Thursday, June 12, 2014

Can we pack it in with this nonsense about "proper literature", please?

Ah, the joys of being on holiday; it quite often means that I miss something the day it gets published and then have to rant about it a week after everyone else has given it a good going over. Usually, that'd lead to me not bothering, since people have already said everything I'd want to say by that point, but this time it's different.

This time, I done got the fire in my belly, and it all started when I read that article on Slate (you know the one), about how adults who read YA fiction should be embarrassed.

Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not a post where I come out swinging in defence of Young Adult fiction, because quite frankly, I'm not a fan. I've tried to read some, here and there, and it's just not my cuppa tea. Instead, what I'm here to do is ask this question: when did it become a-okay to imply people are somehow deficient as humans (and "should be embarrassed") when they like something you don't?

I mean did I miss a memo, or something?

Mind you, let's be honest here, the original article, by writer Ruth Graham, isn't exactly anything new, is it? For those of us who like aliens and dragons, or rayguns and swords, being told that the thing we love is somehow not proper and decent for adult comsumption is something we're well used to. One only has to watch the mental hoops the supposed arbiters of culture jump through to ensure that George Orwell's 1984 cannot be a dystopian science fiction novel, or that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol cannot possibly be a ghost-filled fantasy story.

No, they're both "proper literature", not the kind of disgusting, pulpy genre fiction that the unwashed and braindead masses consume like the animals they are. You know the stuff: Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, all those stories for plebs, that's not proper literature...

What it ultimately boils down to is snobbery, plain and simple, a kind of cultural elitism which states that only a narrowly defined range of things can be considered "worthy", and anything outside that narrow band of things can go do one.

"Science fiction can't be literature," they say. "Heavy metal can't be music. Comics and video games are for children, and should be banned anyway. You should be ashamed of yourself for liking such things, and should consume only what I say is good for you, for such is the path to salvation."

No, such is the path to stagnation. What people who make these claims seem to want is a society based purely around what they like. Other people's tastes? Things that other people may like?

Pah, what do those  plebs know about anything?

There's an odd (well, perhaps not that odd) parallel here, with the world of publishing, or more specifically, with the world of traditional publishing. For years, publishers acted as the arbiters of culture, defining themselves as the gatekeepers of what the public should like (I firmly believe that's partly why traditional publishers are slowly going extinct, and not a moment too soon: the people are rebelling and deciding their tastes for themselves in this great ebook revolution), and that view, to my mind, looks pretty much identical to the one in the Slate article.

All of that seems to lead to one inescapable conclusion about how such people think, and it can be summed up thusly: you philistinies are too stupid to choose for yourselves

It's a shockingly authoritarian view, and if there's one thing I really do loathe, it's people who paint themselves as authority figures; any person who says they know what's best for other people is someone who, quite frankly, disgusts me.

So go on reading YA fiction. Carry on reading your sci-fi epics where five-limbed squids do unthinkable things to humans. Read what you love. Oh sure, people will telll you that you're wrong to like what you like, complete with the subtle implication that they're better than you, but quite frankly, who cares what they think?

You're not reading for them. You're reading for you, and you alone, so enjoy it!
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Addendum Edit-To-Add Thingummy:

Ruth Graham also had this to say in her original article, and I completely forgot to pick up on it as I was first writing this post...
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists. 
What, precisely, is wrong with a book having, y'know, a proper ending? Is it some kind of crime to like stories, works of fiction, to have the narrative closed out in an emotionally-satisfying way (whether that emotion is elation or heartache)? Sure, some books can turn what might otherwise have been a cop-out ending into pure genius (American Psycho springs to mind), but why must every bit of adult fiction ever have the kind of ambiguous, narratively-unsatisfying ending that Ms. Graham seems to want to see?

I swear, some people are so hung up on deep and meaningful, they forget what it's like to tell, or be told, a story...
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