Another month, another critic who doesn’t read young adult (YA) literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy.
In December 2013, it was Jonathan Myerson arguing that ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature’, because ‘great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience…’
In June this year, Ruth Graham this year came out with a Slate-bait ‘Against YA’ article: ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.’
Christopher Beha a few months later attempted to expand on Graham’s argument with his New Yorker piece ‘Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate’. Beha tried to convince readers that ‘putting down Harry Potter for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations… it’s one of its rewards’. Beha went on,, ‘It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.’
And in Australia, we now have our very own anti-YA rant: Helen Razer’s arts critique for Crikey’s DailyReview, ‘Attention Young Adult Fiction Fans: Grow Up.’ To be fair, Razer is not saying what the title entirely suggests. Unlike Ruth Graham, who thinks adults who read YA should be ‘embarrassed’ and just not do it, Razer is saying that we can enjoy YA (gee, thanks!) but youth literature (and other offshoots like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – fantasy and comic book adaptations) don’t deserve to be called ‘great’ or defended as art – she believes YA books are not sufficiently complex to be deserving of proper arts criticism. As she put it so delicately on Twitter:
Think YA Fiction needs to be taken more seriously by critics? If so, you could be a fuckwit! Find out if you are: http://t.co/6651QWeoh3
— Helen Razer (@HelenRazer) September 30, 2014
And so we find ourselves, yet again, having to explain to an arts critic why putting a line through an entire readership is just plain stupid.
Myerson, Graham, Beha and Razer have all reached the same conclusion, with the same flawed arguments. None of them actually read YA literature. Sure, they name-check the likes of Twilight (really?), The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Fault in Our Stars with eye-rolling predictability – but those are just the bestselling, blockbuster adaptations that have emerged from the YA readership in the last decade or so. By that logic, adults only read Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks and Robert Ludlum. No one in the youth literature community was asking that Twilight be put up for the Nobel Prize in Literature – but we would ask for the common sense and courtesy that you don’t judge all books by these few.
It’s likely these arts critics would find it a lot harder to defend their ‘YA is not great literature’ stance if they actually read beyond the Wikipedia-entry for YA. Give them some Margo Lanagan (her YA novel Sea Hearts was on the Stella Prize shortlist last year), Sonya Hartnett (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award), Melina Marchetta (longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award), Lois Lowry (awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by Brown University), or Sherman Alexie (won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction), and see their arguments falter.
Even Razer’s opening line – ‘Children are, for the most part, perfectly decent people but even the very best of them are really terrible critics’ – is also echoed in Myerson, Graham and Beha’s articles. It’s an idea that I believe Australian children’s author Morris Gleitzman best summarises: ‘Adults often make the mistake of assuming that because children are physically smaller, that everything that goes on in their inner worlds is conventionally smaller.’
But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter how much those of us in the youth literature community bemoan these hollow critiques that discount children and teenagers as actual human beings, capable of independent thought – there will be another same-same article in 3-6 months, touting more elitist, literary snobbery and proclaiming (whether in the article itself, or via Twitter) that those of us who enjoy childish things are ‘fuckwits‘. So repetitive and predictable are these articles, there’s even a bingo game about them.
No, what’s starting to matter is a common theme among observations and responses to articles like Razer’s. On social media, where it was healthily debated, many people pointed out an inherently sexist element to the ‘Against YA’ judgments.
The history of children’s literature is so closely tied to women, who have helped shape it – going as far back as the 18th-century. And today, youth literature continues to be dominated by women. It is mostly women who write YA fiction – and women who are the top-earning YA writers. Statistically, women read more than men – so, not surprisingly, women also buy and read more YA fiction than men. When articles like ‘Against YA’ and ‘Attention young adult fiction fans: grow up’ come out, it feels like an attack – as though women are being scolded, and told that our industry and reading preferences are not worthy, or worthwhile.
And when Myerson, Graham, Beha and Razer write their arguments proclaiming YA to be a waste of time/not complex/unworthy – it sounds a lot like ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.’ They name-check Twilight (written by Stephenie Meyer), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Harry Potter (JK Rowling) and discount an entire readership that is dominated by female writers and readers. Even their criticizing of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has sexist undertones – the book was inspired by the life of a young girl called Esther Earl, and its subsequent movie success is largely credited with his female fanbase. Is it any wonder that when the likes of Myerson and Razer proclaim YA literature to be lacking in complexity and undeserving of serious arts criticism, people read such blanket judgements as both sexist and elitist?
In his New Yorker article Christopher, Beha praises the work of Henry James over Harry Potter. In his opinion piece, Jonathan Myerson argues that ‘Keats is different from Dylan, or, in this instance, that Philip Roth does say something rather more challenging than JK Rowling, that Jonathan Franzen does create storylines more ambiguous and questioning than Stephanie Meyer’s’. Helen Razer asks readers, ‘So, what then, is your excuse for making Rothko simpler than he is and Stephanie Meyers more complicated?’
That’s a lot of praise for old, white dudes in articles criticising the young adult novels written by female YA writers and read by primarily female readers.
But it’s not surprising. Female novelists – whether writing for children, young adults or adults – are often the target of literary sexism. From their listings on Wikipedia, to their being reviewed in major Australian newspapers and literary review publications. The YA bashing articles sting all the more because female YA writers have a hard enough time being taken seriously within the youth literature community, without having critics who don’t even read YA touting similar protestations that their writing is not deserving of serious critique or accolades. Female YA authors have to campaign for an end to gendered book covers, for instance – and in a readership that is dominated by women, they still have to face the ‘White Knight syndrome’ demonstrated by successful male authors like John Green. The 2013 VIDA (women in literary arts) count also found that even in an industry that is by all accounts ‘dominated’ by women, men who had smaller representation in children’s and YA lit were still highly represented in awards.
In light of the 2013 Stella Count, Aviva Tuffield opined ‘More men need to read books written by women’, in order to ‘challenge unconscious bias and gender stereotypes.’ Yet another reason why it might be a good idea for those who enter into ‘YA bashing’ – with the yawning uniformity of their vitriolic opinions – to start thinking of the deeper sexist implications of judging a community that is written and read primarily by women to be unworthy.
It’s not witty criticism – it’s elitism and sexism.
Main image credit: smplstc