Thursday, March 29, 2012

The age of literacy.

I was going to save this post for my "things that made me go 'hmm'" round-up on Saturday, but I decided I just couldn't wait. Plus, the column I'm going to comment on was published today, and as a journalist, I have this urge to be "timely." In this post, I will describe my reaction to "Adults Should Read Adult Books," a short piece by magazine columnist Joel Stein. This column is part of a larger debate about young adult fiction in the New York Times opinion pages, and — fortunately — Mr. Stein seemed to be the only panelist who held a condescending view of the YA genre.

Source: via Chelsea on Pinterest

I tweeted a link to the article earlier today, and several of my Twitter followers shared my disgusted disbelief. Here are their responses (sorry for the screenshots; I've tried to embed the tweets but they always show up as just text):

Additionally, I checked the bitly listing for the article to see what people were saying. As you can see for yourself, the conversation was overwhelmingly negative toward Mr. Stein and/or in praise of the young adult fiction genre. When I realized I wasn't the only person who had strong feelings about Stein's point of view, I decided to devote more than a tweet to the subject. Hence, this blog post.

Source: via Heather on Pinterest

At the foundation of my displeasure with Stein's column is my firm belief that "you shouldn't knock it 'til you've tried it." I'll admit; I am not a Twilight fan. I found the writing style immature, the character of Bella nauseating and the general hype around the franchise completely overrated. However, I still read the entire series. Why? Because who was I to even participate in discussions about the series without having firsthand knowledge of the subject? I'll tell you: I was no one. And besides, just because I dislike one young adult series doesn't mean I'll find them all equally as disappointing.

In the column, Mr. Stein outright admits: "I have no idea what 'The Hunger Games' is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character.... Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud." Well, if you have no idea what it's like, then how can you say you don't want to read it? And for his information, the series does deal with plenty of worthy literary themes, and The Atlantic even recognizes its significance as a political allegory. But wait, I'm sure Mr. Stein has some asinine reason why The Atlantic isn't worth his time, either.

For Mr. Stein to universally, unequivocally declare that no young adult fiction novels are appropriate reading for any adult is a ridiculous claim. Has he ever picked up a Harry Potter book? Does he realize J.K. Rowling and other authors like her inspired an entire generation to read when they could have been playing video games or killing countless brain cells with reality television? Oh wait, I'm sorry. I forgot Mr. Stein said himself that he would rather have grown-up America "watch[ing] Pixar movies or play[ing] video games" than reading young adult fiction. Guess I played right into his hands there, huh?

Whew, my heart is starting to beat a little faster just typing this. I'm afraid I'll go into a far-too-long angry rant if I don't stop soon, so I'm going to wrap it up right now. I know there were a lot more points I wanted to make and insults I wanted to throw that I've thought of throughout the day as I sat at my desk stewing about this column, but I want to open it up to all of you.

Please comment and let me know your thoughts. If you disagree with me, I promise I won't gouge your eyes out, just try to frame your argument in a more intelligent way than Mr. Stein did. I'd love to start a conversation about this. And I promise his column is super short, so pop over and read it!

P.S. — I apologize for any typos, which are the result of my slightly shaking hands (shaking with rage, of course) and my sense of urgency to get this up as soon as possible.


Michelle @ The Vintage Apple said...

I COULD NOT AGREE WITH YOU MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am 30 years of age and I just read the entire HG series. I could not put the books down. I also read the Twilight series (about 4 years ago). As an English teacher to middle schoolers and high schoolers, I find this article appalling for so many reasons. I encourage my students to READ ANYTHING. AS LONG AS THEY ARE READING. Sorry for my all caps, but I am yelling this out in my mind as I type! I think as long as someone is READING, who cares???? Shouldn't adults be the same way? Read what makes you happy??? Regardless of category????

Thank you for sharing this. I feel like putting this Stein guy on blast.

Megan said...

THANK YOU FOR USING ALL CAPS. Haha. I really don't think our disgust could be truly expressed without them. I completely agree with everything you said. Also, my 46-year-old mother read the HG trilogy when I was done, and she loved it. You know why? BECAUSE SHE'S A TRUE READER. She doesn't care about labels or any of that. She cares about a good story. Thank you for commenting! I really appreciate your input. :)

P.S. - Sorry for telling everyone your age, Mom. :-/

Diamond MD said...

