It would've looked something like this.
But a couple beers later, it occurred to me that maybe I should put the goth face paint away and try to figure out exactly what it was about this article that upset me so much. Because the thing is, as I said in my blog post about the show Avatar, I sometimes do enjoy narrative art that's intended for children, and so do a lot of other people I like and respect. Among their number I'd even count Lev Grossman, the author of the very captivating, very flawed novel The Magicians who's quoted here (and whose point about plot I'll return to in my next post).
I've written before (here and here) about the phenomenon of adults reading books for kids, and I stand by most of the points I made, especially that defensively snarling "at least I'm reading!" should not work as an excuse for anyone over the age of thirteen. But when I think about it, I don't consider the real problem here to be what people read as much as the way they read it.
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a huge believer in ignoring the artificial boundary lines of genre and often even "good taste;" of following one's passions and interests wherever they might lead. In a recent essay for the NY Times, Rivka Galchen writes about super-brain Borges's eclectic, sometimes-slumming literary tastes: "If serial rereading is one way to define worship, then one of Borges’s most revered gods was Robert Louis Stevenson. This even though in Borges’s time, Stevenson’s work was basically considered kid stuff... Borges not only commented on books that didn’t exist. He read books — pulpy and arcane alike — that few others bothered to see." It's this kind of promiscuous reading that makes contemporary postmodern fiction possible: where would we be if Pynchon never read a boy's adventure novel? Understanding high and low art, its devices and conceits and diction, reading it with an eye for what it leaves out, what it unquestioningly upholds, is absolutely essential for any writer (or reader) who wants to inhabit voices that are not her own.
And in a broader sense, the smartest, most interesting people aren't always interested in the smartest, most interesting things – I'm thinking here of David Foster Wallace's essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," about his falling in, and quite rapidly, out of love with a (most likely ghostwritten) sports memoir, or of the fictional Perkus Tooth's weird and sudden obsession with a mediocre Steve Martin movie in the wonderful Chronic City, or Wittgenstein's fondness for the laconic heroes of American cowboy movies, or the many other anecdotally observed cases of writers and intellectuals honing in on shitty, seemingly random pop culture ephemera, which sometimes serve as the subject for art or criticism but most often don't. These brief passions, lavished on the least deserving of objects (literary and otherwise), can be refreshing, even necessary, for intellectuals, providing something that the highest art cannot: a temporary refuge from the genius of others – a space to think for oneself.
But the thing I find disturbing about the phenomenon of adults reading YA in general, and the Pamela Paul essay in particular, is that these people (with some exceptions) aren't looking for a space to think; they aren't looking to think at all. They're looking for pure entertainment and escape, and even worse, many of them have seemingly forgotten that art can offer more than that. According to this article, anyway, they're not reading these books with an eye for what's been elided, what's been neatened or smoothed for the sake of the tweens. They're not looking for a brief respite from the emotional and intellectual demands of serious literature. They're looking for an out-and-out replacement for it. And honestly, all their perky talk on the subject brings to my mind another genre: science fiction.
"Good Y.A. is like good television," says historian Amanda Foreman, who has the glassy, smiling eyes of a Stepford wife. "There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or disappointed people. Ever since I started taking Soma, I've felt so much less afraid."
"They’re also easier to read, and people are tired,” author Lizzie Skurnick chimes in. I see her as smartly dressed, with a chin-length bob and only a little of her brain dripping from her ear to the table. "Here, try some Substance D. You'll like it – everyone does."
"And none of it feels like homework," writes Pamela Paul from her desk in the Ministry of Truth. "The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun. And there's always enough Victory gin to go 'round."
So tell me: am I overreacting? Am I wrong? And are you already one of Them?