On Friday, as many of you may have learned by now, the YA internet world blew up, and this article by Ruth Graham is why. Here’s the crux of her argument:

…a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

She argues, essentially, that adults who read YA should be ashamed of reading YA because it’s not very complicated literature. That it’s written for kids. That it’s not very mature of us adults to like John Green, and we should be ashamed of our lowbrow, lazy media consumption.

She writes off Divergent and Twilight as “transparently trashy stuff” but then goes on to talk about John Green and Rainbow Rowell, and it seems as if they are the only authors she read for her essay (did she read Divergent or Twilight? We never learn). Graham clearly hasn’t read much YA, and it becomes evident as the piece goes on that she’s merely read a few (two?) headlining YA novels and seems to resent the time she spent on what she feels is a marketing ploy instead of a legitimate genre.

I feel for her—it’s hard to acquaint oneself with YA if one feels pressured to keep up with the NYT bestseller lists and hasn’t invested much in the genre before it (it would seem) came into its own in the last 2-3 years. After graduating with my English degree in 2011, I decided to take a break from reading “serious” literature and read The Hunger Games. I inhaled them and was surprised at my own enthusiasm for the books. They have weaknesses, to be sure, but the books were innovative and written with care.

Is art only art when someone says “it’s art!” and pays for it and puts it in a frame on a wall or in a museum?

Is art only valuable in the eyes of the receiver, regardless of how much care is put into a piece?

Is art only good if it “challenges” you? But Pollock challenges reality just as much as Kincade does, so where do you draw the line?

After I was done reading The Hunger Games, I read The Marriage Plot and tried (and failed) to read The Corrections. Both held my attention, but reading both books felt like watching rich white English literature snobs jerk off to their own writing. Which is why I didn’t finish Franzen and why I haven’t tried to read David Foster Wallace.

Does that mean that I failed to read good writing, or that the writers failed to write well enough to “challenge” me? Is the problem with the white men who failed to observe that the rest of the world isn’t white or rich or educated, or with me, for failing to be rich or aspiring to be rich and New York and in their circles?

Instead, I found myself enchanted with bell hooks, with Chimamanda Nzogi Adichie, with Rainbow Rowell, with Mary Karr, with Francesca Lia Block. I read The Fault In Our Stars and didn’t love it it for all the reasons I couldn’t enjoy The Marriage Plot and Wild and Eat, Pray, Love.

I think it’s very telling that Graham chose to use the language of shame in her piece, saying that adults should be “ashamed” of reading books written for children. (As an aside, she’s wrong there: YA is a genre that is defined by a) a young adult protagonist and b) topical issues that will be relatable to a young adult audience. It is an arbitrary distinction, but these books are not explicitly written for children, by definition of the genre.) Her coding of YA as shameful is a moral coding, which is a symptom of a assumed and defining myopia found in social circles of academia and literati: intellectual rigor for its own sake is morally superior than something that is merely good.

Academic or intellectual rigor in literature is something that is by nature subjective. As much as literature wishes to be a crown jewel of the academy along with science and mathematics, it is at heart an art, and you cannot quantify art. You cannot have evidence-based art. You cannot peer review creative work into being “art.”

The nature of snobbery is to assume that popular opinion is to be suspect, and that one’s cynicism makes one morally superior to the all-accepting, manipulatable masses.

But when the gatekeepers of the literary ivory tower all subscribe to the same standards, all play the same party tricks and indulgently reference each other’s party tricks, and all come from the same five or six variations on the same backstory, you get art that is masturbatory and intellectually incestuous.

Which is why YA is A Thing now. Not because of John Green and his hordes of adoring fans (and he’s a good writer who’s earned his laurels even if TFiOS isn’t my favorite book), but because YA has been snubbed by the literati for the last twenty years (partly because it was nascent and partly because it was “for kids”), and without the critical attention of the ivory tower, YA authors have been experimenting and practicing making messy art. They can afford it: their audience is often more willing to suspend disbelief than a stodgy NYT reviewer, and they aren’t included in the straight-laced social games so often seen “adult” publishing.

And after percolating and sputtering on the back burner for twenty years, John Green came along and lifted off the lid from the pot, and the grown ups table took note. Because it smelled amazing. And just like the little red hen, everyone wants a bite now. But those who haven’t been paying attention (or who can’t be bothered to pick up Laurie Halse Anderson [Speak dealt with issues of rape and victim blaming in 1999], Francesca Lia Block [Weetzie Bat addressed complex family dynamics and coming of age through a psychedelic California fairy tale device], or other standbys of the old guard of YA), happen to read the books that get the best marketing and end up quite confused what all the fuss is about. YA is nothing like a DFW work, after all. You have strong, unreliable narrators focused on one or two traumatic or transformative experiences (who of us doesn’t have that moment in our adolescence that we need therapy for?), and you have complex worlds that serve as elegant metaphors for how difficult life is or what it feels like to be a teenager going through x in a certain space and time.

I think too, that adults reading NYT bestsellers have become inoculated to the world and have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Sometimes the YA authors forget this too, and overshoot their mark. But a truly written YA novel will have emotional complexity and unanswerable questions and truly agonizing life challenges—but apparently we should be ashamed of our primary feelings and distance ourselves into irony and sarcasm and cleverness and cynicism.

I think that the adult who has forgotten what it’s like to be truly troubled by the prospect of adulthood is an adult who should take stock of their choices and ask themselves if it’s been worth it. And then I think they should go read Code Name Verity or Thirteen Reasons Why or The Truth About Alice or Fangirl

If we’re having this conversation using the language of shame and moral choices (though I am not particularly inclined to think is a good or productive way to have this discussion), then perhaps I will posit this: the adult who is too good to read YA is an adult who needs some serious therapy.

Go ahead and write off the YA writers of today because they’re not following your NYC/MFA rules of “good” literature, but don’t forget that history loves to repeat itself and you might be on the wrong side of the Seine.


Starting The YA Wallpaper with Gretchen has been a lot of fun. We’re just getting going and I think we’re doing something different from what anyone else is doing when they engage the genre. We’re taking it on its own terms: YA is a serious genre taking on serious issues and expects more of its readers than most people expect when they hear the words “Young Adult Fiction.”

Our ethic isn’t just to review books, to give them stars or tell you what to read. We’re not a book club-style review vlog. Our review ethic is to assume that these writers are good craftsmen/women, skilled at storytelling. We believe that reading these books will be a good time in the story department and we gladly throw ourselves into wholehearted suspension of disbelief and enter the adventures of fictional worlds.

But we also assume that these authors are thoughtful people, writing to say something, hopefully not just writing to meet a book deal obligation. And we assume that authorial intent stops when the book hits the shelves and the author is responsible for what they’ve written, not what they meant to write.

We’re writers, too. This is painful to accept and so we expect everyone, including ourselves, to be thoughtful and respectful about this. We’re learning the ropes and we’re responsible for our words, too. Hold us to that.

But here’s the thing: young readers are significantly impacted by this genre. I remember being thirteen and earnestly believing that Anne Shirley’s love life actually represented a fraction of reality. I remember positioning myself socially as if I was Jo March, and I remember mentally breaking out of the cycle of gaslighting in my church because of Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Most authors aren’t Ray Bradbury or Margaret Atwood, I get it. One reason I love YA is because it’s not the constipated social world of NYC literati. But if YA is “a thing” now and if it’s going to be taken seriously and if it’s more than just a marketing label, then it’s appropriate to level serious literary criticism at the bestselling YA works and see how they stand up to the ideas they seem to espouse (namely, feminism and intersectionality).

The YA Wallpaper isn’t about singling out an author or a book. We still love a good story. None of our criticism is intended as a personal attack against any author.

Instead, it’s about taking account of the state of the genre and asking the questions we’d want to be asked if our fiction was published. The genre has turned a corner and has blossomed and matured in remarkable ways in the last few years, and we feel that not only is it ready to handle our questions, but it would be disrespectful to the craft and to the genre as a whole if we checked our critic’s hats at the front page.

So, let’s talk tropes. Let’s talk feminism. Let’s talk social norms. Let’s ask hard questions about the genre, since, after all, the genre is certainly daring to ask hard questions about its audience and its world. And we’re pretty excited about that.


Hi guys. We’re going to change things up a bit here today.

morning reading

I want to talk to you about something I’ve learned at my job, the one that I work to pay the bills. The one where I’m working hourly and on my feet all day and where I sometimes get off at midnight or have to show up at 7am. It’s a good job, but taxing. But I love it — I love being around books and I love book people and I love getting to be on this side of the business.

My favorite part about this job is that I get to connect people with a book I’m confident they will love and they trust me. There’s a real, genuine joy that just clickin that moment, and I am gratified that I know what they’ll enjoy and know the product well enough to put the right book in their hands.

But what’s hard is when the stigma of a genre slices through the rapport I try to create with them and undermines my recommendation.

Confession: I unashamedly love YA (young adult) and children’s fiction. I always have. Some of my favorite books of all time are YA novels or Newbery Award winners.

I think YA is probably the most interesting genre in publishing right now, because coming-of-age stories deal with issues in raw ways that many pieces of adult fiction aren’t willing to embrace, and because the audience is so unadulterated and sincere in what they love and what they hate. The clarity of affection is a force to be reckoned with when a teenager really, really loves a story or an author or a character.

Adults are more cautious, more cynical. They’re afraid to wholeheartedly love or hate something–it might not be the correct opinion. It might offend someone, it might not be an educated choice.

I think this is understandable — adults know that life is more complex than they thought when they were teens, issues are more nuanced, and shades of grey is a more real approach to morality than black and white.

But that doesn’t mean that a mature approach to reality and hardship and love and life isn’t present in YA, and this is what people don’t know. I’ll hand them a book that I found intelligent, moving, and beautiful, but once they realize it’s about teens or that it’s from the YA section, they quietly discard it or sigh and smile and ask for something else.

What they don’t know is keeping them from a really rich reading experience in this blossoming genre, and I chuckle to myself when I hear teens talking about how adults are prejudiced against them and won’t take them seriously. I understand why this dynamic exists, but they’re right: adults are prejudiced against seeing the world through the eyes of a teen.

I mean, I know high school was traumatic for everyone, but this is ridiculous. YA is where authors are being original, experimental, and fresh. They aren’t out to prove anything, and that’s where creative brilliance can thrive.

So, I dare you: put aside your struggle through Infinite Jest or The Corrections or The Goldfinch or The Invention of Wings, and pick up Eleanor & Park. Be dazzled. And then tell me what you thought.


I love reading. When I was in third grade, my mom had me make a list of all the books I’d read in the last year. Once we got through the library loan records and my Sonlight reading list, I discovered that I’d read between two and three hundred books that year.

When I was in tenth grade, I fell behind and stopped working on most of my schoolwork for a lot of reasons–my mom had just had twins, I was babysitting for her a lot, I was stressed and probably depressed, I was socially isolated in unhealthy ways, and I coped by reading everything in sight. I read and drew and wrote lots that year, but mostly I read. Sometimes I think that books were my lifeline to sanity while I lived at home.

During college, people would ask me why I chose to be an English major. I’d jokingly tell them that it was so I could get good grades just for reading all the time like I would do anyway.

Paper writing intimidation, 2008.

Writing has always been part of who I am, as well. I wrote a historical fiction “novel” in high school, various short stories, and lots and lots of essays. In the last few years I have begun to explore poetry, write more fiction, and really focus on honing my craft.

But my favorite thing is still reading, challenging myself to read the greats and develop a good ear for quality language and voice and presence. To push myself to enjoy what I might not find easy in order to learn and stretch my own writing. And to just read for reading’s sake, savoring the presence of an author’s story and losing myself in someone else’s world and words.

Short stories are my very favorite of all. They fit well into a busy life. I love how they can be tight and focused like poetry, but the genre allows them to also be broader and more narrative. However, the form seems to be fading, and fewer authors are writing short stories and fewer schools are studying them. They’re not yet outdated, but there’s a slow fade happening for short stories in the publishing world. And that’s sad, because you’d think there would be a bigger market for them in the world of e-readers and online publishing venues and Twitter and blogs.

Inspired after attending a speaking event by Lorin Stein a few months back (promoting The Paris Review‘s new short story collection, Object Lessons), I decided I wanted to do more here with writing and promoting this great genre.

So here’s the plan:

During the first week of April, I’m going to host a short story week on Wine & Marble. 

And I want you to help.

I’d like to feature a short story every day from March 31st (Easter Sunday) to April 6th. 

That’s seven stories.

You write it, I’ll help you clean it up, and we’ll publish it here. 

I’ll be accepting submissions from now until March 23rd. Send them to me at wineandmarble@gmail.com. 

To kick this off, I’d like to give you a short story I wrote a couple years back. 

Click here to download Wine at Christmas.

 


Since graduation, I’ve been trying to keep reading works in the canon of great Western literature (likely an unattainable dream). Last week I finished Brideshead Revisited (which mostly made me more annoyed at Downton Abbey for existing and also wishing that every Catholic author had the clairvoyance of Walker Percy). This week I’m reading Lord of the Flies for the first time.

I’m not sure what I expected, but so far, I’m profoundly disappointed. Maybe it gets brilliant after chapter 9, but up till now this book has been lazy writing and I don’t think it’s to prove a subversive Faulknerian purpose. I miss having lit class discussions, and I wish that my English major gang would bat this around with me a bit.

I read The Spire a couple years back and really enjoyed it, despite some psycedelic confusion (the character/narrative voice, not me). It was well-written and memorable and I would like to reread it and turn it over in my mind after a second reading. It merits it–there’s a lot going on in it.

So when I picked up Lord of the Flies, I hoped for something as provocative and difficult and memorable. But I feel like Golding let me down. So far, the narrative voice has been inconsistent, and the physical descriptions are lazy and inattentive. He’ll start describing something, interrupt himself, and then reintroduce the description, with new elements that he assumes and doesn’t describe. It’s all very confusing. I could forgive him the sloppy dialog (seriously, you couldn’t make a satisfying argument for who is speaking a quarter of the time), if only he would be willing to describe the island and scenes with a bit of care and attention. (That said, perhaps it’s a ploy to suggest the placelessness of human depravity! Even so, he could have done a better job at creating a placeless disorientation.)

However, his worse sin is that his character definition is spotty. The conflicts between the boys are hard to follow because he hasn’t created enough distinctions and individuality to cause such conflicts. Again, if this was to emphasize the everyman element of the story, he failed. These aren’t everyboys, they’re boring boys.

And I’ll forgive his weird juvenile homoerotic moments because he was writing in a different era and writing about childish affections. There’s enough true innocent loyalty in these moments to almost make this modern reader accept the heart palpitations and dizzy fondness as archaic norms. But could he at least give us enough character for each boy to let these interludes be believable? I guess I’d accept them more if I knew enough about Ralph’s personality to understand why he and Jack get along so well.  I don’t want them to be predictable, but this is an excess of character flat-lining on the other extreme.

I’m not going to give up on Golding, for the sake of The Spire. I’ll finish this book and I suppose I’ll read more of his work eventually. Maybe I’ll like Lord of the Flies better when I’ve finished it. To be determined.

For those of you who’ve read Lord of the Flies, what did you think? (Hold the spoilers for now!) Am I being too picky? What’s the brilliance of this? Couldn’t we just read Homer to pick up on the depravity of man left to himself?

This has been “Really? Really??” with Hännah.

Note: I’m aware that I’m significantly under-read in great literature outside of the Western canon. Now accepting suggestions!