The Third Way

I just finished reading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis, On Stories, and it was fascinating for addressing some of the same literary arguments we are still engaged in to this day. It’s important to say at the outset that no argument for or against a certain type of literature is new. We’ve been ’round this mountain before.
In Defense
There is a lot to be had in these essays, but the general tendency of them all is a solid, reasonable defense of children’s literature, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and other such stories as are often written off as “juvenile.”
For this reason I occasionally combine SFF and YA in this post, not because they are interchangeable (obviously they are not) but rather because they are beset by the same criticisms, namely that they are not mature or serious genres of literature. That they are shallow waters for a simple palette.
So, yes, I am going to dip a tiny toe into some mildly controversial waters here, but only now that the subject is not in any way trending. I really hope no one writes a viral “Why YA is so dumb/How dare you criticize YA in any way” article any time soon.
The problem I have is that I do not think the defenders of YA (in particular) are making very good arguments, largely because they fail to give their detractors the time of day, or respond to their criticisms as if they were made in good faith, which I believe most are.
When someone writes an article to the effect of “YA readers are staying in the shallow end of the pool, they must move on to greater depths” the response is often (though not always) a knee-jerk “Oh stop it with the stupid pearl-clutching, you snob!” If the first-line defense against an accusation of immaturity is an immature response, I don’t think that does the cause much good. And that’s a pity, because there are very good defenses out there!
It actually reminds me an awful lot of the whole Millennial argument. One would think the only two options are either “Millennials are awful and it’s all their fault!” or “No, Millennials are awesome, and everything is definitely everyone else’s fault.” I think plain reason can find an workable answer that avoids these two extremes. Likewise with these literary controversies, which come from the same core concern.
In many cases I think both sides of the argument are wrong, and both sides have turned the whole conversation about the value of youth literature into a zero sum game wherein certain types of literature must either be defended at all costs (even if they don’t deserve it) or disdained at all costs (even if they are clearly valuable and praiseworthy).
(Side-note: There is a whole other aspect to this conversation which is a lose-lose scenario of either venerating literary works above all else, or deriding them as pure snobbery and refusing to touch them. But that is a different part of the issue, which I am not going into today.)
In Lewis’ essays, he argues not only that youth literature and SFF may be enjoyed freely by people of any age, but that they are often of great and lasting value. I wholeheartedly agree. First, he claims that an obsessive fear of touching anything marked “for children” smacks of, ironically, a very childish mentality. Only the youth fears being thought young.
He also states that it is looking at the whole issue wrongly to think we graduate from one type of literature to another, as if they were train stations to be hurried past. We do not graduate from the good stories of our youth, we add to them.
And, ultimately, he takes serious issue with the notion that all “worthy” literature must be buried in realism, saying what we who love SFF in particular know very well: sometimes it is absolutely the best medium to tell a certain story.
So that settles the matter, right? No more argument needed!
In Criticism
Well…not quite. That addresses the defense of youth and fantastic literature very nicely, but does nothing to shed light on the other side of the argument. Why this constant suspicion surrounding these youthful or “unliterary” genres? Can every single attack, (on YA particularly, but genre fiction broadly), be reduced to an outsized fear of being seen to have or to cultivate “immature tastes”? I don’t think this can be so. It cannot be as black and white as that.
Lewis’ very helpful arguments must be put in context.
First, it must be remembered that Lewis was absurdly well-read, so he made his assessment from having experienced a very wide range of literature from the works of his contemporaries, to Greek classics (read in Greek), to Medieval works, to all manner of philosophy and theology. He defended youth literature and Fantasy and Science Fiction (which was called scientifiction back then, apparently) from the strong platform of having delved deeply into nearly all other forms, particularly the ancients and the classics.
So I suspect when some people criticize YA or SFF they are doing so not necessarily from a place of condescension but rather from worrying that people will reside solely in those genres and fail to travel other enriching roads roads…roads which may well lead right back to their original beloveds but now with enhanced perspective and better ground underfoot. We will not only love our myths, but we will be able to see their roots and be better nourished by them.
Secondly, Lewis made a few curious assertions regarding what makes art good or bad. Anyone may feel free of course to disagree but, personally, I find his arguments compelling. He first stated that a literary person is someone who re-reads, with the implication also being that a work of literary value ought to be re-read. There’s accounting for personal taste, of course, but you get the idea.
