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We Will Not Be Reader-Shamed

First it was 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' Now critics are excoriating readers for enjoying YA. Who appointed them arbiters of our proverbial nightstands?

When I was in college, I bought a copy of Glamour at the campus convenience store, when the clerk made a disparaging comment about my purchase, scolding me for buying into the beauty myth, for reading something so lowbrow, something not nearly as intellectually rigorous as Ms. I’d been reader-shamed.

I haven’t felt that way in a long time, until last Thursday, when I read Ruth Graham’s Slate screed “Against YA,” in which she excoriated adults like me who read YA novels—we’re not the target audience! We shouldn’t be reading them, she tells us, and if we do, we should be embarrassed about our reading habits. Well, I’m not embarrassed for what I read. I am embarrassed for Graham, who believes that escapism is only okay if we’re a “serious reader” and that, if her previous literary snob language was too coded: “We are better than this.”

While many have responded by defending the merits of YA, there’s a more insidious problem here: Graham’s essay is part of a larger trend in which critics presume the role of literary arbiters to the extent where they shame readers for enjoying books they themselves would never consider reading. There’s only one way, and it’s the right way. This comes on the heels of William Giraldi’s anti–Fifty Shades of Grey takedown in The New Republic, whose tone shares much in common with Graham’s piece, in which he laments that we aren’t reading Marquis de Sade and Nicholson Baker instead: “At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.” If that’s the state of cultural criticism, please let me linger in the lowest brow possible lest I be confused with these arbiters of the world’s cultural consumption. This kind of intellectual shaming is insulting, obnoxious, and unnecessary. Sure, I could tell you about the YA work I’ve read that addressed serious topics, like Jessica Blank’s Almost Home, about homeless teenagers, or Mindy Raf’s The Symptoms of My Insanity, about mental health. But that’s lowering myself to Graham’s level, and I don’t want to do that.

The truth is, there will always be something “better for us” (in the eyes of these omniscient cultural arbiters) that we could be consuming—instead of Orange Is the New Black, we could watch a prison documentary; instead of a memoir, we could read a history book, instead of fiction, non-fiction. For that matter, instead of reading for pleasure, we could be off doing something to change the world.

But what’s wrong with reading for fun? Especially at a time when publishers are laying off staffers and bookstores are closing, why condemn others for what they choose to read? When you deem certain types of culture acceptable and unacceptable, people deeply internalize these ideas and do, in fact, feel ashamed about what they read or listen to or watch, whether it’s chick lit or YA or whatever the genre du jour to malign is.

As Andrea Kornylo writes about the Twilight backlash, “It got to the point though that you wouldn’t even try to defend your actions, and closeted your love for the series so as not to feel the shame.”

I read YA. And mystery. Middle-grade and romance and memoir and biography and pop-culture books. I’ll read almost anything if it strikes my fancy, and put it down if it doesn’t. But it’s one thing for my boyfriend to roll his eyes at me when I pick up cozy mysteries with titles like Last Wool and Testament while he’s reading The Goldfinch, and another for Graham to proudly put forth the idea that everyone should read for the same reasons, and if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.

Graham says that when she was in the YA target demographic, she enjoyed it, but today she is a “different reader.” Good for her. But reading is such an intensely personal experience that I fail to see why we should all try to do it in the same way. We don’t get only one chance to pick a genre and stick with it. I’m on vacation and have with me an assortment of print and eBooks ranging from Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams to Kate Northrup’s financial self-help book Money: A Love Story to mystery To Catch a Leaf (FYI: the latter is the one I plan to curl up with in my friend’s hammock). Am I somehow less smart the moment I pick up the lighter fare?

Of course not all YA is light and fluffy, but I want to take a moment to defend books that are, in fact, light and fluffy, especially when you consider that 23 percent of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2013, according to a Pew study. I love novels that challenge me—one of my all-time favorites is Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which starts off with its narrator’s broken English—but most of the time, when I’m reading after a long day, I want something easy to digest, where I don’t have to be Graham’s idealized been there, done that reader who analyzes YA (or whatever) from on high. I want to immerse myself in the characters I’m reading about, whatever their ages or backgrounds. Can we honestly encourage kids to read if we’re haranguing adults about what they’re reading?

In fact, there’s no wrong way to enjoy a book. There’s no single takeaway everyone should get from reading anything, and if there were, pop culture would be far more boring. It’s a slippery slope once we start pretending that our opinions about what kinds of culture are “better” than others, are more worthy than the next person’s. I don’t care if you’re Ruth Graham or President Obama—I’ll decide what I want to read and why. We play into this when we rush to defend the genre against Graham’s snobbery. When we embrace of the term “guilty pleasure,” we admit—even in a sarcastic way—that those who look down on our reading habits, on some level, are right. As Jennifer Salzai wrote in The New Yorker, “If you want to listen to Rihanna while reading the latest from Dean Koontz, just go ahead and do it. Don’t suggest you know better.”

Graham derides not just individual readers but also YA fans who have bound together, as if they should know better than to so brazenly celebrate what they love to read. She ignores the likely notion that maybe adults deliberately form groups to read YA (or the Kidlit reading group formed by The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin) precisely because there are those like Graham judging them for not being the rigorous, exacting readers they could be. There’s no shortage of shaming going on in our culture right now, from fat shaming to slut shaming to mom shaming to selfie shaming. Let’s not add reader-shaming to the list. 

Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) writes widely about sex, dating, books, and pop culture. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms, Cheeky Spanking Stories, Women in Lust, Fast Girls, Best Sex Writing 2013, and others, and teaches erotic writing workshops. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and on her blog, Lusty Lady (lustylady.blogspot.com).