I have read five young adult novels since I was 13, all of them within the last 10 years: Dale Peck's Sprout, a gay romance, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which was brutal, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, a dystopian book, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, and Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why. I read the first four as homework, for interviews with Peck, Ellen Forney (who illustrated Alexie's book), and Le Guin, and for a seminar about science fiction which included Doctorow. I read 13 Reasons Why because I was curious about the Netflix series.
Sprout was the only Peck novel I like, but it didn't do anything that new. Except for Martin and John, the rest of his oeuvre is unreadable. Alexie's book is awesome. I enjoyed an hour-long talk I saw Doctorow give at the Seattle Public Library, which was far smarter than his book. I think I came to the Earthsea series too late in life to love them.
How do you judge a work from a genre in which you are not immersed? Do the opinions of the English professor who has never read a superhero comic in his life have any validity when he glances through The Dark Knight Returns? How about the 30-year-old dude who has never bothered with anything other than classic rock and rap when he listens to Coltrane?
I approached 13 Reasons Why with total ignorance but an open mind. I thought it just succeeded in marrying the noir voice with teenage self-performance. I bought the novel's central premise the way I bought the one-inch-too-far murder plot in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007). So much was just right. So much made sense. So much was rooted in the politics of high school that I either knew first- or second-hand. Why wouldn't things go that far? The genre conventions just approached realism. (I did not feel the same way about the Netflix adaptation.)
If I approach the book, self-consciously, knowing that I will be actively surrendering my critical instincts to complain about how the book may be pandering to a certain age group, I'm not sure if that self-consciousness is preventing me from reading the book on its own terms. In another sense, though, the fact that I was self-consciously surrendering my critical instincts made me enjoy the book more. This book was doing everything a lifetime of reading has taught me a book like this shouldn't be able to do. That's what made it a surprise. That's what made it interesting.
I will consider this experience the next time I try to get my students to talk about an MGM musical. Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates always makes them smile, but their first words once they get to the end of It's Always Fair Weather (Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1955) are usually "That's really...weird." Give them time. Let them think of everything else they know. They might come up with something more interesting to say, something you don't know.