The main criticism there is not of a certain genre or age-category, but of those types of literature that constitute a once-only thrill. You find out what happens and that settles the matter, and you never really think about it again.
The idea he puts forth is that “bad art,” as he phrases it, is filler. It is background noise. The argument is best understood in the realm of music. We have what we call elevator music or muzak and the whole point of it is to be a faintly distracting, but not at all arresting, background element. It’s there to keep the silence from being too profound. It’s there to hush thought, not provoke it.
Then there is music that stops us in our tracks and nearly knocks us over. A second listening does not render the song weaker, but more powerful.
The Thing is not the Thing
We’re missing the point. The question is not whether we’re reading literary fiction, or non-fiction, or YA, it’s not whether we love Anne of Green Gables, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Perelandra. It’s whether the book is hearty and flavorful or it’s a scant distraction that, once the plot is resolved, means nothing.
And if you say “Now, wait. I have this one super fluffy book that I really love to re-read!” I would ask you to think about what draws you back to that book again and again. However light the tone or subject matter you’ll likely find that the book is not just filler, that there is something there that reaches out and enriches. An atmosphere, character, humor, charm. A book certainly doesn’t have to be dark and moody to be taken seriously. That whole thing is a false dichotomy, and part of the problem. Lightness of tone does not equal a lack of substance.
Thinking on this, I perused my shelves to see which books I re-read, which I want to re-read, and which I have no intention of ever picking up again. The results were interesting.
For one, I have not found Harry Potter to be quite as evergreen for me as it seems to be for many others. This surprised me. I truly enjoyed them when I first read them, all between age 14 and age 21, and I have re-read the first four a few times and perhaps I read Order of the Phoenix twice, but only while the series was ongoing. I have certainly never felt any desire to reread the last two. Compare this to The Blue Sword or Mara Daughter of the Nile, or Anne of the Island, each of which I feel positively compelled to re-read every few years, and I expect this to continue to my dying day. In fact I am having an Anne of the Island craving at this very moment just thinking about it.
All of these are easily categorized as YA, even if they were written before the genre solidified into what it is today.
Books I want to re-read run the gamut from a serious WWII historical fiction (John Hersey’s The Wall) to Dorothy L. Sayers metaphysical The Mind of the Maker, to Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (A YA book). All over the map.
The Heart of the Argument
The problem seems to be that no one is saying quite what they mean. When the anti-YA crowd worries about the popularity of the genre among adults, what they are really worried about (I think) is whether this cultivates a loss of willingness to challenge oneself, to venture into rough terrain, to read slow, to suffer difficulty, to provoke thought. This is not wholly unfair, because the current broad obsession with books needing to be compulsively readable, going at breakneck speed, dragging you almost against your will to the next page, is sometimes especially applicable to the bulk of YA.
One must sometimes slow down and tread paths that require more careful footing than that.
What the pro-YA crowd says usually amounts to an underlying frustration and genuine woundedness at having something they love–something that has brought tremendous joy and comfort–attacked as being invalid, stupid, or otherwise inferior. Something that lit a warm fire inside them and gave them hope is being derided which is almost to say that “something is wrong with you for so loving this silly thing.” Whether the criticism is meant personally, it feels personal because it often attacks not the literature itself on a case-by-case basis, but the very person who might enjoy such literature in any of its manifestations.
No small wonder that the reaction is often swift and angry. No justification for mockery or meanness, in my mind, but still…no small wonder. I remember flinching a little to see a book that has meant more to me than I can say (Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword) given a 2 star rating by a dear friend of mine whose literary tastes are quite different from mine. She did absolutely no wrong and no unkindness, but none of us like to have our lighted treasures go dim when passed into other hands.
A confession: I have sometimes found myself agreeing with some of the critiques made of the YA genre, NOT because I think it inevitably bad or dismissible, but because many of the conventions of the genre encourage (but certainly do not require) a hurried or shallow treatment, and because I think we should all read widely regardless. But I do not agree that this type of literature is something one must graduate from and eschew. I think it is something one adds to. When we are young we are especially voracious, which is a gift, but time will act the sifter and tell us which works stand up to multiple readings. And they may be in whatever genre and for whatever age. Quality does not really notice these categories. It graces them all.
So read on, and then…re-read : ) That will tell us all we need to know.
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