Attention Young Adult fiction fans: grow up

Children are, for the most part, perfectly decent people but even the very best of them are really terrible critics. Nonetheless, we have begun to look to them for cultural recommendations. This past decade, they have given us Twilight and Harry Potter when, really, they should have kept that bunk for themselves. While it is true that some of their better Pixar films have made this imposition easier to brook, it is also true that older children gave us Divergent and The Fault in our Stars and made it perfectly acceptable for adult humans to speak, with delusional force, about the richness of Dr Who.

Dr Who is a reasonable thing but it is not a Complex Text. Of course, children cannot really be blamed for our grown-up intoxication by their lolly-water. We have no one to charge but ourselves for the embrace not only of items intended for consumption by children but for our demand for childish techniques in ‘adult’ entertainment. Nowhere is this R-rated naivety more apparent than in Game of Thrones —basically, The Tales of King Arthur with lots of dirty sex –and Fifty Shades of Grey — basically (actually) Twilight with lots of dirty sex.

Children and “young adults” have always been winsome but this does not mean we should take what appears to be their aesthetic advice or borrow from the culture they enjoy. There have been a few clap-happy books and articles on the topic of embracing one’s inner child –notably Christopher Noxon’s fun but uncritical 2006 cupcake of a book, Rejuvenile.

A journalist, Noxon’s chief task was to observe the Western practice of adults refusing to put away their childish things. He doesn’t think it’s good and he doesn’t think it’s bad. I want to argue that it is bad and rage, rage in favour of the dying of the light of childhood.

Childhood for a good many people is understood to be a happy time and there is little harm in an occasional return to its seasons of easy pleasure. One now need no longer take a child as a prop to disguise delight at Disneyworld or resist the urge for fancy dress. Comic books are reborn as graphic novels and an interest in fantasy or science fiction is no longer shameful.

And all of this, is of course, okay.

But what is not okay is the shit this worship of the idea of childhood is producing for adult consumption.

When adults are not reading Young Adult fiction, they might be found reading books like E.L James’ fanfic horror that are directly inspired by them. When they are not watching fantasy or science fiction or speculative histories intended for children, they are watching bloodier and sexier iterations. When they are not blathering about Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen as a “strong role-model” for young women (presumably, a role-model to young women who happen to find themselves fighting to the death in a post-apocalyptic lottery) they are watching The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead is not a part of television’s new, if niche, golden era. It is a nightmare of repetitive gore that offers all the dramatic abundance that Pingu might if only someone would give him a chainsaw. That piece of crap is Baby’s First Dystopia and that it receives, as it has, middlebrow recommendations for us to take it as seriously as we would, say, the grownup good of Breaking Bad, demonstrates how we’ve begun to understand the manufactured idea of the Wisdom of Children as natural.

We make an intellectual rationale for the simple love of monsters or a feminist rationale for the love of young adult fiction. We won’t roll over and admit that our fondness for simple things is not complex but just a trip to Disneyworld.

But, as Noxon briefly mentions in his book, the big children of the West and, so, their tastes are produced by social conditions. A young middle-class stripped of its capital stays in the family home much longer than previous generations and a good way to get over the irritation of still being a child is by choosing to act like one. It’s not only the real mum and dad but also the moralising liberal parent of the state that turns us into toddlers. We no longer think of our governments as institutions that are really just there to collect, manage and spend revenues. We think of them as a soft moral daddy and we are pleased, and not disgusted as we should be, when officials start talking about our global ‘happiness’ instead of our unequal global debt.

We have simple and deluded ideas about power and we let this play out, like the children we have become, in our popular art. The feudal simplicity of Game of Thrones is viewed for What It Can Teach Us About Life. The answer is: bugger all. Let’s set aside for a moment our impatience with the Aristotelian idea that art can ever teach us anything about life and just ask the idiots who are writing about this poppycock as though it is something better than cosplay porn: how do I seek an injunction against your future professional use of a keyboard?

You can like Game of Thrones, sure. You just can’t go about pretending that it is a more reliable description of power and conflict than, say, a Murdoch press account of the burgeoning war in Iraq.

Then again, children will believe statements like “baddies against baddies”, because they are little and because they are terrible critics yet to develop any reliable taste.

While it is true children may demonstrate tastes in, say, literature or painting, they can certainly never explain them. Even if little Harriet appears to enjoy Rothko — and her parents insist that she does — this is likely due less to an ‘innate’ understanding of minimalist iconography than it is to the fact that Orange, Red, Yellow reminds her of The Wiggles.

There is nothing wrong with this approach to art appreciation but there is nothing particularly right about it, either; at least not in the aesthete who has passed their seventeenth year. The idea that art is less an adult exercise in active understanding than it is a passive experience of childlike emotion is discounted by good thinkers for good reasons. First, it presupposes that there are natural themes and universal aesthetics that transcend all cultural understanding. Second, it creates critical conditions that will never produce another Rothko. Why bother breaking with the conventions of your time and place if time and place have no relevance to art? After all, a child can ‘understand’ it.

Still, lots of people think of childhood as a natural state of understanding and adulthood as an unnatural one and this is why Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a long and tedious book on the matter and why Oprah is always going on about the wisdom we can all see in the smile of a child.

There is real delight in the smile of the child. There is promise, too, if we choose, as we should, to see it. But there is no more wisdom there than there are sentences in the work of J.K Rowling that adhere to the most basic rules of English usage. Which is to say, none.

Rothko was one of those artists who gave inadvertent rise to the adage ‘my child could do that’. The B-side to this tedious tune is, of course, ‘my child could understand that’. And your child can’t because she is tiny and yet to develop an intellectual context that can make room for Rothko. She is a baby. You’re not. So, what then, is your excuse for making Rothko simpler than he is and Stephanie Meyers more complicated?

And don’t say the wisdom of children.

114 responses to “Attention Young Adult fiction fans: grow up

  1. On your main topic in this article, I’d like to note that it’s easier to be taken seriously when you speak about people with a certain degree of respect. Children and young adults may not be seasoned book critics or experts, but their intelligence is by no necessity inferior to yours. But that’s mostly irrelevant to me.

    The one thing that really hurt to read was your treatment of science fiction, which, unless I’m misreading things, you seem to think is a rubbish genre. As with any other genre, most of the material is slag (which is usually given the term “sci fi” – the stuff with monster aliens invading earth, and the heroic spaceman saving the day and all that nonsense), and anyone who’s just looking for entertainment with a certain aesthetic attached to it will scarf it up without complaint. But science fiction itself is much more than this – in fact, it is nothing like that slag. It explores ideas, possibilities, which lie within the realm of scientific possibility (or, if science is not the main concern of the story, sociological, psychological, economical, etc., plausibility). It might examine our present state from the less offensive and more imaginative future, extrapolating from current trends. It’s an intelligent genre, generally rigorous in its assumptions, and certainly not deserving of such dismissal.

    Just because it does not relate to the hear and now, to the drying paint on your wall or such things, it does not mean that it is childish. Spaceships certainly aren’t childish, nor is the question of what will become of humanity, or what other life forms in this universe might be like. SF often takes a wider, overall view, focussing more often on the big picture, the longterm view, than the present day and our rather insignificant troubles (unless they reveal something about mankind).

  2. I can’t take any one who uses “up in my tits” and “Eat a bag of dicks” seriously. She just had this long, boring drawn out drivel that people shouldn’t like young adult books, and then used insults like a twelve year old.

  3. Dear Helen,

    We, as young adults, find your language (in replies to reader’s ponderings) utterly appalling and atrocious. We expect mature, intelligent people to leave the cussing to the ones of whom you speak (the young adults). We found that when given the opportunity the young adults have actually held back from writing unintelligible manure like you.

    After 20 years of ‘experience’ we would think you would be able to talk in a civil manner.

    As for your ridiculous article, we are inclined to believe that you have no clue what so ever of what you are proclaiming and we are left wondering why you would waste your time putting down GENIUS books such as Harry Potter.

    Just because Young Adult books are being promoted and some adults are saying ‘Hey, I might give that book a try’ doesn’t mean you have to as well. You should be glad that you are ‘above’ these people who are conforming to society.

    Maybe it’s good to escape to a world you know doesn’t exist, or could never exist to relieve yourself of the stress of your daily life; to take a break from being you.

    – From students of a selective high school with more brains than you.

    P.S Mark you are awesome!

  4. The argument is based on the assumption that the child or the young adult are inferior, less intelligent, incapable of understanding complexity. Which makes me think that the author has limited experience with children and teenagers and has read very little literature for young audiences. Or none at all.

  5. Wow. I lost spirit about a third of the way down the comments and couldn’t read on. So much vitriol! So many threatened egos!

    Helen, thanks for your article, (and for all of your other ones – love your work). I am a proper adult who loves proper art in many forms, and I also love the escapism that fantasy literature offers me. I have never pretended to myself or anyone else that reading or watching fantasy is anything other than chocolate pudding, but perhaps I’ve been consuming a few too many bad calories lately. I forgive myself because my job requires a lot of brain work and my kids require a lot of emotional work, and the chocolate pudding helps me get through the day.

    I was nodding to myself throughout your article, casting my mind back to when the last time was that I read a good square meal, and perhaps it’s been a bit too long. I know it wasn’t your intention, but you have inspired me – this is one reader who will be popping by a bookshop this weekend for some proper nourishment.

