Slate recently ran an article with the title “Against YA,” which is subtitled “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” I’m linking to the article reluctantly, because I’m among those who immediately dismissed it as shameless click-bait–and taking the time to actually read the article only confirmed this suspicion. The author’s argument “against YA” is every bit as muddled, factually baseless, self-contradictory and elitist as you would expect. You know those times when you don’t click on a link because you think to yourself “I know exactly what kind of tripe this person is selling”? I’m here to tell you that in this case you’re absolutely right. If you value your time, don’t click on the link, because it’ll be two minutes you never get back.
And yet I can’t get behind the backlash against the article, which is pretty well summed up by an article in The New Republic that contains the line “You should never be embarrassed by any book you enjoy” [italics hers]. It’s a nice, empowering, feel-good sentiment, but unfortunately it reveals a rather shallow worldview, in which no work of art is any better or worse than any other. After all, if some books are worse than others, then it follows that there are some things that aren’t worth reading. And if there are books that aren’t worth reading, and you’re reading those instead of the really good ones, well, shouldn’t you be a little embarrassed?
It’s obviously a very dicey proposition to determine which books are “worth reading” and which aren’t, and every reader is going to respond to a particular book differently. I’m not going to play Literary Gatekeeper, a la Slate. But if I were touring the Sistine Chapel and ran across a grown man watching Justin Bieber videos on his iPhone, I would be sorely tempted to slap him upside the head. Why? Because watching Justin Bieber videos when you could be taking in the wonders of the Sistine Chapel is a poor aesthetic choice. And yes, unless the man has some severe mental deficiency, he should be embarrassed of his behavior.
Similarly, reading Twilight when you could be reading Twain or Vonnegut or Jane Austen is, generally speaking, a poor aesthetic choice. I qualify this with “generally speaking” because it’s possible there is someone out there for whom Twilight is the exact book they need to be reading. I highly doubt it, but it’s possible. There are people on whom the nuances of good literature would be completely lost anyway, and there are times when a reader simply needs some literary junk food. None of this changes the fact that Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse Five are, without a doubt, better books than Breaking Dawn or Fifty Shades of Grey, and that choosing one of the latter over one of the former is, in some ways, a moral choice.
These moral, aesthetic choices have to be made by individuals, based on their own circumstances, and it’s good policy not to listen to blowhards on the Internet who wish to dictate to you–based solely on a marketing label!–which books are “good” and which are “bad.” That is not the same thing, however, as saying that there are no such things as good or bad books. An intelligent, discerning reader will put some effort into determining what books, movies, TV shows, etc. will educate her, make her feel deeply, cause her to question her prejudices, and prompt her to want to be a better person–and which of them will simply feed her desire for momentary distraction and gratification.
The study of aesthetics is an ancient philosophical tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle. Those storied thinkers would cringe at the idea of dismissing a literary genre based only on a superficial label, but they would also rebel against the idea that one should “read whatever one likes.” Reading whatever one likes is no more commendable than eating whatever one likes or acting however one likes. If literature matters–and surely it does–then our choices about what to read matter as well.