Thursday, April 5, 2012

On the Culture of Shame (Or, Suck it, Joel Stein)

Joel Stein is a massive tool.

Okay, let's back it up.

I'm a firm believer in fully immersing yourself in whatever makes you happy (unless what makes you happy is a mountain of cocaine or something, in which case I urge you to rent Scarface and really pay attention to it - particularly the end, as I feel a lot of people kind of miss the point). Like plenty of others, I was a nerd before being a nerd was a thing, and hiding it never really occurred to me. I grew up unabashedly rocking a Millennium Falcon t-shirt, running to the library for Star Trek novels, and rushing to watch X-Men and Spider-Man every Saturday morning without a second thought - not because I was making some kind of a statement, but because these were the things that I enjoyed. When other people couldn't relate to what I was talking about, it didn't make me feel different. Really, it only made me more determined to explain it correctly. When I got made fun of (and even beat up a little), I figured it was not so much due to my love of sci-fi as it was that other people were jerks and I was a shy kid who didn't like confrontation. While that didn't really make the insults sting any less, it also never dampened my enthusiasm. The things I watched and read carried me beyond the schoolyard, helped me connect with some of my very best friends, and even nudged me down my current career path.

So, you see, it bugs me when people arbitrarily dismiss entire art forms. And now we've arrived back at Mr. Stein (bet you thought I forgot).

Let me start by editing my initial statement. I don't know Joel Stein. As far as I know, we've never even occupied the same airspace, unless you count living on the same planet and possibly being in the same state on occasion. Since I have a standing policy to at least try not to rush to judgment, I can't in fairness say that he is a massive tool. He just comes across as one.

On March 29, the New York Times published this opinion piece: Adults Should Read Adult Books. Take a minute to follow the link and read it, 'cause it's really going to help you understand the rest of this.

The post was calculated, given that this was less than a week after the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games lit up the box office, where it continues to reign uncontested. Just to put things in perspective, last week's second place finisher was Wrath of the Titans, which made over $20 million dollars less than The Hunger Games, despite the boost from pricier 3D tickets and the fact that the latter film was in its second weekend.

I'm ecstatic about the success of The Hunger Games, which I consider to be one of the best - if not the best - film adaptations of a book I've ever seen. I'm even happier that more people are going out and picking up the books as a result.

Now, I have a slight bias in that I'm a big believer in Young Adult literature. I read it, I write it, and I'd teach classes on it if somebody was ever crazy enough to offer me money to do so. I think the YA genre is experiencing a true golden age at this very moment, with smart and skilled authors telling powerful and nuanced stories that are relevant to anybody who is or ever has been not just a teenager but a living, breathing member of society. Is every YA book a gem? No. But last I checked, all adult authors weren't exactly card-carrying MENSA members either (and even if they were, that doesn't mean they'd be able to write worth a damn).

Unlike Joel Stein, who places great stock in labels, I'm a fan of content. Period. I don't care how a book is classified - if I can understand it and it's compelling, I'm in. Same goes for movies, television shows, art exhibits, and whatever else. I like something because when I'm in the process of consuming it, my brain sends a signal that is the polar opposite of the one it would send if, say, a grizzly bear was chewing on my arm. That's how it should be, right?

The sad thing is, this idea of genre or classification automatically making content less worthy is nothing new. Stein published a piece for the L.A. Times back in 2005 essentially calling all adult Harry Potter fans, "morons." Seriously. Go read the lovingly titled, Hogwarts fans, you're stupid, stupid, stupid if you don't believe me.

The best part? Stein hasn't touched a single one of the books he's indicting, yet feels perfectly secure demeaning the intelligence of those who have entirely on the basis of a label.

This, dear readers, is what really bothers me the most - the name calling. The bullying. The verbal ostracism of an entire group of people without any concrete justification. If he'd read the book and said, "Hey, I think this is dumb because of X, Y, Z," I'd be able to respect his opinion more, even though I'd still disagree with it. However, this propagation of, "Shame on You," culture is nothing more than narrow-minded snobbery. Worse, it can steer people, young and old, who are searching for inspiration and identity toward self-loathing, and that's just not fair.

Books - be they classified as young adult or otherwise - change lives, even save them. I've seen it. I've experienced it. Yes, just as 7 year-old me would have unhesitatingly declared that nothing in the world was cooler than Star Trek, I have absolutely no problem stating (at the age of 25, if we need a reminder) that no book series will ever mean quite as much to me as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Both came into my life at very different times and mean very different things to me, but I have never been so profoundly affected by something I've read - not before, not since. And believe me, after studying literature and writing on more than one continent, I've read a lot. Does that make me stupid?

According to Joel Stein, yes.

Fortunately, I don't give a damn.

And that's really the point of me saying all of this. In the grand scheme of things, Joel Stein is a kid in the schoolyard, hiding behind the word, "columnist," and throwing stones. There's no point in calling him out on it, no matter how annoying it is (and even though I kind of already did). Really, the best way to deal with the Joel Steins of the world is to just live your life, do what you want to do, and refuse to take any crap for it. Read your books, wear your t-shirts, get engaged at Disneyland. Hell, go see your sparkly vampire movies. Just because it's not for me doesn't mean you can't like it.

Believe me, the only person who will feel embarrassed for you is Joel Stein, and you'll be way too busy with your happiness to notice.