In recent article for Slate that went viral, “Against YA,” the journalist Ruth Graham mounted a case against adults reading “literature written for children,” saying that adult fans of Young Adult lit should feel embarrassed. While she allows that novels like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided “some of the most intense reading experiences of [her] life,” she’s not interested in re-reading them, because reading YA lit is merely an exercise in “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.”
Ironically, Tuck Everlasting is about forsaking the potential pleasure of eternal, lusty adolescence — but never mind. Graham’s article was timed to coincide with the much-anticipated release of the film adaptation of John Green’s bestselling and critically acclaimed YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. The book’s popularity among adults is, in Graham’s view, shameful, given lines like this: “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the pleasure of saying true things.” That line comes from one dying child speaking to another, but Graham uncharitably characterizes it as simply a prelude to his plan to “tenderly deflower her on a European vacation he arranged,” and evidence of the unforgivably sappy childishness of YA literature as a whole.
I am all for inspiring people to read better books — I haven’t even been tempted to crack the spine of any of the Twilight series — but if one wants to take aim shallowness of YA literature, The Fault in Our Stars might not be the best choice of target. Indeed, Green’s protagonist is set against all things shallow. Hazel Grace Lancaster despises — and consciously defies — the simple, familiar tropes of the “cancer kid.” She does not want to be characterized as brave or heroic. She stares unflinchingly into the void, asks Big Questions, and still manages to be a believable teenager who watches inane reality television.
To be sure, The Fault in Our Stars employs the vernacular of contemporary American middle-class teenagers. And its premise — doomed star-crossed lovers — scared me off for a while, until it was $2.99 on Kindle and I was bored, living in sub-Saharan Africa and suffering from a stomach ailment I’d prefer not to describe. I read the book in one day, then read it again the next day. Later, I read it a third time.
Nostalgia? Escapism? Instant gratification?
In C.S. Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, the experiment is basically this: rather than judging the book, judge the reader, and the kind of reading that a given book allows, elicits, rewards, repays. Some books yield up all pleasures on a first reading; others invite us to look again, to mull over, to be further enlightened. Graham’s admission that she has no desire to revisit the books of her youth tell us more about her than about the books that she assumes “adult readers should reject as far too simple.”
Without offering more details of my life and work when I downloaded Fault, allow me simply to say that suffering and futility and the Meaning of It All were very much on my mind and before my eyes on a daily basis. I was not up for the diabolical and finely orchestrated head games of Gone Girl. Mostly I wanted to read histories of the AIDS epidemic, Ecclesiastes and The Diary of a Young Girl (a.k.a. The Diary of Anne Frank) — and hide in my room. But because Fault skillfully uses the grimmest of circumstances to affirm the value of life and of human connection, it was the book I needed at the time.
In a scene that the film adaptation may have rendered more movingly than the book, Hazel ascends, slowly and with great difficulty, to the top of the Secret Annexe in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and there kisses Augustus passionately for the first time. It’s an incongruous locale for their budding romance to bloom fully, perhaps, but it is thematically (and existentially) appropriate. As Hazel realizes: “Anne Frank, after all, kissed someone in the Anne Frank House [and] would probably like nothing more than for her home to have become a place where the young and irreparably broken sink into love.”
A classic of YA itself, Diary of a Young Girl is also a story of doomed young lovers, one in which another precocious teenager, roughly Hazel’s age when she dies, wonders if there is a point to living and loving and writing and reading — yet, finally, finds meaning in precisely those things. In the film version of Fault, as Hazel and Augustus kiss, we hear the voice of a young girl reading famous lines from Anne’s diary, including: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
In the book, Hazel notes a register of Jewish people from Holland who died in the Holocaust and is deeply moved by the four Aron Franks listed just below Anne — people who died and were not remembered by their precocious, insightful diaries or in monuments and museums — and resolves to pray for them as long as she lives. Hazel, unlike Augustus (who longs to be remembered and who, like Anne Frank, fears oblivion), looks unflinchingly into the void that is death, and is, in the main, content to love and be loved, to be kind, and to be truthful here and now.
If there is a fault in The Fault in Our Stars (apart from the occasionally irritating teenage dialogue), it is that it dismisses religion based on the worst sorts of caricatures — and the movie is far guiltier of this than is the book. The support group through which Hazel and Augustus meet is held in a church and led by a vaguely religious man who has nothing more substantial to offer than the same sorts of easily debunked platitudes (“encouragements”) Augustus’ parents have embroidered on throw pillows and displayed on the wall.
After I saw Fault in the theater, I re-read Ecclesiastes and noticed just how divergent American Christianity is from the Bible it purports to revere. So many of Augustus’ existential anxieties are echoed in its pages. Yes, the dead are forgotten. Yes, there is value in simply enjoying the life has right now, in this moment. And yes, love for other people here and now — even though we are all doomed — makes life worth living.
The notion that the appeal of a crushingly sad novel about dying star-crossed lovers (and their deeply grieving parents) is evidence of American adults’ juvenile tastes seems doubtful to me. Sure, it’s possible that Fault was simply the right book at the right time for me. But judging by its popularity — not to mention its resonances with significant literature probing the meaning of life and love and death — that seems doubtful, too.