I completely agree with you! If he had at least read one of the books that he so easily trashed I could give him credit for trying, but to attack an entire genre without even knowing what he wrote about! Ridiculous. Throw all the insults you want...he deserves them.

In Which We Start Anew said...

I think what bothered me most about his column was two-fold.

1. That he hadn't even read any of the books he was criticizing. Do I like every YA novel I've picked up? No. I'm 35 years old, and there are many that just aren't my cup of tea. I enjoyed Twilight, but I don't believe it's the best thing I've ever read either, and has massive weird issues that are wrapped up in it. I'm also quite possibly the only person in the world who didn't care about Harry Potter. lol But I tried them both, and it is by virtue of THAT fact that I'm qualified to have an opinion on whether they're good books or not.

And also #2, that his opinion was not just that HE didn't want to read YA fiction because he felt it was beneath him, but that he extended that to pompously claim that NO adult should read YA fiction, and that if they do, they are intellectual MORONS. What? Really? I can't even find a big enough stick with which to whack him over the head.

In Which We Start Anew

Megan said...

Yes, yes, yes! Exactly. I'm glad you agree. And I'm willing to look for a big enough stick if you'll go with me to see him haha. And I don't mind one bit that you didn't like Harry Potter, because AT LEAST YOU TRIED IT. I'm disgusted that a "journalist" would presume to write about something that he himself admits to having no experience with. Thanks for commenting!

P.S. — I should add "presume to write with personal authority," because of course I don't think journalists who cover court cases should be criminals, or who cover women's movements should be women, etc. :)

Megan said...

Amen, sister! Haha. Thanks for commenting!

Kate @ Daffodils said...

That was the worst article I have ever read. I think what makes great YA literature is its appeal to both adults and children. This man probably is not a father either and doesnt understand the importance of knowing what the kids are reading. Even though these books are geared toward tweens, it doesn't mean we can't get something out of it. I especially believe this to be true about HG and even Perks of Being a Wallflower that we talked about last week. And for books that are more 'fluff', what's to say that they aren't entertaining? It is like telling an adult not to reading a magazine because they won't learn enough. Flawed argument all around.

Derek Benham said...

I'll give you a male perspective here.

I couldn't agree with you more.
Some of our greatest literature was written by young adults.
F. Scott Fitzgerald started writing novels and short stories at age 24.
Mary Shelley was 21 when she penned Frankenstein.
Jane Austen started writing fiction at age 19.
Hemingway started writing in his 20's.
The list of young adult writers goes on: Huxley, Anne Frank, Alcott, etc.

Most of those works were aimed at young adults, because they were the ones who were being educated and were seeking new literature. What Stein neglects to incorporate into his thoughts is the evolution of literature. Greek epics by Homer (or imitations by Milton) are no longer the norm. And an author would be hard-pressed to incorporate Austen's style into a best selling piece of literature. Slaughterhouse 5, 1984 and Brave New World are all written in similar literary styles, but those are different even from today's standards. Currently, epics in the form of series are in vogue.

It would be one thing to say he disagrees with the content of the works, but to no acknowledge the reasoning behind the writing styles is mind boggling. And that is coming from a guy who has devoted the past 4 years to science.

Jessica Bucher said...

What stands out in that article is that he said an adult reading a YA novel is embarassing. For whom?? Because I'm the one reading it, and I'm NOT AT ALL embarrassed. And if he thinks it's somehow "dumbing down" America, I have this to say...People are reading..for entertainment!! And if he bothered to pick up a YA novel he would see that they do have literary themes WHILE being entertaining. Like sneaking vegetables to a toddler.
Again, I say...what an idiot. His article had no support and was just poorly written all the way around. Next time you want to attack an entire genre of literature and its readers, do some friggin research first.

Lindsay Cochrum said...

My thoughts, as I posted on Facebook with the column:

I understand the point he's trying to make: adults shouldn't ignore rich literature and deep reading for easier, simpler stories written for younger audiences, but I don't entirely agree. Reading books for teens and children is fun and sometimes surprisingly meaningful! I think we should have a healthy balance.

