Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fahrenheit PG-13

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of reading this article by Pamela Paul over at the NY Times, and promptly went through all five Kubler-Ross stages of grief in alphabetical order, thus ending with depression.  I considered writing a blog post, but the only way I could imagine expressing my feelings was by somehow rendering a likeness of myself lying dead on a tumbled heap of Nabokov and Barthelme, Yates and Carver, my ruined heart overspilling itself, my face stained with tears of blood.  And I don't know how to work the timer on my camera.

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?


Eric T said...

Lizzie Skurnick's "people are tired" seems to me like one of the more interesting of the horrible quotes in that article. On the surface, it's just a doting/condescending/indolent "you've had a long day – so sit and drink some cocoa and read a nice, easy, YA book." But "people are tired" also implies that Skurnick and Pamela Paul & co. think people are [sick and] tired of something, like say, an image of seriousness gleaned from some dull source like education or experience. These women (they are mostly women for some reason, right?) are furious or afraid, and can only express it by telling themselves groupthink stories of eroded markets being cleansed by sweet morsels of pure escapism – a sentimental version of sensuous experience unmediated by thought that Kierkegaard once attributed to music – despite their knowledge that literature has some potential to shake you up a little more than a Turkish Delight ever can. Aesthetic fears compounding economic fears, ya know?

V. Wetlaufer said...

All the incredible YA lit writers I met at Lambda last week prove that good YA lit isn't about giving their readers nothing to think about but quite the opposite, actually. I'm not going to read that article because it depressed you so much and I don't need any help being depressed. But. It sounds like that bitch is crazy.

The Chawmonger said...

Don't get me wrong -- I grew up reading YA novels in vast quantities, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for writers who can successfully capture the imaginations of a new generation of readers. YA authors are teachers, educating young people about the conventions and devices of literature, and the good ones are great teachers, ones who challenge and reward their audience. But challenging even a bright 12- to 14-year-old is necessarily different than challenging a well-read, well-educated adult in her 30's or 40's. What I find disturbing is that that's not being acknowledged by the readers of these books.

Of course, there are also times, as I said in previous posts, when a "YA" book transcends its genre to become not a novel for young people but a novel that simply happens to be *about* young people. I haven't read Mockingjay or many of the other books written about in this particular article, so I can't speak to them specifically on these terms. But I do find it telling that this is an article about the phenomenon of adults reading YA, not a discussion of the towering achievements, the unexpected reach and scope, of one particular genre-bending book.

Thanks for reading, V.!

Emily Sue said...

I quickly learned my lesson about YA fiction this year after I made the mistake of reading the "book" "The Uglies." I had frequently heard it compared to one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes and I couldn't resist. I read it in secret on a long train ride, ashamed, hidden in my sleeper car. This piece of literary trash has nearly a 4 star rating from the users of Goodreads and has spawned a series of sequels I vow to never read. As one Goodreads review put it "the author seems determined to never use a word that would send even the shakiest reader to the dictionary." It wasn't even entertaining, it just pissed me off with its sheer laziness and waste of a promising subject matter. So yes, if this is what 40-something women are exclusively reading, god save us all.

However, is YA lit worse than Danielle Steele? Is an adult only reading books for kids worse than not reading at all? I don't know. I have several coworkers who have read maybe one book in their adult lives, another who has read none, and despite the fact that she is 40 years old has never heard of "Little Women." This scares me more than the prospect of her reading YA lit, to tell you the truth.

Emily Sue said...

Just noticed something - the average Goodreads reader score for "Brave New World" is LOWER than the score for "The Uglies." Soma indeed. Ok, now I panic.

The Chawmonger said...

Good points all, Emily Sue. I definitely don't think YA is worse than Danielle Steele (or Dan Brown) -- qua its existence in general, I think it's a lot better, for the reasons I described in my last comment here and in previous posts (there's much to be said for its role in introducing younger readers to the conceits and devices of fiction). But where adult readers are concerned, I think it's on a par with these airport-bookshop pulps. Which again, isn't necessarily so bad, except that the readers quoted in this article seem to have deluded themselves into thinking otherwise.

As for your second question -- hmm. I don't know if I think reading only far below one's "reading level" *is* better than not reading at all. Because, the fact is, in modern American culture, we're all reading anyway, all the time: emails, IM convos, blogs, Wikipedia entries, Facebook status updates, text messages, magazine and newspaper articles. The virtue of a novel as a form of intellectual exercise is not the fact that it exposes the reader to the printed word, but the fact that it challenges us to grasp larger kinds of complexity: formal, aesthetic, emotional, even moral. If people are actively avoiding that very complexity -- seeking out narrative patterns they immediately recognize and understand -- then what is it we think they're "getting from" these books, other than the same uncut escapism they'd experience watching cute puppies on YouTube? Don't get me wrong -- I like watching those puppies too, but I'm not about to claim that there's something edifying about the experience.

Anyway, ES, thanks so much for reading. I'm glad we're reconnecting via the Internets.

John said...

Lev Grossman had an interesting article in the WSJ last year about adults reading YA. It drove me nuts for several reasons, but his central point was reasonable: literary fiction was failing to entertain. Great literature can invite, entice and even challenge, but if it fails to give the reader an essential compulsion to continue, then readers will abandon it. The compulsion comes first. Most frequently we call our compulsions entertainment (though I think "satisfaction" is a better word, but that's philosophical).

But I think being able to go to prose for pure entertainment is a very good thing. If it's fine for television, movies and music to have content that's entertainment-first, why not the written word? It attracts more people to pick up any prose - bordering on the "at least I'm reading" excuse you deplore, but if more people see prose as attractive, then more can wander into the LitFic section. We are reading more often with e-mail, texts and the like, but this does not prepare us for reading Pale Fire or The Inferno. YA novels get us a little closer to digesting written works of significant length and structure, and the supposedly smart ones (which I haven't read but am willing to believe exist) would get us even closer than that. I have a friend who teaches English; she used a conversation about the Twilight books to get her kids to read Romeo and Juliet, not for class, but for themselves. I know in my own development that had I not read some pretty crappy but entertaining John Grisham novels (ones that aren't so entertaining to me anymore) I would not have had the literary endurance to pick up Moby Dick on my own. Today I happily bob between the intellectual and the compelling, though like Grossman I still prefer writers who can mix them.

The Chawmonger said...

Hey John, don't get me wrong: I have absolutely no problem with people reading fiction for pure entertainment. I also have no problem with people playing Dance Dance Revolution, or staring at Photoshopped pictures of cats, or paging through the bikini issue of Sports Illustrated, or watching the TV show Full House, for pure entertainment. Entertainment is important; it refreshes us mentally, it gives us a break. As I said in my post, "These brief passions, lavished on the least deserving of objects... 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." I've also said, here and before, that I think YA can do a great job teaching (usually young) readers about the conventions and devices of fiction, thus preparing them for more ambitious works.

But my problem with this article is the way that it suggests, even states, that these readers don't regard their YA novels as mere entertainment, or as a stepping stone to more sophisticated, challenging books. They consider YA novels to be a replacement for all that -- one that's less intellectually demanding, less emotionally taxing, that goes down easy and doesn't make them think about aging or failure or death. And that to me does conjure up images of a society of people that have decided to anesthetize themselves rather than feel grown-up emotions like fear or sadness or confusion, as in the dystopian examples I've referenced.

Thanks so much for turning me onto that WSJ article -- I read it and found it fascinating. It will definitely figure prominently into my next post!