April 08, 2012
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.