    1. Agreement on the vitriol level, Monica. I missed the part in the article that called for all that wrath-rain in the comments. (Maybe I don’t spend enough of my life reading these online pearls and I therefore miss the provoking nuances that the true believers can spot a mile away?) I found the article to be thought-provoking and clever enough, enough to forward it to a friend without fear of embarrassment over my choice of forwarded articles.

    2. Thanks. Mon. This piece was not about the category of YA. It was just about what an awful lot of people read and watch and do and how those practices are ironically justified in the terms of being whimsically childlike.
      I was just describing another form of Stupid and not critiquing all the marvellous books out there that fewer people read.

  6. In a sea of uninspired and topical criticism, it’s such a relief to find a location that will reveal to me that big brother is stupid and then, while I’m still breathless from the revelation, hit me with 1300 words of complaints about people overstating the intellectual value of narrative, genre, and YA fiction. It’s about time someone said something to all these Harry Potter readers!

    I wear big boy pants and GoT and science fiction fans alike are stunned into admiration when I tell them that the Wire is better and Solaris is trash. Perhaps next week, and this is just a suggestion to Crikey that they should feel free to leave or take, Bret Easton Ellis can come on as a guest writer and tell me which literary darlings are actually overrated and suck? With the sharpest tastemaking around my choices will be unimpeachable! The Western Canon? I’ve read it all!

    There is definitely nothing funny about a critic of style and substance failing to nail down composing a title without later clarifying; ‘This piece is, despite its headline, not about YA,’ for a piece whose apparent purpose must be explained ad nauseam in subsequent commentary. Nor is it funny that such a piece be written by an “unambitious blob of hindered erudition”, with vocabulary that would make Mark Twain vomit, deployed in a style that would make David Foster Wallace rethink his word counts in his grave.

    To quote the ever childish Juan Gelman: “Do you know that the Argentinean dictatorship burnt The Little Prince ? And I think they were right to do so, not because I do not love The Little Prince , but because the book is so full of tenderness that it would harm any dictatorship.”

    What shallowness! No-one told poor Juan that it is better to write 1300 words of misplaced and poorly veiled vitriol that only a very special (‘How clever am I!’) type of adult can bear to read, than to write something joyful that even a child could understand.

    Thank goodness things can be put straight by Helen “sharp as a” Razer:

    Twilight sucks

  7. Helen Razer only hates thing people like, and only likes things people hate. The more you hate on her, the better she feels. #science

  8. Have you even read any YA? The blockbusters you’ve referenced don’t seem to indicate any breath of research. Why does it even matter to you what people choose to enjoy? Someone who feels the need to bully and belittle other people’s enjoyment in order to feel important? I’d say they’re the ones who need to grow up.

    1. 1. This piece is, despite its headline, not about YA
      2. At no point do I say YA is bad
      3. This is a piece on a larger shift to take simple entertainments and make them complex
      4. At no point do I say YA is bad
      5. ‘Bullying’? Seriously?

  9. I think the bases have been covered, but I wanted to say things anyway.

    I very avidly (and critically) consume things that I freely admit are a little juvenile. Doctor Who is a show I particularly enjoy, but I say I critically consume it because I’m constantly thinking about how it could be made better. Alternatively, how it could be more challenging as art and as a reflection of society. There’s escapism in my enjoyment of it, sure, but there’s a lot you can say about Doctor Who that is less than flattering even if you do enjoy it. As varied as the Doctor Who episodes are, though, I would say that even lumping one episode in with a separate episode is generalizing. For example, I would not lump something so deep as the Doctor’s conflicting emotions and subsequent actions surrounding the Time War in the same level as, say, Blink, which was wonderfully crafted but in the end just a “thriller” episode.

    By the same token, Game of Thrones breaks its own conventions. You seem to hold it in contempt…I will say that the plot “baddies against baddies” is not very exciting, and does get tedious after a while. However, when you consider the question of the protagonist and antagonist and the societal struggles of those who are “different” or “monsters”, there is some value and reflection on human nature to be had in it. As I said, escapism is escapism, but I wouldn’t devalue the text entirely.

    Harry Potter is the same way, and I would never lump Harry Potter and Twilight in the same universe. Mostly I say this because of the enormous amount of character development in Harry Potter, and the staggering absence of it in Twilight. Harry experiences loss, dealing with loss in every book, and simultaneously having to navigate a world in which his identity is consistently being brought into question. No, I would not say this is as challenging to the intellect as, for instance, Crime and Punishment (which I love to death. I could go on and on about the Ubermensch and such Nietzchean things, but I won’t because it’s digressive), but I would also not say that it is a poor outlook on our collective intellect if we consume Harry Potter.

    I’m currently taking a Children’s Literature course (and a World Literature course) in my grad studies, and you would be surprised at the sheer amount of depth an author can pack into a book meant for children! Take “Wednesday Wars” by Gary Schmidt. It is accessible to children, and adults, and explores loss and life in the US surrounding the Vietnam War. Also, it explores issues of a child’s identity through his religion, and through his parents’ divorce. It’s a *children’s* book and it is deeper than some adult fiction I have read (like Old Man and the Sea). I would call it a capital C capital T “Complex Text” and unless you can further develop your own arguments on what that means (perhaps you have in a past essay and I’ve been too academically disinclined to read it), I am going to stick with my evaluation.

    You seem to be only mentioning books which have been turned into films, and in that case I agree with you (with the following exceptions). The Golden Compass was turned into a (albeit not very well-done) film, and I would also call that a Complex Text. (Fun fact: parents in my great state of Texas, wanted to ban it from being read in public schools because it’s “anti-religion.” If that’s not complex I don’t know what is!)

    All kidding aside, Philip Pullman did write some rich, deep fantasy. Orson Scott Card, with Ender’s Game, explored genocide! Also, he explored being bullied at school. You know, for the younger crowd.

    I will be the first to say I am not a visual art critic. I do not find contemporary expressionism, Rothko or Pollock, very incredible or particularly compelling. I’m not even really a fan of Picasso’s abstract works. I generally tend to still not like things even after I’ve been condemned on an academic level for disliking them (and I have, on several occasions, been condemned for not appreciating Picasso). The idea behind the art is great, perhaps even compelling, but as an avid consumer of literary theory I tend to believe that the observer’s perspective tends to be as, if not more, important than the author’s intent behind it. Just because people spend a lot of money on something they don’t necessarily understand because it “breaks conventions” doesn’t make it particularly “adult,” “highbrow,” or excellent. I’m not saying expressionism isn’t highbrow. I’m just saying in these cases I don’t understand what is particularly highbrow about it.

    I do, however, consider myself a literary critic. I graduated with a BA in literature and am pursuing my Master’s in literature education (if you want to play the experience card, so you don’t dismiss me as insipid right away…I did, in fact, read the whole of your article) and all I’m really disagreeing with are your generalizations. Most people here are, in fact, only disagreeing with your generalizations. Sarcastic comments aside.

    Sure, children cannot be critical consumers of literature on the level of adults (most adults can’t either), but they can be critical consumers in their own way. Read Anthony Browne’s “Voices in the Park.” Arguably, for a child, that picture book is more complex than Twilight is for YA. There’s visual art and literary art in that book, but I am not putting it up on the intellectual pedestal of Charles Dickens, or even Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl (children’s writers, though I love Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected), but it is still enriching, and still complex.

    I would also appreciate you’re not telling me to eat a bag of dicks. That’s just juvenile. ;)

  10. Oh Jeezuss people …

    Yes, GAME OF THRONES is inherently silly and WALKING DEAD is inherently sillier (most of the cast has one line : “Errrrrggghhh …”)

    And if you’re going to like inherently silly things as an adult — which you are fully entitled to do — guess what, you’re going to have to cop some mockery about it.

    That’s just the way it goes in the big wide world … you know, where real people live.

    And it’s not like taking the piss out of people who are a little TOO into hobbits and Dr Spock is anything new.

    Hell, the premise of THE BIG BANG THEORY and REVENGE OF THE NERDS is based around it.

    I seem to half-remember a story about William Shatner being confronted by some crazed fan at a STAR TREK convention who was fixated on some arcane bit of plot minutae from an obscure episode eons ago.
    And Shatner (rightfully) just felt sorry for the guy and told him he REALLY needed to get some perspective.

    The great Douglas Adams too became equally unenamoured with his own fanboy base around the HITCHHIKER series …

    and who can forget the big finger given to GAMES OF THRONE-heads by the books’ author himself … as potent an indicator one can imagine that it’s time for some in Narnia to step back out of the wardrobe and become a little less precious and earnest about their fairy stories.

    * * *

    … and as for the attempted humour by some of the Commenters above, the less said the better. But then, if CRIKEY insists on allowing giving clowns a whiteboard to deface they can be relied upon to spray something fabulously fecal on it.

  11. Hang on a second– are you criticising the consumers of youth-oriented pop culture, or are you simply suggesting that professional critics need to stop taking youth-oriented pop culture seriously? Because your article and subsequent comments seem to elide the two issues.

