A year ago Martin Amis famously said he’d have to be brain damaged to write a young adult novel. This upset a number of people (almost all of them young adult authors, their editors, and various vampire fanboys), but didn’t bother me much. Probably because I enjoy and admire Mr. Amis’ writing. But not all of it. He’s written two dozen novels, and their quality, understandably, varies. So it made me wonder if you’d have to be any more brain damaged to write a lousy literary novel than a fantastic novel in an easily dismissed genre.

Then last week, Joel Stein, nowhere near the wordsmith–let alone the lovably condescending Brit that Mr. Amis is–wrote a column in the New York Times saying that he would never read The Hunger Games, given that there were 3,000 years’ worth of superior literature to occupy him otherwise. He further intimated that any self-respecting adult would be wise to follow his example.

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight. If my parents had read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing at the same time as I did, I would have looked into boarding school.

Many people were offended by Stein’s comments and dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs immediately shot back. This, of course, is exactly what Stein was hoping for. He’s got (surprise) a book coming out. No word is yet forthcoming on where comedy writing fits in the 3,000 year canon of acceptable literature. Or, for that matter, where Stein’s many articles penned for the cutting-edge lit reactor that is Time magazine stack up against Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Jim Carroll, Harper Lee, and Roald Dahl–young adult mainstays long before the marketing term “young adult” was coined. But what better way to get word about your new book splashed all over the internet than to slag the near-ubiquitous franchise that is The Hunger Games?

Set an IED beside the commentary highway and watch the sales pour in.

Personally, I think Stein is full of shit. Not because of what he wrote, but because I have no doubt that he has not only read (and enjoyed) The Hunger Games, but that he masturbates to the cornucopia scene with regularity.

In any case, by pretending to dismiss YA en masse, he got 72,000 retweets. But even as a ploy, Stein inadvertently makes a good point. Forty percent of those who buy (and read) YA novels are adults. Why? Who knows? The truth is the YA is one of the few segments in publishing that is not only profitable, but growing.

And here’s the most important point– surely Stein must think my book is worth reading:

 

 
 

So I dare you, Joel Stein—yes, dare you—to read my book and tell me in public, in this forum or any other, that it’s not at least as good as yours. In every way. From prose to plot to character to humor. Shit, maybe it’s even good enough to get reviewed in Time.  Sure, it’s tough to hold the line against 3,000 years of literature, and Wesley Payne certainly poses no danger to Herodotus or Sophocles, but it manages to work a pretty good dick joke into the first chapter.

Here’s the wager: if you read it and are forced to admit that Wesley Payne grudgingly deserves a place in your bedside stack, next to all the Laurence Sterne and Tolstoy and Proust you were about to dive into, then you owe me a hundred dollars. On the other hand, if you decide it doesn’t measure up to your expectations of wit and sophistication, then my penalty is that I have to read your new book twice–which I understand is a series of comedic riffs on modern masculinity including chapters with noted literary scholars Warren Sapp and MMA superstar Randy Couture, promising erudite hijinks and well-honed phrases at nearly every turn.

Look, in this easily-offended world, you can’t write anything without pissing on the easily pissed off. What Joel Stein wrote was little more than a combination of not being very funny while being hilariously condescending. But he’s right that there is a good deal of horribly bad writing in YA, just like there is in any other genre. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that there’s a lot of fantastic writing as well. In the same way that there are nuanced, professional, and informational columns written for Time which are occasionally balanced by the many needlessly alliterative and sophomoric culture pieces that Time’s audience seems to prefer, mainly because they attempt to stir a modicum of shit where there’s precious little shit worth stirring.

Hey, I read The Hunger Games for the same reason I read The Help and Life of Pi and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Da Vinci Code–not out of some preconceived notion of their relative merits (or lack thereof) but because I was curious to see what they had conjured or envisioned or encapsulated that made millions of people not only want to read them, but be enthralled by them. Regardless of age. It’s research. And work. But each of those books were fascinating in their own right.

And it’s worth mentioning that The Hunger Games, in terms of message, prose, plot, character, conception, and execution is easily eight to ten years Dan Brown’s elder.

In any case, in the hundred-year history of modern journalism (maybe it started with Ovid, but I’m going to say, just for argument, that it began with H.L. Mencken) I’m fairly sure that no one, teen to adult, would be diminished in any way by having failed to read Joel Stein’s toss-off on why YA should be tossed off. But they might have missed out on a great cross-marketing opportunity–the chance to hear about one of the approximately 170,ooo books that will be published this year, only a tiny fraction of them by poorly-informed Steins of any age.

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SEAN BEAUDOIN's latest novel is Wise Young Fool. His stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Onion, the San Francisco Chronicle and Spirit, the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines. www.seanbeaudoin.com.

30 responses to “Joel Stein is a Marketing Genius, Which is Different Than a 
Marketing Tool”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    What a great rebuttal, Sean.

    I think lit fic fans are scared, and rightfully so. They’re watching the genre to which they’ve attached all their hopes and sense of self-worth fade into just another set of conventions, and boring ones at that. I hear folks like Stein say what they say and what I really hear is, “Hemingway is still the best! Hemingway is still the best!” They need to calm down. Great writing is still great writing.

    Nice to read some Beaudoin again.

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      Hey, Art. Have you ever noticed that the Hemingway crowd is the same one trying to convince you that Springsteen is so great all the time? They’re also the one guy at the party who has to prove how much he loves hot food by eating raw habaneros while the girls are watching. And then lying under the sofa to die.

      • Art Edwards says:

        When shit like that happens, the girls find another party.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well I hate Hemingway AND Bruce Springsteen, but maybe that’s less to do with my narrative preferences and more to do with my gender.

        Both of those dudes strike me as dude’s dudes.

        I only ever hear about dudes thinking they’re super awesome.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    I appreciate Stein sharing his technique. If I ever get a book out, I’ll be sure to track down some beloved writer or novel and slag the shit out of it with a calculated contrarian diatribe before the release date and then duck my head in the sand while the bloggers come back at me.

    What’s his next move? Apology or defiance? Enquiring minds want to know!

    Hopefully Stein will take you up on your challenge and you can settle it like young adults.

  3. Gloria says:

    You have no idea how much it pleases me to know that you read The Hunger Games.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    Flip to the back and read the glossary, Joel Stein. Read Sean’s glossary. His glossary is better than most whole books, YA or otherwise.

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      Apparently lots of people who read the ebook don’t even know the glossary is there….yet another reason to want to return to the times of hand-churning butter and thinking the Kindle is a tool of the devil.

  5. Rachel Pollon says:

    I worked on a TV show with Joel a few years back. (I was a writers’ assistant, he a writer.) I didn’t work on the show for more than six weeks or so so I didn’t really get to know him. But I thought I’d throw that tidbit into the mix for shats and goggles.

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      Were you a “Get me a latte and make sure my extra foam is hot this time, goddamnit!” sort of writer’s assistant, or were you actually working on copy?

      • Rachel Pollon says:

        Have you not read my TNB bio, Sean? It explains it all. 😉 Not that there’s anything wrong with the cappuccino handling sort of assistant, but, no, I was was in the room with the writers taking notes as they broke stories, proofing scripts, doing revisions, etc.

  6. As I just wrote on the miraculous FB: awesome. Just awesome (which no doubt underscores my tween-trapped-in-adult vocab).

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      Happy to pocket an awesome any day, Jennifer. Except now tweens say “that is so Lautner!” to signify excellence instead.

  7. Well said, Sean. That YA label was a great coup in the elitists’ struggle to feel more elite. Now it finally seems to be backfiring on them…

    I’m going to teach Hunger Games in the fall. I may have to pick your brain about it later.

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      I am determined to move on from the genre ghetto and out into the light, Tyler. You and your Rock n Roll book (clearly not literature in any capacity) are welcome to join me…

  8. TNB Nonfiction says:

    This is the same challenge I will write (verbatim–you can sue me for plagiarism later, another time-honored tradition) about memoir. Everyone who writes fiction or history or biography wants to take down memoir, because there are a bunch of shitty memoirs out there.

