Change your maps: the YA section is the new Gommorah, at least according to Meghan Cox Gurdon. In the Wall Street Journal, she asks:
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.
Gurdon goes on to warn of “Pathologies…spelled out in stomach-clenching detail,” and “Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning.” Then, finally, she says something interesting:
Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. 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. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.
Tenderness of heart is a very rare and wonderful quality. It’s what makes people cry during movies before waking up at night to cry some more. But dark, angsty literature is nothing if not calibrated to jerk tears. When, as a preteen, I read Robert Cormier’s books, believe me, I was not giggling. The books Cox describes must vary considerably in quality and intent — surely some run to cheap sensationalism. But the best of them, I’ll bet, do more to sensitize readers to the world’s ugliness than the reverse.
I’m afraid what Cox may really have in mind is not tenderheartedness but prissiness, which I will define — somewhat carelessly, I’ll grant you — as a principled inability to empathize with anybody outside one’s own, well-ordered suburban existence. Not that prissiness doesn’t have its value as a means of social control: if you teach your kid to say “Ick” early enough and often enough, you may, in fact, reduce the chance she’ll get pregnant by someone unsuitable.
Does prissiness pre-empt the development of a tender heart? Not a bit. But it can, I think, restrict that heart’s range of expression. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Not long ago, a girl I was dating complained to me about the mean-girl antics of her Cursillo group cronies. Apparently, they were making life hard for a newcomer. My friend, kind soul that she is, had tried to take the newcomer’s part. Kind soul that she is, she was trying to do so without stepping on too many toes. Life in the crossfire was plainly wearing her out.
Referring to the bullies, I said, “What a bunch of –” And I uttered perhaps the only word in the English language that can still toast largely flame-proof ears. The intended subtext went: “See? I am tuned in, I am listening. I am not yes-dearing you. I am identifying with you so completely that I will spit in propriety’s face!” To my mind, that display of active listening skills had earned me a medal, or at least a kiss.
What I got instead was a wounded-calf look that said, “Must you be so vulgar?” I felt completely misunderstood and unappreciated. It was as if I’d rushed in the room crying, “I love you,” only to be reminded to take off my shoes before stepping on the carpet.
None of this is to say that all young adult literature is edifying, healthy or even well-written, just that I hesitate to take the word of a woman who sounds so easily outraged. Gurdon doesn’t even pause to consider the books’ literary merit. To her, they might as well be fake dog poo that someone left on her seat when she was fussing in the ladies’ room. Ms. Gordon is a critic, but this particular piece is not serious literary criticism; it is culture war. Nobody should mistake one for the other,