  12. Possibly against my better judgment: Helen, please properly inform yourself about YA fiction before you decide to write a jeremiad about the fall of western civilisation and in particular about the “dangerously democratic” temper of the times. (Seriously? Art is getting “too democratic”?)

    Much of the anger in these comments and elsewhere stems from your wholesale dismissal of an entire class of books of which you appear to have no knowledge at all, beyond the obvious blockbusters. Game of Thrones, in its written and televised forms, has never been marketed as young adult, but as most determinedly adult. Its simplicities, as with many other products aimed at an adult market, don’t stem from its being written for young people.

    Your basic thesis is that books for children and young adults (which, btw, tend to be different kinds of books) can’t possibly have complexity or rigor, unlike books supposedly written for adults, and that they represent a social infantilism which is linked to consumerism. There is a truth in this second point: you could say the same about sport or reality television, or in fact any form of popular culture. However, in doing so you slander a very wide category (nb not a genre) of literature that has, contrary to your claims, produced some very considerable and complex works by some remarkable writers. It’s this wholesale and ignorant dismissal that gets up everybody’s noses; anyone who knows anything about YA knows that there are things to criticise. (Your shallow understanding of Romanticism doesn’t help here, either.)

    YA literature often gets abused, I guess because it’s for young people and therefore an easy target for sneers. If only you had some of John Berger’s respect for the intuitions of children; but perhaps you’ve never spoken seriously about art to a young person. Their fault is in being young, but they are, bizarrely, as various as adults are. As for YA, your argument basically is as lazy as attacking adult literature while only appearing to have read Dan Brown and Barbara Cartland. Sometimes, contrary to your idea that it’s all Disney princesses, YA gets abused for being too dark and real and gritty. Sometimes it gets attacked for having too much sex or having non-white people in it (or not) or people who are not heterosexual. The point is that, like writing for adults, writing for young people is far too broad a church to generalise as you have done here.

    And as well as the blockbusters (and let’s be fair to JK: unlike Dan Brown, she knows how to write some very good English sentences) writing for children and young adults includes real masterpieces: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim among the classics. More recently, maybe you should read Alan Garner’s Red Shift, formally startling, utterly bleak, astonishing, as complex as it gets, or some of David Almond’s books. Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, which deservedly swept the literary awards last year, or Tender Morsels, complex, delicate, dark, beautifully written. Or Sonya Hartnett. Russell Hoban’s remarkable books for young people, The Soon Child, profound and beautiful, a tale about death, or The Mouse and His Child, or Lion Of Boaz-Jachin And Jachin-Boaz. Or literally hundreds of other writers, past and contemporary. It’s commonly said it’s a golden age for YA and children’s writing, and I believe that’s true. To my mind, the popularity of YA writing, beyond the blockbusters, speaks to a certain poverty in what we deem literary writing.

    Adolescence is not a “winsome” state of simplicity. Even small children are not “simple”. It is only adults, seeking to repress their own childhood traumas, who want to put childhood in that box. Rather, adolescence is, like fairy tales without the Disney gloss: complex, dangerous, passionate, contradictory, fierce, full of a desire for justice. And there are many people who write truthfully to these very human complexities. These days they are called YA writers: back in the day, they were people like Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley, who would most certainly be published under the YA banner should they be writing now.

    1. Hi Alison. Thanks for your comment whose better judgment came to my attention when you shared its publication details on Twitter. I’ll attempt to address your critique.
      First, you quote a phrase I myself used in the comments. That is, I said that art appreciation had become ‘dangerously democratic’. Now, that this is not the kind of alliterative bilge I would use in a published piece aside, I am prepared to defend this position. Yes. I do think that a critical distinction between readerly and writerly works can and should be made of all works in all criticism. Yes, I do think “there is nothing outside the text” has been misinterpreted to mean “it’s all good”. Yes, I do think our current disposition as consumers and critics is to apprehend Big Brother and what have you in exactly the same way we might read Ibsen. And, although the naturalistic comparison has been made constructively between the two (I can’t remember by which author at this minute and if I look it up and link to it that will make this response even longer and more tedious than it needs to be!) the point is, relativism is not always a great thing in discussions of the culture.
      What I am not doing is defending ‘high’ art for its own sake. I don’t think, nor can it be reasonably inferred, that I think lighter forms of art are decadent. I am not Harold Bloom and I do not fetishize ‘quality’ nor do I disdain the consumption of pop culture. But I do think there is a case to be made, and I tried to make to in the not-at-all-Jeremiah-length confines of a weekly column, that criticism has changed. And this brings me to your later point that I should be kinder about YA because it is thematically challenging.
      For the moment, I will set aside that this piece is, despite its headline, not specifically about literature and is about a juvenilized understanding of culture, and remind you that what art is about is not always the point. I understand that ya can challenge social norms. But, so what? There are many great works that are ideologically offensive and deluded and there are many poor works that coincide completely with a social justice view. Sure, if a work is held to be of value for how it might empower a teen who identifies a non-normative sexual desire, then, great. I like the ya work of Randa Abdel-Fatteh, for example, whose Does My Head Look Big In This is enormous fun and probably does a heck of a lot more to make Australian kids in hijab less self-conscious that the half-arsed ministrations of white non-Muslim teachers preaching liberal ‘tolerance’. It is well-written and engages with its demographic beautifully. Ten out of ten. I never, for one moment, suggested that such books, which are often written with an agenda, do not achieve their social justice goal. What I did say was that they are not books for grownups. And while we grownups can certainly affirm their value as intimate documents intended to provoke kids into asking questions, we should not suppose that they are as complex as other kinds of works. And I see a fair bit of that going on. Which I mentioned in the piece.
      As for your connoisseurship. Well, I have Googled you and found that you are a YA author and I can’t possibly compete with it. You are correct that you know a good deal more about YA than I do but, again, this piece wasn’t about YA. And I am sure yours is very good. It was about the current practice of attaching meaning and equal value to all ‘texts’ of all kinds. And it was about the need to ‘unpack’ meaning and attribute complexity to things that are as ‘shallow’ as you say that I am. Now, I may have failed in prosecuting this case. But this does not mean I was successful in arguing that YA was shit. Because I never tried to do that.
      And I think if you re-read, you may see that I explicitly said that Game of Thrones was not a kids’ artefact but that it was something which is an “x-rated iteration” of popular kids stuff, or whatever I said, and that the way in which people appreciate it is very much as they appreciate films and books and television shows intended for younger people. Which is to say, they attribute to it a moral and thematic complexity it just doesn’t hold. The. best example of this is the Cersei ‘rape or not rape’ ‘controversy. Which lit up the internet for a week. Like, if you want to talk about abuse or its depictions, maybe don’t rely on the readerly text of GoT as primary source material.
      In my view, works intended for kids are fine. They can even be very good like Sonya Hartnett or occasionally bordering on greatness like The Catcher in the Rye. I never said that they were not and the ‘genre’, such as it isn’t, was not able to occasionally exceed itself as science fiction does at times and give us a Neuromancer. Never said that. Because this wasn’t a critique of the Very Best but a look at the very worst of how our ‘adult understanding of childhood’ (if I had thought that childhood was exactly as adults supposed it to be, I would not have mentioned several times that I saw it as an idea rather than a reality; but thanks heaps for putting me on the couch regardless at the end of your own outpouring. I am repressed!) gets us off the intellectual hook and allows us to legitimise our stupidity.
      So we can talk about Cersei ‘in a feminist context’ and we can say YA or kids screen has ‘real meaning’. Because, these days, everything has meaning attached to it. There is a meaning oversupply, if you ask me. Everything “matters”. And if you don’t believe me, do a Google new search for “it matters” and see how many things matter and with what force.
      We attribute meaning where it isn’t. We allow ourselves to be the children we once imagined we were. This is not a dispute about children (although I still think they’re terrible critics) and it is not a dispute over anyone’s right to read or watch whatever they like. Knock yourselves out. It was a short observation NOT ON YA (despite the headline over which I have no control, but I am glad the sub decided to go with it because I have enjoyed such interesting abuse) on how adults attribute meaning to everything. There is nothing outside the text. When I first apprehended this aphorism at university, I thought it was a great excuse not to think. Of course, clearly, you believe that this is the continuing case. But I do think the bad b-side to post-modern life and thought is that we allow ourselves to think that all things are of equal merit, And I am just old-fashioned enough to want to say, in public, that I think that they are not.
      I am sure that your YA works will continue to transform the minds and rouse the consciousness of kids. I am sure they are well written as are some in the category. This piece wasn’t about YA. It was about something else. It was about the adult version of childishness (not actually childhood, as I said several times; childhood as it is understood is constructed as you know and have implied although failed to see that I also do and did). It was about the new compulsion not to criticise and to use emotional reactions or political approval as a rationale for our taste.
      If you care to discuss this further, my email address is helen ATTA badhostess DOTTY com. Of course, your revulsion for my work is pretty plain so I can’t imagine that you would be inclined to seek a private audience with someone so ignorant of Romanticism.
      Finally, I would dispute that Frankenstein, a novel whose two major editions I examined in tedious detail at one long-ago academic juncture, would be considered YA. It is science fiction. Which I also hate. Because elitist.

