Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Classics versus YA" is a false debate

Over the past two days, numerous Twitter accounts, authors, academics, and educators have joined a fairly wide-reaching debate as to the merits of the so-called literary canon (which I will simplify as "classics"). To call this a "debate" is already a bit of a stretch - having read many different perspectives from all sorts of sides, it often feels as though there are two completely different conversations happening, with extraordinary animosity from different directions (even when some of the anger is fairly understandable). Troubling, however, is the prevalence of an especially vicious dismissiveness of young adult (YA) authors, particularly YA authors of color. Twitter being Twitter, it's increasingly difficult to track all of the different conversations happening in parallel, but one thing is sufficiently clear: There are pervasive, frankly snobbish views entrenched in the literary world, and there are pervasive problems with how these translate into pedagogy and there are pervasive problems with how people then turn these into opportunities to yell. I won't get into the individual arguments because a) I don't think I'm necessarily the best person to talk about it (being pretty far removed...), and b) I've mostly found myself thinking about that core misunderstanding and false debate over classics versus YA.

I started blogging in December of 2008, at the shy age of 17. I had been writing reviews for a few years by that point, and blogging was meant to be an opportunity to stretch my (likely falsely perceived) intellectual wings a little. I was just settling into a new reading era for myself, after having blitzed through a classics period at ages 13-15, followed by a YA renaissance at 15-16. Though I didn't know it at the time, at 17 I would begin to shift my focus to international literature on a far greater scale, and this would eventually lead me to the women in translation project. Classics were my first foray into reading like a "grown-up", and there was a time when I thought this meant that I needed to cut back my reading of YA. Once I started blogging, I also discovered that a lot of bloggers I interpreted as more "mature" (that is - not YA- or kidlit-specific) held deeply dismissive views of young adult literature as a concept, and that often spilled over into a dismissal of young adult readers. Suffice to say, I felt out of place from all directions, as a young reader who wanted to also have space to grow into the world of "adult" literature, but also still loved being able to read and engage with stories that seemed to be much more at "eye-level" for me. 

Why am I writing this? Because as this latest round of "classics versus YA" sprung up again, I felt as though I was rewatching something I've seen dozens of times over the past few years. There's not much new in the conversation (except, perhaps, the miscommunication, rage, and hurt that come with a social media platform like Twitter), which really all loops back to the fact that it's a problematic argument in the first place. Just as I didn't need to have to choose between my own reading, neither do young readers today.

To begin with: The "debate" was sparked by a few different threads that criticized different aspects of teaching classics in schools. This is a wholly legitimate concern. One YA author decided to thread classics she felt were bad or harmful in a K-12 school environment (often using somewhat dramatized modern tongue-in-cheek stylings), leading to a swift backlash. Except... it's legitimate to come and say "I don't think we should be forcing kids to read books that are boring or racist or sexist". And that does cover a lot of the classics taught in schools, at least in the US. Classics are often cultural touchstones, but their influence is also pretty context-dependent; books gain classics status by our elevation of them. So why elevate certain books simply because that's what's always been done?

Then there's the question of educational value. Is there educational value in controversial classics? In this, I find myself agreeing with all sides: Yes, but not on a universal scale, and not necessarily in every classroom. Literature serves different purposes at different ages and for different kids. There is certainly the question of teaching critical thinking, textual analysis, and literary interpretation, but those don't actually require "difficult" or controversial books. When most kids aren't reading in the first place, there is value in promoting works that are written with modern children in mind, and these works still leave space for exploring larger questions. Not to mention that modern YA is also infinitely more relevant to important cultural shifts happening now, whether in terms of conversations about race, whether in representing a wider range of sexual and gender identities, or whether just in terms of navigating a world that is constantly changing. To dismiss these works wholesale is to miss out on the extraordinary work being done within the field.

