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The Problem With “The Percy Jackson Problem”

Michael Plassa ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

On October 22, 2014, The New Yorker messed up.

On that date, and in response to the publication of the final book in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series of YA novels, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead published “The Percy Jackson Problem,” a half-baked idea of an article which calls into question the notion that any reading is good reading, particularly for children, pre-teens, and young adults. Mead invokes a speech given by author Neil Gaiman, in which Gaiman argues that fiction is “a gateway drug to reading,” and that the act of reading itself has wide-sweeping societal benefits that can be stifled by any attempts to prevent children from reading what they enjoy, regardless of its status as a widely-accepted piece of “literary fiction.” On the opposing side, Mead references (and seems to tend to agree with) Tim Parks, a writer for The New York Review of Books who, in his essay “Reading Upward”, questions the validity of the idea that fiction and YA novels lead young readers to the likes of Shakespeare and Proust, and in so doing tries (and fails) to invalidate the existence of novels designed for young readers.

Surely people who spend a lot of time in bookstores may have some idea of where Parks and Mead are coming from. YA is, by its very nature, perhaps more susceptible to trends than almost any other genre of books being published, and the flood of poorly thought-out and hastily-written knock-off novels of, for example, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or whatever else becomes popular every few years certainly exudes instant gratification rather than critical thought and engagement. But the fact that the two anti-YA crusaders might nearly land on a few half-decent points in their articles doesn’t mean they’re not wrong on the whole.

Parks’ essay in particular is full of holes just begging to be poked through. The writer bases his piece around the completely fallacious (and, frankly, ridiculous) idea that “genre fiction” (essentially defined as anything that’s not “literary fiction,” an idea which, in the article, is essentially undefined) thrives on sameness, comfort, and a lack of willingness, desire, or capability on the readers’ part to examine the world around them, whereas literary fiction is something inherently different and inherently superior, a means for readers to engage with new ideas and unsettle themselves from what it is they’re familiar with. This argument could only ever come from someone who’s always seen “genre fiction” as “beneath” him, and the degree to which Parks’ writing oozes pretentiousness reflects that; moreover, the motives behind, or possible benefits of, Parks’ insistence on defining one genre of writing as categorically superior to another (the point which Mead leans on heaviest in her article) is never made clear.

Furthermore, in demarcating “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” as two fundamentally separate things (defined by, in Parks’ words, “the essentially conservative nature of one and the exploratory nature of the other), Parks ignores one’s capacity to be the other. The fact is that for every cheap Twilight knockoff on the YA shelf, there’s a JK Rowling or a John Green; an author whose ideas may be closer to the surface than, say, Faulkner, but whose works are nonetheless as ready and able to be examined in an exploratory fashion as any “literary” writer in the business. There is nothing about any novel ever which makes it objectively superior or more worthy of and conducive to examination than any other novel, and tellingly, the very idea of subjectivity is something which both Mead and Parks seem more than content to ignore.

Parks and Mead have more than flawed logic working against them; indeed, the numbers seem to fall in favor of Gaiman’s “all reading is good reading” argument. In his speech, Gaiman cites a study linking childhood illiteracy with future crime rates in given areas, whereas other studies present a direct correlation between the act of reading (totally regardless of what is being read) and a person’s IQ later in life. The fact of the matter is that there are tangible real-world benefits to reading anything; and, in Gaiman’s words, “stop (children) reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like…you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool, and worse, unpleasant.”

Tim Parks and Rachel Meade seem to exist in some strange alternate reality where schools never assign Shakespeare, and where if one inadvertently picks up a Harry Potter novel, they are doomed to never put it down. It is a world without the capacity for more than one idea to happen at once, a world completely void of nuance and ironically laid out on the threadbare logic of someone who Parks would likely assert has never read anything “literary.” It’s a good thing that that world clearly exists so far from the real one.

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