    2. Well said Alison. The works Helen has cited do not represent “YA” fiction, which is a hugely broad (and let’s admit, largely arbitrary) category. It’s also a category that contains an enormous number of complicated, confronting, subversive and intellectually challenging works, both currently and retrospectively. There’s a shitload of rubbish being published for the “adult” market, and the best “YA” stuff leaves that self-indulgent and simplistic nonsense for dead.

      Inverted commas are annoying, yes, so apologies for using them. But they’re meant to signify that we’re talking about marketing categories here, not precisely defined genres or types of books. “YA” is a recent invention by marketing teams. Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids would all be bunged in there these days (god knows how they’d sell, but that’s another discussion). Whatever you think of their merits, they’re hardly Disney-style fluff. Nor is much of the more recent work that’s labelled YA.

      All that aside, I agree with Helen that it’s silly to romanticise childhood as a time of innate, angelic wisdom. But why swing the pendulum to the opposite side, and make childhood out to be some kind of inferior state that we need to entirely discard, or get beyond? Falling down an imaginative rabbit-hole or two is more likely to broaden the mind than narrow it. So much great art takes its spark from the mental space of childhood, and it is wrong-headed to dismiss this stage of our lives as being infantile, simplistic or devoid of thought.

      Childhood is not all about “passive emotion”. It is indeed a process of “active sense-making”, an intense crash-course in learning to understand the world — a confusing and conflicted process, and yes, riddled with emotion and mistakes, snot and poo, tantrums and poor taste. But it’s not a space where easy conclusions are drawn. That idea is itself a simplistic misconception of a fraught, formative, strange, and imaginatively and cognitively rich period of our lives.

      Childhood can be a really dark time; it’s not a time of wisdom, but a time of ambiguity, a battle to make sense of things. A lot of YA reflects this complexity and confusion. A lot of YA cleverly critiques mindless consumerism or easy conclusions. Yes, some of it is crap. But so is a lot of what gets gobbled up as “adult” pop-cultural product.

      It just seems like Helen hasn’t read very widely in this particular literary field. I think that’s why there are so many annoyed reactions to this column.

      1. Hi Helen

        Thanks for your response. As I said above, you have a point about the infantilisation of hyper-commercialised popular culture. I even agree with some of it: my kids forced me to see the Disney film of The Little Mermaid and I was horrified by what had happened to Hans Christian Anderson’s story (which was, perhaps I should point out, originally written for grown ups). It’s therefore a pity that, in common with other op eds that occur with depressing regularity, you decided to use YA fiction as your whipping post, and well beyond the headline. The continual misrepresentation of YA and the moral panics that go with them is a hairshirt that anyone who’s interested in it just has to endure: if it’s not responsible for dumbing down, it’s responsible for sexing up or opting out or any number of social sins. (Good YA is precisely _not_ the uplifting social moralising you seem to think it is: that’s one reason people get upset with it.) What these op eds have in common is that – aside from the usual suspects – they seem to know nothing about YA. Yours was just the most recent.

        YA fiction is, as Meg says above, a marketing category rather than a generic description, and it’s far more liquid than you seem to believe. If we’re talking about my work, which I wasn’t, it’s a category decided by the publisher, not by me. I’m just interested in writing stories of particular kind as well as I can. Some of my books have indeed been published as adult fiction in some countries, and I know they’re read by adults, some of them quite smart, as well as kids. The parameters have shifted over the centuries: work that was mainstream fiction when it was published would now be thought genre (think Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto And yes, Frankenstein, being a short parable about a monster, would likely be considered YA if it were published now.)

        I think it’s quite clear that I think some things are better than others; I spend my whole life, or almost my whole life, saying why. I’m as keen on “high art” as the next woman. But let’s not forget that high art has always been dependent on the vulgar – Dante took the idea for The Divine Comedy from popular pamphlets at the time, for instance, and Shakespeare or Moliere would be nowhere without vernacular culture. But if I think that something is not as good as something else, as an arts critic I do at least do it the courtesy of paying it some attention and thought.

        It’s absurd to claim that books written for young people (save for a few category-defying exceptions) are a priori “without meaning”, and that meaning is only projected onto them by adults. It’s absurd to claim that the notion that writing for young people can be profound and beautiful and complex is to do with a post modern notion that there is nothing outside the text. I’d say the reverse: that people read these books precisely because they can find in them meanings that they directly weave into and through their own lives, and which perhaps they find less and less elsewhere.

        Lately I’ve been reading the historian Carlo Ginzburg again. In Ecstasies, which examines the folk traditions and myths which became the witch’s sabbath, he says some very profound things about narrative that apply signally to some of the YA books I noted. “All human culture,” he said, “is about the representation of absence.” He’s speaking about the discourse between the living and the dead, the seen and the unseen, the human and the un-human. That’s a profound and ancient human response to the world, and yet it seems to me that a lot of contemporary work that focuses on these things is marginalised as fantasy or SF or YA, in favour of what’s called “grown up” (which is an equally murky category). That’s the kind of poverty I was speaking of when I talked about what we deem literary fiction.

        And btw, I didn’t say _you_ were shallow, only what you wrote here. I wouldn’t know, as I don’t know you personally.

        1. As I made plain in my answer, I do not implicitly believe that YA is a genre. It is a marketing category at most. And I am sorry if you found reason to think that my critique of a category was as an amorphous mass of vampire-drivel that excluded the possibility of greatness.
          But this wasn’t a piece about YA as a genre nor was it a dismissal of a category. Of course I know there are good “YA” books and it amazes me that as a child I was permitted to read Jane Eyre which was, at the time, bound, unabridged, in a cover geared specifically to little girls. The other Bronte certainly fast-tracked me to an interest in psychoanalysis. Despite my own shallow return of the repressed!
          But a ‘jeremiad’ against ‘western civilisation’ (that’s a bit mean) does not discount the possibility of great YA. But this wasn’t about YA. It was about the things that large numbers of people do. And large numbers of people read Harry Potter and Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey (which is a great example of how the simplicity that appeals to some adolescents crosses over into adult entertainment. I am sure you know that the work was written originally as an Edward and Bella erotic fic.)
          This is about what most people do and critique. Not about the good stuff. I wasn’t chiding people for reading or watching this immensely popular stuff. And, even if I were, it would hardly matter, right? I am sure the immense commercial popularity of the awful YA has only led to greater opportunities for good writers of fantasy, sci-fi and other stuff which has been formerly understood to be the chief domain of youngsters. So my critique (which again is not of YA but of the impulse to give great analysis to things that do not deserve it) does not discount the possibility that there are very smart readers of very smart books marketed to young people.
          It just doesn’t. I am sure as a writer or a fan of stuff which is so often ignorantly maligned, you would get the shits. And, yes, it is certainly the case that so-called ‘literary fiction’ is a genre, now. There are books I have read that are purportedly Serious Modernism that are just hideous. Oh. And don’t even get me started on the popular Misery Porn intended for women. Or the Personal Journey.
          There’s a lot of crap. But this is different crap whose analysis is irrelevant to a piece about what a large number of people in the west are doing which is a mocking celebration of their own intellectual laziness which rivals even mine. I named some of the most successful franchises in the world for a reason. And that reason was not to malign children, the genre or the ‘need’ to escape. (That’s another article.)
          The reason is that large numbers of people take on what they see to be childlike preferences. And that they then, perversely, try to justify these by saying that these preferences are as complex as any. When I believe that they are preferences somewhat manufactured by the times and not as liberating as they appear.
          I really just didn’t say that YA was uniformly shit. I didn’t even say it was a genre. If I had known I would have another week of What Razer Fails to Grasp and provide opportnities to people to be paid to write about how dumb I am, I might have said more explicitly ‘of course there are some good books’. But as I didn’t feel that my comments excluded this possibility, I didn’t.
          I can quite understand that you might feel beaten over the head by what I now see is an avalanche of articles on the topic. But infantilisation of public discourse is a really interesting topic and I am sure it’s not over. Perhaps you might like to write about it?

          1. Yes agree, the infantilisation of public discourse is a very interesting topic. Definitely one worth writing and talking about, and the article did address it.

            But that’s not all it was about. I found your article Helen when someone RTed one of your tweets. Just went back and checked, in case I’ve got early-onset dementia (which is not impossible), and that tweet said:

            “Think YA Fiction needs to be taken more seriously by critics? If so, you could be a f_ckwit! Find out if you are…”

            OK sure, from that premise the f_ckwittism isn’t guaranteed. But your tweet gives the strong impression that the article *is* indeed about YA. It also suggests that much of this YA stuff (whatever it might be) *doesn’t* deserve to be taken more seriously by critics. And that people who think YA shouldn’t be critically dismissed out of hand (as we all know it often is) have a reasonable chance of being f_ckwits.

            So maybe that tweet primed many of us to assume a bout of YA-bashing was to follow. But I just read ’em both again, article and tweet. And still think it’s not at all daft for readers to think the tweet gives a reasonable slant on the article.

            So unless your intro tweet was some kind of bamboozling meta ironic wormhole-type reverse psychology manoeuvre…or you were just stirring, giving the poor old bear a rather firm-fingered poke…then it’s not surprising that the article got understood the way it did by so many.

            (It’s a word I personally like, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say f_ckwit [NB: rhymes with duck shit] on here, so I’m going to go back and redact it prudishly so I haven’t typed this out in vain.)

