Sunday, June 8, 2014

Grow Up

Note: all Amazon links in this blog post are affiliate links that make me some small amount of money. I am given to consider this venial as I'd rather you buy my books but my wife insists and anyway I'm warning you now. It doesn't cost you anything, after all and it's better than shitty ads that might put malware on your computer.

So Slate dropped this article before the weekend. It caused a kerfuffle, as it was intended to, but not a huge one, because no one really gives a damn about books except book nerds and there aren't enough of them to get something really trending on Twitter or Facebook. I suspect it was about 50/50 troll/truth and I actually agreed with the sentiment if not the actual words.

The article is not all that well written or argued. The author seems to be coming from a place of snobbery, or at least disappointment that no one is buying books that she thinks should be bought. But I felt the groove even if I didn't like the lyrics.

Here's the thing about YA Fiction: it's really not for kids:

Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts. But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. ... The largest group of buyers in that survey—accounting for a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44.

This is not exactly a revelation, except maybe to hard-core "YA" fans and clueless parents who are wondering why the book they let their teen daughter get at the library has butt sex and cannibalism in it.

A digression: as a kid, I hated the entire YA genre. I had zero interest in it. The focus of my ire -- probably unfairly -- was a book that I only remember as "that fucking Pig Man book" that I had to use Google to find out was The Pigman by Paul Zindel. I never read it but it just LOOKED dumb to me. It was always right up front and set apart as "recommended". I walked right past the YA section, prominently displayed at my local library and my school library, to dive into the stacks and read Bradbury, Heinlein ... and stuff I wasn't SUPPOSED to be reading, like Stephen King and Ian Fleming (unbelievably I found a copy of Dr. No in my middle-school's library). To me, a genre being labeled "Young Adult" told me that the Powers that Were WANTED me to read these books, whereas they didn't want me to read the other ones. Besides, I'd already had my fill of these books when they were assigned to me in school and still harbor an (again, certainly unfair) dislike of these books and authors like Judy Blume.

To me this is one of the essences of being a teenager - pushing the boundaries of your kid's world into the world of grown-ups. Even if, frankly, a lot of the stuff (especially King) was pretty much marketed to grown-ups but written in a teenage style, I didn't know that. What the hell kind of kid that age wants to read books for kids their age? So the stats aren't a surprise to me and I was relieved when I started to learn a while back about who was really buying these books.


Going beyond the article, here are my problems with the stupid-level popularity of all "YA" fiction (in no particular order):

1. It's a sham, but not everyone is in on it. Like I mentioned above, a lot of parents assume these books will be safe for their kids. This is dumb in today's world, sure, but there it is. They figure a book that's marked as being for "Young Adults" will be age-appropriate. But since everyone knows that most people reading them are people who've attained majority (I hesitate to call them "Adult Adults"), the standards aren't really that strict across the board. If you're a YA fan I think you should care about this because it's not good for the genre's rep and results in requests to have books removed from library stacks, or, if you're Neil Gaiman, BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OF SMALL-MINDED HYPOCRITES WHO NEED TO LIGHTEN UP MAN. Books written for teenagers should be written at exactly that level. No butt sex, cannibalism, drug users should end up losers in life, etc etc etc. If you wouldn't tell your teenage daughter/son that X activity is OK then it shouldn't be in these books. Don't like it? READ A GROWN-UP BOOK. There are many, many outlets that will provide you with books about Nazi Transsexuals Taking Manhattan and never ever say they are for kids (which is what teenagers are).

2. They actually kind of are written for teenagers. As in, reading level, vocabulary, etc. You will probably never read the word "deshabille" in a YA book. While publishers demand these standards with the lie that these books are for kids, it's really because they want the books to be easy, breezy reads for people who graduated high school long ago. Plots are basic, character motivations are simple and straightforward, etc etc. These are actually things the author of the linked article mentions, and they're fine for teenagers, of course. At least the ones who don't already think these books are dumb. That's fine, not everyone is a genius and no one wants all books to be college-level (or what used to be college-level) reading. But they are the literary equivalent of candy.