    NEWSFLASH: There’s a bunch of shitty BOOKS out there. You can’t slam a genre in toto for the crap that ends up on the bestsellers lists (some of which are excellent–some of which suck donkey ass) and truthfully the best books never seem to make it that far anyway. I read Wesley Payne, which kicks the ass of most of the crap on any list in any year.

    Bleating. All these people who are “YA-this” and “Memoir-that” are just a bunch of sheep baaaahhing the crap they think they’re supposed to dislike.

    The truth is, YA books are busting the parameters of any genre because there’s more freedom within it: Pictures; mind-blowing plots; flexibility with language, prose, style. All these things in Young Adult are given great latitude, unlike the rather boring and staid “literary fiction.”

    Mr. Stein (can I admit I didn’t hear of him until you wrote this?) can cram it and his new book in between the “comedy” and “lit” sections. And then the remainders bin. And then recycled with yesterday’s news.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Oops. I was signed in as “NONFICTION” but I’m not the mouthpiece of NONFICTION, in the same way that Joel Stein is not the mouthpiece of the masses. I’m merely one tiny voice among four!

      • Sean Beaudoin says:

        Hell, yeah, Quenby. Telling it from the mountain. And you read Wesley Payne? You are a jewel among women. But I have to admit I am fairly astonished you’ve never heard of Joel Stein. Do you live in a cave? Do you refuse to watch interviews with Rick Astley’s trench coat, or the remaining members of Culture Club?

  9. Greg Hansen says:

    Adroit Sean! Good use of the M word too! Would be an interesting match up, pitting you against Mr. Stein in a debate no doubt. Its nice to read your work again, I got lost in the literary wilderness, and found my way back to the NB after a long and arduous journey. It feels good to have some literary refreshment again! Challenge him to a debate via Skype, I bet there would be quite an audience turnout!

    • seanbeaudoin says:

      Welcome back, Greg. Perhaps you could moderate? You’ll have to bone up on the lesser known members of Heaven 17 and Men Without Hats first, though…

      • Greg Hansen says:

        I think I may be qualified then to be the moderator, as I grew up – or at least got older, on Heaven 17, plus learned all about safety while listening to safety dance. Now if one of the qualifications was being proficient on the history of band mates from Kajagoogoo, then I think I would have had to disqualify myself, with great regret.

  10. Seth Crosby says:

    It’s a little hard to see Joe Klein spoken of in anything but reverential tones. I hope you will forgive me by imagining my clinging to him like a buoy in a the sea of political correctness which is Time.

    • seanbeaudoin says:

      Joe Klein? Didn’t he write Primary Colors? Actually, I thought that book was surprisingly well-written, especially since nowhere within it does MMA superstar Randy Couture appear.

  11. Henry says:

    comment, uncomment. no words but thanks,
    the comments are good, too.
    yours,
    fawny

  12. Becky Palapala says:

    Yeah, okay, but I still can’t really conceive of the kind of headspace I’d have to be in (and by extension, what kind of headspace other adults must be in) to identify–intensely–with a teenage character more than any of the perfectly respectable adult characters out there.

    Because, of course, the contest here isn’t between shitty, boring adult fiction and quality, exciting YA fiction. That would be a stupid contest.

    I’d like to think any of us would choose quality fiction over shitty fiction any day regardless of its target demo. I have to think Joel Stein would agree.

    The questions is: With so much quality adult fiction available (whether genre or literary or whatever-the-hell kind of fiction), why are adults choosing YA?

    I mean, if quality, exciting adult fiction doesn’t exist, then just about everyone at TNB, including TNB, is peddling trash and lying about it.

    I don’t think that’s the case.

    So all other things being equal, many adults are just choosing compelling YA fiction over compelling adult fiction. That’s what’s at the heart of people’s bafflement/disbelief/mockery.

    I’ve got a number of theories about why people are behaving this way, but we’d be here all day.

    So Stein may be condescending, but the inappropriateness of middle-aged women, for example, becoming deeply emotionally invested in the Edward vs. Jacob controversy is not a thing imagined by his snobbery.

    He’s just snob enough to frame it in the context of 3,000 years of literature.

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