I’ve never understood the argument that Twilight, Eragon, or the latest YA shitfest of the week “at least gets kids reading.”
Let me explain: I’m coming at this with a vastly different perspective. I’m from a country where English is not a first language, and in this climate “at least it gets kids reading” does indeed have merit, in the sense that if it gets kids to read in English and thus get them to achieve proficiency with the language, it would be excellent and awesome, because we need that. We need to speak English to survive. We need to speak English just to get by. It’s not a choice. There are no options but “learn English, or else.” Or else suck at even navigating the Internet. Or else get treated to our daily dose of “haha, ENGRISH.” Or else.
But that is not the argument first-world Anglophones usually make.
How can anyone who loves books not take heart in seeing so many new readers huddled up with a novel? Whether it’s “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” or “Infinite Jest”—does it really matter? These days, when reading fiction seems like an endangered activity, why should we begrudge the success of any book, especially one that stirs such passion with younger readers?
Getting kids to achieve proficiency in English isn’t the goal or the problem, because this is about Anglophonic children in first-world countries, not kids who need to cope in an imperialist world where speaking English is a matter of survival. No, it’s instead about privileging reading as some sacred thing that’s “endangered” (what calamity will transpire if teens stop reading shitty books…? Who knows). From my perspective a white westerner talking about how Twilight or Eragon “getting [first-world Anglophonic] kids to read” is more than a little irritating. My knee-jerk reaction, therefore, is to the tune of “Oh get over yourself.”
Besides, I don’t see why YA even needs to exist as a category.
The Needless Nature of Young Adult
Let me tell you what I read as a kid. I read, among other things, works by Anglophones (well, except for the token German in there) both in translation and not: to name names you will recognize, I read Roald Dahl, Michael Ende, Terry Pratchett, Joan D. Vinge, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Weis & Hickman, David Eddings, Philippa Pearce, Edith Bland, Lois Lowry.
You may notice that while some of these are writers of children’s fiction, others aren’t: Pratchett wasn’t yet writing Tiffany Aching then, and neither Bradley, Vinge, Tolkien, Brooks or many of the SFF staples are known for their kids’ or young adult fiction. The essential thing is that none of these writers is especially difficult. I had little trouble comprehending any of them. That includes, yes, Tolkien–because, no, he’s not the genius of grand complexity that many fanboys would make him out to be… fanboys who, in any case, tend to have read him as teenagers themselves.
Going back to Athena Andreadis’ The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction:
Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.
Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).
SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry.
I think we can all agree that this is largely true. Of all the writers I listed, not very many transcend this and Joan D. Vinge is the only writer that’s aged well with me, and perhaps Pratchett. Of the rest, only some of the children’s fiction would be things I might be able to reread as an adult, Dahl and Ende and possibly Pearce. The rest, though? The big names? Tolkien, Brooks, Eddings, Weis, Hickman: these are not writers I can read today and take seriously. Theirs is the kind of writing that would appeal to the audience Athena describes thus:
Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties.
Not exclusively, certainly, but none of these big-name fantasy staples can be said to have mastered intellectual subtlety, ambitious prose, ambitious themes, or any morality beyond the most basic type linked to D&D alignments. It’s all dreadful writing, roughly on par with the seething mass of suck that is the YA industry today. A good deal of it is more or less safe too, in the sense that it includes little sexuality, and being outside the grimdark school means that they are fairly rape-free as well.
I’m driven to question then: why does YA even exist? There is no shortage of flatly-written lowest-common-denominator sludge, genre fiction offers plenty of that. It offers other things too, but it’s usually after we grow up that we seek out those things and become able to appreciate them. You could insist, perhaps, that YA is somehow magically more inclusive than any other category–more gay-friendly, more POC-friendly–but a glance at the biggest titles will reveal this to be the pathetic, flimsy lie that it is (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly thin, overwhelmingly objectified female bodies). I can name a great many SFF titles, too, that are gay-friendly and POC-friendly (sometimes even written by queer and/or chromatic authors!), but such works are always going to be the minority in any genre, and nobody is saying “at least she’s reading gay-friendly woman-positive books,” you say “at least she’s reading” period. YA, then, doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose beyond being a publishing tool. It doesn’t say teen friendly, it doesn’t say anything important. It’s just good for marketing, and that seems to be all.
The Overabundance of, and the Cult that Worships, Mediocrity
I was bemoaning the availability of good reading for advanced tweens who don’t like vampires. I mentioned that my son loves James Patterson, a very prolific and commercially successful writer. And this author, who himself is extremely successful and commercial, made a face and said something to the effect of, ‘But, his writing. Meh.’ And I thought, ‘But the kid is reading…’
I like to link Deepa D’s I Didn’t Dream of Dragons a lot. It seems only right to also link to Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story, the transcript of which may be found here. How about a little anecdote about casting in a film class?