          2. So you are now looking for evidence of the argument I didn’t make in the article in a tweet linking to it? Why bother reading the article at all

        2. I am really grateful for your comments but I feel their apparent willingness to engage rather than to score a public point is diminished somewhat by your repeated publication of them on social media. This kind of vitiates our more-or-less friendly exchange, no?
          But, it *is* good for page views.

  13. I was going to get all het up about this article, as I write YA fiction for a living, then I read it and reread it a few times and I have to agree with you. Some works of fiction change lives, and opinions and some just encourage kids to read, which is a feat in itself.
    Most of the hype around YA is by PR reps for publishers. It’s all a machine and you get chewed up and spat out faster than a Mc Nugget. Thanks for keeping it real.

  14. ok being serious now.
    you mentioned game of thrones a lot? may i point out that the descriptions of medievil times, society and architecture, is one of the most descriptive, interesting and correct pieces of writing i have read. second, if YA “corrupts the brain” or whatever shit you were saying, then what should i be reading? shakespear? “classical literature”? ( notice the very french accent on that phrase)
    how come some of those “works of classical literature” (again the french accent) were so un-interesting, that i got to the halfway mark, thought back and couldnt remember what the book was about? YA is creativity. and us being humans, we are the dominant species on this planet because of said creativity. our intelligence and our creative mind, is what we are. without it we may as well start killing ourselves to save the world the trouble of getting us to die out. so if you want to go around on a mission, trying to restructure the human brain pattern, go ahead! good luck with that one.
    sincerely, me

  15. Dear Helen
    i have been severely chastened by your inspirational rant, and i have decided that my free-will is not nearly as strong as your gandalf-like wisdom, and i will promptly vow to never read another YA novel, since they are obviously full of corruption and bad-will. although i fear that i have already enjoyed too many YA books! my head is bursting full of evil teenage thoughts! i don’t know how much longer i can hold on! my soul is corrupt. it is too late to save myself, but not to late to save yourselves, oh sweet, innocent people! stop reading YA books now, and let all your creative spirit leave you, before it is to late!
    and so, i die…

  16. Helen, I really enjoyed your article and I wholeheartedly agree with it. It is fascinating how many people jumped up and rushed to confirm what you’re saying by their infantile “I’ll god damn watch and read what I please”.

    Thumbs up to Lance’s comment too!

  17. I find it very presumptuous to tell fans of anything to “grow up”. I would think, as logical adults, we could have the freedom to enjoy what we like, whenever we like. While plenty of YA fiction lacks the sophistication of more “adult” works (and bear in mind that there are sophisticated works in YA fiction too), it should not matter how high-brow a book is. To claim that it is wrong for adults to enjoy books for young adults seems the more childish stance – a case of “stop liking things I don’t like!”

    You say in a comment “…I have said four or five times in the piece that I really have no quarrel with people liking this stuff.” Given the title of this article, I would honestly disagree with that claim.

    It seems strange that your fixated with referring to children in this piece. I thought we were discussing fiction for young adults? I am not sure if you are attempting to insult readers by telling them they are childish if they read these books, or if you have simply forgotten what demographic these books are aimed at.

    Finally, please don’t lump things like Game of Thrones or Walking Dead (shows/books/comics I actually do not follow, nor have much interest in) in with your ideas of YA fiction. They are tailored/marketed towards adults, and really have no relevance in your argument, regardless of anyone’s opinion on their quality.

  18. Game of Thrones is no more a reliable description of power and conflict than Murdochs coverage of the Rudd Gillard government tenure.

    1. I disagree. I think it puts all other historical/fantasy cheapo genre pulp back into its two dimensional Hollywood space. It is a serious ‘game changer’ to be taken very, very seriously. (Although I can’t be sure the excellence can be maintained over future series) :-)

  19. I don’t understand why you continually decided that people enjoying or being entertained by any of this was horrible for society. I mean, that’s what you tried to do, but you also repeatedly went back on what I assume was your original argument/aim for this article so many times that I was very confused by the end as to what exactly you hoped to achieve by blessing the world with this. Even though you did have some great points about the philosophical/political issues or lack of in these pieces of fiction, you forgot to think about one thing before you penned this – EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON THIS EARTH IS DIFFERENT.

    What is wrong with people being able to simply enjoy any type/genre of fiction? Not every single person in this world has to be and think like you! They don’t have to critique every political or philosophical issue that may or may not exist in that piece of fiction! It doesn’t make them any less of a person than you! Why is society so interested in judging people, both positively and negatively, about what they do, see, watch, think or feel? Why can’t people just simply enjoy the art that’s in front of them without being put down because they might enjoy it?

  20. I liked Twilight. There was an envocation of cold wet entrapment that spanned the climate, the obligations of Bella, and her relationship with Edward. It’s all rather cyclical and reinforcing and thematic. Surely we have all been there at some point in our lives, or perhaps wanted too. Is it really too different from Washington Square in its confinements and menace? But like True Blood it all goes to poop when the whole werewolf thing starts to take off. But you can’t win them all.
    If I can appreciate Kundera for his ruminations on the human condition when it interracts with others and the State, but still find some of his justifications for Eastern European male philandering pretty transperant, can’t I also do it in reverse (at least some time) and like the easy read of Divergent and yet take away some nostalgic reassesment of past teenage loves? At the very least Divergent or Enders Game make an interlude when the Shock Doctrine or Life and Fate have corroded my faith in humanity.
    I do think the new Vintage cover of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a little bit off though. I don’t mind people reading Dahl, but just be honest about it.
    My mother in law reads only Mills and Boon, but she’s had a pretty tough life, what goes through her mind when she’s reading would be a novel in itself, and I would never dismiss it as trivial or simplistic.

  21. Forgive me, I’ve been overseas for a long time. When did fantasy and science-fiction become children’s or young adult’s “literature”? Some of it clearly is aimed at a young audience, but not all of it. Game of Thrones is surely not intended for children. The Walking Dead is not intended for young adults. Harry Potter and Twilight clearly are. I think lumping them all together is what has caused such a stir. Now if you want to lump them together because you detect the milky scent of escapism in them that’s fine but you might want to have a good hard look at a lot of both popular and highbrow culture too, and maybe have a gander at your own bookshelves

  22. In truth, there’s some very fine Art to be found in Pop culture. Leonard Cohen’s Music, for example, would fall under the banner of pop Art. The business dividing genres and modes into echelons of better and worse than, is nonsensical. Instead, all projects either succeed or fail based on the quality of the Result. It doesn’t matter what it is; it just matters whether it is good or not. This begs with the Question–how does one define what is good and what isn’t? The answer isn’t as simple as ‘it’s in the eye of the beholder’ and nor can the answer be found, necessarily, in popular consensus. For example, I don’t like Liszt, but the last thing I’m going to do is say Liszt was anything less than Genius, whereas I think the band train, which I don’t like equally as much as Liszt, are the biggest embarrassment to music possibly ever. I don’t like the pharrel song ‘Happy’ but believe this is one of the best pop songs ever written. As you get older, and consume a wider diversity of Art, you learn to recognize what is quality Art and what isn’t, irrespective of whether it floats your boat or not.

    Similarly, the Harry Potter novels are very good reads for what they are. Saying they aren’t is like saying ‘Ferrari is crap because I like Jaguar’.

    In the world of literature, you could cite something like House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski as relatively recent, high-quality novel. It’s not Joyce, but Joyce was Joyce–a one-off writer who was so talented that he felt comfortable referring to Virginia Woolf as ‘Vulgar’. This is a fairly unrealistic assessment, because Mrs Dalloway is probably a masterpiece.

    Much of canonical literature is fairly bad, really. If Castle Otranto were written today, it would be considered pulp fiction.

  23. I’ve been making this point for years.

    BUt what is missing here is that children are better consumers. There’s a reason we’re made to conume childish things beyond that we’re uncritical simple-minded people who are kidding ourselves. It’s the fact that it’s more profitable.

    YA fiction outsells adult fiction or non-fiction most of the time, barring the occasional Rush LImbaugh book that every republican buys and never reads.

    Readers of adult works don’t then go out to buy, say, a David Foster Wallace action figure to be kept in the package, a teeshirt that says “Jest, Y’all!”, and advance tickets to see Foster Wallace 1, Foster Wallace 2, and Foster Wallace 3: Rise of David

    Simple and supposedly “Archetypal” or “monomythic” or “universal” stories, or as they were known when I was young “fairy tales”, are praised for being dumb and obvious, and thus, in touch with the classic Jungian roots of all narrative.

    The problem is that’s like saying all skyscrapers should be made out of LEGO. LEGO is a fun tool to learn and play as a child, but if we never advance from playing with LEGO, we never have anything like Versailles or the CN Tower.

    A common bit of praise I hear about Walking Dead is that “it looks like a movie.” I can’t fathom this as a reason to watch something. It looks like a movie but sounds like a 42 minute fart.

    I am one of the niche golden agers, I loved the Wire, Deadwood, Rome, the Sopranos, but I was 19-24 or so when I watched them. I recognize now that really of those only The Wire and Deadwood are adult fare.

    Writers are lazy, and death seems to be the only stakes they can work with. Every show in the contemporary slate of golden agers requires that the characters be in constant danger of being killed (Madmen the exception).