All the problems, I think, flow from these two things. I'll outline why below in my responses to the comments on this article, of which there are really only a few:

By the way, none of these are directed at any one person. If you take them personally, welcome to the Internet, here's your helmet, keep it the fuck on and don't stick anything out of the foxhole you don't want shot off.

1. "Don't tell me what to read". Whoa! Check out the Big Boy/Girl Pants on you! They're so intimidating ... Get over yourself. People will have opinions that disagree with yours. Also, no one is saying you shouldn't read YA books. Just that too many of you are doing it and as a result the categories are screwed up for people who may not be as plugged-in as you are, which distorts expected levels of achievement and is hypocritical in and of itself. Read whatever you want, but don't encourage publishers in this hypocrisy of pretending these books are for teenagers. Because, to me, you're subconsciously admitting something there. There's enough of you YA fans out there that if you demand books that say they're for adults, you'll get them. To me this is like why they have to ban people without kids from certain Legoland attractions. But I'll admit, you do SOUND a lot like a teenager when you say this if you throw on "DAD" or "MOM" at the end.

2. "Book X was considered fiction for kids and it's Great Literature!" Yes. What's your point? Oh, therefore you're a goddamn scholar for reading The Hunger Games? Get the fuck out of here. Read whatever you want, but don't smash drives off the Junior's tee and tell me you're Tiger Woods. Kids at the turn of the century learned Latin and Greek and that was before the expected drop-out point where you went to work at your father's battery factory. Harry Potter may be forgotten in a hundred years, either because it's not classic-level or because fiction by that point will read like something for the people who live in the alternate future from "A Sound of Thunder".

3. "I read both Sartre AND Teen Girl Apocalypse Romance Fiction!" Wow, you're a fucking Renaissance Man. Are you both a Chess AND a Karate Grandmaster, too? Anyway, good on you for reading widely, seriously, but bragging about it in this context is dumb. That sound you hear is me tapping on your noggin. HELLO, McFLY! ANYONE HOME? YOU'RE NOT THE PROBLEM! Fun books are just that, for fun, and everyone deserves fun. The problem is that people seem to be ONLY reading fun books and regressing to childhood as much as possible, not that after consuming Gibbon's Decline and Fall they decided to relax and take a break with a little paranormal teen romance. I sure hope you're not one of those people who quotes and references IDIOCRACY all the time.

4. "What about Beach Book Author Z? That's not Great Literature!" Yes. What's your point? You don't see a difference between Zombie High School 8: English Class is Dead and The Bordeaux Memorandum? This is simply mendacious (I'll wait for you to Google that - protip, you can just highlight that word and then right-click). Yes, the latest Airport Thriller is probably not a modern classic (though some are now rightly recognized as such). But it at least deals with adults in adult situations and I don't mean the ones they put on the TV ratings to let you know that there'll be people making out with their gear off. Even if the focus is on car chases, shooting, solving mysteries, etc.

4a. "What about Genre Y? That's pretty escapist right there!" Folded in with Response 4 for obvious reasons. Yes, cozy mysteries are escapist. I myself love me some on occasion, I highly recommend the Bruno books from Martin Walker. Maybe there are YA books set in the French countryside that have equal parts talking about food and wine and solving murders. I doubt any of them have a 40-year old hero who's an ex-soldier who did some dirty things in his past and now enjoys being a small-town cop. Actually those books aren't Classic Cozy, but they're close if only for all the shit about truffles and how to make risotto. It's about as cozy as I get. But at least it's written for my age level. I may not like any of the Sneaky Pie mysteries but at least the people reading them aren't pretending they're still in high school.

5. "At least people are reading!" I hear this one A LOT, not just in this context. Sorry, no. Just the act of reading text on a page or screen does not make you smarter. I can't believe people say this seriously but then again, sadly, I can (sort of like that quote that's not from Voltaire). If you're one of those people who says "FAUX NEWS LOL" you don't really believe this. Or you need to think about what you think some more. This is like watching someone scarf down two Hardee's Family Meals and saying "At least he's eating".

