Trash Fiction

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As she read the newspaper article her entire being crumpled, as the piece of paper it was printed on  (or would have been had this been decades earlier and she wasn’t glued to the computer screen). With swift and precise cuts his words tore into her, and her whole worldview was challenged, ripped apart, and gutted by this author. Once read, those words could never be unread. And with a sigh and a gasp she was kicked out of Neverland, torn from her trinkets and games, and cast forevermore into the land of the wretched creatures known only as Adults.

If my life were a Young Adult novel, and a pretty bad one at that, that passage would be the fictionalized version of my experience in reading an opinion piece a few weeks ago. The article that elicits this visceral reaction is titled “Adults Should Read Adult Books” written for The New York Times by esteemed author Joel Stein.

This guy is a real adult, and a real writer. He knows his literature; he reads Proust for fun and would not be caught dead sullying his mind with trash written for kids. Or so it would seem. As he puts it: “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.”

The article continues in a similar way, slandering not only YA books but also Pixar movies and video games. It is as though he woke up one morning with an intense urge to piss off the entire Facebook generation.

Young Adult fiction has gotten a pretty bad reputation among the highbrow literary types of this world. With their blinders on they see only the Twilight-series and its imitators, damning the whole genre to the depths of vampire teen angst. And it is true; there are a whole lot of these types of books. Popularity and multi-million dollar movie franchises tend to have that effect.

I have nothing against vampires, or teen angst, but some of these novels are incredibly trashy. That is not the point of this argument. There are trashy novels written for adults – anything by Nicholas Sparks comes to mind. The point is, good YA fiction is not written for young adults exclusively. It might be about young adults, marketed towards young adults, and read by young adults, but none of that means it is not readable to people outside of the demographic.

The whole problem with Mr Stein’s argument, and similar ones, is that it makes two disgusting assumptions. First, it posits that YA books are poorly written drivel that has no value to someone over the age of 22. Second, that adults read only Literature. Neither are true.

The most offensive part of these arguments is how bad they are. If that argument was cheese it would be Swiss. Most adults do not read Dostoevsky before bed, and most YA novels are not disgustingly bad.

Young Adult has become, in some ways, a boo phrase. It is slapped on anything that is not considered well-written enough to be fiction, and in return anything that is labelled YA fiction is assumed to be bad quality.

Arguments like this one seem to conveniently forget the many books, classics and modern, that are adored by young adults yet considered good literature. This is when the distinction between YA fiction and proper, Adult, fiction becomes harder to define. What about Romeo and Juliet, two star-crossed teenage lovers with suicidal tendencies? Sounds like YA fiction to me. From Alcott’s Little Women to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to Salinger’s unbearable Catcher In The Rye, these all fall under the remit of YA fiction, yet they are considered part of the literary canon.

More modern classics would include Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Zuzack’s The Book Thief, and Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These respectively offer an existential debate about atheism, an exploration of the horror of the holocaust narrated by Death, and a portrait of the trauma of growing up.

And they manage to do it while capturing the imagination of readers from all ages and backgrounds. That is a hell of a lot more impressive than some of the “adult” fiction available.

It is incredibly problematic to label YA fiction as a discrete category. There is everything from paranormal love stories and fantasy adventures, to sorority style dramas and high school apocalypses. It includes great novels, mediocre ones, and outright awful books. There are books that appeal to teenagers and grandparents alike, and there are books that even I, as a young twenty-something, feel way too old for. Categorising fiction like this assumes that, somehow, those reading it are more infantile than someone who picks up anything from Ernest Hemmingway to Jodie Picoult.

Young Adult may be a useful way to organise books in a library or to target marketing, but it is not a law by which we should choose our books. Be secure enough in your age and intellectual maturity to read The Hunger Games, or any other book, in public.

Don’t let your age stand in the way of enjoying great, or trashy, literature.

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