Monday, June 6, 2011

Those Bad, Sad YA Novels: Get Off My Lawn Version


A few weeks ago, the New York Times brought us this anxious, hand-wringing take on all the bad, sad YA novels (possibly? sort of?) poisoning the minds of teens. Now we have the finger-wagging, crankypants take on the very same idea from the Wall Street Journal.

Well. I guess it's nice that liberals and conservatives can agree on something.

The two articles share three basic tenets:

1) that we parents didn't read such bad, sad novels back when we were teens (as we were too busy reading Ulysses and/or Anne of Green Gables)

2) that swearing and drugs and stomach-turning descriptions of abuse are "just part of the run of things" in modern teen novels and no one besides anxious and/or angry moms seems to care

3) that anyone under the age of 18 reads for no other reason but to learn valuable -- or in this case, destructive -- lessons.

All of these are wrong, of course. The first proves that the writers of these articles have completely forgotten all the lurid garbage they devoured as teens. Flowers in the Attic, anyone? Go Ask Alice?

The second is the result of the same stupid exercise we've seen again and again. A writer unfamiliar with contemporary teen lit gets ahold of this or that book and is shocked to find, well, whatever it is that shocks and alarms him/her most — sexuality or swearing or violence or bad writing or melodrama or "darkness." He/she then assumes these things can be found in all teen novels and proceeds to have a very public nervous breakdown.

But for every "dark" teen title that has NYT and WSJ columnists wringing their hands or shaking their fists, there are ten others that don't feature "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings." Any YA librarian or well-trained bookstore clerk could name dozens upon dozens of sunny, thoughtful, well-written, challenging, and/or werewolf-free titles, a lot of them on the bestseller lists. So why aren't these the ones written up in the Wall Street Journal?

Setting aside the fact that realistic teen fiction — so-called "problem novels" — aren't half as popular as fantasy and sci-fi right now, these books seem to be lightning rods for parental anxiety. Which makes some sense. Teen novels illuminate teen culture, interests, and experiences, and these things can be particularly scary to adults trying to keep teens safe and healthy. Though the writer of the NYT article seems to be more of the "teen lit is about as artful as a sledgehammer" school of literary criticism, she doesn't deny that teen lit can sometimes accurately reflect what's going on in the lives of teens (even if she really doesn't want to hear about it, thank you very much).

On the other hand, the writer of the new WSJ article seems to belong to the "adolescence is a time of bunny rabbits and rainbows" school of thought. She writes that teen novels do not reflect teen culture as much as distort it, and that such distorted portrayals of teen life will create a hunger for ever more distorted portrayals. Ugliness begets ugliness, this columnist writes. Such books will ruin children's happiness, break their tender hearts, and normalize pathological behavior.

In other words, dark books will put dark thoughts in the kids' heads, ideas that they never would have come up with themselves. Dark books teach dark lessons.

Not be outdone by the NYT in the fearmongering department, this is when the WSJ columnist really starts brandishing her cane at the sky. She indicts booksellers and reviewers for failing to notice coarse language. She mocks writers for valuing free expression, and accuses librarians of "delighting" in banned book lists. She blames video-game-addled, aesthetically-challenged young whippersnappers at publishing houses for "bulldozing misery into the lives of children." She tells parents to stand strong against the tsunami of swill and the evil designs of writers, editors, and librarians.

And then she undercuts all this magnificent hysteria by declaring that teens don't read teen novels anyway.

So, why are we talking about this again? Oh, right. Comment-baiting!

Not surprisingly, the twitterverse and blogosphere have erupted, with many YA writers, readers, librarians and teachers talking about how teen lit can save lives (#yasaves). And I believe this is true. But I also think this bit from Roger Sutton's blog is interesting:

"Gurdon's argument about why gritty YA books are published is classic straw-man stuff:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Who actually believes this is how reading works? It was Sheila Egoff who pointed out that the audience for Go Ask Alice was not drug-crazed runaways but nice little middle-class junior high girls with a taste for melodrama. People like reading about people like themselves whose problems are more interesting than their own. Unfortunately, the Twitterati are buying into Gurdon's thinking from the other way around, claiming that "YA saves," and that YA writers are brave and heroic and helpful, none of which qualities being particularly useful for a writer. Give me an author who is truthful and talented; spare me an author who writes to save lives."

What neither the NYT nor the WSJ columnist seems to understand is that teens read for all the same reasons that adults read. Sometimes a book will help a teen feel less alone in the world, or validate his/her personal experience (which, I'm sorry to say, can be all kinds of dark and abuse-filled). And in this case, individual books really can save lives.

But for other teens, books are a window onto lives and experiences entirely unlike their own. (As Roger Sutton says, they like to read about people with more interesting problems.) And we can't forget that a lot of teens, like adults, read simply because they want to lose themselves in a cracking good story filled with all sorts of drama.

Before we get ourselves all tied up in knots because teens occasionally read "dark" books, let's not forget that teens read all kinds of "dark" stories -- that is, violent, strange, bloody, and fabulous stories -- in their English classes. I'm talking about Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Antigone, Beowulf, Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Canterbury Tales, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Lottery, etc. etc. etc. Why would we assume that Romeo and Juliet will be less triggering than, say, 13 Reasons Why? Why would we assume young adults are smart enough and sophisticated enough to handle Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but too dim, immature, and impressionable to be trusted with the latest vampire novel (or to put it down if they don't like it)?

And if our teens are too dim, immature and impressionable to set loose in the teen section of a library or a bookstore, don't we have a much bigger problem than books?