Why, eh?

A few years ago at Reading I saw Marcus Brigstocke ranting about “guilty pleasures”. The gist was this: when someone says “Twilight is my guilty pleasure” they’re actually saying “Twilight is shite, but I’m self-aware enough that I can appreciate its shittiness, unlike the unwashed masses who take it at face value”.

The guilty pleasure fallacy is elitism by stealth. It’s particularly obnoxious when used by middle-class liberals to describe their relationship with the X-Factor. More to the point, it only appears in the context of adults seeking approval from other adults where the groupthink condemns this particular entertainment.

The same elitism has surfaced in The Slate, where Ruth Graham opines that we should be embarassed to read YA; although in a novel twist Graham appears to be projecting the guilty pleasure fallacy on her peers in the age 30-44 demographic who defend YA as “more sophisticated than ever”.

Yes, it’s a blatant wind-up piece. Cory Doctorow’s rebuttal opens a can of C.S. Lewis on Graham’s ass, and really that’s all you need to take away from the exchange. However there are a couple very obvious strawmen I’d like to comment on.

Firstly there’s the notion that YA wants to be “sophisticated”. That’s a clever use of language to suggest that YA fiction is competing with literary fiction by seeking the approval of an audience that considers “sophistication” to be the highest accolade one can place on fiction.

By Graham’s own admission “this kind of thing is hard to quantify” anyway. Why? Because it’s bullshit. Sophistication isn’t a metric; it’s as subjective as preference itself.

YA is just the latest in a long line of genres that literary fiction has put down to make itself look big — and it’s arguably scraping the bottom of the barrel now that Scott McCloud has taught us how to understand comics, BSG made SF gritty, Game of Thrones has (allegedly) rendered fantasy fit for adult consumption and Joss Whedon is doing his bit for superheroes.

Next there’s the priviledging of present over past with the notion that YA is getting more sophisticated (as a defence of YA). I assume Graham doesn’t believe this, but then she has little time for the classics either if the image of Alice at the head of the article is anything to go by.

There’s also the suggestion that adult readers are consciously seeking escapism and instant gratification, which by inference YA provides and adult literary fiction doesn’t. Really? Is the defining feature of literary fiction that its readers must be masochists?

“Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.”

“The very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable” is such a broad statement that it’s not credible, and there are enough counter examples. One of the reasons I like YA is the distillation of the monomyth — but the monomyth’s themes and forms go beyond adventure stories and fairytales. While Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey simplifies Campbell’s original work it still demonstrates that a wide range of fiction can be submitted to the same analysis, and works for the same reason: the “hero” has an ordinary world that is upset, crosses a threshold, embarks on a journey and achieves some kind of apotheosis before returning “home” better for the experience. Fiction which misses out these crucial steps can frequently be incoherent or unsatisfying, and the fact that YA often nails this cycle is to its credit.

Most likely I’m preaching to the converted here, since the few readers I get will be fellow geeks and Spec Fic fans, used to the disapproving glare of lit fic. But still, being guilty or embarassed about what you read makes no sense; although perhaps you should be ashamed if you spend all your energy trying to like fiction that you don’t for the sake of someone else’s approval.

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  • Yes – I agreed with this.

    I love happy endings, always have. I enjoy YA fiction. Yes – there is plenty of overlap between these two things; I agree with the observation but don’t feel there’s anything to be embarrassed about in any of it.

    When I find stories unsatisfying it’s because I feel they haven’t provided me with what I regard as an ending. That’s simply how I like my fiction – to feel finished.