    I was shocked when I finally watched “The Good Wife” on CBS. I thought “surely, this is a show for moms. This is on Network TV! This can’t be as good as Mad Men! (Which isn’t that satisfying, but I’m told is the best show on TV)” I was shocked how tense and dramatic, narratively complex, and consistently fascinating the show was.

    The most adult show on TV is a mom show. A mom show! And why? Because our moms grew up before the rise of acting like a little kid and buying toys as an adult. Takes a little more to entertain them beyond just a meth deal gone wrong.

  24. This article presupposes that all young adult fiction is like Harry Potter or Twilight when in fact we have an example such as Philip Pullman’s excellent and very popular “His Dark Materials” Trilogy (Northern Lights/Subtle Knife/Amber Spyglass) which are books that are in fact highly complex, deeply layered works referencing quantum physics, theology, ethics, the nature of the soul and complex, 3 dimensional characters.

    More disappointing is that this article is very similar to this rather better written article:

    A good critique to that article and that is applicable to this article is the following:

  25. Having read the above article I couldn’t help but feel a need to respond. Being what is commonly referred to as a “geek” or “nerd” I rather enjoy to partake in the simple delights of pop-culture. One thing that I find uniquely vexing is the select few that compare pop-culture to high art. Now, I think that a television show like Doctor Who (a personal favourite) has an unlimited capacity for social commentary and deep insight into the human condition, and in the past in its varying mediums (televisual, audio and novel to name but a few) have taken a crack at these, though the most popular form tends towards a family friendly iteration. Even still, the nihlistic undertones of Sylvester McCoy engineering a revolution on a planet where everyone is forced to be happy on pain of death is certainly not of a scale of allegory comparable to Orwell reframing the Russian revolution as a fairytale with talking pigs. The fact that adults enjoying fiction written by other adults that happen to be written in a simple enough way for younger, less jaded audiences to enjoy really shouldn’t be a point of judgement for anyone, let alone an “art critic”. Picasso spent decades learning how to paint then set about “unlearning” those skills to reach a more pure form of expression, like a child would use. People latch onto different mediums to express themselves and in the modern day where people often don’t have the time or patience to mull over Proust or the chiaroscuro in a Rembrandt, taking pleasure in the artwork in a graphic novel like “The Killing Joke” or the philosophical leanings in a Terry Pratchett “Discworld” novel can make even the lowest schlub feel clever enough to have an arts degree. In short – just because you enjoy Harry Potter more than “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” doesn’t mean you’re less intelligent than the inverse, nor does it signify the decline of Western civilisation. To create art, no matter the context, is a supreme gift that is there to be appreciated by those who deserve to appreciate it. In other words I’ll be just fine sitting with my son watching Star Wars and describing George Lucas’ use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth while you sip champagne at a gallery launch.

      1. Sorry about the “Oi, Razer” business. Long-time absorber, first-time respondent. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to Goodwill ‘Three Beers and a Chinese Meal’.

        I just wanted to say don’t get too downhearted that the mouth-breathers are reading kiddy books and acting like they’ve discovered Faulkner’s cubist bug. When adult people read and write about kid books, it’s pretty safe to say that they’ll read other books too. Probably already have done. And, like any other group of art-likers, there’s the inner quadrant who mistake discussion for The Need For Eternal Battle To Defend The Fortress Of The Thing I Really Liked, and opinion for Blasphemy!! KILL THE UNBELIEVER! There’s quite a few on this here comments page.

  26. Elitist intellectual bashing pulp entertainment for ego inflation. Less arts criticism than people criticism. Consider renaming the article ‘why can’t common idiots demand entertainment that justifies my life long academic obsessions?’ Should the critical commenters have thanked you for briefly wading into the fat part of the cultural bell curve to deliver your sermon damning their infantile stupidity?

  27. The references to art criticism in the replies and comments makes me wonder. Can Game of Thrones and its genre really justify the appellation of art? To me this stuff is reminiscent of the “Saturday arvo at the flicks” that I enjoyed as a child. Basically mindless escapism (minus the bonking).

    What worries me is that this form of mass marketed escapism is not being outgrown as its members of its appropriate audience grow older. It used to be the case that growing older involved maturing. Putting away those things of childhood and coming to terms with the real world with all of its complexities and shades of grey (No not the 50. That’s a whole other genre “porn for bored housewives” )

    If I were into conspiracy theories I would suspect that the infantilising of our 20-40 year olds is a plot to keep them from waking up to the way that commercial interests and their representatives in government manipulate them into not thinking, just consuming. Its probably not nearly as Machiavellian than that. Entertainment providers have seen a generation scared of growing up and are pandering to their needs and raking in their dollars.

    Previous generations grew up by leaving home, marrying, having kids in their 20’s and taking responsibility. Now we have 20-30 year olds still at home, collecting merchandising junk associated with the latest “blockbuster” CGI created movie whilst wearing “onesies”

    Of course we cannot do a damn thing about those who still seek childish amusements into their 70s.

    Except pity them.

  28. ‘Our culture sends so many subtle messages suggesting that there is something better about adulthood. There is something admirable, sophisticated, mature, capable et cetera about adulthood. It’s pretty rare to come through childhood without having some experience of shame, if only because children have to grow up in a world where adult things are valued so much more. The adults are in the majority, and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, that every generation of children gets the message early that the thing to be is an adult. A fall out of that is a culture with an unexamined set of assumptions that anything to do with kids and childhood is a training-wheels version of life.
    When I talk to adults about children…the adults often make the mistake of assuming that because children are physically smaller, that everything that goes on in their inner worlds is conventionally smaller. And of course, those who remember being 7 or 9 or 12, remember that our feelings and our hopes and dreams and thoughts are as huge at that age as they are at any stage later in life.’

    — Morris Gleitzman,

  29. While I enjoy much that is not classified as “adult”, I have never bothered to read or watch any of the works specifically mentioned in Razer’s article (except the first Harry Potter book. It was okay but so far it hasn’t motivated me to read any more).

    But even supposing we accept her conclusions about those specific works, that’s hardly an indictment of all non-adult literature or entertainment. The blockbusters of any genre are seldom its deepest or most thoughtful offerings. It would be quite easy to attack adult television, you know. Perhaps with a searing critique of Melrose Place.

    I personally have a great love of animation. And I would stack Adventure Time, Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, The Venture Bros. (especially the later seasons), and on a more recent note, Rick and Morty, against almost anything made for the adult market.

    The first two seasons of Justice League Unlimited were more of a flawed masterpiece. They kind of wimped out at the very end, and with an apologetic cough and a nervous giggle, decided that really, it was only a kid’s show after all. But boy they had me going there for a while!

    Some of us are also old enough to remember Monkey (especially the first season), adapted from the Chinese classic Journey to The West.

    My point is, YA does not begin and end with Harry Potter, Twilight, and Game of Thrones. There are genuinely thoughtful and interesting works out there for those who care to look.

    And you know, someday I may even give Game of Thrones a chance…

    1. In any genre and/or marketing category of film or book or comic or what have you, there will be total crap and there will be amazing pieces of genius, and everything in between. You are arguing that people today are sucking up the crap, which you think is fine, but that you dislike how they then seriously critique said crap and in doing so act like it’s not crap. Okay. (Obviously what is/isn’t crap is subjective, and as a critic you have full right to say you think, say, Game of Thrones is crap, even if others might disagree.) BUT you implied that the crap is crap because it’s either childish (in the puerile/weak/silly sense of the word) or for children, equating these two things, and thus implying that books for children are infantile (‘lolly-water’). All of them. (‘We make…a feminist rationale for the love of young adult fiction. We won’t roll over and admit that our fondness for simple things is not complex but just a trip to Disneyworld.’) Herein lies the issue.

  30. What shits me about this article is that it’s all about a straw man. Are serious art and literature critics interested in deep truths, perceptive real world analysis holding up Twilight, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, 50 Shades etc as brilliant examples of perceptive literary works about deep truths? Um, no. These are works of popular fiction that most people enjoy for the same reason they enjoy fart jokes and can’t look away from a car crash. You can’t link the popularity of these latest instances of popular melodrama to a decline in collective intellect or literary criticism. They’re no stupider than Dumb and Dumber, Charlie’s Angels, or penny dreadful novels. There’s nothing new or insightful here – this is the latest in millennia old complaints about the deterioration of society using selective examples and a myopic historical lens.

    If you want to write a piece about how critics are idolising childhood, then great! But show us what they’re saying, mount a convincing argument it’s widespread with actual evidence and examples. As it stands, this article is just provocative clickbait vitriol.

