Let us discuss literary fiction and sales. It’s no secret that it’s incredibly difficult to sell a novel that is considered literary fiction, and that sales of literary fiction have been decreasing to the point where writers have been bemoaning the death of that particular category of books for years. Most recently, Will Self, in an article in The Guardian, claimed “serious novels” are dead. And, of course, by serious novel, he means adult literary fiction . . . because only adult literary fiction can be serious, I guess.
Not to be outdone, freelance writer Ruth Graham has decided young adult novels, regardless of genre, are not serious. In fact, adults should be embarrassed to read YA lit because it is written for children.
I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.
Graham then goes on to say:
But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults. When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?
Perhaps it makes me more of a grown up than Graham, but I read her article, rolled my eyes, and said “Oh, brother” numerous times.
Look, I love to read. And, of course, I’m a writer of fiction. Graham tells us that it’s okay to write about teenagers (as I do), but it’s practically a sin for which she’ll happily judge you to read about teenagers. She seems to think I’m somehow depriving myself by including YA on my reading lists instead of only devouring the serious fiction of adult novels. While Graham is dictating what I should be reading as an adult, she doesn’t specify which genre of adult fiction. Does she consider, let’s say, The Fault in Ours Stars inferior adult reading over The Da Vinci Code? How about the winners of the various badly written erotica contests? I mean, it’s for adults, right? To read that kind of thing must mean we have “graduat[ed] out of the kiddie pool.” Or is she, like Will Self, talking about literary fiction? You know, “serious” literary?
One can picture Graham sitting down to dinner, eating only liver and onions because she deems it a grown up dish, worthy of mature palates, looking down her nose at adults enjoying a pizza because it’s kid food. It’s not serious food. (And no, that doesn’t mean I’m saying literary fiction is the equivalent of liver and onions. I read a lot of literary fiction and love it.) She comes across as so curmudgeonly and judgmental and melodramatic that it’s hard to take her seriously. The attempt to shame adults for reading YA rolls off the screen. Who is she to tell me what I can read as an adult or what is appropriate reading material for anyone?
Whether it’s Ruth Graham or Will Self or anyone else, I’m not interested in taking direction about what to read from anyone. I’d rather have the ability to enjoy a range of literature than set up arbitrary rules for myself that limit my options. I think I might be a little older than Graham, so I’ve got a handle on this “being an adult” thing. I vote. I pay my bills and mortgage. I’ve been married for a lot of years. I even hold down a steady, paying job and pay my taxes and manage not to give in to any juvenile impulses I might have, despite reading quite a bit of YA lit. Well, maybe sometimes. I did, after all, cry while reading The Fault In Our Stars. Mea culpa. I’m clearly unwilling to grow up.