Friday, May 20, 2011

Not again, NYTBR

Why oh why does the NYTBR like to give YA novels to reviewers a) who claim to have never read one, b) don't respect them, and/or c) have teens of their own, so are already suffering PTSD from all things adolescent? Said reviewer then goes on to write a review that isn't really a review as much as it is a whole lot of hand-wringing over the sad, dark or just plain bad books teens are reading. What are we going to do about all the sad, bad books teens are reading????

I hadn't yet read last Sunday's issue of the book review until someone told me about this column and the subsequent follow-up post on the Motherlode blog. I found both these articles so wrong, so many times that I was exhausted even before I started composing a response. Other people, like Sarah Ockler and Bennett Madison, are more on top of these things.

I did manage to comment on the Motherlode blog yesterday, hopefully not too snarkily or ineptly. What I objected to most was this reviewer's notion that "The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson."

Please. The purpose of teen lit is to tell stories teens want to read. Sure, every writer has a worldview, and we can't escape that, but I don't write any book with the idea I'm about to impart a "much-needed lesson." (Though Bennett Madison does point out on his blog that some YA authors, editors and gatekeepers seem to be confused on this point themselves, so why wouldn't the NYT be confused as well?)

And then there was requisite insistence that the worried parents of all these sad, dark teens never read any of this rot back when they were kids. No, no, they read books for adults. Like Go Ask Alice. (Yes, she used this as an example, though how she got the idea this was written for adults I'll never know. Also, who would use Go Ask Alice as an example of anything but scaremongering?)

Go Ask Alice aside, I can't understand what this comment is supposed to mean. It's better for teens to read sad, dark books as long as they're for adults? We should be handing out Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the seventh grade? Besides, if YA is all darkness and rot, well, I read plenty of rot when I was a teen, and I happen to be one of "today's parents." Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier were particular favorites of mine. (Is there any YA writer darker than Robert Cormier?)

The reviewer complains that today's YA novels don’t even pretend to appeal to grown-ups. Which is sort of hilarious, given the millions of Twihard moms and the uproar over the casting of "The Hunger Games." And again, sort of irrelevant. Who cares if the books appeal or don't appeal to grown-ups? Is it because the typical adult won't pick them up, so then won't be aware that all the teen books are so sad and dark?

Now that I'm thinking about it, I think this is the point of both the review and blog post, the point of every hand-wringing not-review about YA that the NYTBR does. The reviewer imagines he or she is alerting naive and unsuspecting parents to the horror lurking on the bookshelves. I'VE UNCOVERED THE TRUTH, the reviewer says. THESE BOOKS ARE DARK, PEOPLE. And then, WHY ARE THESE BOOKS SO DARK? (I imagine the reviewer saying this with both hands clapped over her cheeks a la Munch's Scream).

In my response on the Motherlode blog, I said, "They're not," and posted examples of a whole bunch of authors who weren't writing problem novels about cutting and bulimia. (Which is not to say we don't need those sorts of novels). And then I said, "So what if they are? As a teen, I plowed my way through horror novel after horror novel, because it seemed to me that middle school and high school bore a remarkable resemblance to hell." And this is true, too.

I remember sitting at a salon, chatting with my stylist as she cut my hair. The customer in the chair next to me learned I wrote for teens and fretted out loud that her daughter was reading way too many "depressing" books. Kids should read cheerful things, this mother said. But what I believe she was really saying was that her daughter was too depressing. That her daughter should be more cheerful. And you know what? Teens can be dark. They can be depressed. And angry and moody and combative. It is scary at times, terrifying even, to parent dark, depressed, angry, moody, combative people who change their hair color every forty seconds and want to pierce random bits of themselves.

But the books are not causing this teenage turmoil. They reflect the turmoil. And reading the books can give teens the opportunity to reflect on that turmoil it in a way they sometimes can't when they're screaming that they hate you and that they're so getting that tongue stud when they move to Thailand to get away from you.

Reviews like Lisa Belkin's seem to insist that teenagers only read one sort of book -- the dark kind, the sad kind, the sex-and-drinking-filled kind that terrifies their parents. But, like adults, teens don't read only one sort of book. The kid who spends a year devouring everything they can about Dachau suddenly decides that what they're really interested in is organic farming. And isn't that what's so great about books? That, no matter what your age, you can read so deeply and so widely, about dark things and light things and everything in between, experiencing it all in the safety of your imagination?

My question? Why doesn't the NYTBR know this?