Monday, December 01, 2008

Talk Amongst Yourselves - Why Do YOU Read?

I was dumbstruck by these two paragraphs from Caitlin Flanagan's article in The Atlantic Online entitled What Girls Want. I should explain that these paragraphs are a preface to an extremely positive review of the book Twilight. Please note that the highlighted sections are my emphasis.

I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me. That’s a disappointing fact of my reading life, because never have I had such an intense relationship with books as when I was a young girl. I raged inside them and lived a double emotional life (half real girl, half inhabitant of a distant world). To Sir, With Love and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Forever and Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones and Mrs. Mike, Gone With the Wind and Rich Man, Poor Man, and even Valley of the Dolls (an astonishing number of whose 8 million readers turned out to be teenagers) and Peyton Place, as well as any movie-star biography I could get my hands on (Judy Garland, Greta Garbo—in those days, you had to have been long dead or seriously faded to be worthy of such a biography) and a slew of far less famous books written exclusively for the teen-girl market and published in paperback, never to be heard of again—all of these books consumed me in a way that no other works of art or mass culture ever have. I chose books neither because of, nor in spite of, their artistic merit, only for their ability to pull me through the looking glass.

. . .

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

WOW. I'm not sure how to respond.

These are not the reasons I immersed myself in books as a young adult. I read because I had an insatiable desire to learn, about anything and everything. I never saw books as a form of escapism, though I'm sure there are those who do. How about you? Why did you read as a young adult, and why do you read now? And if you have any thoughts about the excerpt above, please share!


  1. She's goofy. she switches from talking about herself to "an adolescent girl" who is still obviously just herself. She should have stuck with the first person.

    I read because it's fun.

  2. The FIRST SENTENCE IN she was on my nerves: Children's books about divorce, which are unanimously dedicated to bucking up those unfortunate little nippers whose families have gone belly-up "Unanimously," huh? Really?

    I expect opening paragraph hyperbole in freshman comp papers, not from someone who gets published in the Atlantic. Yet she goes on in that same vein. Why is it that you can tell from twenty paces who has and who has not read YA lit lately? Why is it that so many writers -- adults now -- compare what was out there when they were in adolescence to what is now, and dismiss it all as unsavory? This is shades of Madonna's "there's nothing for my children to read, I had to write my own," speech. Bah.

    More than that, I deeply distrust how she adds "sulks and silences" and divides a love of reading by gender -- as if boys never have emotional lives or inner selves or their own "big questions" to work out. Big whoop, she doesn't like YA. And the minute she says Twilight is fantastic, I know we shall never have a meeting of minds. She thinks about women and men in a thoroughly different way than I do, in a way I find thoroughly repellent.

    Oh, yeah. You asked a question, didn't you, Tricia. Sorry. I read because I like finding out how other people live, how other people interrelate and interact, and care for each other -- and I just love a good story.

  3. Her writing was a little hard to follow. I read as an adolescent because I enjoyed it. I don't really know why. I read and still read non-fiction because I love to learn. I read less fiction than non-fiction but I do love a good story. I guess it shows me how others live or how it's like to be someone different.

  4. This article was appalling. Why would you have someone write a piece about teenage girls and literature who asserts that she hates YA novels? What could she possibly know about current YA lit? Her utter lack of knowledge about the genre is obvious from that silly opening paragraph about the depiction of teens of divorce.

    This is a lazy article by an author who knows nothing about what she has written.

    It is, to be frank, a waste of space. (And for the record I did not read the Twilight books - not my cup of tea....)

  5. I don't think that the article even makes sense.

    I read as a teen for the same reasons I read now, I think. To immerse myself in other worlds, and see things from other people's perspectives. I read for diversion and to learn things, and because I would be lost without it.

  6. At the other end of the spectrum, fully realizing the quality of YA today, we have ShelfTalker, asking "What books should no self-respecting bookstore be without? You are allowed to name no more than five books for each age group. Putting this limit on your suggestions will (I hope) force each of you to really think about which books are true must-haves for any one batch."
    Build a Bookstore: Young Adult Novels and Nonfiction

    The suggestions so far are fantastic. And Twilight isn't mentioned!

  7. As a young adult I read to help figure out the world and my place in it. YA literature was not really available to me back in those days (being the ancient person I am) so I went looking for answers in the adult content out there that seemed best to speak to me. Vonnegut and Phillip Roth and Joseph Heller -- basically anyone who could refute the assertions of my pompous teachers' insistence that the world was populated with adults who were always right and kids were always wrong.

    As an Older Adult (an OA) still go in for stories that I think would best engage and entertain my 14 year old self. Humor and absurdity are still high on the list, and current responsibilities have me not reading much "adult" literature, but I've never thought of myself as having some lesser psychological need because I am a boy. What the heck?

  8. As a young adult (an age I think of as spanning from 12 - 18 or so) I did indeed read to escape. Not to work out my issues, or whatever, just because reading was fun, and life was mundane. (Note: My favorite author? Piers Anthony.) I don't know if there was YA then like there is now - it was only 15 years ago - but what passed for YA then were mostly teen romance and horror novels. I wasn't as into the teen romance (though I did steal my mom's Harlequin Historicals) but I thoroughly loved Christopher Pike's stuff.

