On Reading YA

November 17, 2009 at 9:13 am | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 27 Comments

I read young adult books.  Granted, I live with a young adult, and we read together, but I don’t need that excuse.  Young adult books at their best can be better than their adult counterparts:  they cover bigger issues, have more interesting plot lines and better drawn characters, and display more engaging writing styles.  You’re also more likely to find someone to discuss them with.

That being said, young adult books are for young adults.  Assume you want to read something momentous.  The Book Thief is a truly great book about the Holocaust.  Arguably, Sophie’s Choice is a better book about the Holocaust.  The Book Thief has a higher page count, but it’s a much faster read.  The Kindly Ones will take you as long as reading both the other two put together, and when I say that I include the time you’ll spend thinking about it afterward.  Just because you’re reading a YA book with “merit” does not mean it has equal merit to the greatest, most enduring classics of literary fiction.

On the other hand, let’s say you like “fluff.”  I’ll define fluff as something fast, fun, and entertaining – like chick lit.  There’s nothing wrong with this; indeed, “fluff” is probably what keeps the publishing industry in operation, and it certainly subsidizes more serious works.  Don’t feel apologetic about it – I don’t.  But don’t gloat about how much you read, either.  Reading fluff is just like doing Sudoku:  it provides a certain amount of mental exercise, but not the maximum, and in the end, what do you have to show for it?

While we’re at it, let’s discuss page count, too.  Make two stacks.  In one you’re going to put The Recognitions, The Kindly Ones, and Gravity’s Rainbow.  In the other you’re going to put, I dunno, anything by Meg Cabot or your favorite YA author.  Now, start flipping them open.  Notice how dense the text is in the first stack?  I’m not going to make you get out a ruler or start doing word count or anything.  Let’s just say that The Princess Diaries is 206 kb, or .8 kb per page, and The Kindly Ones is 951k, or .95 kb per page (a rate that would shrink TPD from 256 to only 196 pages, or, conversely, swell TKO from 992 to 1170).  It adds up.  YA books aren’t equivalent in content, and they aren’t equivalent in word count, either.  We’ll leave complexity and vocabulary out of the discussion for the time being.  Again, if you’re reading a lot of YA, don’t gloat, because you’re not reading as much as you think you are.

The classics are classics for a reason.  If you feel boredom or distaste when reading a difficult book, like many people do, don’t give up.  Chances are you’ll get more out of it with a little more time and perspective.  Frankly, I read a lot of comments about authors “failing” to accomplish something when it’s clear to me the reader “failed” to get the point.  Don’t give up.  Work harder to build your chops and the rewards will come.  Reading isn’t just about personal taste; it’s also about effort, and YA simply doesn’t take as much effort.  Give credit where it’s due.

I’m no snob (contrary to popular belief); I read children’s books and graphic novels, popular nonfiction, and – gasp! – self-help books.  I’ll read absolutely anything, and I think you should too.  This does not, however, distract from my main focus, which is to seek out the finest, highest caliber literature the world has to offer.  Make sure you’re not displacing the epic, the grand, the heavy, the challenging, the poetic while you’re reading the entertaining.  Books are more than a pleasant, idle pastime – at their best they should shake the ground under your feet, blast open your third eye with one epiphany after another, and force you to reevaluate the world and your place in it.  Accept no substitutes.

Postscript:  Evidently this post has pushed a lot of people’s buttons, as it’s gotten more hits in one day than almost anything I’ve ever written.  If you read it and your temper is flaring, take a breath and realize I haven’t met you and it isn’t personal.  It’s rhetoric, people.  If the shoe fits, it might be because it’s a common shoe size.

PPS:  Aaaaand here is the opinion of my teen stepdaughter.


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  1. You know, we in the literary world truly need to get away from the idea that the fast, entertaining, and fun is merely “fluff.” I think this tends to be a new idea in art, if only because as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, artists (for lack of a better word) knew that storytelling is about telling a story. A story is something that happens. Something changes, and often the bigger the better, because otherwise, why would we care about them?

    Consider, for example, Shakespeare. Who wrote many fast, entertaining, and fun plays. Of course, he also wrote plays like the Tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth, but do you know what those plays have? Witches! And ghosts! And sword fights and structures and plots and stuff happening. Kings die! Queens die! Especially in Macbeth (Hamlet is a bit more noir, and I always thought he was a boring, melancholy tosser until I saw Brannagh’s flick and I realized holy Hell, Hamlet is awesome). Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be one of the great tragic romances, but again: sword fights! Lovers torn asunder! (Twilight‘s Edward and Bella face much the same conflict and dilemma as R&J [impossible love, though for different reasons], except with less sword fights and way more lame [and pages]).

