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russell smith

This week's literary controversy is about an inflammatory article that appeared in Slate, dissing "YA" (young adult) fiction, in the wake of the release of the summer blockbuster movie The Fault in Our Stars, which is based on a massively successful novel of the same name.

The essay, by Ruth Graham, was titled "Against YA." It revealed that large numbers of novels marketed at teenagers are actually being consumed by adults, and criticized those adults for indulging in childlike pleasures. "The enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia," she wrote.

The response was quick, indignant, derisive and almost universal. Everybody who has ever enjoyed a science-fiction or detective novel read the piece as an attack on genre fiction generally and voiced rage at the elitism of the "literary" writers who want to take all the fun out of the world and who are trying to tell people what they should and shouldn't enjoy. In this newspaper, Erin Anderssen penned a defence of the pleasures of teen fiction, especially when one is around teenagers, and of reading widely in general.

It's a tough argument to address because no one, so far, has attempted a plausible definition of what YA is. It is not merely sci-fi or fantasy or romance; all those genres exist within it. If anything, Graham's jeremiad was against a particular narrative tone rather than a genre in the conventional sense.

What makes a publisher decide to market a book to a particular audience is not the subject matter but the style. The only thing that unites books in this category is a certain straightforward diction. The narratives, on the whole, are chatty and explanatory. The only thing that makes a book YA is that it is about teenagers and it is written in a very conventional, non-artsy, non-pretentious way. YA is not the place for the oblique or the cryptic. If it is in any way experimental in form, it is not YA.

At least that's the only consistent criterion I can make out. There are many canonical adult stories about teenagers – Romeo and Juliet being the most famous; The Catcher in the Rye a close second – that were never sold as being for teenagers. The novel Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, is about a teenage girl discovering her sexuality, and it could never be called YA, not just because it is sexually explicit, but because its language is impressionistic and unusual. It's an artistic experiment. The artistic experiment is the opposite of YA.

The YA category is an entirely new one, and seems to have more to do with readability than with age group or theme. The adult YA readers I know do actually consistently say that they are looking for an easy read, a fun read, an unchallenging read. And they are unashamed of seeking the light and the fun, even defiant about it – populism seems to many like a non-conformist position.

This is one argument that recurs, and I think it is indicative of a larger movement among young intellectuals that privileges the demotic over the obscure. Repeatedly, the outraged fans of YA are saying: It is wrong to tell me what I should and shouldn't enjoy. There is nothing wrong with enjoyment.

Increasingly, to dismiss any popular artistic style is seen as the worst kind of snobbery. And snobbery, it goes without saying, is unacceptable in a diverse and democratic world.

This stance was best articulated in Carl Wilson's brilliant examination of the nature of aesthetic snobbery, Let's Talk About Love, a book about trying to like the music of Celine Dion. Wilson begins by confirming that a complete openness to every genre is seen, among pop-music culturati, as a necessary condition for any criticism; that a highly eclectic taste is seen as the mark of the sophisticated and fashionable person.

This is part of the tenor of the times, and it is not without its unease. It makes some critics distinctly nervous. The determined appreciation for the commercial and formulaic is one step away from insisting that every cultural product has equal value.

I see this insistence on kindness and openness as part of broader ideological positions: It is a part of the same youth culture that demands highly sensitive language to describe gender choices and wants trigger warnings on upsetting poems and reacts indignantly when told that teenage girls might ever be wrong about anything. It's a culture of inclusion.

Just today, I read a blog post that's going around by a humorist named John DeVore. It's going around because it's mildly funny. It's about how much he loves Broadway musicals and how the people who disdain them are "dead inside." It says musicals are deserving of the snobs' respect because they are honestly and unironically emotional. "Musicals don't get respect from most people, and that's fine. I don't watch hockey, and that's okay. I don't talk trash about it."

I mention this piece of ephemera because it's so typical, such a perfect encapsulation of a philosophy of aesthetic judgment that is so current it can only be called hipster. "Love what you love," he writes. "This is a truth you can only read on a non-ad-supported Internet digital web blog platform. I'm not selling anything."

Here you have all the vectors of hipster judgment converging: the proud embrace of kitsch; the plea for universal acceptance of every emotional expression; the vow of non-capitalist authenticity; and a vague sense of non-conformism or rebelliousness. (It's tongue-in-cheek, of course, pervasive ironic self-deprecation being another part of the ethos.)

Sure, love what you love, of course. But please don't try to argue that criticism of what you love can only be motivated by some sort of classist snobbery, or that any criticism that relies on aesthetic judgment is in some way elitist.

The defenders of YA are willfully, I think, ignoring some important points. It is not ridiculous to point out that the primary appeal of this literature lies in its artistic conservatism. That seems like a legitimate troubling point to me. Nor is it mean or small-minded to criticize art, for as long as there has been art, there has been criticism.