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YA Lit Shaming

June 11, 2014
Yeah, I’m almost 50 years old, and I’m male, and I’ve read The Fault in our Stars.  You got a problem with that?

Yeah, I’m almost 50 years old, and I’m male, and I’ve read The Fault in our Stars. You got a problem with that?

Every year brings a new literary controversy. A couple years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert and Phillip Roth disagreed about whether writing was “torture” or “f**king great.” Last year, Danielle Steel got angry when a male acquaintance asked her: “Are you still writing?” And a couple weeks ago, Ruth Graham (a writer I’d never heard of) claimed that adults should be embarrassed if they were seen reading young adult (or YA) literature.

It’s only controversial because numerous literary news outlets reported her statement. If nobody had reported it, then nobody would have cared. This feels like a manufactured controversy because literary sites/blogs have such little actual literary news to report (another celebrity is writing either a memoir or a children’s book, an upcoming book has released its cover, and James Patterson has a new book coming out soon). The only reason I’m writing about this is because a couple weeks ago I wrote about books that I was embarrassed to read in public. YA literature didn’t make the list.

I’ve heard of slut shaming before (and I’m completely against it). But I’d never heard of YA Lit shaming, and some critics are upset with Graham for attaching a negative word like “embarrassing” to YA books. Ruth Graham later backtracked in an NPR interview, saying that she meant YA literature was like a “guilty pleasure.” She shouldn’t have backtracked, especially since her backtracking isn’t consistent with her original opinion. I understood what she meant the first time (I think), and I believe some of her critics are overreacting.

Maybe “embarrassed” was the wrong word to use, but everybody uses the wrong word sometime. Unfortunately, Ruth Graham wrote this article for Slate, so she’s being held to a high standard of word usage, and she should be. In her original piece, she wrote about YA lit as if it were beneath her. YA fiction is not meant for adults, so we shouldn’t treat it like it’s for adults. There might be a few exceptions, but really, it’s not for us. I’m probably more familiar than most adults with YA fiction, but that’s because I have two daughters who read a lot, so I want to see what’s out there.

The Fault in our Stars is an exception. Even though it’s much better than most YA lit, I still felt detached from it, and I had to read it in short (or small?) doses. I appreciated the literary references, even though I didn’t understand all of them at first (though I pretended to with the people I know). But I didn’t have any problem reading it in public, though I was told a couple teen girls looked at me strangely. And I’m not embarrassed that I read it. It’s not beneath me. But a lot of current YA lit might be.

Despite The Fault in Our Stars and a few other high quality YA books, a lot of recent YA literature (at least the stuff that I’ve read/sampled) seems to be poorly written, and a lot of the authors write as if they don’t even know any teenagers. For example, when I read the first (20 pages of the first) Theodore Boone book by John Grisham, I wondered if Grisham has actually talked to young adults in the last 20 years.

Maybe 5-10 years ago, there was less YA lit, but it was higher quality. Now it’s being churned out so quickly that it would make James Patterson’s head spin, except he’s in on the action too with his own sets of YA series. A friend of my family claims that Patterson’s co-authors are doing a decent job with Patterson’s YA books, but I’m not going to find out for myself. I’d be embarrassed.

I’m a judgmental person, but I judge myself far more harshly than I judge others… except for James Patterson. I’m pretty hard on James Patterson, and he deserves it, but he doesn’t care. Since I’m judgmental, I’m the type of person who should be outraged by what Ruth Graham said.  But I can’t get myself worked up over over Ruth Graham’s opinion.

This is a problem with today’s discourse; people get offended and outraged too quickly. Ruth Graham doesn’t need to get insulted for her opinion, as some commenters on other websites/blogs have done.  I don’t even think her point is that controversial.

If people want to be outraged at an author, get mad at James Patterson. He put his name on 13 books last year. To me, an author’s actions (pretending to write 13 books in one year) is more offensive (wrong word) than having an opinion about YA literature. Consequently, I’m not a fan of YA lit shaming, but James Patterson shaming? I’m all for it!


Whenever I write “Ruth Graham,” I accidentally keep writing “Ruth Gordon” first, and then I have to go back and change it. I had a crush on Ruth Gordon when I was a teenager.


But enough about me! Would you be embarrassed to be seen reading YA literature in public? Should Ruth Gord… Ruth Graham be shamed for suggesting that adults be embarrassed if they read YA books in public? Are most YA books any more poorly written than most of any other genre out there? Is most YA lit beneath us adults? Should I be shamed for suggesting that most YA books are poorly written? Should I be shamed for not crying while reading The Fault in our Stars?

