Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon that decried the “darkness” in YA literature. Actually, she didn’t so much decry it as shriek WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?! in her best Helen Lovejoy voice.*
* One of the best things about being a parent is not only calling BS on this reaction, but having the experience and moral grounding with which to do so.
Caissie St. Onge, author of the YA novel Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. and all-around funnyperson ne plus ultra, has a great response to this article, and many of its underlying assumptions/attitudes, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. That will get you up to speed if you can’t bring yourself to digest Gurdon’s overlong, overwrought piece. I can’t say too much about this article without completely echoing Caissie’s thought, but I did want to add my own two cents to the discussion.
First off, I agree that parents are allowed to regulate their children’s media intake, short of chaining them to a radiator. If you don’t want your kid reading/watching/hearing something, you are within your rights to keep it from them. You’re probably just going to make them want it more, and unless the thing you’re keeping from them is actual poison it’s probably not that bad for them, but again: Your kid, your call.
Unfortunately, Gurdon’s article seems to call not for parental guidance, but for some kind of censorship. She paints the publishing industry as careless libertines who value “freedom of expression” (which she places in quotes for added irony) above all, to the expense of impressionable young minds. She all but calls them out-of-touch monsters for bestowing YA lit awards to authors whose books she deems beyond the pale. What would be the antidote for such a poisoned industry? Well, you do the math.
Basically, she’s trying to Piss Christ the YA literature genre. Opponents of the NEA pointed to confrontational art like the aforementioned Andres Serrano “piece” and declared all of art rotten. Gurdon’s pointing to the most controversial young adult novels and saying (implicitly, anyway) that someone must step in and do something about this.
Here’s the line that I find the most telling about Gurdon’s column. After mentioning that YA literature nowadays features graphic descriptions of self-mutilation, drug use, sexual assault, and other terrible things, she says:
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.
Her objection? Not that such pathologies are present in the world, but that we are talking about them. This is akin to blaming CAT scans for all that brain cancer.
Of course, as Gurdon herself admits, YA lit itself didn’t really exist 40 years ago. There were no such thing as novels aimed strictly at a teen audience. She seems to blame the darkness of early teen lit like The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice on the uneasy times in which they were produced, and appears perplexed as to why YA books would remain so bleak. Because the world is in just such a wonderful state right now!
She also believes that writing about these “dark” things can “normalize such pathologies.” Me, I prefer to think that when a YA author writes a book about cutting yourself, it may spur a teen who does the same to get help, since they know they’re not the only person out there who does it. Such “pathology” is not a communicable disease. If you do not feel compelled to cut yourself in the first place, reading about it will not make the idea any more appealing. Cutting yourself kind of hurts, a lot, and a million novelistic depictions of it will not make it appealing to you if it wasn’t already.
Teenagers are dark. It’s the mixture of raging hormones, chafing under parental authority, and the crushing realization that carefree childhood days are over. (If you had carefree childhood days to begin with. Me? Not so much.) I’m sure that’s hard to deal with if you’re a parent who sees their cute little kid transform into a sullen teen. I remember a few years ago seeing a younger cousin’s bookshelf loaded with Chuck Palahniuk novels, then remembering them as a baby, and then feeling heartsick in this very dumb way. (“How come they don’t like The Little Mermaid anymore?!”) So I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when confronted by the same transformation of my own child.
But whether this is easy to deal with or not as a parent is irrelevant. The fact is, financially and artistically successful literature aimed at teens is going to reflect this darkness. Publishing houses are not trying to turn all your kids in to black-nail-polished morlocks. They’re trying to sell books. If there was a market for sunshine and lollipops, they’d sell sunshine and lollipops. In fact, I’m sure there is a market for that and it is already being exploited. I assume Gurdon, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, is a fan of the free market. Surely she can’t object to the will of The Almighty Invisible Hand?
What I find the most odd is that, of all media, books are the least worrisome. I don’t really buy the theory that consuming any “bad” media can harm a child, but I believe it even less when it comes to literature. If a kid is reading–anything–s/he’s probably in good shape. Books engage the reader in a much more personal, active way than movies/TV do the viewer, or even music does the listener. The very act of reading is almost a creative one, as it requires so much concentration and intellectual stamina. A kid who willingly reads is probably smart enough to know you don’t need to imitate every scene in a book to understand it.
Maybe this is just the writer in me talking, because I’ve written a couple of novels (2.5, actually, which you can purchase at fine bookstores nowhere), and I can tell you from experience that it is excruciating. I don’t think there is a way to write a dishonest novel, because it’s hard enough to do if you’re being sincere.
When I was an MFA student at Brooklyn College, I remember someone asking the head of the program, Michael Cunningham, “Why not just write some dumb piece of junk that will make money?” Michael’s response was (paraphrasing from memory), “Because it’s impossible.” Nothing I’ve seen since then has convinced me otherwise.
I have the utmost respect for anyone who’s written a novel, published or not. Even if I don’t like the end result artistically, I respect the effort. Tom Clancy’s not my cup of tea, but I’m sure he’s genuinely into Navy SEALs and nuclear submarines, and not just pretending because it sells. I’m also sure John Grisham thinks lawyers are awesome, and that Stephen King loves monsters and Maine. (I also reserve the right to make fun of any of these people’s work at any time I feel like it. But respectfully.)
That’s why it’s difficult for me to think of any novel, YA or otherwise, as anything but a pure expression. Not a marketing plan writ large, or a cynical attempt to warp young minds. If the novels Gurdon dislikes so much didn’t reflect someone’s reality, they wouldn’t sell to their intended audience. End of story.
Ultimately, Gurdon’s piece seems less about something being wrong with YA literature than it does with her fear of “certain pathologies” being discussed. She’s free to steer clear of books that she doesn’t like for whatever reason, or to try and protect her own children from learning too much too soon. But calling for some variety of censorship–and that’s what it is, no matter how she tries to term it–just because certain subjects are too dark for her, that seems a little, well, pathological, wouldn’t you say?
CODA: While searching for a pic for this piece, the first page of Google Image results turned up no fewer than three gross reworkings of the covers of real children’s books which I will not even come close to describing, plus the cover of a book called “My Beautiful Mommy,” which is intended for little kids whose parents have gotten plastic surgery. But yeah, YA authors are the sick ones.