I have been asked for my take on last week’s question about teenagers and reading. To be honest, it’s difficult to know where to start because there are so many assumptions embedded in those questions. I’ll start by unpacking them.
- 1. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all teenagers are the same.
2. There’s also an assumption in all these discussions about YA that it is primarily read by teenagers.
3. Another assumption is that a) only reading fiction counts and b) reading is better for you than any other pastime.
4. Then there’s the assumption that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing and we all agree on what those are.
Let me take numbers one & two first and point out the bleeding obvious. Not all teenagers read fiction. Of those that do read fiction, many are not reading YA at all. A sizeable proportion of those reading YA are 12 or younger or 20 and older. The age range of YA readership is every bit as broad as any other genre. Yet almost every discussion of the genre acts like it’s read only by teenagers.
So when there’s a discussion of the pernicious effects of a particular book on those young easily disturbed teenagers I have a range of conflicting responses. One of them goes very much like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ response: I read Flowers in the Attic and Angelique and many other even worse books as a sub-teen and teen and am now a fully functioning member of society. Those trashy books did not corrupt my delicate brain, thanks very much.
How much damage can reading a book do to you? If books can damage you, are you truly only vulnerable when nineteen or younger?
I have friends who are disturbed by almost every book they read, every movie they watch, everything that happens to them. I suspect they have been that way all their lives. Some people are simply way more sensitive than other people.
I used to be the neighbourhood babysitter. There were some kids I could tell the Grimm version of fairy tales too, who were gleeful about the blood on the snow, and some kids who couldn’t handle them at all. I tailored my storytelling to the kids.
I still do this with book recs to my adult friends. There are several friends I’m actively warning not to read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale because I know these books would gut them. I have friends who are allergic to a particular kind of bad writing. I don’t recommend my favourite bad book reads to them.
I don’t think there is any difference between teenagers and adults in this regard. There are only differences in particular individual sensitivity. When we talk as if teenagers are more delicate or sensitive we do them an enormous disservice. They are not identical robot people who suddenly become individuals at the age of 20. Indeed, until very recently, “teenagers” did not exist, they were adults.
What is so important about reading fiction? How is it superior to reading non-fiction? To reading newspapers, magazines, airplane manuals, the back of cereal boxes? Why is reading for pleasure so routinely exalted? Why is there so much panic about those who don’t read for pleasure?
Look, don’t get me wrong, I love reading fiction. Even more than I love writing it. But I also love Elvis Presley and Missy Elliott and I don’t think it’s a sign of moral failure that others don’t love them. Why is not reading for pleasure a cause for panic?
This is particularly invidious because I keep coming across teens, who read voraciously, who have teachers and librarians and parents freaking out that they’re not reading. Why? Because they’re not reading novels. They’re reading manga, or graphic novels, or books about cricket, or baseball, or jet engines, or World War II, or something else those well-meaning adults have decided doesn’t count. Sometimes teens have told me of well-meaning adults encouraging them to stop reading YA and start reading “real” adult books. You can imagine how I feel about that.
Illiteracy is definitely something to get wound up about. People who can’t read or write are at a horrible disadvantage. I am all for literacy. But that is not the same thing as reading fiction for pleasure. Many people who don’t read for pleasure are extremely literate and go far. I’ve met fabulous, smart, wonderful teens who don’t read fiction. I am not worried about their future.
I would love it if more people read fiction for pleasure—in particular I’d love it if they read more YA—because that’s how I earn my livelihood. I have a vested economic interest in people reading YA, but I don’t confuse that with thinking it’s morally good for them. Frankly, I’d be horrified if anyone thought reading my books would improve their moral fibre. Ugh.
(The ironc thing about all of this is that there have been many past moral panics about the perniciousness of reading novels.)
Is it really better for a kid to stay inside reading a book than it is for them to go outside and play cricket? How do we compare such activities? They’re both wonderful. I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities. Sadly, few of us have the time or energy for that. More’s the pity.
Good Books v Bad Books
There is no consensus on what makes a good or bad book. I think Patrick White is a shockingly overrated purple prose producing misogynist, misanthropist hack. He is studied at almost every Australian university and widely admired. I think his autobiography Flaws in the Glass is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It is incomprehensible to me, likewise, that there is any place for the works of Henry Miller in any canon ever. Unless it is a canon of badly written misogynist crap. In which case he’s in with a bullet. (Any defences of White or Miller in the comments will be deleted because it will give me great pleasure to do so.)
So I say potatoe and you say potatoh. Whatever.
Fashions in good writing ebb and flow. What was consider great in one decade may not last into the next. Some of the most admired writers of a century ago are no longer read. And so it goes.
But even if we could reach a consensus on good writing—so what if a teen is only reading books you consider appalling? Plenty of adults are doing ditto. The pleasures of bad books are many. The pleasures of reading a book your parents don’t want you to read are even greater.
I’ve seen a lot of concern about girls in particular reading books where the female characters have little agency and spend the whole book mooning about some bloke. This could describe pretty much every Hollywood film of the last few decades. I mean, if they actually have any female characters in them at all. So, sure, limited depictions of women worry me. However, YA is much much much much more diverse than Hollywood. There are gazillions of bestselling YA books with complex female characters, who have female friends, and concerns beyond their love life.
Also I read heaps of appalling sexist crap growing up and it was, if anything, a spur to my feminist politics. Thank you, crappy books of my youth.1
So my response to the question
What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?
is to say: does not compute.
- That’s a special shout out to you, Enid Blyton. [↩]