if these books were written and published today they’d be marketed as YA fiction. And yet they hold a place in the history of stories that todays critics of YA fiction assume works like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Harry Potter never will.

This attempt to mark a line between YA fiction and serious literary fiction that an adult should consume, entirely misses the point. Which to my mind is about the simple joy of a damn good story - regardless of who the publisher deemed it best to market it to.

Critics of YA fiction and its many adult readers, claim it’s escapist and unrealistic. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but is not most fiction escapist and unrealistic? Is entertainment not one of the single biggest reasons we read?

Reading has always been my most favourite pastime. The hours I’ve wiled away with a good book are impossible to calculate, but I’m going to go with a good chunk of my existence. And they’ve been hours well spent. Regardless of who or what I was reading, simply because I was reading, simply because I was enjoying a damn good story.

Basically, genre shaming is a rubbish exercise undertaken by people who fail to understand the point of stories, the point of reading. 

Attempting to publicly shame and humiliate readers for their choices flies in the face of the idea that books and stories are a universal right and an incredibly significant part of the human existence.

And lastly, reading is not, and never should be, an elitist activity. It is not reserved for those with silver spoons dangling from their mouths. But when we attempt to mark lines between ‘important literature’ and everything else we posit the act of enjoying a story that lives outside ‘important literature’ as something inferior. And it’s not.

Look, I’m nobody significant in this debate. I’m not a publisher, an author (I have a dream!) or a literary critic; what I am is a reader, a compulsive one with eclectic tastes. And as that reader, that reader who sits Cormac McCarthy right next to Jodi Picoult and has no issue with that at all, here’s my response to those that tell me I should feel ashamed for reading YA fiction or anything that is not ‘important literature’: fuck off, I’ll do what I want and read what I want and I certainly won’t feel ashamed by it.

And that is probably an incredibly juvenile response, must be all that YA fiction I read.

kb xx