Do you still think “but the kid is reading” is enough? Because it isn’t.
There is an endless, inexhaustible, constantly regenerating glut of mediocre fiction–mediocre fiction that also happens to, for the most part, gel with the narrative of white/western dominance.* It privileges a white, first-world gaze above all else. Even when a given book takes place in a non-western setting it will often be tailored to the white first-world gaze, often by positioning a white perspective at front and center. This isn’t the thing you want anyone to read, let alone readers in their formative years. Once the “single story” has set in it’s hard to get rid of, short of going at it with a blowtorch of justice and perspective.
*Yes, I know, you love this series of YA by straight white authors that has a token gay Asian character somewhere in the background or something equally trivial. I don’t give a shit.
And even if you don’t care about that, let’s be real: teenagers who read YA won’t generally become adults who read Chaucer and Nabokov. They are going to become adults who read more YA, tie-in fiction, epic fantasy, romance, urban fantasy, mystery, spy thriller. Now I’m not saying you have to read Chaucer and Nabokov to be a Real Person, but there is a phenomenon I’ve observed with western attitudes toward reading (by which is often meant the reading of fiction), which in turn fuels the idea that “at least the kids are reading” must by default be a good thing:
- Reading is inherently sophisticated. It is a higher form of entertainment than TV, knitting, or gaming. It confers an automatic cachet that makes you, at some level, a superior human being to those who do not read.
- Reading is a sacred, endangered activity which must be protected. Because terrible calamity would happen if teenagers stopped reading shitty books, and where’d the YA industry be?
- Only certain kinds of reading count. Generally novels is the thing that counts. Reading non-fiction, blogs, magazines and the like do not. This is why a lot of condescending westerners like to say that Thai people don’t read.
- “Reader” is an identity. “I’m a reader” is a badge of honor, something to proclaim with pride. What are you a reader of doesn’t matter, as long as you read. I will henceforth identify these people as Readers with a capital R.
The joke becomes evident when you consider that the majority of Readers do not read things that are sophisticated (or even written well!), things that are improving, things that deserve respect. No. The majority of Readers read shit. Undiluted, worthless shit. This comprises the majority of available books to read, whether YA, SFF, genre-anything, even litfic is guilty of a certain kind of vacuous shittiness.
You’d learn more history playing Assassin’s Creed than reading Dan Brown. A girl could get a better model of empowering fantasy from playing Mass Effect or Mirror’s Edge than from reading whatever is being billed “strong female character” fantasy this week.
There is no inherent worth in reading Harry Potter and The Bourne Identity and The Da Vinci Code. These are not books that improve, these are not books that teach, these are not books that will make you more knowledgeable or more interesting or in any way a more cultured person. I imagine this would hold true for 90 titles out of Amazon’s Top 100, and I’m being generous. The top ten presently includes Fifty Shades of Gray, George R. R. Martin and Charlaine Harris.
And yet, there still exists this immediate snobbery with which Readers regard any hobby that’s not reading. The “oh, the book was better than the film” knee-jerk reaction (never mind that the book’s worthless anyway, so who gives a shit if the film’s worthless too?). No, you won’t get something like The Pale Fire from Hollywood, but what you are currently reading is probably not The Pale Fire either. Very likely your list of favorites includes a bunch of mystery, thriller, romance, YA, tie-ins, and godshit bloody fucking awful travelogues where some white goes traveling in Exoticlandia and comes back with backpacking stories to tell. There’s an endless blackhole of other equally godshit bloody fucking awful things for you, too. You can always get more mystery, thriller, romance, YA, tie-ins, travelogues. And that is what you’ll keep reading, because most people are genre-locked to fuck. Individually and personally you may not, but you are an exception.
The long and short of what I’ve spent over 1500 words saying is: reading isn’t special. If your teen is reading The Future of Us and you’re still making Star Wars novels or Stephen King the main course of your literary diet… you aren’t interesting or sophisticated. You won’t be accorded automatic respect simply because you consume text rather than moving pictures. What you are doing is swimming in an ocean of feces that’s just as fecal as the latest installment of Modern Warfare, the latest Marvel reboot, or the latest 3D rendition of Star Wars: Episode I. You’re intellectually and culturally on equal footing with non-readers who spend all their time on World of Warcraft.
Stop saying “at least it gets the kids reading.” That doesn’t mean anything. Get them reading something good. Hell, given the state of the western economy–and its dire need for skilled labor–you’ll probably do your kids a better favor by sending them to vocational school than encouraging them to read whatever Rick Riordan just churned out.
TL;DR READING CRAP IS FINE BUT LET’S NOT PRETEND IT IS SOMEHOW A MORE REFINED, CULTURALLY SOPHISTICATED ACTIVITY THAN WATCHING TV OR PLAYING WORLD OF WARCRAFT, ALSO ANGLOPHONIC PRIVILEGE. HAVE A GOOD DAY.