A few days ago, Ruth Graham bashed Young Adult literature in Slate and didn’t support her case. Graham didn’t quite piss off the whole Internet, but she did get a lot of people stirred up, myself included. At first I shook my head, dismissed it as an unfortunate case of link bait, and went on with what I was doing. Then I read a couple of status updates on Facebook about the article and decided to read it myself.
Sunday, as I was pondering whether or not to spend my time on this, I discovered a fantastic response from Observational Ginger , courtesy of @HeatherJacksonW. Yesterday, Heather posted a response of her own at Write On, Sisters! and the exchange Heather and I had on her thread convinced me to join the conversation. So, here’s how I judge literature and other works of art, and how I deal with my own subjectivity and taste. Or at least I try – no one is perfect.
- Judgment is important and unavoidable. Otherwise, I have no way to decide what I should read, or what has artistic merit. But I always keep in mind that the judgments I’m making about what I want to read are subjective. They have no bearing on whether or not a work has value. I don’t force my judgments on others or view myself as superior because other people value other types of writing more than I do.
- When I criticize (whether positive or negative), I try to stick to criticizing works and stay away from criticizing authors, genres, or the people who read the works.
- While I do make decisions about what to read based on my subjective tastes, I don’t base criticism on them. When I criticize, I try to make rational claims and support them with evidence from the work I’m talking about. In my view, that’s the only fair and productive way to criticize art of any kind.
- The reason I use the word “rational” here is because I’ve given up the belief that art can be judged objectively. The best we can do is establish criteria, explain why we’ve chosen them, and make an honest effort to judge similar works the same way. But even rational bases for judgment are informed by something. Movie script writers and comics writers aren’t going to judge novels the same way, and they aren’t going to have the same rationales for the judgments they make. Even so, I think criticism informed by either of those perspectives would make for some interesting and valuable literary discussion.
- I’d never say that a work or an entire category of art isn’t worthy of critical study. If I’m required to acknowledge before I ever start that I’m engaged in a subjective exercise, I have no way of supporting that statement, ever.
- An example of what I mean: Twilight. Here’s how Heather describes that series. Be sure and read the post. She’s not bashing Twilight at all. She’s criticizing herself more than anything else.
Nothing really happens amidst long paragraphs of plot-less description and inner monologue.
One-dimensional characters prone to insta-love.
I’ve never read the Twilight series, and I don’t plan to. I’ve seen these characteristics identified elsewhere enough to be o.k. assuming that, as a description of the writing goes, Heather is fairly accurate. Since I don’t study YA literature, and don’t like my vampires to be sparkly, I have no reason to spend my time on it. But I don’t say people who enjoy Twilight have worse taste in books than me – they just have different taste. I don’t say the series has no merit, or can’t teach us anything about the culture.
The fact of the matter is, most stories with the characteristics Heather identifies don’t succeed, but Twilight has been very successful. As a lifelong book nerd and occasional literary scholar, I find that interesting and I want to know why. Is it all about the marketing, or is there something about the work itself that people just identify with, is my first question. Even though I’ll never read the books, I’m interested enough in questions like that to read a blog post or a paper about Twilight that makes an effort to answer them. So I’d never say studying Twilight is a waste of time; I’ve just got other things to do.
I’ve also been given to understand over the years that the characterization and the relationships between characters in the Twilight series are problematic. I’ve had offline conversations about it and heard lots of gender-based criticism from people who read it just to see what it was about. That type of discussion interests me, too. So here’s a second reason studying the Twilight series might be worthwhile.
Now, a very brief word about all this as a writer. I’d love to publish a book or series that critics either ignore or hate, but readers love so much it gets turned into movies. I don’t write literary fiction for two reasons. The first and most important is that I’ve struggled to write fantasy all my life. The second is that my chances of breaking into the literary market are even lower than my chances of breaking into the fantasy market. Even if I weren’t committed to fantasy, I’d be writing some type of genre fiction. In my view, that’s where it’s at if you ever want to be, you know, published for money and stuff.
Click “more” for some snark.
As a person who’s fairly well-acquainted with classical rhetoric, I judge the headline “Against YA,” to be more than a little pretentious. Young adult lit is no Catiline. I started out by saying Graham’s article is link bait, and it is. I’m rather annoyed by the fact that I had to link to it for this post to work. Slate is good at this game. That’s the main reason I don’t read Slate unless I see my friends outdone with them. I prefer my online media with a little less manipulation. That headline is a dogwhistle to literary snobs. For every 100 internet users who are taking exception to the article, 25 are agreeing without getting the joke, and 10 are actually laughing at the joke. “Such a clever headline. Cicero. Slate is like The Forum. Haha. Stupid masses with their bread and circuses.”
Note – I bumped the weekly poetry feature to Thursday to run this instead. Wordless Wednesday tomorrow.