On reading young adult fiction

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the immortal words of John Rogers, "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. "

A Slate piece by Ruth Graham titled Against YA suggests that "...Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."

I'm sorry, (he said, with icy politeness,) but Young Adult fiction is a marketing category, not the mark of Cane. Belonging to that category does not mean a book is badly written or emotionally unsophisticated. Moby Dick was published as a kids' adventure story, as was The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnAtlas Shrugged was published as a novel of ideas aimed at adults. But which of these has the greater emotional and moral depth?

 The truth is, you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can tell from its cover what the publisher thought its audience was. The thing is, publishers are seldom right. Quite a few rejected Animal Farm, one of them saying, "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States."

Robert Pirsig sent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to 121 publishers before the 122nd bought it. If publishers understood their audience, they would have known this would be a best seller, but in truth, no one understands the reading public well enough to be certain which books will sell best, or which will be regarded as classics a century later.

In addition, most adult fiction has no particular claim to literary merit. Should people be ashamed of reading westerns, or mysteries, or fantasy novels? Why single out young adult fiction for the sneer? People don't read porn for the character development or the sophisticated prose, but those books are unquestionably aimed at adults. Should we feel shame any time we are reading something that a creative writing professor would give a B grade to? Are we to outsource our tastes and our choices to people with pretensions as arbiters of taste who may, in the end, miss the mark as badly as the 19th century pretenders who ignored Moby Dick?

How badly do the arbiters of taste miss the mark? Consider this rejection, with gratuitous misspelling of the author's name, of The Bell Jar
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
P.G. 3/29/63
 Miss Jones, the other Knopf editor who read the manuscript, gave her initial response thus:
[1] Reject recommended
I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
Since two editors at a major publishing house thought the book was crap, should we be ashamed of reading The Bell Jar? Yet it has entered the 20th century canon as a classic.

Is there recent YA fiction that will someday be regarded as classic literature? I couldn't tell you, because that decision will be made by readers yet unborn. Maybe Louis Sachar's Holes will be regarded as great literature one day, maybe it will be forgotten, as most books are. I do not arrogate to myself the power to dictate the appropriate taste of any other reader.

In fact, I think past efforts to do so have been destructive to literature. When academics came to wield great power over which poets are regarded as good, poetry lost its organic connection to a mass audience. Increasingly, literary fiction is written by professors of creative writing, in part because it is becoming more difficult for authors to support themselves on what they can make. Is this a good thing, or will it enervate the novel the way this dynamic has enervated poetry?

I submit that the reason adults are attracted to YA fiction is precisely the fact that the arbiters of taste don't control it, the audience does. When I read Annie Proulx,  I get a good read, but I also get some prose that seems very written, very much intended to bring attention to the cleverness of the author. My preference is for authors who don't let the words get in the way, who let me look right at the story without demanding attention for themselves. Heart of Darkness isn't a great book because it has memorable sentences, it's a great book because the sentences disappear and leave you facing Kurtz. It's a great book because once you've read it, the book becomes a part of you, and changes who you are.

And it's a great book because generations of readers felt the same as I do on reading it. The formation of a canon does not depend on the utterances of experts, it depends upon a consensus formed by many readers over a long period of time.

Take the example of The Lord of the Rings. It came out at a time when critics preferred the then-fashionable style of social realism. But J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't writing some pale imitation of The Grapes of Wrath, he was writing an epic, something no one else was doing. It took a couple generations for critics to take it seriously, but if I had to name a book I was certain people would still be reading in a hundred years, the ring trilogy (originally intended to be one book) would be my choice.

Yet, had I followed the advice of Ruth Graham's Slate piece, I would have been ashamed to read it. It was written as a sequel to The Hobbit, which was very definitely a kids' book. It even won an award for "best juvenile fiction" from the New York Herald Tribune in 1937.