We were honored to host Penny (her actual name) at Booktopia Vermont this past April, and it was truly wonderful to have the opportunity to spend time with such a warm and fiercely intelligent person. So we were delighted when Penny sent us a letter in response to our “Read Whatever You Want” episode. We tried to read parts of it on our call-in show, but there just was no way to do justice to Penny’s very eloquent and thoughtful letter. It needed to be read in its entirety.
Penny has given us permission to post the letter here, in full. It is worth a slow and deliberate read. It has made me question some of my initial reaction to the reviewers and bloggers that I so vehemently disagreed with. I haven’t really changed my opinions, but Penny makes some good points that require further consideration.
So here, in full, is Penny’s letter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it — please feel free to let us know what you think in the comments. I’d love to open up further dialogue.
July 2, 2014
Greetings Ann and Michael (Goodness and Kindness) –
Listening to your podcast is like sitting down at the kitchen table with you two and talking books and everything that touches on them. In the “Read Whatever You Want” podcast last week (“Ann’s cranky podcast”), you asked your listeners to respond. I’d only screw up a voice message, and I certainly need more than three minutes, so I’m writing mine out. If you don’t have time to read it, I understand. Truly.
I agree with you about the Ruth Graham article in Slate Magazine—no one should judge a reader by the books they read. But we all judge books.
It seemed to me that in your passion, you generalized Graham’s disdain of adult readers to a disdain for the YA genre as a whole. Graham doesn’t hate YA. She just doesn’t get why adults like it and why they’re so proud of it. She wants adults to read more challenging literature. Beneath her attack on adult readers of YA was some condescension, to be sure; but there was also what I think is a legitimate question. Why are adults today so drawn to YA, often to the exclusion of books geared toward adults? It was an inquiry she never seriously pursued (maybe, as you suggested, she was trying to provoke and get a conversation started).
But let’s start with definitions of YA. When I was a YA myself, YA fiction didn’t exist. There were children’s books and then also children’s “literature” (King Arthur, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Swallows and Amazons, etc.), much of it read by adults. Everything else was adult fiction. Beyond general fiction, the only “genres” I remember were Classics, Mysteries, and “pulp fiction” (today’s mass market fiction, which back then included westerns, true crime, and romance). Sci-Fi didn’t exist, nor did historical fiction, because novels by Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell, or by James Michener and Leon Uris, were classified just as literature or general fiction.
As we know, today’s narrow, niche-driven fiction is a marketing tool, largely determined and promoted by mega-companies like B&N and Amazon, so as not to waste dollars by marketing to the wrong people. Highly specific, deep marketing. Marketers decide the criteria for a given genre. And while in some cases they don’t seem to mind cross-over, they don’t much like it if a genre-specific titles break the rules because readers might be upset and the books hard to sell (e.g., “Christian books” with heavy sex, romance fiction with sad endings, self-help books that don’t spell out recipes for success).
But it is also true that it’s a natural human instinct to classify and categorize. We need to do that to survive—to determine what is a threat and what isn’t. So is YA fiction a threat?
Graham defines YA in fairly disparaging terms: predictably plotted stories that may feature real- life problems but are focused on “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” Her claim is that despite sophisticated writing and excellent characters, a good YA book has less relevance for the mature reader for than a teenager because the protagonists aren’t themselves mature. That is, YA books are not trying to inform the life experience of adults, only of that of teens and YAs—a kind of closed-loop in which only YAs and teens gain insight because the story is presented by teen protagonists who, having not yet grown up, see the world through an exclusively YA or teen lens.
So what about Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch? They’re both young; they both gave us a vision of the world as seen through their eyes. They weren’t geared for the YA market because there wasn’t any such thing back then. Both books were read by adults and teens. I’m not sure what Michael’s definition is, but he claims To Kill a Mockingbird is essentially YA. I disagree, because I believe Harper Lee (and J.D. Salinger) wrote their books for adults, asking them to re-examine their own lives and values.
The grown-up Scout narrator brings us directly into her child’s eye view of the events she recounts. Infused with the purity, simplicity, and idealism of a child, free of the concessions adult life demands, child Scout shows us civil rights as a struggle of good versus evil in a way that takes adult compromises to task and shames us all. Holden Caulfield struggles to be authentic in a phony world—one rife with the emptiness of conformity and false gods (money, power). This is not escape literature. It is serious literature.
Ann also takes the category of “serious literature” to task. But I think what makes these books serious literature is their big themes. What makes them classics is their wholly original voice and enduring characters. Holden, hugely flawed, unravels before our eyes in his painful, poignant refusal to give up his poetic vision of perfection, and we never forget him or his struggle. And Atticus Finch, who could shoot a rabid dog but ultimately could not protect Tom Robinson, shows us that even against the odds you can strive to protect someone’s dignity and your own humanity. We long for the humanity that Scout presents us; we long for the idealism of Holden Caulfield. We think about our own choices; we as adults understand something of the world and ourselves in a way we maybe hadn’t before.
