Sunday, June 5, 2011

YA Fiction is Too Dark, Whines the Wall Street Journal: A Rant

An article in the Wall Street Journal came out yesterday whining about too much darkness being present in young adult novels. This article frustrates me and depresses me at the same time. I'm going to try to put my feelings into words, but if I fail and blather on, please forgive me. I'm going to take a page from Neil Gaiman and provide a warning: contains me. I don't usually write about such personal things, but I think it's really necessary because this article brings back strong memories and feelings for me. The quoted sections are directly from the article.

* "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.

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."

First of all, these "pathologies" (as if being violent is some sort of disease) have been written about well over 40 years ago. Ever hear of the Bible? the Marquis de Sade? Vladimir Nabokov? Euripides? Obviously the writer of this novel doesn't seem to have actually read much literature from any era. People have been writing about violence, brutality, and various paraphilia for literally thousands of years.

* "If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is."

I know this may be hard for some to realize, but life is not all butterflies, glitter, and rainbows. Everyone has their own problems and unique experiences. To say that darkness doesn't exist in young people's lives is to stick your head in the sand and refuse to see the truth. Teens commit suicide, have sex, cut themselves, and a whole slew of other things that these people don't want to hear about. How are teen books that reflect this "hideously distorted?" If the author and the people commenting in praise of the article are lucky enough to have a perfect life with nothing so unsavory, then they are very lucky indeed. For the rest of us, I'm so happy that young adult authors are not afraid to be frank about the realities of life.

* "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."

I just want to relate my own experience with YA for a second. Young adult fiction provided me a place where I belonged and felt comfortable in more ways than one. My childhood was difficult because I had an emotionally, physically, and mentally abusive mother and a complacent father. I thought that all families had parents that fought constantly and that everyone was terrified of their own mother. I just thought no one talked about it. How's that for normalizing pathologies? Young adult novels provided me with an escape when I needed it and provided me with much needed catharsis when I couldn't have it in real life. Without young adult novels, I don't know what I would have turned to for escape and release. To ignore such dark realities is to make teens believe that they are alone in the world and that their own dark experience is singular. I think it's just irresponsible and equivalent to brushing teen problems out of sight and out of mind. And to assume that teens will just copy whatever behavior they read about is just ridiculous. Give them a little more credit than a five year old please.

*The author goes on to describe Judy Blume's "'Forever,' in which teenagers lose their virginity in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some parents, but it's not grotesque."

I have read Forever. It's one of the most laughable and unrealistic depictions of teen sexuality I have ever read. I read it in high school and it was just incredibly cheesy and as far from "earnest practicality" as you can possibly get.

* "But whether it's language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books."

This is true because parents who find offensive material want to ban it from being read by everyone else instead of simply choosing not to buy or check out that book for their child. They want to make decisions for other parents and force authors to censor their works.

These people should really read the young adult books and look at how the issues are being dealt with in the novel instead of just screeching that there's incest, homophobia, cutting, sexuality, cursing, or whatever in the novel. These are things that teens actually experience. Also, their hatred for vampire books is just weird and confusing. I just want to shake these people. They should just be thankful that teens are reading, considering that one in four people read no books last year. That statistic is just flat out depressing. To dampen those numbers anymore over this is just ridiculous.

My last grievance is with their list of books appropriate for young adult girls and boys. The boy list has science fiction (one of them is ironically Fahrenheit 451) and war novels as if these books aren't also appropriate or recommended for girls. Did these lists really have to be separated by gender? As if boys can handle more gritty and dare I say violent books than girls.

These adults trying to ban teen books have obviously lost sight of what it is to be a teen and how life really is. I still love reading YA because I can remember being a teen and I still relate to the struggles of the protagonists, no matter how different they are from me. That transition from childhood to adulthood is a fascinating one especially in our society where there is no real support system to help teens into adulthood. Literature is where my support system was and I'm sure that's true for many others even today.

Ok. I think I'm done. I really do apologize if this is just incoherent ramblings because I'm really tired and am being a bad blogger by not rereading what I have written. I just had to get my feelings out on here to express my crazy bundle of emotions. If you feel as dismayed as I do, I invite you to go over to Twitter and search for #YAsaves to see readers and authors alike defend young adult fiction.

No comments: