My main problem with these books is their inherent juvenilia—one is a comic book, the other is designed for children.
Left to my own grown-up devices, I will always choose a novel that has a more adult sensibility. What is an adult sensibility, you ask? Like pornography, you’ll know it when you see it. So much of our culture has already been ceded to the grubby hands and blunted tastes of teenagers, I refuse to surrender my reading choices to them as well. Those sext-addicted little monsters already seized the movies from us—The Avengers is a stupid movie, and shame on if you are old enough to menstruate and think otherwise—must we also concede literature?
So begins Natasha Vargas-Cooper decision for yesterday’s Tournament of Books round in which she took on John Green’s The Fault in our Stars versus Chris War’s Building Stories. This is the second time the ToB has included a YA title in its contest (did so a few years back with E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) and it makes for mighty interesting commentary, both by the official ones of the ToB and the tourney’s followers. I particularly appreciated what Kevin Guilfoile had to say, beginning with this:
I like the way Judge Vargas-Cooper approaches The Fault in Our Stars as a novel, as opposed to a YA novel. We can acknowledge that John Green writes stories about young people knowing that young people will be his primary audience, but let’s also admit that adults can enjoy, and profit from, reading his books. Green takes observations and truths about human nature and puts them in a context that young people will relate to, but that doesn’t mean those observations and truths are necessarily obvious or less profound to people over 30.
I don’t have a problem with genre labels, as long as those labels aren’t used as a white glove to dismiss books before we read them. Given all her concerns about nurturing a grown-up aesthetic, I’m happy she didn’t do that with Green’s novel.
Unfortunately, as he goes on to point out, the judge isn’t as fair to Ware’s work, setting up a very problematic dichotomy between the two books around the idea of what young people read.
But then we have the other part, in which she dismisses Building Stories as being “twee” and, because it’s a comic, inherently juvenile.
I don’t need to go very much into why that premise is false. The question of whether graphic novels can be created for adults was asked and answered before Judge Vargas-Cooper was born, and her preemptive defense that she can’t be biased against them because some of her best friends are comic books doesn’t pass the field test. Some opinions aren’t really opinions at all. If Judge Vargas-Cooper had said in her judgment that she believed the earth to be only 6,000 years old, I would be compelled to say that she is provably wrong. And so it is with the suggestion thatBuilding Stories is kid stuff.
I know Judge Vargas-Cooper is being cheeky when she describes the contempt she feels for people younger than her, but her (presumably sincere) claim that teenagers would enjoy Building Stories more than grownups makes me wonder if she’s ever met a teenager. Perhaps she lives in some Children of Men section of Southern California where no babies have been born since 1993. I live in the suburbs, John, where the streets are crawling with teens. I have seen today’s youth do remarkable things. They are constantly surprising me with their enthusiasm, intelligence, and maturity. But one thing I have never seen a teenager do is eagerly consume a $50 box of longing, mortality, and regret, no matter how artfully done.
I recommend reading the decision and all the commentary as there is a lot of thoughtful stuff going on there as to what is literary excellence.