    Of course, I make that distinction because everyone thinks that Hamlet is a more complex play than, say, A Midsummernight’s Dream, but really it’s not. Really it’s a comedy of misplaced emotions and the subtlety and complexity of the latter is quite astonishing in a very real and tangible way.

    I’m arguably the wrong audience for this sort of post/argument, considering that I read King’s Needful Things in 6th grade, which means that, back when I was in the grade levels most associated with Harry Potter and Twilight, I was already reading Koontz, King, and Crichton, so I never really read much YA. I mean, I read L’Engle and Dixon, but I was in third grade at the time, so I wasn’t really a YA.

    But your whole page count digression? This whole “We’ll leave complexity and vocabulary out of the discussion for the time being. Again, if you’re reading a lot of YA, don’t gloat, because you’re not reading as much as you think you are.”

    Reminds me of the Hemingway/Faulkner feud. Which went a little something like this:

    Faulkner: “Hemingway has never used a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
    Hemingway: “Poor Faulkner. He mistakes big words for big emotions.”

    I’m truthfully not a fan of either man, but try not to mistake more pages for a better book, nor SAT words for good writing.

    • I would consider “fluff” to be books that are entertaining *but nothing more.* Naturally I believe the classics are entertaining; in asking more of the reader, they are able to go a level beyond.

      What I meant by page count is that YA books tend to be printed in large font with wide margins, so those of us who publish our reading stats will show they read “more” than those who read differently formatted (i.e. “adult”) books. If all books were e-books, or had word count instead of page numbers, it would more accurately show how “long” a book is.

      Ultimately what I’m trying to get across is that if one is attempting to measure one’s reading, there is no quantifiable way to track “quality.” The quantitative measures that are available are somewhat arbitrary.

      It’s completely sophomoric to compare these things anyway. My unsubtle message is that if people *are* competing on who reads the most books, which some are, including myself, they shouldn’t pump up their statistics by reading below their capability. It looks like what actually came across is that I think people should read only committee-approved, Quality (TM) literature, which isn’t what I meant at all.

      What I was hoping to do was to push people to reach a little deeper and tackle books they might otherwise not. If you read my post carefully, you would see that I encourage people to read at least a little of everything; I just think we shouldn’t stop with the lowest common denominator.

      • Ah. I see now, better, what you mean, and I can agree slightly more on that. Perhaps my lack of realization came because I’ve never taken part in–what, like, a reading competition?

        As for the other point, I think my point was partly that entertainment is, itself, a fine goal, and I wouldn’t equate pure entertainment as fluff if only because entertaining people is a lot more difficult than most people realize. Didn’t White say that the best writing hides how much effort went into making it extraordinarily simple, or something to that effect.

        Anyway, definitely a good post, at least in that it made me browse the blog itself and got me to include it in daily rounds.

  2. (Just so it’s known, I double-broke between paragraphs, but it didn’t show up in the comment. Sorry about the block-o’comment; hope that doesn’t render it incoherent)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by trish and Florinda Pend.-Vasq., Will Entrekin. Will Entrekin said: RT @trishheylady: Interesting about reading YA: http://bit.ly/4BMVr8 […]

  4. love it. I agree that classics are often challenging and I agree that YA can be fun fast reads but not sure if I agree with what you are attempting to argue here. In fact, I’ve been typing comments and erasing them and starting over so often, I suppose I should go re-read this post…

  5. It’s your blog – so your perogative 🙂 As a BIG fan of fluff however (YA fluff included,) I respectfully disagree. The things I choose to read are worthwhile to me, and I’ll gloat about ’em all I want (on my blog, of course.)

    Classics are classics for a reason – you’re right about that, but just because they take up only a small percentage of my reading choices doesn’t make me any better or worse than anyone else. In my book (ha,) a book read is a book read is a book read, and every book I am fortunate enough to finish and enjoy is rewarding reading.

    Excellent post – thought provoking!

    • Ah, but you’ve just proved my point! You do read classics as well as other books. It doesn’t sound like you meet the description of someone who refuses to venture outside of one genre or avoids anything challenging.