Also: The Fault in Our Stars

Carenpants said...

I'm so glad you posted about this, great job. I read it so many times thinking maybe I missed the part where he let us know it was a joke. A couple people have already mentioned this, but any type of reading is good! Just because a book isn't "deep" or "academic" doesn't mean it doesn't have something to teach us. I agree books are a huge source of knowledge for us, and not only factual knowledge, but knowledge about relationships and life, but they are not "one of our few chances to learn." Every day is a learning experience and I think literature helps us make sense of life sometimes. I think this can be a learning experience for him and I hope he realizes that you can't bash an entire genre when you haven't even given it a chance. Let the people read what they want.

Patty said...

There would have been a time when I might have agreed with this guy...probably when I was about 30 and thought that I was "too old" for YA fiction and needed to keep bettering myself. But, then I read The Giver. It was entertaining, it was thought-provoking, and I still remember it (30 was a long time ago!) If adults ONLY read YA, then I believe they are missing out. But, I also believe that if they are only reading science fiction, or romance or "real literature." What makes reading so enjoyable for me is the breadth and depth that I can vary any time I want...just by choosing a different kind of book. It's like a good DJ. Mix it up a little to enrich and ENJOY your life!

P.S. From a journalistic point of view, I have to say I agree with everyone here. He lost credibility with me as soon as he admitted he had never read the book. This guy strikes me as a wanna-be intellectual. He...misses.

Megan said...

Thank you for your insight, Derek! The specific examples you used are great; I wish I had done that much research before I started spouting off! But I just couldn't wait to respond any longer. :)

Anonymous said...

I completely understand the feeling of venting your frustration the moment something upsets you. Later, we usually realize we would have said more or said it differently or not at all. Not in this case. Stein upsets me today as much as he did the other day when I read his opinion.

It's easy to discount his thoughts though because it's on the opinion page and it's just that - one person's opinion and I don't definitely don't value his opinion over my own.

He can judge away all he wants, but ultimately it's Stein who is missing out. I've read the YA book series that are currently popular and I enjoyed them. Why? Because they were entertaining and allowed my mind to drift to those other worlds. I don't say escape because I don't need to escape my life. I like my life.

I've read these YA books because they create these fantastical worlds from the author's imagination as opposed to the real life drama of a lot of popular 'adult' books out there right now.

For example, when I see a movie, I don't always have to walk away with a profound revelation about life. Sometimes I go just for entertainment purposes only.

I read because I find enjoyment in it whether I'm reading Austen, DeLillo, Hemingway, Collins, or Creighton. If he wants to sit on his perch and judge then let him judge away. I'm curious to why he feels so strongly on this topic though. If he's true to his opinion then why does it bother him so much what others are reading? It's not him being seen with an HP book in hand. It seems he's reading for other people and not himself. Here's my advice to Stein: Stop shunning others fun and lighten up.

Here's a random/kind of related fact (and since video games have been dragged into the conversation): Kids who play video games test higher overall than kids who don't. I'm not condoning any kid to sit around avoiding life by sitting in front of a TV or computer all day playing games. But a little fun in this case can actually benefit them in other areas of their lives.

The same goes for YA books. I don't believe that someone is more intelligent because they choose to only read non-fiction or literature worthy of being called 'adult.' I actually just think they like to say that and probably say that a lot. Oh, and here's my opinion, Mr. Stein: I also think they're more pretentious and probably not that fun to talk to at a party. But, that's just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I should apologize for the rambling on your blog. Please forgive. LOL. <--- Oh, I bet Stein hates lol's. LOL!


Megan said...

Hi Suzie,

No need to apologize! I appreciate any and all comments, especially when they're as well-thought-out as yours. There wasn't an e-mail address linked to your comment, so I hope you see my response. :)

When I first started reading your comment, I thought you were going to tell me I overreacted (!), but I'm relieved to see we both feel the same way on this subject. I did not know that fact about video games and testing, but I believe it because my brother stays up all night playing them and is VERY smart. Thanks for sharing!

And now we can spend our weekends reading ridiculous young adult books that have no place in our adult libraries. :)

- Megan