But I also find myself agreeing that there is still value in some of the traditional "classic"/canon-y titles, just not necessarily for the reasons that some have argued. I personally love many different older titles, some of which are firmly in the canon and others which are not necessarily, some of which are clearly problematic products of their times and others which transition reasonably well to a modern setting. I think young readers could learn a lot from Sei Shōnagon, for example, as an opportunity to contrast early diary writing with modern texting lingo, or Frederick Douglass, another "classic" author with immense value in the classroom that reaches beyond a single subject. Middlemarch, in my mind, is also a book that absolutely deserves a place in a classroom. And I even contemplate some of the more controversial, established titles: John Steinbeck absolutely has his issues and as an adult I'm able to parse through a lot more than I was as a child, but I still learned a lot from Of Mice and Men that's stayed with me for years. It's just that I don't think that these titles necessarily deserve space in place of titles that younger readers can relate with. We need to be able to separate two different goals of encouraging reading/a love of books versus challenging readers. Personally, I struggle with the idea that children - even teenagers - must be challenged with "difficult" books. I think that some will want it and seek that out, but it's much more important that kids learn critical thinking in a way that will make sense to them. 

For me, the problem with the whole debate hinges in part on this misunderstanding. On the one hand, you have educators focusing on getting kids to love reading. On the other hand, you have authors focusing on the challenging aspects of literature. But these aren't actually contradictory, nor must they be mutually exclusive. To take an example of a book that came out when I was a kid and is already reaching classics status, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a modern(ish) YA classic and one of the more innovative, powerful, and memorable books I've ever read. It's a book that forces the reader to contemplate numerous coexisting realities and an unreliable narrator, challenges expectations, and addresses pretty heavy topics, all through a brilliant script format that turns the story into a meta-commentary on narratives. And there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other kidlit/YA books that achieve those two goals as well, many of which actually are recent and geared toward the kids of today. Why not elevate these books?

The canon is not actually real or objective. It's eternally in flux, eternally changing, and endlessly relevant and irrelevant simultaneously. There is nothing set in stone that says one book deserves to belong to the canon while another is forgotten to history, there's just our choice to elevate one book over another. And it's okay to recognize that these things change. Writing changes and our culture changes and our perception of the canon changes with it. Clinging to the books of your past isn't actually about ensuring that modern kids have access to the classics - they do and they will. Nobody told me to read Tolstoy or Zola or the Brontës at 14, I chose to because I was already a passionate, devoted reader and I wanted to explore a new-to-me world. I was able to read through these outdated texts and try to see them in their own, shifted light. I'd like to believe that I learned from those beloved-by-me classics, just like I did from those classics I loathed (hello, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby!). I read these all for "pleasure", not in any classroom setting. There was a time when I was certain that I had lost something important for it, that I had fundamentally misunderstood the texts and that must be why I hated so many of them. But today I realize that... no. I simply didn't like them, and that's okay. And I simply loved others, and that's okay too. And there are some books that today I realize had additional layers and meta-contexts that I didn't understand as a child (Gone With the Wind is perhaps the starkest example...), and I'm okay with that as well.

I know that this argument will come back in a few years, or a few months. It inevitably always does. Its return is always heralded by the same dividing lines, where there are those speaking for modern texts (usually also reflecting the growing diversity of YA literature, which is very much not disconnected from the backlash the field faces, nor the dismissive attitudes and violent rage that these authors inspire.......) and there are those defending "the classics". I myself used to defend older texts as uniquely elevated, but no more; I just don't see any intrinsic value in classics as classics, nor in defending the canon as a fixed construct. Readers - and young readers in particular - deserve better than to be eternally fed this false dichotomy of enjoyable versus valuable, of "lower" works versus elevated classics. It simply isn't true and it does us all a disservice.


  1. Yes, yes, yes, to all of this. And I would add that it would help so much if teachers more consistently A, explained why they had chosen a given text to read in class and what they were hoping the students would get out of it, and B, talked about some of the contexts around the book and the conversations (some of them bigoted) the book was contributing to in its time, and what assumptions it wasn't even examining. Because like, a book can be powerful and great and worth reading in some ways but also have some very blinkered views in other ways, and it's okay to discuss the second thing as well as the first.

    1. Oh, ABSOLUTELY. I think there needs to be a lot more discussion with students/kids (at least from, like, age 13+) about the meta-value of certain texts and really just be more forthcoming with what you're teaching. And similarly, I often think about when students complain about being forced to interpret [x] in a text and how it's "silly" for them to need to assume that detail from the writing, except... the problem isn't the extrapolation or interpretation, the problem is the way it's taught as something rigid without adequate explanation of why the teacher/academics reached those conclusions. Kids are able to have these conversations, I don't understand why they aren't an explicit part of the curriculum.


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