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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Young Adult Literature: Is it too dark? WSJ Thinks So...

I suspect the YA folks have tackled the recent Wall Street Journal article already, but the more I look at the wording of the article, the more I feel like throwing in my opinion.  The language suggests (to me, at least) a fundamental misunderstanding of YA and its intended audience, which is, in a lot of ways, an extension of a fundamental misunderstanding of non-adults in general (which I take to mean anyone under the age of 21, since society has a tendency to view anyone who is not fully responsible for themselves as less-than-adult).

Our culture seems predisposed, if not subconsciously conditioned, to view non-adults as one group.  There's push against this view, of course, and many parents do try to distinguish between the various age ranges, but culture pushes against these distinctions, in part, I think, because it's easier to think of a 16-year-old and a 6-year-old as part of the same thing.  That kind of thinking doesn't do teenagers justice, and leads to quotes like the following (from the WSJ article)(after the fold):

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that 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.
We need to get over the idea that the 12 to 18 age range denotes child in the same sense as above.  All people under the age of 18 are technically children, but someone who is 16 is from a far different adolescent culture than someone who is 6.  There are also exceptional mental differences which make it almost insulting to think of 16-year-olds as children.  This is why the category "young adult" exists.

Young adult refers to people who are almost adults.  A 6-year-old is not almost an adult.  They are far removed from adulthood.  They are not usually exposed to the adult themes that teenagers must navigate on a day-to-day basis.  So when authors write these "dark themes" in their young adult books, they are writing for readers who are already dealing with being "grown up."  The fact that they aren't actually "grown up" is less an issue for the thematic content of books than a reason to press these issues further and to throw out the old guard's ridiculous assumption about the mental abilities of young people.  Teenagers aren't just capable people; they are people who often yearn for the independence afforded by challenging literature and themes.  They want to be treated as capable people, not because they are arrogant (though many certainly are), but because there is a subconscious desire in all of us at that age to challenge ourselves to prepare ourselves for adulthood.  High school does not prepare teenagers for the world around them, and neither do the many parents and cultural icons who try to suppress "adult" themes and reduce young adults to the category of child.  Such people hinder the progression to adulthood; I would even argue that such people motivate many young adults to shun responsibility (we might call this "rebelling," but I think it is deeper than that).

But I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the level of disdain for the mental faculties of young adults in the article.  The author goes on to say things like
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. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.
Teen problems are pathologies.  Remember that.  Then there's this:
If you think it matters what is inside a young person's mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.
The problem here?  Teenagers are already thinking about adult issues.  This is undeniable.  Pretending for a moment that you can maintain childlike innocence during the teenage years is like pretending you can fly to the moon in a hot air balloon.  No matter how hard you try, your balloon (i.e., illusion) is going to pop.  But, again, what can we expect from a group that wants to think of young adults as children, as mentally incapable of handling the ambiguities of adulthood and the disturbing realities around them?  Clearly young adults don't live in a world where millions of people die in war, genocide, etc.  They don't live in a world where politicians are involved in sex scandals, where vulgar language is used by people all around them, where there is death, destruction, fear, murder, suicide, rape, kidnapping, child molestation (sometimes by priests), etc. etc etc.  Except that they do.  This is the world in which these young people are growing up, and if you care so much about their childlike innocence, you'd do more to curb the flow of death and terror in the world than work to keep them blind to reality.  But people in this particular camp aren't interested in putting their money where their mouths are.  They are interested in suppression.

Then there's the old-fashioned, scientifically debunked logic found here:
Yet 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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
Well, actually, they do think about these extreme measures.  You know how I know this?  Because they were doing things like cutting, committing suicide, having sex, experimenting with drugs, and all those things long before people were writing about it in books.  These so called "self-destructive" behaviors are nothing new to teenagers.  They have friends who were molested or raped.  They know people who got pregnant or were beaten by their parents or lost loved ones in war or became suicidal.  This is the world they live in.  It's on the news.  It's in the newspapers.  And now it's in their books.  Why?  Because this is the world they live in.  Get over it.  You can paint this as "taking care" all you want, but the fact of the matter is that adults aren't talking to their teenagers about many of these issues.  And when adults are willing to talk about them, teenagers aren't, because they don't know how to deal with these issues either.  Suppressing literature which might, in some way, help them understand what is going on inside is precisely an act of "discount[ing] the real suffering that some young people endure."  You'd rather ban the issues that matter to them than allow them to see how adults they don't know are writing about the issues.  That, I'm afraid, is far from "taking care."

I'll end this discussion with a final quote:
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In the parenting trade, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." 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. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"

The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn't be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.
Apparently enforcing the U.S. Constitution is a bad thing.  Then again, something about this article makes me think the author was cherry picking all the bad books.  But that might be because that's what the author was doing.  YA, as far as I can tell, has never been flooded with depraved works of literature.  There are a few problematic books, sure, but the field is hardly the hellhole the author wants it to be...

P.S.: I think it's worth noting that the author cites Judy Blume as an example of challenging literature that avoided the "grotesque." The problem here is that the author forgets the history of literature for young readers. Blume's work was written in a time when work for young readers did not talk about things like puberty or teen sex.  To do so was not unlike writing a book about incest and cutting in today's market (for a similar group of cultural purists).  You simply didn't write about sex and related topics in the literature of the 70s.  Blume and her publisher(s) threw that taboo out the window and her books are still challenged to this day.  But who cares about history, right?

P.S.S.:  I never wanted to talk to my mother about the kinds of issues that were going on when I was a teenager, and I still don't want to talk about things like sex and the like with her or my grandmother.  My grandmother, however, has other ideas.  She recently told me a vibrator joke, which may have scarred me for life...

(Thanks to T. N. Tobias for posting about this ordeal before me.)

(Some others talking about this very issue:  Word Blurb)

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  1. These are the books that the 14-year-olds in my neighborhood like the most. You will notice that none of the books listed have these dark themes. Who is deciding what is appropriate for kids? Adults or kids? When kids chose themselves, they are not necessarily wanting to read those dark, violent books. You will notice a lot of Middle Grade books on their list. YA is really skewing older and the growth in this genre is due to adults not 12-14 year old kids. There is something wrong with this categorization of books as it does not reflect the actual readership as defined by YALSA.

  2. I think there's plenty to be said about who reads YA books, but I'd caution against using your neighborhood as a barometer for the teenage populace in general. I know plenty of teenagers who are reading those dark books (maybe not as dark as the ones mentioned in the WSJ, but still dark stuff). I run a website for young writers; the vast majority of our members are under in the 13-18 range, and a lot of them are reading things like The Hunger Games, etc.

    And I don't see anything wrong with categorizing books which feature young adults as protagonists as YA books. In many ways, I think you're falling prey to the same logic which defines 13-18-year-olds as "children" (or "kids," as you put it). This categorization of teenagers is grossly unrepresentative of the reality which surrounds teenagers on a day-to-day basis. At the same time as we call them children and kids, they are being asked by their culture to deal with very adult issues.