A Look at the Bookshelves of a Literary Scholar

Ruth Graham of Slate has ignited a great deal internet debate with her recent article wherein she decries the idea of adult people reading books for teenagers. It's an argument that comes up often enough with regards to comic books and books shelved under the genres of Fantasy, Mystery, Science-Fiction, and Romance - they aren't serious literature, they aren't worth spending time on, if you were a proper adult you would be aware of this.

Well, I'm here to answer Ruth's charge from the position of a literary scholar. So hello, everybody. I'm working on a PhD in literature, which means I'm in the process of becoming one of those professor types you might think of as a gatekeeper in literature. I don't really like the idea of being some sort of gatekeeper, but I guess it's time to put on my big kid pants and pretend to be a serious adult for once. Let's get to it.

Now, a lot of what I read probably runs more scholarly than even Graham has in mind. That image up top is part of a shelf of a bookcase dedicated solely to my academic reading interests. I counted, and there are 86 books on that bookcase right now. They range from collections of Old English poetry and scholarly studies of performance and clothing in the Middle Ages to language dictionaries, translations of works from the Middle Ages (Beowulf, the Mort d'Arthur, and so on), and books on translation theory. I have a number of old textbooks on the history of the English language (including one which has two LPs included). But even then, not all of the stuff in there is super serious. Even in the Middle Ages people knew literature was supposed to give us both simple and complex pleasures and that sometimes you just needed something fun.

Take Exeter Book Riddle 44 (a quick bang out translation for you):

It hangs wondrous by a man's thigh,
free undercloak. In front is a hole.
It is stiff and hard, and has a good place;
When the young man lifts his own
Garment over his knee, he wishes to greet
That familiar hole that he often had
Filled with the even length of his hanging head.

It's a fun one, a clever bit of wordplay. Hardly mature in the sense Graham means. By the same token we'll just go by titles here and look at some fabliaux of the Old French tradition: Du con qui fu fait a la besche (Of the Cunt Which was Made by a Spade), Le sot chevalier (The Stupid Knight), Le chevalier qui fesoit les cons parler (The Knight Who Made Cunts Talk), Berangier au lonc cul (Long-Ass Berangier), Le Pet au vilain (The Peasant's Fart), Le Foteor (The Fucker), L'Anel qui faisoit les viz grans et roides (The Ring Which Controlled Erections).

Sound absolutely juvenile, don't they? Riddles and fabliaux were popular literature in their day, not entirely unlike YA Lit nowadays. Or comic books. Or video games (especially video games which shove a bunch of gore, tits, and ass into your face and are thus considered mature for it). Or novels, back in the 18th century.

A Look at the Bookshelves of a Literary Scholar

Did you know that some people in the eighteenth century thought novels, including those which are now canonical, classic novels such as Pamela were utter tripe that were responsible for rotting many women's minds? You see, novels were a form of escapism, not serious literature. If you wanted serious literature you either read poetry like Dryden, Pope, Milton, or Shakespeare, or you read the Classics. Novels were silly, unfit for serious discussion, and only served to pollute the minds of women whose husbands didn't have the good sense to stop them reading such garbage which filled them with notions.

Sounds like how people reacted to TV, or radio, or comic books, or genre fiction (after the novel had become established and beloved), or video games, or rap. So yeah, I have novels. Some of them are Sci-Fi and Fantasy, even some YA lit (The Hobbit is fantasy that was written for small children, after all, and yet it gets a pass from the literati). I have comic books, from Thor: God of Thunder, Ms. Marvel, Sex Criminals, The Walking Dead, and The Order of the Stick on my shelves to a regular list of comics in my bookmarks queue including Bad Machinery, Oglaf (so frequently NSFW individual strips come with SFW warnings instead), Menage a 3 (sometimes NSFW), Sluggy Freelance, Questionable Content, Sinfest, and Manly Guys Doing Manly Things. From me to you, the reason books like The Hobbit get a pass is that cultural gatekeepers like Harold Bloom (for instance) on principle do not like that which is not "literary" which includes every comic I listed above, as well as books like Dune, Foundation, H.P. Lovecraft's oeuvre, and many other works. And just because scholars work on it doesn't make it literary to the gatekeepers - that scholarship is a waste of time. No, what's literary or not is determined by a simple criterion:

Do I (the gatekeeper) like it?

If so, then whatever genre classifications might naturally be considered are pretended not to exist. Therefore The Hobbit is not a children's book nor is it fantasy anymore - it's literary, which precludes all that. Kind of like how Terry Goodkind tries to pretend that his Sword of Truth series is absolutely not fantasy because it's real serious literature and that fantasy absolutely can't be, but with the benefit of the cultural cachet necessary to actually make the claim sound credible. Stripping that cultural cachet away is good. Yes, there are important books to know because of how they've shaped our society. No, they and those which aspire to be like them aren't the only books you should read.

There's been quite the effort on the part of literary scholars recently to stop having our heads up our asses about that sort of thing. A friend of mine is doing his dissertation on comic books, and another plans to make hers in part about twentieth and twenty-first century reception to Sherlock Holmes through adaptations and fanfiction. Yes, that's right - you can talk about fan fiction in the academy, and it's not only okay, but breaking some new ground in terms of understanding how people experience literature.

Writing programs for fiction, on the other hand, aren't as welcoming of things like genre literature or voices which don't sound white, middle class, and male. It wouldn't be a purely literary pursuit anymore, after all. And by purely literary pursuit, they mean fiction in the mode of modern realism, with occasional dashes of postmodernist writing to spice things up. If there's a hint of science fiction or fantasy, you're not doing literature right.

And yet, nobody's bookshelves do battle if you stick science fiction next to "real literature" - weirdly, everything seems to get along just fine. The books don't care who's reading them, only that they're being read. And if the book won't judge a reader, why should we judge the reader for the genre or marketing of their book?

A Look at the Bookshelves of a Literary Scholar

But narrowing things back to Graham, there's a rather good C.S. Lewis quote which serves as a rebuttal of her position.

"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."


I remember being a kid. One of the things I remember most is wanting to grow up so very badly that I kept relatively secret anything which might seem childish. When I started high school, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire came out - outside of the house, though, I wouldn't admit I still played Pokemon. I watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic because it's nicely animated and is just genuinely a happy, joyful little show which doesn't insult its viewers' intellects. When I was younger, I would never have admitted that. The thing I've learned growing up is that I can be an adult who reads Beowulf and Jane Eyre and other "literary" stuff and still enjoy comics, kids' television, and YA lit without it being a contradiction or an indictment of my tastes. There's no contradiction there.

Part of growing up is learning how not to act like a child. And it's a dead giveaway that you're acting like a child when you assign literary cooties to other readers because they read things different from your taste. There's no need to sing out "Circle, circle, dot, dot, now I have my cootie shot" when you see an adult reading The Hunger Games. There's no contagion, no reason to be alarmed. Embarrassment, shame - that's Graham's proposed vaccine for those who read YA lit as adults. I wonder what she'd say to my friends who study children's literature for a living. Or my friend who studies fan fiction - would Graham even know what fan fiction is? It might be too lowly and non-literary for her to even be aware of it.

If anyone should be getting vaccinated, to belabor this rather stupid metaphor, it's those who judge other people for what they read, or play, or listen to. Not everyone reads all the time to think great thoughts or challenge themselves, not even scholars. Sometimes we just want to enjoy ourselves (even if I find my scholarly brain turned on in almost all situations, but that's another post for another time). Since C.S. Lewis probably wouldn't say it, I'll say it for him. The judgmental readers need to be given a big double booster shot of Grow The Fuck Up.