On Genre Fiction as a Gateway Drug
Since I’m writing YA, red flags pop up when I see people talking about what YA should or shouldn’t be, or what kids should or shouldn’t be reading. Last year, when Neil Gaiman gave a speech on behalf of the Reading Agency, he called fiction “a gateway drug to reading” and said, “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.” He addressed many other issues in the lecture as well, and made wonderful points about the way fiction encourages empathy in readers and the importance of libraries, literacy, and what these things mean for our future.
Last month The New Yorker published an article called “The Percy Jackson Problem,” in which the author talks about a recent, incredibly popular YA series that apparently lacks literary merit. The author writes, “Gaiman came out in favor or what might be called the ‘just so long as they’re reading’ camp,” and at the close of the article worries, “What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?”
When I was a kid I read fantasy and science fiction. By fifth grade I was devouring Jurassic Park, and my mom mandated that for every “fun” read, I had to read a “classic.” I needed two of them, so I could read The Lost World, too. I pouted at the bookstore and finally selected Eight Cousins and Rose In Bloom, by Louisa May Alcott, because the sequel promised tales of the protagonist and her many suitors (I was sorely disappointed when the highlight of the book was hand-holding). This experience, which I still remember so vividly, only made me hate classics.
I enjoyed some of the books we read in my primary education English classes. Some of them I hated. I didn’t really gain an appreciation for classics until much later, as an English major at UCLA. But now I read across the board. The last three books I recently read are: The Death Cure (the final book in the Maze Runner trilogy, a YA post-apocalyptic sci-fi series), Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (contemporary adult popular fiction), and The Flamethrowers (a literary fiction novel that was a National Book Award Finalist and made the top-10 best of 2013 New York Times Book Review list). Currently I’m reading California, an adult, literary, dystopian novel.
My reading habits remind me of being dragged to museums as a kid. I’d rush through while my mother read every word on every placard, and I’d sit somewhere and wait in what seemed like unendurable boredom. Now, I love going to museums. I go with friends, by myself, on dates… I struggled with my opinion on “the Percy Jackson problem” for a while. Now I think I believe the same thing I believe about a lot of things in life: the key is balance. I read all over the place because I want to grow as a writer. I want to learn. To teach our children, we should give them variety.
However, I still struggle with the idea that anyone should be able to tell anyone else what she should read. Who says what is good or bad? My favorite line in a yet more recent New Yorker article, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate,” is this: “Instead of asking whether a comic book could be ‘as valuable’ as ‘King Lear,’ we ought to ask how the values of tragedy and romance might collide.” I’m glad the literary scene is changing. As people and cultures evolve, what we consider “good” reading should, too.