  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by florinda_3rs: On Reading YA http://j.mp/6JffY

  7. Why would anyone gloat over reading a lot of YA or for that matter, a lot of anything?

    There is so much more I could say but that line stuck out at me this time…..

    • Please go on, by all means!

      • I agree with the idea of encouraging people to read outside of their comfort zones…but not because it’s something they feel like they *should* do but rather because it’s something they want to do. Except in school. I do believe in the study of shared texts in education.

        Like you, I read to both know and to be entertained. I just wish you hadn’t built your argument on YA. I don’t even agree that all YA is meant for young adults. Some YA is simply marketed that way. YA is not a genre, it’s a marketing technique.

        I also cringe at the broadbrush of any genre…like you broadbrush chick lit as fluff. I think chick lit is entertaining yes, but I also think it often tackles the daily concrete issues women face. There was a time in my life when I derived much more value from reading chick lit and the shared common experiences I found there than I would have from any great classic work of literature.

        And lastly, I think human beings operate on different levels. What is depth to one person is not to another. I can appreciate great craft without emotional connection.

        So yeah, I think it’s a great idea to read outside your comfort zone, but I think it’s harder to decide what is the most valuable thing for others to be reading. I hope this make sense!

      • Amy, I want to say I appreciate the time and care you put into replying to my post. I understand how much it got under your skin and I’m terribly sorry for offending you, though I hope you understand that it was not directed at or motivated by you.

        With respect, let’s debate a bit. I am positive we are both united in our passion for books. We love reading and we hope everyone knows what it’s like to kick back with a great book and escape the world for a while.

        I wanted to disagree with you that YA is a genre, but I find that I see your point. I want to ask, though, how can we tell that something is YA? Just by the shelf on which it’s sitting? If you’re looking at a novel about a troubled family, how can you tell whether it’s YA? It’s my contention that YA is identifiable because it’s explicitly written for younger people, with limited experience, shorter attention spans, and sometimes limited vocabulary. I think it’s the author who sets out to write a book for young adults. Adults can read YA books with greater ease than young adults can read books aimed at more mature audiences because they have more practice reading and more life experiences. YA books tend to have shorter sentences, shorter length, fewer characters, and fewer layers of complexity, because young adults are still building adult-level reading skills. I definitely do not agree that young adult books are indistinguishable from adult books. I have a teenager and we have been reading together for years. I’ve asked her to write a guest post for me, and hopefully I’ll be able to post that next week when she returns from her mom’s.

        About chick lit, I read quite a bit of it in college. Again, how do we know it’s chick lit? Pride and Prejudice is about sisters and their dating dilemmas, but everyone realizes it’s not chick lit. A book about concrete issues that women face may or may not be chick lit and it may or may not be fluff. I believe it doesn’t qualify as ‘chick lit’ unless it is fluff. If it’s not fluff, it would more appropriately be called women’s fiction or just fiction. It might even be literary fiction. ‘Fluff’ is not a derogatory term – I’ve heard many people describe their own reading preferences as ‘fluff’ and everyone seems to recognize it when they see it.

        I agree with you that we should all have an emotional connection to what we read. I do think that we can feel emotional connection to a huge variety of different books. I also think the wider variety we can learn to appreciate and enjoy, the more enjoyment we can have!

        I don’t think I’ve ever tried to decide what others should be reading. I assume that if they read my blog, they’re free to roll their eyes and navigate away at any point. If they keep reading, I assume they’re hoping I’ll recommend something they wouldn’t have discovered on their own. My uncle dragged me kicking and screaming to my first Indian restaurant. “I hate curry,” I told him. Twenty minutes later I became an instant convert. I could have missed out on that gift of expanded enjoyment my whole life.

        You’re right that I made an attack against adults reading predominantly YA. I do think people should give “the classics” a chance, and I especially think it’s dangerous to spit on a category of roughly 500 books after reading a few that didn’t hit the spot. What we call “the classics” are a huge pile of incredibly diverse books written in radically different styles over a long period of time. Frankly I think it’s
        absolutely impossible that someone would not find a single one of these great books moving, relevant, and possibly even a new lifetime favorite to be read and loved to bits over and over again. The trick is to find the right ones.

