The Young Adult Novel “Culture War”

When Christopher Beha wrote about the “culture war” in regards to the reading of young adult novels and its intersection with Henry James, I was a little confused. Perhaps it appeared to me that this issue had been adjudicated from my vantage point within the proverbial Ivory Tower. Certainly, classes at reputable universities on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have been familiar academic fare for a while with no sign of the interest in these sorts of course diminishing. I read The Fault in Our Stars as a relaxing break from my master’s coursework at Boston University. It wouldn’t be accurate to say Green’s novel was more or less enjoyable than the readings for my Transnational Modernism class — although if you pressed me I would say in no uncertain terms it is far less enjoyable a novel than Masters of the Dew but far more enjoyable than Du Bois’s Dark Princess. Rather, the mechanisms of Green’s prose and narrative, as is the case with most young adult literature, pushes the reader forward in a way that more canonical fiction (in this moment) does not.

Beha seems keenly aware of the page-turning nature of the young adult novel as a defining factor, as he remarks about the structure of Dickens or Trollope in contrast to James. James, in his heyday, was criticized for having “too much character and not enough incident.” It is this notion of incident that makes “non-literary” fiction definitive. After completing my master’s studies, I dipped my feet into the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford, a decidedly “adult” novel with far less sophistication than The Fault in Our Stars, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Harry Potter in terms of both characterization and structure. Still, the single Sandford novel I read certain has a well constructed plot even if it must sacrifice in-depth and consistent characterization to get it.

Cutting to the chase, the point (which should seem obvious, but I suppose is not) is that various novels, regardless of genre and age classification, offer different sorts of pleasures. The enjoyment I derive from Sandford’s Rules of Prey is altogether different from the enjoyment I derive from reading The American, and assigning one as greater or lesser than the other is difficult. The pleasures are as diverse as the difference in enjoyment between taking a run in contrast to reading Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance. The conflict in regards to young adult fiction versus “literary” fiction is less a culture war and more a preference war. Additionally, pundits on both sides have failed to take into account genre fiction which was the poster child to place in opposition to “literary” fiction until about 2008. Truthfully, I question whether this “war” really exists in serious academic circles. In my view, questions of this nature are relegated to psudo-academic magazines like The New Yorker or Slate.

The tone deaf argument about young adult fiction and culture faces the least of its problems in the ignorance of genre fiction. Though common sense dictates that character-driven drama (as opposed to incident-driven plot-heavy narratives) are the privileged form of fiction writing, Aristotle believed quite the opposite. For him, the key determination of quality in the genre of tragedy (“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” — the majority of the fiction which we encounter) is that of the quality of the actions. Plot, the imitation of the actions, is the most important aspect of tragedy. Aristotle writes “tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” Clearly this endorses the sort of fiction wherein the incidents are frequent and arranged in a manner that makes sense.

Despite my love of James, I’m far more inclined to adhere the organizing principles of my life and my critical mind to the ideas of Aristotle. In addition, Aristotle’s aesthetic view often matches my intuitions in regards to quality. However, this is my preference. The young adult novel debate seems to miss the potential for preference entirely, an amateurish mistake in a critical conversation. Beha closes his piece writing, speaking about “literary fiction” along the lines of Henry James, that “These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down ‘Harry Potter’ for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.” Beha paints a picture of a fairly linear hierarchy of pleasures, something well debunked by scientists and philosophers alike. Creating such a consistent linear hierarchy is difficult in the face of different preferences, because rather than the difference in pleasure between Henry James and Harry Potter being one of objective quality, it is one of category. Indeed, the category of pleasure derived from Henry James and Shakespeare, or even between various Shakespeare plays, might be quite different. Such a distinction accommodates the reality that many people with equal expertise might prefer one Shakespeare to another.

Another problem with Beha’s closing is the pejorative eye he casts to the critical mind of a child. Children have their cognitive limitations, but would a child opting to listen to Schubert over One Direction cheapen his work? Of course not. There’s something to be said for the critically praised work of musicians like The Beatles who offer something universal which is enjoyed at various levels by children and adults — and those levels of enjoyment are not stratified by age or education, but rather preference. Accessibility is a positive feature rather than a negative, as Beha pretentiously contends.

One of the great problems this debate runs into is the issue of defining these categories. As I’ve written, and as Beha alludes, one key feature of young adult fiction is the mechanism of the prose and organization of the plot. However, the organization of incidents that make a young adult novel generally also reflect the pattern of organization within genre fiction, whether it is detective, fantasy, or sci-fi. In truth, my feeling is that this organization is the definitive factor to categorize both young adult fiction and genre fiction. Beha also discusses the simplicity of the world reflected in young adult fiction as a defining characteristic, but the worlds of genre fiction can be equally simple to facilitate an engaging plot which poses the question of “what happens next?” rather than “why?” This trait is not something inherently childish, but rather reflects the firm organizing principle of the author who seeks to offer their reader the enjoyment of this kind of futurive speculation. The final difference is merely the level of appropriateness and perhaps the verisimilitude with which life is reflected. Genre fiction has the freedom of a fatalism that is not typically found in young adult fiction. For people interested in categorizing the appropriate, a strong case could be made that such a stark depiction is simply not appropriate for children. Still, sexual content, violence, and tone aside, it is hard to draw a meaningful distinction between Kiki Strike or Artemis Fowl and Lucas Davenport and The Da Vinci Code.

So, if the “self-defeating sadness” to which Beha refers has almost nothing to do with the construction of young adult fiction and everything to do with a plot pattern in fiction he holds in contempt, his argument really begins to ring hollow. Many who attempt to disparage adults for reading things “as easily enjoyed by children” take issue with qualities having to do with the plot pattern fail to acknowledge how similar genre fiction is. Yet, genre fiction could be tough for a child to enjoy, as Lucas Davenport’s luxury car driving and sexual escapades probably wouldn’t resonate with children as much as they would with men in their mid-life crisis. I would stop short of calling Beha’s argument altogether dishonest, but I do believe it is rooted in a pretentiousness that has nothing to do with assessing young adult fiction and everything to do with taking an opportunity to cement the position of canonized literature. But why go through all the trouble to say something is great when there’s already unanimous agreement? Then again, perhaps the same could be said as I sit here, in a roundabout way, defending novels which have sales that utterly dwarf that of any canonized “literary” fiction. A far more interesting question is if the designation of “literary” fiction has an organizing principle at all, other than academic acceptance and study.


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