Over the past few days an article has been making the rounds on Twitter called Why young-adult fiction is a dangerous fantasy, by Joe Nutt. I recommend it if you’re in the mood for the thoughts of a superior, belligerent gentleman who thinks glancing at the YA section of the bookshop is the same thing as having actually read any.
My first thoughts (for, despite my love of YA, my brain has not entirely melted, as Mr Nutt’s assertion), are these:
- Don’t try and piss people off. It doesn’t persuade anybody of anything. All this article provides is – presumably – a short moment of catharsis for all those YA haters and an even shorter moment of irritation for everyone else.
- Berating people with intellectual elitism really only serves to push them further away from whatever it is you’re promoting. I at least, will now forever associate Voltaire with an angry man on the internet taking pot shots at his imaginary intellectual inferiors.
What Nutt’s argument boils down to is the separation of so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. ‘High’ culture, for anyone who doesn’t know, are the few ‘cultural products’ considered to be good enough for what was traditionally speaking the aristocracy or intelligentsia. ‘Low’ culture, on the other hand, was for the rest of us. The disgusting masses.
Did you know you were part of a disgusting mass? Because according to guys like Nutt, you totally are.
I learned to appreciate artistic snobbery when I arrived at university and found that YA hate was the new sport (we were literature students and for some bashing The Perks of Being A Wallflower and that kid ‘whining’ about his childhood sexual abuse was the closest to exercise they got). I tried on cultural superiority for a little while but my heart was never truly in it.
There are several reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that culture is fluid. What’s considered ‘low’ and ‘high’ changes all the time. It really just depends on whatever the masses are reading. The intelligentsia are the original hipsters that way. These days Charles Dickins might be considered on the higher end of the cultural scale but when he was alive and writing? Not so much. Everybody was reading that guy. His serialised writings were as eagerly awaited as a fresh batch of think pieces on Taylor Swift. Ultimately ‘high’ and ‘low’ are arbitrary labels attached to works by a minority group of academic elitists – they really aren’t for us in the masses to be concerned with.
In addition, art influences art influences art to infinity. No piece of art of writing or whatever is truly separate from what came before it. It’s connected to a history of ideas people have been passing around forever. In YA, it’s just packaged differently, in a way that is intended for the masses, and I think it’s this more than anything that pisses guys like Nutt off. There is this idea – entirely invented by academic elitists – that there is a realm of thought only accessible to certain, deep thinking members of humanity. That theories of personhood, existentialism, God, etc can only be addressed in an intellectual arena – never in, say, a Patrick Ness book about a kid who commits suicide and wakes up in an alternate universe, or a John Green novel about the damage the imaginary girl wreaks on the real one. As much as guys like Nutt berate us for our supposedly ‘low’ ways, I don’t think they want a truly accessible ‘high’ culture – then what would be left to feel superior about?
I’m not saying there is no value to ideas in their purest form – of course there is – but that doesn’t mean we should allow them to be disregarded because they don’t look like the work of an 18th century white man in a wig.
I also find frustrating the idea that the cultural touchstones of the so called ‘masses’, whether that be the Kardashians or sexy teenage vampires, are meaningless. The overwhelming and continued popularity of the vampire is a result of our youth-obsessed society. The world is designed for the young, so the desire for eternal youth is an obvious one. To read about a vampire is to face on some level that fact that what we have now we won’t have forever, impossible as it is to imagine. As for the Kardashians? Their long-lasting success can be attributed to the heart of the thing: they are a family. Family ties, in some form, is something we all share. This single humanising element ensures our continued investment in their whole thing. To reduce these phenomena to ‘people are just stupid’ is to be the thing you’re hating on in the first place – a supposedly ‘thoughtless’ member of society.
Anyway, I’m getting off track.
I take particular issue with Nutt’s glib and frankly nasty tone toward books he says are ‘nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties’. Those petty anxieties he has already outlined in his ‘book pitch’ at the introduction of this tirade. This part of the article made me the saddest. It is pretty much of a universal truth at this point that it is important for people – maybe even especially young people – to see their own lives reflected in art. It helps people to feel less alone, to get some hope back, even. Stories can show people possibilities they had never considered for themselves. On the other hand, fiction can also show people lives entirely different to their own. The cliché is real: books open worlds. Most importantly, they inspire empathy, which we really need to combat the daily vitriol of the internet. I call that important – not some ‘florid expansion’ of a clickbait headline.
Nutt goes on to argue that these ‘petty anxieties’ I mentioned earlier have prevented ‘several generations of teenagers from becoming literate adults’ (eye roll), but the worst victims are the boys, how have been pushed out of reading altogether (HARD eye roll). It’s an article about YA – a genre dominated by female writers – of course the lack of male readership was going to come up. I would argue that this – much like the whole high/low thing – comes down to marketing. A sexist world produces a sexist publishing industry, and it has always functioned on the assumption that although girls will happily read ‘boy books’, boys would never touch a title with a female lead character. Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girls: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, wrote a great article about this over at TED. She argues that:
‘We read to experience a panoply of perspectives. We read to learn of people and situations outside and beyond ourselves, so we can deepen our connection and understanding. We read to prepare for life. It follows, then, that we are raising our boys to dismiss other people’s experiences, and to see their needs and concerns as the center of things. We are raising our boys to lack empathy.’
So. The lack of male YA readers may not be a book issue so much as a societal one.
Where does all this leave us?
Pretty much exactly where we were before. We already knew YA fiction was varied and complicated and wonderful. Mostly because we’ve actually read some. Much like Nutt, the most I have provided is an admittedly slightly longer moment of catharsis, but for us YA lovers this time.
Ultimately it boils down to this: Don’t tell us what we ‘should’ like. We don’t react well.