Shut Up, Joel Stein

After I read this article, I swear I could literally feel my blood pressure rising. No, it’s not a life-or-death issue, but I cannot remember the last time an opinion piece pissed me off so much.

At least most people who read that article had the same reaction I did. Gina wrote a great post recently about the backlash to YA lit. Well, now it’s time for mine.

First of all, here’s the obvious observation: you can’t intelligently comment on a book you haven’t actually read. So because a book is labeled as appropriate for teenagers (which, mind you, is a distinction that the publisher and not the author makes and is often determined solely by the age of the protagonist), you won’t even try to find out if it is, indeed, something that adults shouldn’t read? If you don’t think you’d like a book, don’t read it. I don’t think I’d like the Twilight books, so I haven’t read them. But I can’t actually tell people I don’t recommend them because, as I said, I HAVEN’T READ THEM.

Second—you won’t read a book that you think doesn’t require enough “brain power.” Really? REALLY? THAT’S why you read fiction? If you were talking about nonfiction, you might have a point. If I want to learn about something, I’d certainly rather do so from a book aimed at adults rather than one you’d find in the nonfiction section of an elementary school library.

But why do you read fiction? Joel Stein, are you seriously telling me that you read fiction because you want to learn? Not to be entertained? Not to marvel at the author’s ability to construct a beautiful description, make a keen observation, or imagine a dialogue you can hear clearly in your mind? Not to see a reflection of your own life, or that of someone you know?

In the 2010 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo (who happens to write fiction for adults that I thoroughly enjoy), Russo recounted a story about attending a reading with Isaac Bashevis Singer in which a student asked him what the purpose of literature was. Mr. Singer was adamant in his views on this subject: “To entertain and to instruct.” That sounds about right to me, and frankly, I’m inclined to believe a man who won the Nobel Prize in literature over a man who has written one memoir on “a stupid quest for masculinity.” (Low blow? So is banishing Harry Potter and The Hunger Games to the realm of tween girls, Mr. Stein.)

It’s possible that there’s no young adult literature will meet the standards of those who require “Pynchonesque turns of phrase” and “issues of identity, self-justification and anomie” from their literature, subjective though those qualifications are. But if you think that you won’t learn anything from young adult or children’s literature, you’ve either never read any YA books or you’ve only read bad ones. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I first read when I was ten, creates an incredibly complex dystopian world which, even as an adult, makes me reflect on the concepts of freedom of choice and an individual’s role in a successful society.  John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which I just read recently, drew me in with its narrative format, complex characters, and questions about how well we can ever really know the people we care about. The seven Harry Potter books are full of characters I could write term papers on and say so much about discrimination, corruption, and injustice in both its fictional world and the world we live in. Bette Green’s Summer of My German Soldier tells a unique World War II story with a take on themes of prejudice unlike anything I’ve seen in adult fiction.

And that’s just how those books instructed.  I could go on forever about how they entertained, which Mr. Singer notably included first.

Do you really want me to give more examples? To be totally honest, I think that the best of young adult literature is better than a lot of adult literature. Sometimes authors of adult fiction are too busy admiring their MFAs, disposing of adverbs, and sucking up to people more famous than they to remember the “entertain” part of the purpose of literature. And trying too hard to be different or edgy, as many authors of adult fiction do, usually backfires. Authors need to get the memo that infusing your novel with lots o’sex, drugs, and rock and roll is not original, often not very interesting, and has not been “edgy” for several decades. And if you’re writing fiction because you have a Message that you want to Convey, chances are that it’s as obvious as the gratuitous capital letters in this sentence. Christiana Krump introduced me to this awesome video by Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book critic, where he critiques Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. While I did like that book overall, I had a lot of the same issues with it that he did.

And anyway—in this day and age, when, according to a 2007 survey, one out of four people do not read books at all and the people who do read only polish off about four per year (trust me, the miserable offerings on online dating sites confirm this), do you really want to shame people for what they read? Think about it. No matter what people read—if it’s fiction, nonfiction, YA, Pulitzer Prize winners, romance novels, mysteries, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, or anything else—they are keeping books alive in an age when books have never been more threatened. If you don’t agree with someone’s taste, so the fuck what? I don’t like rap music, but I’m not going to tell people they shouldn’t listen to it.

Not to mention the message it sends to kids when you impress on them that certain tastes are “correct.” Did you ever think, Mr. Stein, that some kids, rather than being embarrassed upon seeing their parents reading a book aimed at children or teenagers, might become excited to read that book themselves? With American students’ reading scores being as dismal as they are, encouraging kids to read is never, ever a bad thing, and one of the best ways to do it is by demonstrating enthusiasm about reading. Through work, several of my colleagues and I participate in a mentoring program called Everybody Wins in which we go to a Boston elementary school once a week to read to a kid in second, third, or fourth grade. It’s a program I really believe in because it shows students how reading can be fun rather than something they “have” to do for school. It makes me really happy to see how enthusiastic the fourth-grader I mentor is to come to our reading sessions, and even happier to hear her talk about the books she’s read on her own at home. Recently, she wanted to read a book on Greek mythology because she’d learned about Greek gods from the Percy Jackson series, which she’d read outside of school. She wanted to read that book because it was fun, not to learn something—but she ended up learning something anyway.

When I started writing this post, I was angry at you, Joel Stein. But now I just feel bad for you. I hope the snobbish standards you’re so determined to hold books up to are worth missing out on so many intelligent, entertaining, wonderful books that happen to be stored in a section of the bookstore that you think you’re too good for.

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