5a. "But it gets people into the habit of reading!" The habit of reading what? Again, you are on the Internet, have you looked around? There are people who read nothing but dino porn. I have a hard time lifting my thirty-pound kid but I read a lot and I know that if you're into strength training you constantly have to push your limits to have any hope of getting stronger. It's not any different with reading. Kids already have a big problem with growing up into adults who hate reading good books because they were forced to in school and they are done with school now. I have some hope that the current idea of requiring kids to read goofy genre fiction instead to "get them reading" may work despite this flawed theory because their little brains will hunger for the knowledge that school denies them, but I ain't that hopeful. People in general are always going to want to read if you ask me. WHAT they want to read is important. Think about all the "middlebrow" fiction that doesn't get written anymore. People used to read books that aspired to something even if they weren't great literature. Look at the bestseller lists from the 40s to the 70s. Yeah, maybe people were reading the Reader's Digest Condensed Version but they weren't reading books about teenage werewolves in love. The hated middlebrow book was the bourgeoisie of literature, aspiring to be high-class but not quite getting there, and in the 60s it was relentlessly attacked and is now pretty much gone.

6. "So-called Great Literature these days is crap!" This just missed the Top 5 but I still saw it enough to want to respond. This statement is 95% correct (there are some good books out there). Part of this is because the middlebrow is gone, leaving the "high" literature in its own little world and thus prone to decadence and pointlessness. Maybe if you people were looking for it, you'd help create a market for readable, challenging, truly Great Literature. No one aspires to write the Great American Novel anymore and that's a damn shame.

So, after all that, you probably have an opinion. If I covered it here, feel free to comment anyway but don't whine if I ignore you or make fun of you. As for the ones I didn't cover:

1. "FUCK U" No, fuck YOU.



Thanks for reading.

2. "OK Mr. Big Brain, what should I read?" This is a great question, and you are correct in that I am unquestionably more intelligent than you, which is why my life is so often a living Hell. Here are just a couple of suggestions off the top of my head:

If you want to check out non-genre fiction that doesn't pull punches on adult situations, you can't go wrong with Middle Men by Jim Gavin. Easy-to-read short stories that don't have any vampires in them but are really thought-provoking and well-written. Hyphen.

If you want genre fiction for adults, check out Lev Grossman's The Magicians. This book fucked me up in a good way. I imagine the pitch was "Harry Potter goes to an Ivy League college" but it's even better than that sounds. And the third book is coming out in August! I can't wait. Admittedly it's about college students, but the points it makes are the kinds of things you really only get much later in life. Like your crush wasn't your One True Love and the way people end up is often nowhere near what you thought would happen to them. The cherished notions you have about life end up getting shattered the minute you walk into that world, so you get a whole new set that similarly gets smashed to fuck the minute you leave that world and enter the real one. If you are one of those people who say "Actually the latter Harry Potter books are surprisingly mature" then read this one and buckle the fuck up because you're going to GROWN TOWN.

When asked, even the great Harlan Ellison told a young fan that he should read Gerald Kersh instead of all this scifi crap. You should, too. Ellison's good, mostly, but he was 100% right there.

I'll admit I have a hard time finding good modern stuff  so I'm open to suggestions. I mostly read old books because there is a shitload of good writing out there to discover that is time-tested, finding new authors is a lot harder for obvious reasons.

3. "Hey, you write ..." Yes. What's your point? Oh, that's right, my books have craziness in them. Please tell me again how my books about

a) a racist alcoholic redneck vampire hunter and his ABC twenty-something kung fu pal and

b) a meth-smoking trucker werewolf

sound ANYTHING LIKE a YA novel. Better yet, come up to me at a con with your teenage son/daughter and ask me if my books are "appropriate" for them. Many have already and I will tell you the same thing I told them. No, they aren't. I didn't intend them to be, and only my relatively poor writing skills may have caused me to miss that mark. Hear that? ATTENTION TEENAGERS! MY BOOKS ARE INAPPROPRIATE FOR YOU! DON'T READ THEM! YOU'RE A KID AND YOU WOULDN'T UNDERSTAND!

And if you read this whole long post and I got through to you ... you get what I mean by that.


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