    1. While there was a reference to how critics have taken Derridean relativism to its absurd end and equate Big Brother & co to Shakespeare, this was not the focus of the piece. And I know it is not a widely practices internet hobby to choose a logical fallacy and lay it on writers not only as evidence of their distaste for informal logic but general idiocy (we should have a logical fallacy named after that practice of using a logical fallacy in argument) this was a reflection on grownup criticism generally. Like, the kind of discourse in which everyday readers engage (now publicly). SO I wanted to make a basic distinction between the writerly work and the readerly work. (The correct thing here would have been to quote Barthes or Adorno as I like to attribute. But have stopped doing it so much because apparently explaining to people who might not know, for examplem what the —very important—idea of Aristotelian aesthetics is is being a “try hard”).
      SO this is why I used the example of the little girl and the famous artist (I used Rothko because he is well-known). Because I wanted to show how our ideas on art have become dangerously democratic.That is, “it’s all good” and it all deserves equal applause just as all opinions deserve equal applause.
      And I have said four or five times in the piece that I really have no quarrel with people liking this stuff. (Sure, I made a few gags about The Walking Dead but I really hate that show.) What I have a problem with is the everyday criticism. Not the criticism of critics so much. Although, of course, critics have become peculiar. But THAT is a very very longform piece of writing. The “it’s all good” attitude has certainly afflicted serious critique.
      But my interest here was not serious critique but the way everyday people take the Every Child Wins a Prize attitude to art and to their own opinions. I mean, not to be one of those people who uses objections to her writing to prove its veracity. But maybe it bears mentioning that some people are so certain here of the importance of their opinions that they actually resent that any other opinion is published and elevated above their own. Of course, my opinion is elevated in the sense that it is often published and read by many more people than the average Joanne. But, why is this a problem and why is it the focus of so much critique here? ‘What would you know?’ I am not going to lie and say ‘no more than you’. Because writing about this stuff is something I have done for a long time. I do it at least eight hours a day so inevitably, I am going to know more. And people are perfectly welcome to dismiss my opinion and frankly, all of this dismissal has ended up in a really great number of page-views. But to say that my opinion on arts is worth the same as anybody else’s might be true in a pure ethical sense but in the sense of labour, it really isn’t. My gig is to have opinions. And I form them over long periods. That doesn’t make me special. It just makes me a particular kind of worker.
      But now, very few people can say, well that opinion is maybe more considered than that opinion or that artwork is maybe more complex than that one. And it is this big shift that I was writing about. So there’s no strawman or aunt sally really.

    1. Helen, I can’t help thinking these men are offended because you are a woman. A woman who is calling them out on this and, you dare to sound intelligent, even referencing philosophy and art! Outrageous. I reckon if a man wrote the article they would give a sheepish shrug and move on. You are right on all counts in my book. I consume my share of mind numbing culture, everyone wants to escape reality occasionally, but I try to alternate it with something that challenges my mind. Thank you for being a woman with a strong intelligent voice. We have enough women who are dumbing themselves down to avoid being threatening to men’s delicate sense of self.

  31. Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. – C. S. Lewis.

  32. I think that it’s a succinct argument and don’t understand the hate, but that’s what happens when people are wrongly offended. Ms. Razer has said nothing here to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you’re reading, watching, writing or playing. Just don’t overplay the educational value.

    I enjoy GoT for the character relationships and the stories are general pretty well written pieces of fiction. I enjoy playing games because they’re an escape from reality and tend to see them more like an advanced sudoku than a paradigm of modernity. I enjoy Buffy for it’s role models and excellent storytelling. I got pissed-off at the cop-out that was the final episodes of Battlestar Gallactica, Dexter and Lost.

    That’s because I enjoy this things. I, Me, Myself. Receptive Theory is a valid way to read a text, especially when it comes to personal opinion and your own enjoyment of a text. I sympathise with the characters because they are written well and get the author/creators point or beliefs across. Of course I would never defend the absolute shite that is Stephanie Meyers, but she struck a chord with desperate people (I’ve known 30yo men to enjoy the books) that want to believe “all that glitters is sexy old men that suck”.

    Not that Ms. Razer needs my help (with her many years of experience in the field), and would never presume to attempt to try. I want to say that, though I disagree with parts of your argument, it was well written and entertaining and people need to stop being so goddamn defensive all the time.

  33. Dude, grow up people can and will read whatever the hell they want. It’s really none of your business what other people enjoy, I will keep reading whatever amuses me, I will keep watching whatever amuses me until I am 70 years old. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

      1. But who did you tie down and force to let you write for them? I’ve read about what you don’t like, but when I read about what you DO like it seems to reduce every other opinion you’ve ever expressed to a state of worthlessness.

  34. I enjoyed this. I am guilty of reading Harry Potter at 30, because I started reading it at 16 and it reminds me of reading it on the train to hogwarts. Wait, that’s not my memory.

    I am so intrigued by how angry everyone is getting. You repeatedly – Repeatedly! – remind people they can enjoy young adult fiction and shows. But it’d be a sad place indeed if that’s how deep our entertainment and art ever went. I see something so complex and truthful when I watch, say, the better scenes in mad men. There’s something satisfying and gratifying and aggravating about them.

    1. oh GOD I love that show. What about Peggy and the presentation about the family in the last episode? And the moon? You can almost feel the twentieth century turn to dust before your eyes. God Matthew W is a GENIUS.

  35. To say that nothing can be gained from young adult fiction.. I dunno, for me I dont think too much between watching say LOTR or some Italian art house. They are either good or bad in their genre. Maybe after watching too much anime that can become fairly glaring.. at the end of the day a good bit of art carries the same fundamentals of theme and concept regardless of whether they are encased by heavy language or basic prose. Saying that there are definitely areas of abstraction and themes in more complex works but that’s another issue, if you were to completely enclose yourself to this kind of level you’d go mad after a while, or at least not be able to hold a conversation at dinner parties. It’s either good work or bad at the end of the day

    1. I’m afraid your comment is far too reasonable, Fangio. I can only cope with mindless abuse at present. Get back to you later.

    2. Agree Fangio. Smallville, for example, is not only obvious teen dross but it’s also has an irritating format … but I tell you, you watch enough of those suckers on a bender in a row and all the great themes of LITERATURE begin to emerge and …. I reckon that they only do so by virtue of the genre. If he weren’t an alien, it would be as boring as The Days of Our Lives … but he is

  36. Helen, are you distinguishing between the TV series Game of Thrones and the books? All fanboyism aside, they are quite different in the level of complexity.

    1. Hey Dan. Honestly, I have only ever written a bit of one of the novels.
      Except in very rare cases, moral complexity is always easier to describe on the page than the screen. (This is why there was such debate about the ‘rape not a rape’ thing last season, right?)
      But I would say that while the books are probably more nuanced than the telly show, that this stuff is still not writerly or difficult. It asks for little thought and a lot of emotion. It doesn’t test us.
      As I said many times in the piece, that’s ok. Fun is ok. What is not ok is when we pretend that this stuff is complex as, I dunno, Thomas Hardy. It is fine to enjoy fluff. I do all the time. And sometimes (as is the case with Sex and the City) I try to delude myself I am doing it for good intellectual reasons. But I shouldn’t.
      There’s a difference between a closed simple easy emotional childlike work and then something that we can interpret and revisit in a new way every time. This is the difference between kids stuff and grownup stuff.

      1. Must disagree here. GoT is one of the few texts where the film far outweighs the book. I watched the first enraptured, and eventually bought the book impatient to find out what happened next while waiting for the next series to come out. I won’t say I was disappointed, but really, it was just another Long Book. The TV series was a completely different experience, and for this alone it should be regarded as unique (I mean – imagine Shakespeare writing novels … !)

  37. well that was a waste of the past five minutes.

    if i choose to enjoy young adult fiction, that’s my choice. And I choose it because it is good. We use entertainment to entertain us. Most of us spend all day thinking about real-word drama, reading news, thinking about politics etc etc etc. If we want to take some time out of reality, why not?

    1. Dave. This is an arts criticism site. It is full of arts criticism. Perhaps you would like to append your comments to every piece of criticism ever written and say ‘well it’s my choice’.
      Of course it is your freaking choice.

    2. There is certainly a place for easing back, putting the brain into neutral and just being entertained. I love doing that.

      What I took away from the article was that this kind of entertainment cannot and should not be compared to more complex forms of high art – the stuff that makes me work, makes me think, maybe pushes me beyond my known universe and changes who I am.

      I always look forward to Helen’s articles. I don’t always agree with them, and (only very) occasionally I find them annoying. But they always make me think. There’s an optimism about them that I embrace.

  38. Well, on the issue of Game of Thrones, I don’t suspect HBO are going to deviate from their winning formula of Killing and F&^%ing anytime soon.

    I’m happy you’ve read Thomas, but please–let’s let the pundits drawn out of reference to a very fine Villanelle die out, please. Though you may rage in your chains like the sea, keep it inside. Yes–I just did that.

    Actually, noir comics are pretty old. You might want to google Fantomas.

    Rousseau was a trite romantic, and namedropping Aristotle is fairly desperate. Ughm ser much smarter then yugh! lol.

    ‘Intellectual’, ‘Rothko’, ‘Aristotle’. Are you so desperate to assume your intellectual Authority, Helen? It is painfully obvious that you harbor some secret need to elevate yourself above the repellant ignorance of the great unwashed.

    Unfortunately, you’ve not achieved anything which might qualify that position. You write about stuff other people have done, and believe this makes you a genius, and you do it in a kind of half-authoritative half-disinterested lexicon that is the buck-standard disposition of any adulteen who spent too many years watching Daria. Arrogance, like spandex pants, is a privilege– not a right. I suspect you won’t be trying on a pair of the former anytime soon.