        What you’re wrong about is that I look down on people for what they read. I’ve said many times that I think people should read absolutely everything, and I walk my talk. I truly don’t think you can look at a person holding a book and guess accurately what that person “normally” reads, or what they’re going to read next. If there ever were something I looked down on in anyone, it would be giving up, ceasing to try, and voluntarily missing out on the best life has to offer.

        Your friend in books,

      • Hi Jessica,

        Hmmm. A few things or different perspectives:

        1) I’ve heard authors say they didn’t set out to write a YA book, but when trying to sell their manuscripts it was suggested to them that since they had a teenage protagonist they might be able to sell it to the larger market of YA. So they did.

        2) I’ve had publicists tell me a book was YA though not marketed that way, and they were right. The book had a teenage protagonist. The publishing company chose not to market it that way, but that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t YA.

        3) I have definitely heard people call Jane Austen’s books chick lit.

        4) Smme adult novels are repackaged and marketed to the YA market and vice versa.

      • Fair enough.

        There are also a broad variety of books that probably could not be construed as YA from any angle. Any given teenager may read any book, but what makes it YA is that some mix of publishers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers agree that it’s a good reading choice for young adults. Hopefully the teens agree.

        Pride and Prejudice has been continuously in print for nearly 200 years. Whether people like it or not, and whether they think it’s “chick lit” or not, it seems fair to say that it ranks as a classic. The fact that so many people love it and find it so approachable tends to prove my point that classics are worth reading.

      • I just came back to also say you didn’t offend me! I just really strongly disagree with you. 🙂 And this post has helped to crystalize my thoughts on that….so thanks!

      • Okay. Do you want to post about it from your point of view? It would be interesting to have a point-counterpoint.

  8. @ Will: Thank you for the lovely compliment!

    I am going to persist in saying that reading for entertainment is fine; should be encouraged; is better than watching TV; and still counts as a sort of consumerism. Let’s do more than consume books. Let’s push for some kind of transformation, education, or participation in the Great Dialogue, at least occasionally.

  9. Jessica, this is one of your best posts. Lots of food for thought. I’ve been on a spate of reading YA diaspora, or however you spell it.

    • Oh, bless you for saying that. I was starting to think I had hurt so many feelings that it would have been better left unwritten!

  10. I’ve been quiet on this topic, not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have A LOT to say. However, I want to point out to people reading this post that Jessica never says not to read a particular genre. What she DOES say is don’t read a particular genre to the EXCLUSION of high quality literature, of which there are *gasp* general standards on what is thought to be great.

    To steal an analagy that Jessica told me one time, just because you COULD eat fast food all the time, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Sometimes you should go out and have a fantastic meal at a fine dining restaurant, to taste how amazing a great meal can really be. How is that any different from reading?

    • Thank you.

      This is what happens when someone eats fast food all the time: Sagmeister on a binge The artist gained 25 pounds in one week.

  11. Question on The Kindly Ones-I was on the fence about reading this very long work in terms of time and price commitment (there are no libraries where I live so I have to buy the book)-all the quotes I have read from the book just sound awful-I love Gravity’s Rainbow and admire Gaddis-I like the concept of the book in that it shows the reading life of the Nazi Protagonist-on goodreads.com reviews are all over the chart-some saying it is as good as War and Peace others saying it is total trash-any more thoughts on the book you could share?

    • You know, I think I’ll review it, now that you mention it. Please check back soon and we can discuss.

  12. I think you really just need to read the Smart Bitches site to see how much intellectual debate there can be around books some of us might call fluff and how much social commentary a well written fluff book can provide. That being said I’d love to see people reading books with poetic language and ideas as well as books written in more straight forward language that are full of ideas (although I think you get the more poetic, lyrical language in modern classics, rather than say Dickens).

    • Quick, everybody! Call the police – somebody just told me what to read!!! 😉

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – ‘fluff’ is not a pejorative term. Everyone I have heard use the term ‘fluff’ uses it to describe their own reading tastes. Trish and I tried to start a book club once, and the prospective member we met with specifically said she wanted “to read fluff.” I would take it to mean “something I personally do not find challenging at this time.” We might also use the terms “beach read” or “airport novel” – does it mean romance? Thriller? Horror? Light mainstream fiction? When I say fluff I am (pounds fist on table) not implying anything negative.

      Bah, I give up.

  13. Oh and just wanted to point out that The Book Theif was originally marketed as adult literary fiction in the UK before publishers realised the crossover potential.

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