The debate about age when it comes to reading is something that’s been around for a veeeeeeeeeeeery long time.
It recently popped up on again when celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen gave an interview with Butler University’s literary newsletter, Booth. In it, he talks about YA novelist Jennifer Wiener and their ongoing feud. If I’m being honest, I don’t know when it started or why. But if you read his interview (which is long and boring, to be honest, so I don’t recommend it) he really goes after her. My biggest issue? He refuses to read her work, because it’s Young Adult. He talks about the “moral simplicity” of YA, and states that he doesn’t care if adults read YA because it’s “their loss, not mine.” Ultimately, I know he was asked a question about a horrific Slate article by Ruth Graham (ugh, I can’t even get into it) but to me, it just felt like he was being condescending, close-minded, and stuffy.
He did get me thinking, however. What is it that I, as an adult, love about YA lit? What draws me to those books and why do I enjoy them so much? Why am I not “embarrassed” (like the Slate article says I should be) by the “moral simplicity” (like Franzen thinks) of these stories?
First off, I think it’s obvious but it must be stated: I fundamentally disagree with Franzen. And I think the fact that he refuses to read YA novels but assumes their (and most popular stories) “moral simplicity” is completely ridiculous and proves his opinion is unfounded and, ultimately, irrelevant. How are you taken seriously by just writing something off without ever experiencing it? That’s like saying “Oh, I completely hate the way grapes taste” without ever tasting grapes. Or, “I hate how tulips look” when you’ve never seen a tulip before. If either one of those statements were said, the counter would be “well you can’t say that without trying it or looking at it.” And that’s the same thing with Franzen. You cannot just write off and deem “simple” what you have never experienced.
So, with that said. On to why I enjoy these books.
I’m not shy about my love for Sarah Dessen, or Rick Riordan, or the literal god that is J.K. Rowling. These people have massively influenced my life – as a child, teen, and now an adult. Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, and Dessen’s girls are characters that I can see myself in when I read these books. Sometimes, yes, the premises are simple. But, when you really look into these books, they often times deal with tragic and difficult life happenings in more realistic (even in the otherworldly settings for some) ways than in “literature” – a term I’m sure I’ll describe my love/hate relationship with soon.
Sarah Dessen’s about to publish her twelfth novel in May, and I can’t wait. To this point, she’s tackled these types of issues in her books: overbearing parents (simple?), teen pregnancy, teen intimate partner violence (not simple), rape (not simple), eating disorders not simple), parental abuse (not simple), parental death (not simple), divorce (simple?), and others. Let’s be real here: are any of these issues simple? Is dealing with divorce or overbearing parents simple? Not really. And the other issues? Well, there’s no question. And Dessen’s not the only one. Most YA authors tackle these issues in their books. Just because there’s a supernatural trend right now (coming out of the vampire trend) doesn’t mean the issues being tackled aren’t complex. None of Dessen’s characters are perfect. The best part about them is their flawed natures, because the most rewarding part of her novels is watching her characters grow. There’s no easy resolution, there’s a maturation of everyone involved.
Something I noticed while reading Where She Went recently was how I definitely am growing up and relating to different portions of YA novels. I sympathize more with the”realistic” parents or “adult” concerns of money and jobs. But that doesn’t mean in any way shape or form that I don’t enjoy the adventure, the hope, that teen and young adult characters bring to the table. It’s important for our tastes (in everything) to evolve. That’s what growing up is. But if people can enjoy eating grapes at 2 and at 22, why can’t I enjoy reading a book at 14 and 24?
The mark of a good book shouldn’t be its section of a bookstore. It should be in the depth of the characters, the believable-ness (I know, not a word) of the dialogue, and how well those two aspects fit into the setting. I can’t argue whether or not Franzen’s novels are good; he’s been a Pulitzer finalist, so it’s easy to assume that. I’ve only read his articles and interviews, which, as I mentioned, sound stuffy and condescending. And if that’s moral complexity? I’m good, thanks anyway.