I love the internet. It’s the greatest technological revolution since…what? The assembly line? Accurate timekeeping? The telephone? I don’t even know. It has its downsides, though. There are some dark and scary places online, and I think that a lot of people have learned that internet anonymity means they should act like fools and monsters without accountability just because they can. That’s not the internet’s fault, necessarily. But it’s leveled the playing field in a lot of ways. The music industry is different, the publishing industry is different, the way we do business has drastically changed. Most importantly, everyone has a voice. This is not always a good thing. For example, even just ten years or so ago, this article may not have gotten published. It would have probably been relegated to some op-ed column in a local newspaper, buried behind who won the high school football game and what’s on sale at the hardware store. Instead, the good folks at Slate put it on their website, and the internet exploded.
Now, I’m all for the First Amendment. Say what you like. I will loudly and unabashedly defend free speech and freedom of the press as basic human rights until the day I die. But don’t be shocked when you say something dumb and there’s backlash. I mean, come on. Your only options are to stand by your opinion and defend yourself, or keep saying dumber and dumber shit until someone suggests you run for public office. I don’t know much about Ruth Graham. Her Slate bio says simply that she’s a writer from New Hampshire. That could mean anything. Except for the New Hampshire part, those stereotypes are pretty spot on. Looking back at some of her former articles, though, she seems to be a wholesome, middle-aged, ostensibly upstanding American. I’m not here to fault her character. I’m just here to tell you that as far as that one piece goes, she is dead fucking wrong.
I’ve talked about kids’ books and YA books on the blog before. I’m a fan. It’s weird, though, that I didn’t read most of the ones I like until I was an adult. I think this is probably because I started reading adult books super early. I jumped straight from R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series to Stephen King and never looked back. I read tons of Michael Crichton and Dean Koontz and stacks and stacks of weird crime thrillers that my dad left laying around for me. Then later it was all Kerouac and Burroughs and Nietzsche and Baudelaire. To my recollection, and according to everyone I’ve asked about this anomaly in the space-time continuum, YA wasn’t really a thing when we were growing up. There were books that teenagers read, books for and about them, but the category wasn’t the behemoth of marketing that it is now. In the golden age of Reading Rainbow, kids’ books were king. And then at some point someone handed you an adult book you could handle and that was that.
Culturally, the idea of the teenager is fairly new. Back in ye olden times, you were just a kid and then you were a grownup. At some point you went off and got married or joined the army or got a job. End of childhood, get over it. That’s assuming that you hadn’t already been working on the family farm or sent down a mine or whatever. But this idea of adolescence being a separate, pupal stage of life is pretty new. And it’s directly tied to the invention of the high school. Oh, that most horrible and hate-able of institutions. But putting them all in one place like that made it clear that they had tastes that were distinct from either children or adults. And lo! A market force was born. (But seriously, what idiot thought it was a good idea to put as many hormonal sociopaths as possible in one building against their will? How does that even make sense?)
So now we have all these books that are marketed specifically to teens and tweens. And I say fuck yes. Get those kids to keep reading. If you can snag them when they’re little and get them to like reading, the hard part is to maintain their interest through all that stressful, angst-riddled bullshit, so they come out the other side as devoted adult readers. It’s a worthy scheme and I support it. Are a lot of those books complete crap? Sure. But better that they read crap than stop reading altogether, I think. I still read crap occasionally and I’m in my thirties. A little junk food for the brain never hurt anybody, and there are plenty of grownups who read cheesy romance novels and bad whodunits by the truckload and nobody blinks an eye about that. Those people have to come from somewhere. My sister made a good point when I asked her about having a houseful of teenagers who were all voracious readers. She said, about her daughter: “reading all her damn sparkly vampire crap set her up for the classic stuff – Shelley and Stoker.” She also said that any book she told them they couldn’t read would immediately show up in her house, passed from kid to kid like prison contraband. I suspect she did it so that they would want to read those books even more, but that might just be because I know how damn sneaky she can be.
But the idea that adults shouldn’t read these books baffles me. First of all, what difference does it make? I’m very Eric Cartman about this: I do what I want! No amount of bah humbuggery is going to change my mind. I get scoffed at for reading scifi and comics, too, and I don’t care about that either. I still watch tons of cartoons, motherfucker! So there! Take that! Secondly, when you see someone of an inappropriate age reading a teen book, consider why they’re reading it. Maybe they’re a good parent, reading a book before giving it to their kid or (gasp!) reading it with them. Maybe they’re a teacher or a librarian or a writer. Maybe they’re just learning to read and they’re taking a big, scary step in grabbing a teen book rather than one for children. Or maybe, just maybe, people are allowed to read whatever they want in this country and you should keep your fucking judgmental mouth shut about it. We’ve had this conversation before. Remember the Comics Code? Remember Larry Flynt’s trial? Remember when that wacky German guy with the mustache burned books in the street? What was his name again?
Graham’s main point here seems to be that these books are beneath us, somehow, as adults. That we should be beyond the simplistic storytelling of teen books. While I can appreciate that logic, I say look at it from the other side. Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool. The teens and tweens who are reading these books haven’t been through this shit, and their little worlds are so small and self-centered (no offense, kids, but not everything is as dire as you think it is – you’ll figure it out). They’re rapt and focused on what’s going to happen, where we grownups are wincing and thinking “this will not end well,” right? Keep in mind that these books are, by and large, written by adults who are looking back on their own teen years. They know how they reacted in those situations, but their memories are blurred by hindsight. I think that the thing we forget first when we come of age is how mind-blowing every little thing was to us at that stage. To read those stories from that perspective reminds us, a little, what it was like to still have wonder and enormous freedom to fuck up.
Furthermore, enjoying those time-machine moments, or just good storytelling period, does not detract from the other books we choose to read. Is Anna Karenina going to seem more stodgy and boring because we read The Hunger Games? No, that shit is boring all on its very own. I can think of probably twenty books off the top of my head that we regularly give to kids that were written for adults. Does that diminish a modern adult reading The Secret Garden or Little Women? No. Contrarily, there are plenty of books that were written specifically for children that we now put in the “classic literature” or “literary fiction” genre. Tom Sawyer or The Hobbit or Treasure Island or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example.
Everything is fluid. Culture is porous and malleable. The idea of what an adult is has changed. My generation specifically has been accused of being a bunch of overgrown children with no drive and no morals and no desire to grow the hell up. But the truth is, we don’t have to do grownup the way our elders did. A lot of that shit didn’t work, y’all. So many systems are broken or obsolete and I don’t want to be a grownup in a world where I’m expected to uphold an outdated status quo that is not in my best interest. And how you judge my status as an adult has very little to do with my actual character, doesn’t it? What’s the answer? Money? Marriage? College degree? Graduate degree? Babies? Successful career? The appropriate amount of debt? The books I read? How about we just stop judging each other? Wouldn’t that be simpler? Wouldn’t that free up so much time? It’s not a race. We don’t need to be ranked by our possessions or our ideologies or our differences. Maybe we’d know that if we read more.