  1. I feel absolutely no shame in reading “James And The Giant Peach” or “The Phantom Tollbooth”. If someone catches me crying over the end of “The Velveteen Rabbit” I will not pretend that I wasn’t. I have reread “The House With A Clock In Its Walls” recently, and it still scares me. I have all of the Narnia books on my shelf, and I proudly display my copy of “Half Magic”. I have Robert Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” and “The Star Beast” on my Kindle.

    One of the great hings about being 50 is that I no longer have to try to pretend that I’m cool. I read what I enjoy. Deal with it.

    • Dahl is a personal favorite, and I feel great pleasure with no guilt for having enjoyed James and the Giant Peach once to myself and three times aloud to my three sons.

  2. I completely agree, most YA nowadays is honestly not the best. It’s rare for me to find anything actually really good and worth reading when it comes to YA but there are those rare treasures and saying that reading YA as a whole should be an embarrassment is ridiculous, but so is bashing on someone who isn’t really a big deal for no reason.

  3. I think people should be embarrassed playing Angry Bird and Candy Crush on their phones in public. I’m just happy if they choose reading (anything – YA, James Patterson, newspaper, whatever) over playing a game for toddlers.

  4. I loved YA as a YA but it doesn’t appeal to me anymore…though I did read The Fault in Our Stars (and didn’t love it nearly as much as everyone else (except you) seems to have loved it). But I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all to read YA. I think that people should read whatever they want to read!

  5. Read what you want and be damned to the critics. I’ll read whatever I want in public and everyone else should too.

  6. If you’re reading YA because it’s “easy'” then I think you should push yourself. If you read it because it appeals and you enjoy the stories, have fun. Either way, it’s your choice, and let’s not be snobs.

    • I was thinking about becoming a snob. They seem so confident about their opinions. But I don’t trust people who are too confident in their opinions, and I need to be able to trust myself, so I guess I can’t become a snob.

  7. Ugh I don’t like the idea that lit shaming exists. I may still be considered a young adult to some people, but I don’t think I’ll never stop reading YA no matter how old I get.

    • Some shaming might be good. It keeps us from doing things we probably shouldn’t do. However, I agree with you that lit shaming might be going a little too far.

  8. I agree with Misha and X. Any reading is good reading. Mostly. And one of the benidits of being older is I’m practically impossible to embarrass.

    • Again, I’ll agree with you and Misha and X that any reading is good reading… except for James Patterson. I’m sticking to my principles on that one.

  9. I think this happening to all of the lit genres, lately. I used to love to read anything and everything, but now I find myself saying “nuh uh” to more and more books. That just leaves me to re-read Pride and Prejudice.. well, up until the point where Elizabeth starts accepting her feelings for Darcy. Love is the ruin of wit 😛 (an opinion I will probably be held to :P)

  10. I started reading “the fault in our stars” this afternoon, and it hadn’t even occurred to me, as I walked around going about my day with my nose in this book, that I should feel a smidgen ashamed of reading it.
    Having now given a few minutes thought, my opinion remains the same, there is no reason for shame in enjoying whatever literature one finds compelling.

    Hell, read smut for all I care. It is kind of funny though to see someone reading 50 shades, or almost anything Laurell K. Hamilton in public; it’s like they’re bringing their personal world outside with them, knowing the content of what they’re reading not fitting the context their reading it in, creates a sort of humorous tension. No shame all the same. 🙂

  11. I think there’s also a misperception of what YA is. Sure, it supposedly uses simpler language than “adult” literature, but that’s not really the defining characteristic. YA is supposed to be novels that deal with themes common to the YA age group, that is, coming-of-age stories, finding one’s identity, the transition to adulthood (though nowadays I see they call that “New Adult”), etc. But it rather seems as if any book with non-adult protagonists get shoved into YA rather than in its proper place.

    Take The Book Thief as an example. I understand it’s not everywhere, but in South Africa, for example, it is billed as YA. And yet it uses complex language, a vocabulary way above the average high schooler’s level, an intricate plot, and it explores complex themes such as war and peace, love, loyalty, sacrifice, family, racism, oppression, etc; themes that are completely allowable in YA, but which are actually much more universal in nature. All of this makes this novel regular adult literary fiction (which in no way bars young adults from reading it), but just because the protagonist is 10 years old the novel suddenly becomes YA.

    But to get back on topic, reading is supposed to be relaxing and entertaining. If YA fits that description for you, then read it. In fact, the only people who should be shamed are those who behave like only smart people should have the right to read.

    • That’s true, people disagree about what YA lit is. Some people think To Kill a Mockingbird is YA lit, maybe because of the themes and who tells the story, but I just see it as a classic. Is Romeo and Juliet considered YA lit? I had to read it in junior high, but I’d never consider it YA lit.

