Monday, June 30, 2014

On YA, Dickens, and Schadenfreude

There have been a few articles that have shaken up the book world lately - first was this silly article in Slate by Ruth Graham titled Against YA that sent most of the writers I follow on Twitter into a veritable firestorm, not to mention the gals in my book club. We read about one YA book a year, and our next selection is Eleanor & Park  - one of the examples she uses to support her claim that YA books aren't serious literature. Graham goes so far to say "I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."  Listen: I don't feel embarrassed about ANYTHING I read when I'm reading a fucking book, and neither should you.

So, everyone knows that Graham's article is little more than click-bait, but she does express a common opinion, which is that YA literature isn't serious and that reading YA isn't exactly something to be proud of.  When 1 in 4 Americans don't read a book in a year (and the other 75% average at only 5 books a year) I don't give two shits what people are reading as long as they're reading something.

So, to what does Graham think adult readers should turn their attention?  Why, Dickens and Edith Wharton, of course!  Ignoring the irony that Dickens is perhaps the first YA writer (who else read Great Expectations in the 6th grade?) it's pretty hilarious that the example of high literature that she pulls out are two dusty old Victorians.  Which brings me to article #2, which was published in Vanity Fair July 2014: It's Tartt--But is it Art? whereby the runaway success of The Goldfinch is examined.  While it did win the damn Pulitzer Prize there are plenty of purveyors of high Art (with a capital A) who would like to remind us that it wasn't actually that great.  To tell the truth, I myself like to say that The Goldfinch was merely good, but that's kind of beside the point.  James Wood, book critic for The New Yorker, told Vanity Fair, "I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter."   Oh SNAP!  Additionally, plenty of critics are lining up to say that Tartt, who is frequently compared to Dickens (this is where it all comes together) is not really that much like Dickens after all.  Not only is an honest-to-God, "adult", Pulitzer Prize winning novel getting dissed for being too "YA" by The New Yorker but her very Dickensian-ness, generally acknowledged (not by me, but that's beside the point) as the very Bastion Of High Art and Literature is being called into question.

Actually, I think the Vanity Fair article is fantastic - I love a good old fashioned scrap about the very nature of art and literature as much as anyone.  It's true I do find the abject loyalty of Tartt fans a bit curious, which is why I say that books like The Secret History and The Goldfinch are merely good because her fans, and, yes, the Pulitzer committee, seem to go absolutely ape-shit for her work.  That's where Evgenia Peretz nails it in It's Tartt--But is it Art?  when she writes about the "writer's best friends, Schadenfreude and his twin brother, Envy" and the critical reaction to Tartt's work.  Despite the fiscal and literary success of The Goldfinch, it's still fun to sit around and make snide remarks about it because I suppose when we do, what we're really saying is that we have the highest, more pure and excellent taste in literature - higher than Pulitzer-Prize-winning Tartt, higher than Dickens himself.

You know how there are connoisseurs - who eat fine food -  and then there are gourmands - who like fine food AND county fair food? I like to read like a gourmand and I honestly think everyone should.  If I were such a snob that I couldn't read anything but old classics like Dickens and Wharton how would I ever have discovered my great love for mysteries, or apocalypse fiction, or YA?   I'm certainly not going to make fun of someone, or, God forbid, tell them they should be freaking ashamed for reading something - not even my sister-in-law, who exclusively reads Amish romances.  Which are probably full of steamy side hugs.  But I haven't read one yet so I'm not going to judge (that much).

Do you know why people don't read?  I've asked friends who confess not to read - it's generally because it's hard for them - it's hard to concentrate, or they find it boring, or they actually find it painful.  That's a person that never learned to love reading, or maybe has eye problems, or even a learning disability, or maybe got ridiculed all through school, and definitely hasn't found their genre yet.  And I'm certainly not going to poke fun at them when they do.

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