Why You Should Read Whatever You Want

I’ve fallen out of love with the word “should”, as in “ you should do X” or “ you should not do Y”, or this week’s Slate special “you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children”.

Should I?

Should I really, Ms Ruth Graham?

Who exactly appointed you the arbiter of what we should (or in fact shouldn’t) be reading? I don’t remember getting the memo about this.

I could say I have problems with people being prescriptive but given I’ve just spent six months insisting 15 students read what I tell them to read, I probably shouldn’t say that out loud. Then again, when we sign up for a course, we pretty much agree to read what the syllabus prescribes. And sometimes I still have problems with that, but that’s for another day (and I’m already all Goved out for this week).

No, what really ticks me off are those badly compiled and deeply arbitrary lists of “X books you must read before you die”, and sweeping statements by people like Ruth Graham, who take it upon themselves to lecture the world at large about what they should and shouldn’t read, as if Graham is in some mysterious way privy to the contents of all our minds and knows better than any of us do ourselves what we ought to be reading.

And of course, it is not about any of us but about Graham’s sense of what adults should and shouldn’t do. I tend to find that people who are prescriptive about what adults ought to do are, for whatever reason, not that secure themselves with the business of being an adult, and feel the only way to deal with it is by making sure that everyone else conforms to their idea. It might be about the clothes they wear, the holidays they take, where they dine out, or what kind of stroller they wheel their baby around in.For Graham, it has apparently become about books.

What is the objection, precisely? Apparently, it is that, quoting Jen Doll, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable,” while presumably, fiction for adults is anything but.

Graham hastily qualifies her criticism by saying “the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable.”According to Graham, this seems to boil down to the fact that“YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Because, presumably, no adult ever abandons “mature insights” when they’re reading. For that matter, what makes Graham suppose that adults are only reading YA fiction. (In fairness, I am aware that there are some thirty-somethings who say that it is all they read, but I’m guessing they are in a minority, and is it so very different from existing exclusively on a diet of romance novels or spy novels, as I also know people do?)

I call bull shit on this, as have about a zillion other people on the internet since this sorry excuse for an article – call it clickbait, because that’s what it really is – made its appearance. Given it is clickbait I should ignore it but I am just so bloody tired of people turning up to say this or that is rubbish and real adults don’t read it.

Admittdly Graham’s argument is slightly more sophisticated in that she goes on to suggest that if adults are reading YA, teenagers won’t read it, but my admittedly limited contact with adolescents and post-adolescents who read is that this bothers them a lot less than it worries Graham. My undergraduate students have been quite happy to admit to a spread of reading that goes from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, taking in a cheering amount of so-called “great” literature en route, but they can talk about why they like Wallflower or Jane Eyre, and they’re aware that there are different ways of addressing various texts.

And for that matter, what is wrong precisely with “the enjoyment of reading this stuff [having] to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”? If we enter into that reading contract willingly, is it anyone else’s problem? Is it Graham’s problem if I decide to spend an afternoon rereading Little Women (which I suspect Graham would count as a classic for adults) or Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (my preferred choice for “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”). No, I didn’t think it was, so I’m not quite sure why she thinks it is.

The fact remains that Graham has no more clue how people actually read than I do. We can make guesses but we cannot and should not prescribe for others.

This is a theme that Matt Haig picked up in his response to Graham:

It’s not what you read, but how you read it. Never judge what someone else reads or why they read it. You don’t own the rights to culture. Often the things that may look simple, are rich and multi-layered. There are as many versions of a book as there are readers. No two reading experiences are the same. Books are great because they open minds and transcend borders. They should never have fences around them.

I’d love it if you read the rest of Matt’s blog post as it’s really good.

However, the most startling response to Graham’s article is contained in this short piece by Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, a journal of children’s and young adult fiction. Not the article itself, which sort of supports her argument, with a strong flavour of wishing the adults would butt out and leave the children’s books alone, but in one of Sutton’s responses to a comment:

“But I think everybody would be better off if we viewed YA as a subgenre of popular fiction for women rather than as a genre for teenaged people.”

Because, of course, men never read YA, which seems to bring us back, more or less, to where we began.

16th June 2014

Adding some more articles on this topic I’ve come across in the last week or so.

Non Pratt on Why Adults Shouldn’t Be Embarrassed to Read Children’s Books

S E Smith at the Daily Dot suggests reading YA fiction is a Millennial thing. I have reservations about this – it feels too much like special pleading – but neither would I dismiss it out of hand.

Tom Pollock suggests that YA books are novels about young people not simply for young people, an argument that needs more investigation, I think, but alas, time, holidays, Hugo shortlist reading …


2 thoughts on “Why You Should Read Whatever You Want

  1. Jae

    Bravo. More like this, please. Maybe on the academic pleasures. Then the survival value of escapism. Onwards to the various means of keeping score… Rant on!

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