      • Interesting question. It’s about idiotic teenagers who rebel against their parents and commit suicide, so I suppose it could probably go through as YA (though we have to penalise it on the ground that there are no vampires or other paranormal beings, nor a corrupt and oppressive government). On the other hand, have you ever tried teaching Shakespeare to teenagers? If there weren’t movie versions of his plays I don’t know how I would have done it…

  12. Love that you circumventively heaped shit on Patterson here. I’ve read some YA because people often recommend it to me. I enjoyed some of it because of the warm characters and idealised portrayal of the world, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. A lot of the YA I’ve read has been formulaic. Sounds pretentious but … I like challenging books YA’s never challenged me

  13. some YA lit I wouldn’t want to read (not alone, not in public). The ones I do like to read, I would read anywhere.

    There’s too much mediocre YA these days, and I understand what she meant, though the way she phrased it is questionable.

  14. Answer to your last question….”no” as most YA is especially manipulative….just my opinion.

    • That’s an interesting comment. Some critics have said the same thing about The Fault in our Stars. I have some complaints about YA books, but I hadn’t noticed the manipulation as much as others have. Maybe I’m easily manipulated.

  15. I read whatever i like, wherever i like. I have read 50 shades in public, i have read Harry Potter in public and i have read The Shining in public. All very different genres. I’m not ashamed of reading. Its an excellent hobby to have.

    When it comes to YA, I actually think books like the Harry Potter series has caused a bit of an issue. They were written for children, but adults went mad for them too. Now it seems like people are expecting YA to appeal to adults as well as their target audience. (A bit like when disney movies use double entendres and jokes for adults so that parents who watch them with their children don’t get bored out of their minds.) The books are intended for children so many adults won’t want to read them. That is their perogative. but they shouldn’t make comments at adults who DO like to read them.

    Harry Potter is like a security blanket for me. I LIKE that the earlier books don’t deal with romance and relationships and anything remotely adult. That is exactly why i read them when i’m feeling down or i need a little excape from the world around me.

  16. After the sudden death of our librarian last year I became the de facto librarian. Why? Because I read constantly. In high school I read all the classics and thought I was deep.
    Now I read everything. I am in agreement with list of X above.
    And don’t be swayed by the pretentious lit snobs. They lack the ability to just be. Prove nothing to anyone….

  17. You like what you like, end of story.

  18. silverliningsanddustbunnies permalink

    My “inner child” still lives, and never really got beyond 12 in my outlook on the world…
    Since I live and work in a highly technical occupation, I love to kick off my shoes, shake out the shackles on my brain, and like to read good and “classic” YA occasionally. Harry Potter is right up there with Chronicles of Narnia! I agree with the prevailing sentiment: Read what interests and frees you when the spirit strikes!

  19. Veronica permalink

    1) Yes, you should be ashamed for not crying at the end of The Fault in Our Stars.
    2) You really don’t like James Patterson…
    3) When do we stop being “young adults?” I’m 25 and still enjoy most well-written YA novels. I’ll admit that I can’t read a few in a row (unless it’s a series), but it’s nice to break up the routine with something that is light and easy to read.

    • 1) Hey, at least I finished the book, and I took it seriously, and I didn’t roll my eyes at it.
      2) Maybe James Patterson is a decent human being (he’s employing other writers, I guess), but I think what he’s doing is a literary scam.
      3) I think we stop being young adults when we move out of our parents’ house permanently, with some exceptions.

  20. I just read Pippi Longstocking, so I guess nothing embarrasses me, except maybe reading a board book for toddlers. 🙂 I haven’t heard of The Fault of Our Stars before.

    • There’s nothing wrong with reading a toddler’s board book. Blue Hat, Green Hat is great! It was the first book my daughters could read aloud without really reading it.

  21. I love YA! I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of it, lol 🙂

  22. anaivefan permalink

    Reblogged this on Michelle Vee and commented:
    You should not feel ashamed of bot crying foe this book, I wouldn’t have cried if it wasn’t for my sister who was in the room (she would probably call me a heartless person if I hadn’t cried so I acted a bit.)

    I am not embarrassed by reading YA since I’m a Young Adult myself but I feel embarrassed that I must be the only person in the whole world that wasn’t thrilled by TFIOS. It isn’t a bad book, it really isn’t but I did not enjoyed it as many other YA books. Why? Because, Hazel and Gus weren’t heroes. Yes, they had cancer but why should we treat them as heroes when many people in real life are actually dying of cancer. Our heroes should be those around us, not some people from a book. Having cancer is a serious condition and I have heard many young girl saying how they should get cancer and find an Augustus Waters. Cancer is not a joke. I’m not saying this book is making it a joke but it surely isn’t as easy as they make it sound. I have had many close relatives who have died of it in my life and sure wasn’t as easy for them.

    I’m sorry if this might had offended anyone but it’s my OPINION.

    Michelle Vee

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