What about Romeo and Juliette, or Tony and Maria, for that matter—teen protagonists set in a love story? YA? Not according to Graham’s definition, because what they did besides break your heart is to put love into a wider context. They made readers wonder if pure, unadulterated love can exist in this world, made them sad that it can’t. Made them think about tribes and the tragedy of prejudice (and of course, written by Shakespeare and scored by Bernstein, they are classics).
“Serious literature” challenges us and strives to say something beyond the story it’s telling. It would have been nice if instead of attacking adult fans of YA, Graham had asked what’s driving the need to be comforted and entertained as opposed to being stretched intellectually, provoked, or made uncomfortable? Nothing wrong with escape. Let’s take that magic wand of Harry Potter! Sometimes we need sharply drawn distinctions between good guys and bad ones. We need some measure of predictability in an uncertain world. Maybe this is such a time. We need escape from culture wars, climate change, terrorist threats, mass shootings, foreign wars. We need to root for someone—the kid with cancer, the underdog team. We know Jack Bauer will win, but we want to lose ourselves in how he’s going to do it this time around. Fiction that serves this purpose doesn’t make us think big thoughts. It lets us stop thinking for a bit and just feel.
Which brings us to the other issue you raised—The Goldfinch, the lens through which Vanity Fair chose to explore whether a book should be judged by standards that rise above personal taste, and who gets to decide? The judges of the Man Booker and Pulitzer? Critics in the New York Review of Books? What’s their criteria and how dare they? Populists would say that the opinions of these self-styled arbiters of culture are no more valid than those of the man on the street, and they would be right. Reading is subjective, and readers themselves should not be judged by their choices any more than by the clothes they wear (nor a book by its cover!).
But we do judge people by their behavior, by whether we believe they are authentic, other-centered and so on. So, too, books can and at some level should be judged on their merits, by their success in meeting their own goals, be they to help us escape or challenge us. Sales figures are very different from merit. In nonfiction, merit might be accuracy of facts presented in fluid, readable prose at a level that meets the target audience. In fiction, at the very least it’s memorable characters, strong narrative voice, a good plot, and prose that matches the story told. Stories vary on these criteria, but most of the good ones meet at least two; the best meet all four.
Who decides? Whose reviews count? Like most people, I enjoy consumer reviews. But I also subscribe to the Sunday NY Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and yes, even the London Review of Books, some of the few outlets left that review in depth. Sure, the critics there can sometimes be pompous, and I don’t always agree with them. But I’m a big fan of the long-form essay written by someone whose credentials as a critic I trust, presented in an article with enough space to really develop ideas and put a book into a larger context.
Are such reviews free of bias? Of course not. But there’s a world of difference between them and the consumer review that states, “I’m not a fan of books set in Alaska. Plus, crime fiction isn’t really my genre, so I just couldn’t get into this book. 2 stars.” Consumer reviews can be highly personal with the reviewer often less interested in whether the book accomplishes what it set out to do or whether others will like it and more interested in their own response to it. At the same time, many a consumer review is better written than the books they discuss, and often more insightful than published reviews. But they’re semi-anonymous. Does that mean they’re not valid? No. But it does mean it’s harder to judge their validity.
As Vanity Fair points out, Francine Prose and Stephen King had very different opinions of The Goldfinch, but we know who they are and what they value in fiction (Prose, great writing; King, great plotting) and that they’ve spent a lifetime thinking about what makes good fiction. We also know that most professional reviewers only write about books in a genre they enjoy and are familiar with.
Just as we need a flourishing publishing industry with arbiters and gatekeepers (agents/editors) who have devoted their lives and careers to determine with some level of dispassion based on a set of standards whether a book has merit and then whether it will sell, so too we need critics of the end result. The gatekeepers aren’t always right, any more than the professional or consumer reviewer. And thankfully, good books that fail to get past the gatekeepers can be self-published, and published books that don’t get marketed can become bestsellers. Time is always the final arbiter of what constitutes “memorable” fiction.
Those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Nothing new here, but it was fun to share them, assuming you made it to the end. Whether you did or not, I appreciate the stimulus that led me to write them down. The issue of genre is one that I’ve thought about since The Cartographer of No Man’s Land came out because it’s been called historical fiction, serious fiction, war fiction, and WW I fiction. Lots of categories—none of which were in my mind when I wrote it!
Take care, you two. I just finished a ton of work, and my reward is to listen to “Separating the Author from their Work,” something I already know is rare in today’s world. Should it be? I look forward to hearing the opinions of Goodness and Kindness.
Best to you both,
Penny (P.S. Duffy)
And thank you, Penny, for taking the time to respond in such an incredibly thought-provoking way. And thank you, of course, for being a Books on the Nightstand friend and listener.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s episode (#292, which will go live on the evening of August 5th) to hear Penny’s talk from Booktopia Vermont. And don’t forget to let us know your thoughts.