Christopher Beha’s essay “Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate,” was published online yesterday at the New Yorker.
It is a perfectly fine essay about Beha’s “completist project” of reading the “six-volume, sixty-eight-hundred-page” Library of America edition of the novels of Henry James—I will forgive it even its insistence that James did more than Flaubert to “refine the popular form of the novel into a work of high art,” which if uttered in my own household would be tantamount to a declaration of war—but its trouble is that it is not, in fact, an essay about Henry James, it is an essay about adulthood, and the ways in which adulthood is defined through what prospective adults do, or do not, read; as such, it rapidly departs terra firma for waters Beha is ill-equipped to navigate. The piece is also in no small part a response to last week’s endearingly incoherent A.O. Scott New York Times essay entitled, somewhat lugubriously, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” in which Scott ultimately seems to be lamenting (as far as this humble reader is able to parse) that “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. …grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things” (including, obviously and most egregiously, young adult fiction).
“It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority,” Scott writes, “we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” Both pieces cite the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, author of the 1960 book Love and Death in the American Novel, which asserts—according to both Beha and Scott; I haven’t read it, and don’t care to—that “the great works of American fiction are at home in the children’s section of the library.” Scott quotes Fiedler further, in what he identifies as a “sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality”: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’” More about that in a moment.
In his own essay, Beha distinguishes between “books that have the Y.A. label slapped on them purely because of their subject matter” (teenagers, presumably, although he does not elaborate) and a label that is “sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction” between Actual Literature and books that involve “simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life.” This thesis, wholly unsupported by any examples of either category, conjures up the somewhat hilarious image of an editorial meeting—doors closed, shades drawn, editors holding aloft the next season’s titles and furtively hissing “SIMPLE” or “NOT SIMPLE”—but it leads Beha to one of the most telling conclusions of his piece: in the case of Actual Literature that is sold as young adult, he writes, “the label is simply a marketing tool, which isn’t something that a critic ought to be paying attention to.”
With all due respect, I beg to differ. The only actual young adult novels Beha cites are the exhaustingly ubiquitous The Fault in Our Stars and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, which suggests both a wholesale unfamiliarity with young adult literature in general and a certain lack of effort undergirding any arguments lambasting it in particular—but my point here is not to defend young adult literature specifically, which has a great many erudite, dedicated, and brilliant advocates, but instead to note that the distinction Beha is making—and perhaps would have realized he was making, had he paid a little more attention to “marketing tools”—is not between young adult and adult literature, but between commercial and—for lack of a better word, though I am well aware of its limitations—literary fiction in general. A cursory survey of the current New York Times hardcover bestseller list for adult fiction, for example, reveals that it is topped by a novel about an escaped sniper with nearly superhuman powers who must be stopped by a retired military cop accompanied by a (presumably young and buxom, though to be fair, I’ve never heard of the book) Zoloft-popping lady rookie analyst. Serbian thugs are thwarted, a dead girlfriend from the past haunts our protagonist, crosses are doubled. Very mature, I’m sure. If there are any sweeping generalizations to be made about what Beha identifies as “our larger cultural moment” (and oh! What a problematic and freighted “our” that our is; who is to be included in this “we”? ), it might be worth looking past the inexplicable current pop-critical focus on the saccharine perils of young adult fiction and pulling the lens a little wider yet.
Both writers are preoccupied with the decline in influence of the Straight White Male—the news of which, I must admit, came as something of a surprise, but then I am female, and thus limited in my perspective. “If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art,” Beha notes, which suggests that he is not familiar with any literature by white men published recently at all. He does not like Donna Tartt (whose presence in this essay is somewhat inexplicable, but okay), writing off The Goldfinch as “boring,” but if any major book of the last decade deserves that contemptuously lazy and offhand dismissal, I would argue it is instead Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a tired retread of Madame Bovary so obsessed with the Decline in Influence of the Straight White Male that it neglects to at least borrow any of its source material’s brutal wit, malicious joy, and devastating insight into the horrific banalities of white middle-class life. At any rate, while I suspect that rumors of the decline in influence of the straight white male have been greatly exaggerated, I personally cannot imagine any subject less interesting for a work of art.
Ultimately, though, it’s the idea of adulthood I’m interested in here, and in what adulthood seems to mean to these critics who have secured pulpits in two major media outlets bidding it a wistful farewell. Both Scott and Beha quote Fiedler uncritically, which is, more telling than any other point made by either of them—and, I think, far more awful: the unquestioned assumption that adulthood consists of sex, marriage, and responsibility (“One Man One Woman”: there are already bumper stickers) is—well, you don’t need me to tell you what it is.
The idea that pleasure should be relegated to adolescence seems a dreary recipe for adulthood indeed, but whose pleasure, exactly, are we discussing here? What of people who have been persecuted solely on the basis of their pleasures, for daring to be joyful in bodies regulated and punished for those pleasures by the apparatus of the state (let us not forget that Michael Brown was “no angel,” let us not forget Islan Nettles, beaten to death for the crime of living in her own body, let us not forget—but the litany of names of people who have been murdered, imprisoned, beaten, made homeless, is so long my heart aches even trying to pick out representative examples)? What of those of us for whom pleasure is not an act of regression but an act of survival, a form of resistance, an insistence that our lives, our bodies, our loves be recognized even as we are asked every day to recognize the lives and loves and bodies that are canonized exhaustively in the “adult” literature Beha and Scott champion? Are we denied, then, the dignity of “adulthood”? If "adulthood" is defined as hard (unpleasant) work, marriage, the assumption of heteronormative middle-class values—what does that leave those of us who have constructed lives of our own so far outside those systems of value and exchange that they seem to us almost a foreign country for which we have been denied—and may not even wish to own—a passport? Is it not too much to ask that we be allowed our own literature, our own canon, our own heroes and (gasp!) heroines defining lives for themselves outside the bounds of patriarchal norms, or even entirely indifferent to them?
“Putting down ‘Harry Potter’ for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex,” Beha concludes. Let us leave aside for a moment the staggering thesis that Grownups' Books, sex, and autonomy are reserved solely for those who have reached the drinking age (voting, maybe? The exact line of demarcation between Child and Adult is never made clear); for what it’s worth, I first read—and enjoyed—Henry James when I was seventeen. To paraphrase Beha, it seems not to me embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to insist that the pleasures of difficult fiction cannot possibly be enjoyed by a child. But more importantly, I find it utterly dangerous to blithely assume that an exclusively heteronormative and classist construction of adulthood is the bar by which all our literatures and all our lives ought to be measured—those, sirs, are fighting words, and I’ll see you at the mat. You may rest assured I am not in decline.