Coming of age

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I was reading A.O. Scott’s fascinating NYT piece “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” when I bumped into his link to Ruth Graham’s Slate magazine story called “Against YA.” Left Scott in the dust and switched over to Graham. (I can only hope I won’t lose you the way A.O. Scott lost me; please do come back when you’re finished reading the Graham piece.)

Graham’s article is subtitled: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” The piece netted over 3000 comments, and plenty of them were nasty. Really nasty. Ms. Graham’s general assertion is that YAs are for teenagers, a lot of YAs are on a pretty low literary level, and adults should read better books than that.

From the hostility of so many of the comments, you’d think that Graham had the power to stop adult readers from reading junky YA. She doesn’t, any more than another critic has the power to stop adult readers from reading junky adult fiction. Bad fiction is available for every age level, and readers will read it. Which of us hasn’t indulged in reading some truly bad fiction?

The teenaged niece of a friend of mine wasn’t a reader at all–until she tore through The Fault in Our Stars, and now she’s hot to read more novels. Personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading The Fault, but I have to admit that when I was the niece’s age I read Peyton Place–and I was a bona fide adult when I read Valley of the Dolls. YA junk, adult junk, junk is junk and sometimes we read it. I know of a long-running book group that meets once a month: eleven out of twelve months they read at a very sophisticated level, and in that twelfth month they read a trashy novel.

I enjoyed Ms. Graham’s acerbic and thoughtful piece, and I even agreed with many of her points. Where we parted company was at the fork in the wide road, where one branch went high and the other went low. She wants to take the high one, and I want to take both–or at least I want to stray occasionally or have the pleasure of throwing a bad book across the room.

The difficult news for serious writers is that junk is easy to read and therefore sells more copies and therefore gets published more often. A lot more often. But hasn’t that always been true? Bad books do, in a way, support good books: many publishers stay afloat dispensing a lot of drek, and they keep their self-respect by publishing a little literature too. When you outgrow YA junk and aspire to better reading, literature will be there for you.

I am hopeful but not always confident that young readers will advance from pop YA to good books, and when I am feeling flattened by the torrent of low-level reading matter raining down on all of us I try to remember that it was Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, not the guy who wrote The Fault in Our Stars.

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I wanted to make a cozy list of coming-of-age novels to end this post, but I discovered that my notion of c-o-a books is a little narrow and just possibly out of date. So instead I offer you a few links to some interesting coming-of-age book lists that include oldies and newbies.

  1. Goodreads
  2. Publishers Weekly
  3. Shortlist
  4. Huffington Post

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Mysterious Bookshop, New York, NY

The Reading Bug, San Carlos, CA

Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC

 

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