    I read now for the same reasons I did then: it's fun, and it's different. I like to read books about people who are like me but in extreme situations (why I like fantasy and sci fi more than anything else).

    I did enjoy Twilight - not because it is a great work of literature, but because when I was reading it, I was in need of some good sappy chaste love scenes. And hey - is that not what Twilight is all about? (I haven't read the others.)

  9. I pretty much agree with the above comments: the article author is clearly one of those people who elevates her own experiences and preferences to universal truths. I find her gender-based comments flat out unacceptable. (Girls daydream in class instead of paying attention, yada yada.)

    As for YA fiction, I don't really have an opinion on that: I've been reading at an adult level since I was 6 and I never bothered with age categories. Probably read a whole lot of unsuitable stuff, but it doesn't seem to have harmed me. (Bwahahaha.)

    I read because it's FUN. Why else would anyone read? Yeah, sometimes it's escape. Sometimes it's just to relax. Sometimes it's to go Someplace Else, which I think is different than escape: reading imaginative fiction can broaden your mind in the same way as traveling, even if not as much. I really liked one thing she said:

    "I chose books... only for their ability to pull me through the looking glass."

    Good fiction stimulates imagination, which is the root of empathy. Walking in someone else's shoes for a couple hundred pages.

  10. Caitlin Flanagan has made a career for herself by writing anti-feminist "cultural criticism" from the position of extreme privilege and pretending that she's representative. I can't bear to read her any more. She loves to be provocative, and this is just one more instance of that. Flanagan is a hack and it disappoints me deeply that first the New Yorker and now the Atlantic give her a platform...but there's often just enough of a grain of truth or insight in her writing that one reads on.

    For example, I certainly did read, as an adolescent, for some of the reasons she outlines: especially, "to work out the big questions of [my] life." I also read for escape, for pleasure, for information (much of it totally false, as when I read Gone with the Wind for its insights into love relationships!). Twilight completely sucked me in, and it would have done so even more, I think, when I was an adolescent--at the same time, I have (though I might not have had at the time) a pretty healthy critical distance on it as well. But Flanagan clearly doesn't even read YA fiction, or she'd know that the kinds of things she's looking for are available in it now, even if they weren't when she was YA. I'm about her age, and I didn't read YA when I was a teenager either--I thought I was "above it." In this as in so much else, I was mistaken.

  11. I liked the "looking glass" remark, too. I do pay attention to artistic merit much more now than when I was a teen, but the idea of being transported, of seeing the world from another's perspective, still rings true. The rest of the article, though? Ugh. I guess I was not one of those "girls," and I still am not.

  12. Honestly, I think that I read as a kid for the same reasons I read now -- entertainment, insight, escape, information, experience. I can get these in varying proportions from all kinds of reading. What I remember of pre-college reading is Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys tons of Harlequin romances, bodice-rippers, John Jakes historical fiction (do I date myself?), Gone with the Wind, My Side of the Mountain, Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler, travelogues.

    I read YA for fun and for work (being a school librarian). So much of YA resonates with me still -- my inner teen? I read Twilight and loved it, but don't really care about reading the sequels. There's nobody in there I really want to be, or befriend.

    Writing about one's own personal reading experiences is one thing. Generalizing that to an entire population is both incredibly ego-centric and sloppy. Seems there's a lot of that going around these days . . .

  13. OK, I read the whole article now, and as usual she's just right enough to make her wrongness the more infuriating. Because I do think her analysis of Twilight's appeal is pretty close--in fact it's very similar to what I said in my column ( There's definitely a kind of nostalgic pleasure in these novels. The problem is, Flanagan's other examples of YA lit are Gossip Girls and (in another article) The Rainbow Party--she's not really letting herself in on the good stuff, which would (of course!) complicate her thesis no end.

    Ah well. I didn't hate it quite as much as I expected once I got past the annoyingly provocative stuff.

  14. " I chose books neither because of, nor in spite of, their artistic merit, only for their ability to pull me through the looking glass."

    I totally get this sentence. That's exactly why I chose books as a kid. To escape real life. So I'm with her on this one, though she seems to imply all kids choose books based on the same criteria she did, which is, of course, a load of crap. Kids read for tons of different reasons.

    I hate it when writers speak with a tone of absolute authority for groups of people who don't necessarily care to be represented by that writer!

    I'd like to see a boxing match between her and Guys Read, please.

  15. While I agree that books are a way to escape, they are also a way to learn and grow. I read then - and now - because I can learn and grow. I love to "hear" and admire those who use words in ways I could never imagine on my own.

    Even reading her article is growing ... it makes us think. For all her talk about the books she loved as a teen, it seems to me that her aversion is that she can't relive those days. Jen had a great article about how rereading favorites takes you back to those same great feelings. Maybe she should go back to those books and work her way up.