    Oh Great Gatekeeper Helen of the Arcane Grimoires of High literature, please bestow upon us dirty-footed peasants the waychart (not sure of it that’s thing TBH) which might lead us to the font of pure Art!

    Tell me Helen, what exactly do you consider to be ‘Highbrow’? Shout down at us from that golden cloud what art we should and shouldn’t be consuming.

    1. It doesn’t seem possible that so many people with a keyboard could misconstrue what Helen Razer was saying; but the level of unremitting sarcasm that has spewed forth here smacks of people not reading the article AT ALL. Or at least go some way of vitiating the article. Look I’m no fan of Razer myself, but when she writes something of this clarity it’s like a rare jewel and I don’t think it deserves to be thrown out merely because she uses big words or is typically name-dropping, but doesn’t she have a point? That’s the question I ask of every editorial I read; ‘What’s the point of this?’ And I think this is a desperate letter addressing the juvenilisation of our current ‘culture’. Yes Frank Miller may have cultural relevance, but at what cost?

      1. I think they’re proving her point! Although possibly the saddest aspect is that today’s young adult fiction isn’t even as complex as that of 30 years ago – JK Rowling vs Diana Wynne Jones, or Stephanie Myers vs someone like Ursula le Guin. At least you could graduate to their adult works.

      2. Here I was coming back a day later to see discussion following this clearly articulated piece, and like you, am amazed by the volume of comments missing the point.

        At no point do I see a demand made that we stop enjoying our ‘Disneyland’ entertainment for what it is. It isn’t a rejection of the value of Harry Potter attracting young adults to reading.

        Yes, the juvenilisation of our current ‘culture’ is it. The reluctance to reach for complexity and messiness outside of a melodramatic plot twist. Instead, re-framing the idea of complexity by superimposing its meaning on to stories at at best are interesting and/or highly entertaining escapism.

  39. I applaud you Helen for this article. My only comment would be that most people don’t respond to subtle signifiers and complex conflict resolutions that are designed to draw truthful or profound conclusions. Most people don’t contextualise historically and/or socially, so their favourite shows need mor archetype characters and straight forward good v bad narratives. This is what these shows offer, plus spectacle without wisdom. This seems to me the major reason these conventions live on.

  40. Thank you Helen, until now I wasn’t sure what I was allowed to enjoy or not enjoy, or how I should feel about my enjoyment of them. I’m very glad you are well-read in matters of politics and philosophy, and as such, have the wealth of knowledge and experience necessary to tell people the world over that the pleasure they take in whatever they choose is an intellectual indecency.

    If it’s not asking too much, would you permit me to ask you about what media and art I should or should not consume? I would hate to let you and the rest of society down by not having a full understanding of what is acceptable.

    And society, I must add, is my major concern. Considering the success of our species, and the millennia long struggle for survival, I would hate to endanger us all by the pleasure I take from Rowling’s work.

    Thank you in advance,
    Mark Ankucic

    1. I do understand the Open Letter style is very popular now and you intended this to be funny.
      But consider that I am, in fact, an arts critic of twenty years experience and this is a site for arts criticism. So, really, saying to an arts critic in an arts criticism publication “how dare you?” is a bit like telling a plumber he is arrogant for presuming to know how to change your taps a little better than you do.

      1. Dear Helen,

        I do not understand – I’m imploring that you guide my consumption of art and media because you are an art critic of twenty years. I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘how dare you’ do anything – after all, we live in a free society where we can do what we like, and you like making decisions on what people should or should not enjoy.

        We’re not disagreeing – you are exactly like my plumber. Sometimes he comes over and tells me that my taps aren’t working even though it seems that they did? But what would I know, I don’t really have an insight into plumbing, and in this analogy, I have no idea what is acceptable for me to enjoy.

        Again, I meant no disrespect, and I am humbled by your response and hope that you can further guide my journey to become a more sufficiently intellectual human.

        My warmest regards,
        Mark Ankucic

        1. Mate. Whatever. Read it or don’t read it. Frankly, you’re getting on my tits and I rather think you deserve to believe that Harry Potter is an important book.

          1. Dear Helen,

            I am not presumptuous enough to…’get on your tits’ (I would have hoped you would have used a less lowbrow idiom, but then, you are free to use whatever egregiously crass phrases you like).

            I do not believe Harry Potter is an important book, because you have said it isn’t. Your years of experience far outweighs my personal experience and subjective analysis.

            My sincerest well-wishes,
            Mark Ankucic

          2. Helen. I had considered writing a thoughtfully considered reply to your ill requited cant, but discovered Mark had again, and again, and again. The Harry Potter series is an important bunch of books because millions of young readers started reading them. And then they read something else…

      2. Yes but whether your taps work or nor is by and large an objective judgement, what is goor or bad in art or culture is largely subjective, so it’s not comparable, but thanks anyway for pointing out my failings as a human.

        1. What the actual truck are you talking about? Since when did a suggestion that a particular range of books, films and television shows are being treated too seriously by critics equate to “you are no good as a human”?
          This is not a statement about you personally. It is a broad statement about the culture and how it reflects the society.
          If someone critiques my favourite telly show (Mad Men, for the record) and uses it to say some stuff about other stuff, then I don’t usually get miffy. I might leave a comment as I am a chatty sort but I would never accuse a critic of a personal attack. Especially in a piece that has said, over and again, that this stuff is fine. It’s just not genius.

          1. The thing is I read Lord of the Rings non stop from 15 to 25 and haven’t read it since. I cringe a bit at the language now. As for Dr Who, the old stuff which enthralled me so much looks more like a Carry On film and the new stuff, humourless CGI. I don’t read much fiction but I think that Cormac McCarthy writes a type of fiction that takes me to the same place that Tolkien may once have done.

          1. “But consider that I am, in fact, an arts critic of twenty years experience and this is a site for arts criticism. So, really, saying to an arts critic in an arts criticism publication “how dare you?” is a bit like telling a plumber he is arrogant for presuming to know how to change your taps a little better than you do.”

          2. P.S. reminds me of a famous remark by Karl Popper concerning psychoanalysis:

            “Once, in 1919, 1 reported to [Adler] a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms ofhis theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. “Because of my thousandfold experience,” he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: “And with this newcase, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”

          3. Really? Did you really, after informing pretty much the whole world that they’re to childish and infantile just say what you did? Hypocritical much?

    2. Mark, I don’t know if you actually read the above article (I assume you didn’t) but Helen wasn’t saying you should or should not enjoy anything in particular, all she was trying to relate was that in a world of YA saturated fiction, of which you are obviously a fan, you shouldn’t put Stan Lee up there with George Orwell – you can rationalise it all you want, but don’t fool yourself into believing it.

      1. Stewart,

        I did read the article and quite enjoyed it!

        It would be incredibly dishonest of me to put up Stan Lee with George Orwell, as George Orwell wouldn’t have a chance against a man who had an artistic vision that brings into light the hypotheticals of gods, existence, and human struggles when humanity feels so distant.

        Written, of course, for children.

        I imagine that being able to appreciate both works in their respective context, giving them their due credit where it is deserved, and not having them compete against each other like in some imaginary game where the only person that feels better off is the one self-righteously declaring themselves the winner, would be impossible.

        Thank you Stewart, for you have helped me check myself, before I inevitably wrecked myself.

        Warm regards,
        Mark Ankucic

        1. Agreed. The review, fair enough in itself does not acknowledge the genre play in some of the pieces she drew on (although I admit, I am not acquainted with some of the texts she refers to, disconnected from popular culture as I am, since I divorced my pop-culture-mentor girlfriend). I would be interested to get her reading of Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie(s), or the Once and Future King).
          The point I am getting here is that currently there seems to be too much young adult fiction flooding the market. I agree. I suspect Guy Rundle would be able to interpret this as part of the dynamic of Capitalist Logic of Late Culturalism, or something along those lines – a financially enhanced supply creating demand creating supply loop …

          I confess to being a 60 something sci-fi fantasy addict since pre-adolescence, and that I viewed Game of Thrones as something Shakespeare would have put together if he had decided to string all his historical plays and tragedies into an unresolved series. Baddies against baddies? Looking at our history it would seem to be the Human Condition, which Shakespeare was very good at.
          The only Shakespearean plays I think are suitable for children are Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Tempest (happy endings here at last!), and perhaps a few of the comedies if you think your kiddies are up to the gender games. Maybe Romeo and Juliet for the early adolescent. But I have seen torture scenes in Shakespeare presented on Television that would rival anything on GoT.

          Having said all that, Harry Potter sucks. I agree with Helen that everyone over 16 should be banned from reading it (or at least taking it anywhere near seriously).

  41. The current fashion for audiences to piss and moan about their favourite TV shows not finishing in the way that they want it to: is that tied to this? Feels like they’re related.

    1. I think this might be a slightly different thing? Maybe not so related to the infantilism of our art appreciation? I mean, sure, being a ‘fan’ is more acceptable now and is clearly in itself a childlike mania. But I do think the excitement about telly shows might have a bit more to do with the loss of the wide civic experience.
      Think about when Seinfled ended and few of us had internet and most of us had jobs. And we would speak to people the next day about the finale.
      Now, we are less inclined to be employed in a regular place and we will never see the same show at the same time and so I think the clusters of fandom around all kinds of shows might be an attempt to revive this collective experience.


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