Judging Books By Their Covers

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Nailapalooza_060713_404_r_AmeliaAlpaugh-(1)Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh.
I got married last summer, and while I was on my honeymoon I made the horrible mistake of reading The Fault in Our Stars. I consider it a horrible mistake not because I didn’t like the book, but because it is to snot-soaked bawling what baking soda and vinegar are to a science-fair volcano, and that kind of wrenching, fluid-emitting misery is not really what I was going for while lying beachside in Biarritz with my new husband.

Ruth Graham, writing in Slate last week, also thinks my reading The Fault in Our Stars was a horrible mistake, but for another reason entirely: My crime in her eyes is that the book has been primarily marketed to teenagers, and when I read it, I was an unacceptably ancient 31 years old. In her piece, unsubtly titled “Yes, Adults Should be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books," Graham issues a disappointingly snobbish and shallow call to arms against the rising tide of young adult (YA) fiction landing on the bookshelves and e-readers of adults of the not-so-young variety. And she’s wrong.

Now that I’ve said that, I suppose I have to go through the tiring exercise of establishing my bona fides, so Graham doesn’t lump me in with those pitiable troglodytes whose YA consumption she only excuses by the fact that the only other culture they take in is “watching Nashville or reading detective novels.” Like Graham, I work with words professionally, and like most people who enter our line of work, that’s due to a love of reading that borders on religious; my course as a logophile was charted long before I could even reach the third shelf on the bookcase. And, despite the fact that reading takes up the bulk of my day job, I haven’t stopped consuming fiction for pleasure, and I like serious books, the sort she would approve of, full of poetic depictions of the quiet miseries of intellectual ennui, or whatever.

But, I also like YA. So it’s hard to keep from offering a point-by-point rebuttal to Graham’s oddly broad and un-nuanced picture of the YA-versus-A literary landscape, and defending the genre on multiple fronts. But others have beaten me to that — see what very smart things Kat Kinsman at CNN, Hillary Kelly at the New Republic, and Elisabeth Donnelly at Flavorwire have to say, for starters.

The main problem with Graham’s piece is that her argument for adult embarrassment rests mostly on the idea that all YA is simplistic and immature, a conclusion she defends by comparing some of the category’s most maudlin examples against the very best of literary fiction, willfully ignoring (among other things) the lesser works of her own unimpeachably grown-up literary idols. (“I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes,” she writes of her precocious teenage reading list. Oh please: It’s impossible to read Updike’s utterly ridiculous The Witches of Eastwick without risking complete ocular detachment.)

But, let’s not be distracted by the dazzle of Graham’s refusal to play fair with her straw men. There are two way more insidious elements at play in her rejection of adults reading YA — not to mention those “detective novels” she sneers at, an unattractive facial contortion which presumably extends to everything else in the world of genre fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, more.

First: Even if we grant Graham her very silly premises — that all YA is paint-by-numbers storytelling with relatable protagonists and satisfying endings; that only works of literary fiction can qualify as “stories that confound and discomfit,” populated by “people with whom [readers] can’t empathize at all”; and that being confounded by an unsympathetic protagonist is necessarily a good thing — she’s still committing a cardinal epistemic sin, the first mistake of the unbearably smug: Graham is conflating difficulty with virtue.

Not all books are difficult, and a catchy narrative voice or a likable main character or a thrilling plot doesn’t mean something’s not good. It’s okay for a book to have a plot that chugs along. It’s okay to have a happy ending — or a sad one, or any ending at all. It’s okay to know who the villain is from the beginning. It’s okay not to have your worldview shattered, to sometimes, in fact, have your thoughts and ideas reinforced. It is entirely okay — and this is the case no matter what section of the bookstore something is shelved in, up to and including literary fiction — for a novel to be easy to read.

By “easy to read” I don't mean ten-cent words and uncritical thoughts — this isn’t a defense of laziness. (Let’s never be lazy readers — let’s demand good YA, good sci-fi, and fantasy, and romance. And for that matter, good literary fiction: No more 500-page descriptions of sad white men in Brooklyn dealing poorly with their masculinity, please.) What I do mean is that a book doesn’t have to be a struggle in order to be worthy. This is a defense of pleasure: Plot-driven fiction with a satisfying resolution at the end — in any category, YA or sci-fi or the most prestigiously decorated literary fiction — feels good. Not the way calling in sick to work in order to stay home eating takeout lo mein in sweatpants while watching Center Stage for the ninth time feels good — reading is pleasure that doesn’t require guilt. It’s good like an afternoon nap, like sitting in the sun, like dancing to a great song, like being loved back.

Those things aren’t difficult, but they feel good, and they’re worthy. Sure, whiskey neat will always look cooler than an appletini, but difficulty doesn’t hold the monopoly on integrity. Virtue is also inherent in pleasure, both in discovering paths to it and — as long as we’re not hurting anyone — in following them. (And no, Ruth Graham, that woman with big glasses and an n+1 tote who’s nose-deep in A Game of Thrones instead of some Chip Kidd-covered, Nicole Aragi-repped exquisitely wrought gem isn’t actually hurting you.)


Graham’s second sin, after declaring that easy is bad, is assuming that all YA is easy in the first place, and that the category contains no literature that approaches an ephemeral notion of Greatness. Neither of those is true, and here’s where we get into lists. The brutal, honest violence in Code Name Verity; the unsettling, ever-shifting power struggles in Holes, the difficult gender dynamics of The Knife of Never Letting Go; the unresolved religio-scientific inquiry in A Wrinkle in Time; the unreliable narration in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; the racial tensions in Maniac Magee; the identity exploration of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; the subtle influence of class and privilege in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; and even (despite both series’ unfortunately atrocious writing) the protagonists’ unflinching, unflattering rejection of fame and heroism in the later books of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

(And, oh my god, there’s so much to say about that fact that YA is the only section of the bookstore — aside from the corner where they hide the romance novels — where you’re likely to find anything approaching parity between females and males, both in authors and in protagonists. But that’s another essay for another time.)

It’s also worth noting that in many cases, the line between YA and A is entirely arbitrary: With different packaging, Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary novel Never Let Me Go could have been sold as a dystopian-future teenage clone romance, Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple is a sweet romp about a smart daughter, her quirky mother, and the difficulties of mental illness; and Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could have been split up into just another nerds-have-feelings-too coming of age trilogy. Certainly a reader as concerned with prestige and pedigree as Graham seems to be has read and loved these well-praised books — would she have hated them if the title type had been purple Bleeding Cowboys instead of Helvetica? Is she really, literally judging these books by their covers?

It’s poor form to make sweeping generalizations, of course, but that goes double for someone in the position of a critic. For Graham to decide that she’s going to value books primarily based on an axis of youth to age, she’s giving up a claim to the infinitely more important axis of bad to good. It’s bizarre for someone who so publicly pats herself on the back for her maturity of thought and her willingness to embrace difficult constructions and counterintuitive outcomes to use the same breath to demonstrates the exact opposite — and on literature, of all things! We should read what we want to read, and not feel ashamed of the pleasures we find there.

We all have plenty of reasons to feel embarrassed about ourselves. The books we read should never be among them.