If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing [poor] examples of adult literary fiction [in which there is] nothing worth thinking about ... no language that delves into what it means to be human. 'The aim of the poet,' Horace taught, 'is to instruct or delight, or to combine together both pleasure and applicability to life.'
from Brian Patzer's "I Was Wrong About 'Hunger Games'" (Salon, 19 July 2012)


Having read neither Hunger Games nor Art of Fielding, I can't attest to Patzer's accuracy in gauging their literary merit (or lack thereof), but he does aptly point to the troubling discord between the literature we need and the literature we receive, and how the praise-crazy literati are in part to blame. Mark, a fellow Pomona alum I met recently, remarked to me that the distinction he found more useful as a schoolteacher was that of realist fiction and genre fiction, contrasting Patzer's attempt to draw the line between adult fiction and young adult fiction. "Will my students ever be put in a deathmatch arena? Will they ever have an awkward sexual experience? I always hope the books I recommend make them ask questions of themselves that connect with characters and theme in their books."

Mark makes a fair point, but I suppose I'm no longer convinced that realist fiction (or at least most of the realist fiction currently being produced) is any better at establishing that sort of connection with young adults anymore. I'm a firm believer in the power of allegory, allegory put into a pragmatic context by the adults encouraging the reads; but more than that, I am always searching for a happy medium, wherein compelling genre drama that appeals to youths is only a guise for introspection-inducing, profoundly human narrative. There's Tolkien and Ender's Game, surely, but more recently, I've found that authors like Philip Pullman and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler's psuedonym) strike an appealing balance. I can't be sure as to what the generation below me finds compelling, however. "A few kids read Tolkien," Mark mentioned, "but they're the strong readers. Had one read Moby Dick, another read The Odyssey, and a third into Owen Meany."

Mark also alerted me to the fact that up through eighth grade, public schools are adopting a wholly democratic system called "Readers' Workshop," in which the students have full prerogative as to the books they read. His students, 11- and 12-year-olds, apparently "love the fat fantasy books, which includes what we might at one time called speculative fiction, [as well as] Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and its ilk in graphic novels. Some of the girls tackle chick lit lite. Zombies are still big, vampires less so." I appreciate the freedom they receive (I remember enjoying only Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird of the novels I was forced to read pre-high school), but I wonder what sort of novels they'll grow into based on the reading habits they develop early on. And most pertinently, I wonder what negative effect the aforementioned culture of oft-unwarranted idolatry will have on the novels these students will eventually deem worthy of their time.

"Obviously [The Art of Fielding] is a case of a publisher realizing it could buy a book that was decently enough written to appeal to a broad segment of those who still read books in this country," says Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading, "and then basically flogging it to death and providing the financial incentives necessary to get it great placement at the nation’s leading bookstores and in the leading periodicals. Critics have a real responsibility to stick up for authentic literature and to articulate what that is."

And that's where readers like us must too join in the conversation.
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