Eek! A YA Novel!

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,

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  • zmama

    I do not consider myself a prude or prissy but I have to say when my 8 year old daughter started bringing home her Scholastic book order forms this year in I immediately noticed a huge change from the type of books marketed by Scholastic to the same age group when I was teaching several years ago. My daughter was not happy with me when I told her she could not order from the Scholastic “Poison Apple” series complete with goth looking drawing of tweens on the cover with blood dripping from fangs. I never thought I’d say it but bring back my teaching days when my female students couldn’t get enough of the Full House series with the Olsen twins on the cover. Do we really need to market vampire stories to 3rd grade girls? Of course when the books come in a twin pack with a skull necklace attached, they are even more enticing. What’s up with that?
    Funny thing is my husband grew up an avid reader with parents who permitted him to read almost anything. Even he put his foot down when he saw the goth/vampire tween books.

  • DavetheYAwriter

    Hi, I’m an aspiring children’s and YA author, so I thought I’d give my take on this. You shouldn’t discount her so easily.

    This is a danger of a too-conservative publishing market, and it isn’t limited to just books. When a market leader on the level of Twilight comes out, there is a rush of copycat books to make money on the craze. Unfortunately in the rush, it’s hard to make an original take on a very specific theme. You need your girl heroine, you need your male love interest, and you need supernatural themes.

    The temptation is to choose transgressive or violent themes as a shortcut to make your book stand out. This is the same whether it’s supernatural YA fiction or slice-of-life. Writers are always looking for an edge to make their books stand out from the pack, and grab interest.

    It can work: Lolita showed that. But the overall trend is to make the market darker, as she said. The Hunger Games is a good example: if you look at what is being done to Katniss in it, and that kids are killing and being killed in graphic ways, you wonder how on earth they will ever adapt it to film.

    So I wouldn’t be too hard on the columnist. This trend over time can lead to heavy disconnect for readers encountering a genre they haven’t revisited for some time. Horror movies are a good example: even compared to twenty years ago.

  • Cathy J

    I have to say, as a mom, an avid reader, and someone who one had a taste for teen gothic fiction, I think you are too hard on Ms. Gurdon (who BTW is a mom of at least 5 and a convert). The difference is so much more is made explicit in these books than used to be acceptable–and it is a myth that “this is how teens talk.” It might be more accurate to say, this is our low expectation–and we then allow them to read stuff that fulfills our low expectations. And most of these books are not well-written, or have literary merit beyond shock value.

  • Will Granger

    If you walk into any bookstore, you will see a big paranormal romance section. I think this situation is similar to any limits that we try to set as parents today. Television has material just as dark as any of the YA books Ms. Gurdon is talking about. It’s tough, but we have to know what our kids want to read/watch/listen to and decide whether to permit it.

    As a writer of a YA series, I don’t admire the copy-cat books out there. Whether you admire Twilight, I am not impressed that so many other authors jumped into that genre. Something about just seems insincere to me.

    Will Granger