As I was destroying my eyesight Wednesday simultaneously watching the Impeachment Hearing /Twitter feeds on the screen of my desktop computer, I ran across a linked tweet concerning a literary brouhaha originating at South Dakota’s Northern State University. A recent graduate named Brooke Nelson has provoked outrage from several Young Adult novelists for suggesting that a novel by best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen was too simplistic to qualify as mandatory reading. As a junior, Ms Nelson had served on a committee to select a book all incoming freshman at Northern State University would be required to read. Several members on the committee, according to the Washington Post, “were pushing for a young adult novel by best-selling author Sarah Dessen.”
A quote in the local paper, the Aberdeen, ignited the ensuing furor: “[Dessen]’s fine for teen girls,” Brooke Nelson said, “ but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”
Somehow Dessen caught wind of this slight diss. Directly addressing Nelson by name, Dessen tweeted the following to her legion of followers:
Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally [my emphasis] how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.
Let’s just say Nessen’s fans were not happy, including published YA authors Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay. Jennifer Weiner accused Nelson of being misogynistic:
“It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.”
However, this comment ignores the question of whether the work possesses the complexity that required reading should possess. Are Nessen’s novels more profound than The Hand Maid’s Tale? Are today’s in-coming freshman incapable of reading adult literature? I was the English Department Chair of an independent school for six years and a teacher there for thirty-four, and I can assure you we never had a YA novel on our required summer reading list for the Upper School.
Here’s last year’s list, the last year I taught there:
9th grade On the Beach by Neville Shute
10th grade: 1984 by George Orwell
11th grade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
12th grade The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
AP Language and Composition: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
AP Literature and Composition: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The majority of complaints from the YA authors cited in the Post story ignore the quality issue and focus on how Nelson’s quote marginalizes teenaged girls. Here’s Jodi Picoult: “[Nelson’s quote] suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous.”
But Nelson didn’t say that novels about teenaged girls “matter less.” She said that Nessen’s novels essentially didn’t “cut the mustard,” as we Boomers used to say. I suspect that Nelson wouldn’t have any qualms with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Josephine Humphrey’s Rich in Love being required reading.
Well, Nessen should be gratified because Nelson has found it necessary to suspend her social media accounts because of a barrage of incoming hatred. And Northern State University has publicly apologized to Nessen.
It brings to mind Dylan’s line “at pettiness that plays so rough.”
 I consider it a “slight diss” because I believe that it’s not terribly insulting to suggest one’s work doesn’t rise to the level of mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen of a college. In fact, although it’s considered a classic, I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird rises to that level because of its black and white (no pun intended) portrayal of good and evil. What I would consider a genuine diss is Carrie Courogen’s summation of Dessen’s work as “formulaic patronizing garbage of the lowest hanging fruit variety and deserves every criticism leveraged against her.” Courogen added in a subtweet “sarah dessen books are nicholas sparks but by a woman and even dumber and slightly less christian.” I haven’t read any of Dessen’s books, so all I’ll say is that I can’t imagine they possess the ambiguity, complexity, and depth that would elevate them into the realm of serious art.