Earlier this month, Slate published a piece with the deliberately rage-baiting title, “Against YA.” The piece aggravated me, primarily because it set up a false binary of YA=simplistic and adult=complex. There’s also the problem that I don’t think the article’s author, Ruth Graham, has read that much contemporary YA. (There were many good criticisms of the piece; two of my favorites appear at Something More and XO Jane.) Setting aside the false assumptions in the piece, which others have addressed, the piece does raise some interesting questions, and I’d like to consider one of those questions today.
In an NPR interview last weekend, Graham addresses some of her critics, and one of her statements caught my attention:
You know, the job of criticism is to make distinctions between good things and bad things and between complicated things and simplistic things.
Is that the job of the critic? Recently, Rohan at Novel Readings wrote an excellent post about liking and disliking certain books, and Tom of Wuthering Expectations noted in the comments that what he wants is for critics to show him what they saw in a book that he does not see. I like Tom’s view much better. The trouble with making critics the arbiters of good and bad is that critics don’t even agree on what’s good and bad, never mind the fact that there are many different ways to be good and bad. What, specifically, is the book good or bad for? I hated Wuthering Heights the first time I’d read it because I’d been led to believe it was a beautiful romance. It’s a marvelous book, now one of my favorites, but it’s a terrible love story.
I’m assuming the critics who want to set themselves up as arbiters of good and bad believe that good books are challenging and complex. They are books that are somehow intellectually improving. That’s certainly the impression I get from Graham’s piece, but I resent the notion that everything we read must challenge us in order to be good and that we must feel guilty when we read something that is not appropriately challenging. I put enough guilt on myself for things that matter. I refuse to feel guilty for sometimes (maybe even usually) preferring Maggie Stiefvater and Diana Wynne Jones over James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’m going to reserve my guilt for the times I’m rude to others or unfairly judgmental (ahem).
Another strand I’ve noticed in the pearl-clutching over readers choosing “unworthy” books is the notion that readers don’t even know their own minds, as demonstrated in a recent article in Vanity Fair about some critics’ distress that people (including some critics!) like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (News Flash! Critics Sometimes Disagree!) Toward the end of the article, Lorin Stein frets that some who don’t read much may read The Goldfinch, because of all the praise it’s gotten and “tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children” and will them give up on reading altogether. Let’s unpack that, shall we?
If Stein’s hypothetical readers tell themselves they like something, chances are they liked it. People know what they like better than Stein does. I will admit to a tendency to looking for things to like in what I read, but the fact that I’m looking for pleasure and finding it doesn’t make that pleasure false. I may doubt that I’m seeing everything there is to see in a book, and my opinion may evolve over time, but if I tell myself I like something, it’s probably because I do. (Never mind that liking and disliking are not discrete categories. I can like and dislike the same book all at the same time.) I’ve not read The Goldfinch, so I can’t speak to its quality, but there are plenty of critical darlings out there that people who don’t read much are likely to be bored by. Probably lots of books Stein likes and has praised will bore people who don’t read much. Also, people who like The Goldfinch are children? Wow.
So I circle back to asking myself what the role of a critic is, and I continue to agree with Tom that a good critic shows me something I wouldn’t see on my own. Alternatively, a critic will help me see what a book is like so I can decide on my own whether I want to read it. A critic saying a book is good or bad is rarely enough to sway me. I want more. I want critics to understand the many ways a book can be good or bad and the many reasons people read. What does this book offer? Where does it fall short? What’s interesting about it? That’s different from good or bad, and it’s far more helpful.