By Tim Wynne-Jones
Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate advising us that we ought to be ashamed of reading young adult novels caused some seismic activity on the faculty listserv, earlier this month, and we were all, I suppose, happy to see a well-wrought rejoinder by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post. I’ve just read Graham’s piece again and it’s actually harmless, well written and quite interesting. Do none of us ever question our reading? More to the point, do we not all care a great deal about how reading impacts on our lives and especially on our writing lives? Upon rereading the article in Slate, I went on to read pages and pages of commentary. I was encouraged by the fact that most people disagreed with Graham, but not quite so encouraged by the disposition of some of the commentators. But that’s freedom of speech, for you. The Internet introduces you to a world of opinions some of which you’d be happy never to have heard.
Many reviewers made the point that YA is not a genre. Amen. And many people made the point that reading at all is already a very good thing. Amen to that, too.
My only point here today is about holding sway over the books I read. I seldom acknowledge the injunction that there is a book, let alone a type of book, that I have to read. And yet I can suddenly and with great fervor want a book someone mentions that, for whatever reason, strikes me as hugely pertinent right at that moment.
In a good year I might read sixty books. I have my own little Oscar Night every New Year’s, where I decide upon the top five or six titles. Last year I see in my notes that Robert Cormier’s Fade stood cheek by jowl with How It All Began by Penelope Lively and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane. The latter two are adult books, but the Lahane is a mystery and therefore, I suppose, only worthy of Ms. Grahams scorn, despite the excellence of his prose, since the mystery genre also gets side-swiped in her obloquy (or lowblowquy I’m tempted to call it). But is the Lively book literature by Graham’s standards? It’s such a cracking good story; can it possibly be good for me? Because there is, I think, in Graham’s rant, a whiff of prescription if not proscription. In 2012 my top picks included Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, a thriller in a way, but also a quite brilliant retelling of Frankenstein, which, come to think of it is also a thriller. Does that make the adult grade? Here’s my point: I fear that what Graham is talking about is “literature” and I’m not all that interested in “literature,” as such. I like Shakespeare and John Le Carre, Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. I also happen to love The Fault in Our Stars and Wolf Hall, not to mention The House at Pooh Corner. I like Story. I don’t find enough Story in, say, Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje, but that’s just me. The words get in the way, to my mind. There’s a lot of shimmering surface dance. Is that what Graham thinks we should be reading?
I can’t read everything nor do I feel the slightest compunction to keep abreast of the times, let alone every brilliant new release in the field in which I write. What I read matters too much to me to be either cajoled or bludgeoned into reading anything but what I need to read for my own weird reasons and well being.
To me, youth is a renewable resource. I read YA and children’s books – Heavens! Let’s not forget picture books – because, at best, they replenish the sense of wonder, the vibrancy of what it is to be new to the shocks and joys of becoming fully human. I believe books for young people are about getting a grip and books intended for adults are about letting go. I’m quiet prepared to let go, bit by bit, and take my place in the line-up tottering towards the end of this mortal moving walkway. I don’t read young adult books out of nostalgia – God forbid I should be a teenager again! – but out of a profound and ongoing need to keep getting a grip. Keep holding fast.