Written by Panio Gianopoulos on Thursday, March 29, 2012
Joel Stein’s New York Times essay, “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” is funny, smart, and enjoyably obnoxious. If you haven’t read it yet, Stein argues that young adult fiction is, essentially, an embarrassing waste of time for adults. “Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry.”
Contempt can be quite entertaining, and I especially love provocative literary assertions like this. I keep a list of literary put-downs, my favorites including Henry James’ dismissal of Edgar Allen Poe, “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection”; William Faulkner’s disdain for Mark Twain, “A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe”; and, of course, George Bernard Shaw’s contempt for just about everyone. Shaw was the ultimate literary hater, taking shots at a range of authors from Shakespeare to Steinbeck to Robert Frost, though perhaps most memorable (and visceral) is his opinion of Jane Austen’s work. “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
In this case, though, I disagree with Stein. And it’s not because I’m a publisher of young adult fiction. I could just as easily say that my company’s titles are intended for young adults, and happily remain a literary snob and a competent (albeit demographically limited) publisher.
The reasons are twofold. The first is simple: In the middle of trashing The Hunger Games, Stein admits that he hasn’t read a word of it. While one needn’t be personally familiar with a thing to oppose it (most crimes, for example, fall neatly into this category), when it comes to a work of art, some experience is required. Stein’s argument that he can’t be bothered to read The Hunger Games because he has to “finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults” first is very funny but woefully ignorant. The Hunger Games is an excellent story, with tremendous pacing, an unpredictable and emotionally slippery protagonist, and an exciting neo-mythical premise. If you’re going to be a snob, have the decency to sip the thing you’re labeling swill. To this day, I am gleefully dismissive of The Da Vinci Code, but at least I read the book (I was trapped on a cross-Atlantic flight with Dan Brown’s ubiquitous paperback and the in-flight movie, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. It was a low moment in entertainment choices).
The other reason I disagree with Stein is that his premise is based upon a common but problematic mislabeling. Stein is confusing “adult fiction” with “literary fiction,” with the latter being a small but privileged subset of the former. Adult fiction comes in an assortment of genres: Detective fiction, historical fiction, romance, science fiction, erotica, thriller, et al, and it’s worth noting that readers within a genre tend to be dedicated. Not that readers don’t stray to other genres, including on occasion “literary fiction,” but if a chastened adult reader were to heed Stein and put down that copy of The Hunger Games, he would most likely pick up another thriller, something along the lines of a James Patterson novel, rather than gobble up Gravity’s Rainbow.
Ultimately, what Stein is objecting to is not the age of the intended market but the genre. It’s a tired complaint made by writers, editors, and publishers. Stein thinks people need to read more complex, innovative, and sophisticated novels, i.e. literary fiction. I agree with him. I would love it if people put down an easy, escapist supermarket paperback and picked up a challenging and provocative work of literary fiction. But readers, whatever their age, are rarely choosing between Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy. This is because they want to be entertained. Genre writers are skilled at telling compelling stories. Things actually happen in those books. Crafting a gripping plot is the challenge of every literary novelist flashing in and out of lyrical reminiscences and minor vignettes.
This is the challenge, then, for writers of literary fiction: learn from YA writers. Learn from genre writers. Don’t just contemptuously dismiss every New York Times bestseller. Study it for anything it can teach us. A few years ago I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and I noticed that he occasionally used teasers at the end of chapters, lines like (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “But I didn’t know then that things would only get stranger….” At first, it annoyed me; it felt clumsy and formulaic—what was this cheesy technique doing in a work of literary fiction? But after struggling with the issue of narrative momentum while writing my own novel, I gradually came around. It’s hard to sustain a reader’s interest. Sometimes you have to be a touch sensational in order to re-engage the reader. Storytelling is a seduction. And novels are a very long seduction. From time to time, you might want to put on a little of that bright red lipstick the trashy girls wear and get your reader to pay attention again….
If literary fiction is ever to flourish, writers will need to learn to entertain their audience while doing the thing that we love so much, which is crafting beautiful, insightful, memorable sentences. The good news is that it can be done. Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad was mesmerizing, formally innovative—and arguably as much of a page-turner as Suzanne Collins’s thrilling The Hunger Games.
I should know. I read them both.