Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Has young adult fiction become too dark?
SALON - Monday, Jun 6, 2011
A scorching Wall Street Journal editorial rips apart the genre -- and lights up the Internet
Oh jeez, do we really have to have to have this argument again? All right, fine. Here goes. Contemporary literature has too much sex and violence, and our kids need to be protected from its "depravity." So says critic Meghan Cox Gurdon, in a scorching Saturday editorial about Young Adult lit for the Wall Street Journal titled "Darkness Too Visible." Let's roll up our sleeves and get to it, shall we?
In it, Gurdon pulls no punches, railing against an "ever-more-appalling" genre in which "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18." She writes, with an unapologetic level of disgust, about the "stomach-clenching detail" in modern YA lit, tracing its "no happy ending" roots back to bleak classics like "Go Ask Alice" and "I Am the Cheese," and unfavorably contrasts bestselling author (and darling of the ALA's challenged books list) Lauren Myracle, and her themes of "homophobia, booze and crystal meth" to the glory era of Judy Blume.
Is there really a problem here, besides, perhaps, the offense to Gurdon's sensibilities? The writer laments that while today's crop of trauma lit "may validate the teen experience," she argues that, "it is also possible -- indeed, likely -- that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures." And she argues that "It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options."
Gurdon is not exactly some pearls-clutching delicate flower, knee-jerkingly opposed to difficult material. She admits that "Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a kid break the honor code." She lists a few books that she recommends for teens – and they include tough fare like Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and Judy Blundell's "What I Saw and How I Lied." She even admits that the sad reality is "many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all." Her limitation is in her argument of what constitutes "desirable options."
As a mother of two voracious readers, one of whom is just shy of the traditional teen lit range, I can certainly vouch that the YA section of your local bookstore can be a pretty damn grim place, rife with everything from angsty vampires to sex abuse to bullying. And no, not all of it is great literature. Remind me again when there was a time when there was nothing but great literature from which to choose? Critics like Gurdon are forever holding the dregs of the present up against the best of the past, which is an unfair and highly loaded argument. You can't compare what's crowding the shelves now with a tiny handful of classics that have endured.
I grew up on Judy Blume too. I also loved V. C. Andrews. Believe me when I say that the latter's books, with their themes of brutal family abuse and incestuous rape, are trashy as hell -- and there was not a girl around for 3,000 miles who could keep her hands off them. And let me further assure you, an entire generation of women managed to devour the "Flowers in the Attic" series without having sex with their brothers. In fact, I can safely say that many of us read "Lace"and Salinger, and Baldwin, and the one didn't rot out the others. We read, as teens continue to do now, to be moved, to fall in love with characters, to learn, and to sometimes just explore the things that scared and fascinated us.
But Gurdon doesn't save her scorn for the merely exploitative, bottom of the rack books. She excoriates the "hyper-violent" "Hunger Games" trilogy and Sherman Alexie's acclaimed "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," sniffing that "It is no comment on Mr. Alexie's work to say that one depravity does not justify another." And when she clumsily insists, "publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children's lives," she fails to acknowledge the coarseness and misery already inherent in adolescence. She assumes that coarseness and misery -- and profanity, and violence, and sex -- are in and of themselves unsuitable subject matter, regardless of the quality of the writing. That's where she goofs up big time.