Stupid Things Critics Say: Joel Stein and YA Literature


The NY Times ran a series of mini-debates about YA literature two days ago; one of those mini-debates has pissed some folks off — me included.

Why?  Perhaps because Joel Stein opens his piece with this filthy gem:

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Stein, of course, isn’t referring to intelligent people who happen to move their lips while they read.  He’s talking about people with less-than-stellar mental faculties.  At least, that’s how I take it,
because I know plenty of perfectly intelligent people who move their lips while reading everything from Austen to Dostoyevsky (fulfilling my pretentious quota here).

The rest of Stein’s article reads with as much contempt as the introductory paragraph.  He compares YA/children’s literature to video games, because playing games and reading books meant for young ones is exactly the same thing.  Never mind that playing video games can have a positive effect on the brain, though the picture is much more complicated than I have time to explore here.

By the end, you get a pretty clear sense about Stein as a critic — his opinions about literature, his knowledge of literature, etc.  In other words:  this little rant reads more like a series of intentional bullshits than it does an attempt to relegate a genre to the place it deserves (the latter being an impossible task).  Stein doesn’t actually know anything about YA or Children’s literature; he openly admits to avoiding it: “I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”  And yet he feels he is qualified to piss on the genre, without any concept of what that genre entails.

If Stein is really as pretentious as he sounds, perhaps he would like The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M. T. Anderson.  Or perhaps he might consider reading canonical works of children’s literature with history in mind.  But since the only YA/children’s literature Stein seems familiar with are uber popular works which, even among many readers of the genre, are certainly more popcorn-and-movie than steak-and-fine-wine, it’s difficult to take anything he says with any seriousness.  Name-checking The Hunger GamesTwilightHarry Potter, Horton Hatches the Egg, or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing doesn’t make you an expert.  This isn’t a man who wants to be taken seriously by anyone outside of a select circle of narrow-minded readers.  And for that, he deserves a wall of ridicule.


Now to turn this into a positive-ish thing:

If you were to suggest a book for Mr. Stein to read in an attempt to prove him wrong, which would you suggest and why?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

8 thoughts on “Stupid Things Critics Say: Joel Stein and YA Literature

  1. Great post. He's evidently got the mindset of Dr. Seuss under a facade of Faulkner. Screw him; good literature is good literature. I read The Hunger Games, and found it a bit more intellectually stimulating than many an "adult" book.

    I'd recommend him reading The Hunger Games to prove him wrong. Then he can move on to Ender's Game, which is now evidently YA, when it wasn't when first published. After that he can move on to David Eddings's Belgariad and Mallorian, which are also YA in today's market.

    Maybe he's just scared of children today becoming smarter and more well read at an earlier age.

    Your blog is awesome, by the way. So much, in fact, I've passed The Versatile Blogger award on to you, which you can do with as you wish. More info on my blog.

    Again, thanks for the great reads.

  2. Considering Stein says "games you play when hungry," I'm not even sure he knows what the story is about…Of course, I've only seen the movie, so I can't judge how well the book is written.

    I rarely venture back into the YA section, but there are fantastic books there, whether they have awards or not. Works like Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind deals with the objectification of women and children in Pakistan, for example. It may not be up to the standards of "adult literature," but a good story is a good story, despite its label…

  3. "The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads."

    Dude- he just means moving their mouth to be reading the book to the appropriate audience – children.

    You are obviously self-conscious about your own habit of lip moving while reading 🙂 You are internalizing his comment!


  4. Jonathan: I need to read The Hunger Games, though I am hesitant due to its similarities to other works which I think are excellent (Battle Royale is a brilliant satire of radical age-ism in reverse). But I suspect Stein won't much care for The Hunger Games, in part because his biases are too entrenched. Likewise, suggesting genre fiction to him seems, in my mind, pointless, as there is a whiff of snobbery on that front in his post.

    Thanks for the Versatile Blogger award! I'll do something about it this week!

    (More comments to come for everyone else…)

  5. Elizabeth: Well, he couldn't possibly know anything about the story beyond the most superficial of elements. He hasn't read the book, and refuses to. That, in my mind, makes one completely unqualified to comment. It's not that he hasn't read the book — I don't see a problem with talking about something you haven't read, as we all do that. It's that he REFUSES to read the book simply because it is marketed for younger audiences. Silliness.

    I'll check out those books, by the way! Thanks 🙂

    (And one more comment…)

  6. Amanda: You're assuming that's what he meant, but since he dismisses the genre out of hand, knowing nothing about it and reducing it to an intellectually vacuous endeavor, it's hard to take his comments as being pro-reading-to-your-kids.

    Maybe that's what he meant to say, but that's not how it came out.

  7. I think the shift we've seen in YA literature has already shown his comments to be farcical. All of the books I mentioned except the Hunger Games were considered Adult fantasy and science fiction when they first came out, and when I first read them. Now they're marketed with remade covers in the YA section.

    And definitely read the Hunger games. I tore through it as fast as my teen daughter did. Both of us found it enjoyable, which is a rarish thing, from the standpoint of audience.

    And if one is going to be a literature snob, well then the point of a good book is completely lost.

  8. Jonathan: I agree that his comments are farcical, although I continue to think we are not going get anywhere with him (assume a dialogue were possible) by suggesting works of YA lit that are also genre. Not because I don't think genre cannot be good (quite the opposite), but because the greatest way to break prejudice, in my mind, is to expose its farcical nature on home ground. Prove that YA literature has something compelling to offer outside of genre, within the space of utter snobbery that is the anti-genre mentality, and in doing so expose the stupidity of blanket condemnation. Once you do that, there's no way to argue away from the value of genre.

    But you're right: if you act like a literature snob to the extent as Stein, then you're not really engaging with literature, but with your own biases.

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