June 07, 2011

Mothers of River City, Heed this Warning before It's Too Late. Watch for the Tell-tale signs of Corruption

So there's a recent Wall Street Journal piece on the state of YA lit making the rounds. As usual, I noticed the complaints on twitter and facebook and blogs without being much moved seek out the article that sparked them, the reason being that I figured I already knew pretty much exactly what the article would say. (If you've seen The Music Man, you know exactly the sort of thing I figured it would be.)

But then a couple of people asked what I thought about it. Before reading it I wrote this, as a kind of prediction, just to see:

This happens regularly, pretty much every time any prominent source publishes an article on teen fiction, and it plays out in pretty much the same way. The article is invariably about how depraved and tasteless the "genre" has become, so much darker and more disturbing than even the edgier titles the author remembers from her own childhood. Several lurid contemporary novels are adduced as examples of this degeneration (turning their authors into momentary, news-cycle free speech martyrs.) There follows a "what's a parent to do?" section, bemoaning the powerlessness of ordinary decent non-depraved families against the onslaught of unscrupulous authors and publishers who just want money and don't care whom they have to hurt to get it. Finally, there is a reluctant recommendation, offered more in sorrow than in anger, that we devise some means of reining in this alarming trend. (I'm the last person who would advocate censorship, it will often say, but…) Usually this means warning labels or quarantined spaces in bookshops and libraries, often with the despairing comment that such actions may well make teen readers want to read them more rather than less.

So now, let's read the article. How'd I do? Pretty well, I'd say, though this piece stops short of actually calling for warning labels. The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, has a nastier tone, perhaps, than most of her predecessors in this genre, but she hits all the conventional "trouble in River City" notes. It's a classic of its type. (That's one unanswered question I have for which Meredith Wilson provides no answer: why are so many of these articles written by people who are hostile to their subject? It's my impression that they pretty much all are, though perhaps I've missed the non-hostile ones.)

So what do I think? Well, it is really getting tedious to have to point this out, but basically it's this: I question the whole underlying premise that the primary purpose of a novel, for a teenager, is to help its parents with the difficult project of raising it to be a decent, well-adjusted, well-behaved, good little citizen. For Meghan Cox Gurdon, a book that fails to advance, or even merely complicates, that agenda, let alone actually impedes it, is a bad book, worse than useless, unsuited to the task at hand, which is, essentially, social engineering.

But, of course, that's not at all how or why people read novels. In fact, some of the best novels, like other forms of art, were created with precisely the opposite agenda in mind: to rile, to irritate, to provoke, to test, to undermine conventional assumptions and to discourage conformity. I'd even go so far as to say that the books that have meant the most to me over the years, "young" and otherwise, have been the ones deliberately constructed in order to make the parent's job harder. (And I hardly need add that I don't see my own work primarily in terms of its usefulness as supplementary parenting materials.) Not every work of art has to do this. There's a place for the literary equivalent of "comfort food." There's a place for inspirational literature as well, tales of good-hearted people who do the right thing in the end. There's even, I suppose, a place for "bibliotherapy," where self-help books effectively masquerade as fiction, much as I detest it in theory and in practice. The point is, though, that there's a place for everything in teen fiction, just as there is outside of it. And it is a very strange thing indeed to imagine, as many people seem to do, including quite a few who think of themselves as advocates for the Joy of Reading and such, that young readers would be better off if they were restricted to only edifying, helpful, comforting, self-improving reading materials.

At bottom, it reflects a lack of respect for young readers as readers, and, more pointedly, a failure to grasp the fact that young people read novels in pretty much the same way and for pretty much the same reasons that everybody else does. These are many and varied, but rarely do they include a fervent longing to be kept away from Trouble with a capital T.

Meghan Cox Gurdon concedes a possible rationale for allowing novels depicting the harsher realities into one's tender child's tender world:

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.
For her, though, this is a straw man, easily demolished. Even if, she seems to be saying, these books make the parent's job easier in some unfortunate circumstances, overall they do not make the parent's job easier enough. Taken as a whole, the harm outweighs the good. And by that all-important criterion of child-rearing usefulness, what is the use of them in end?

Well, here's where the whole thing runs a bit aground, on "our side." The YA world, easily-riled to begin with and certainly provoked beyond forebearance by Meghan Cox Gurdon's baiting, responded with a campaign summed up by the twitter tag #YAsaves. We do so make the parent's job easier, they say in effect. Kids need us to steer them towards the right course and away from bad stuff. We're not just novelists. We're out there saving lives, people.

I understand this impulse. And it's quite true that books can save lives in a sense (although, in my experience, the ones that do are rarely the ones labelled "this book saves lives.") It's a point worth making, and I respect them for making it, and I mostly agree with it in spirit. However, I can't help but recoil a little from this "novelist as social worker" notion. Basically, the #yasaves people have inadvertently (some would say defensively) adopted Meghan Cox Gurdon's screwy criterion for judging a work of fiction when it concerns teenagers, and it's an extremely narrow one. A therapeutic application may be tremendously useful and a benefit to society, but it will not make a bad book good, nor will it make a great book better. Saving lives is great, but literature is far, far bigger than that.

At any rate, I don't want a novelist to try to save my life. Rather, I want to be shown something in a way that makes me care about it. They're not always the same thing, and sometimes they are in fact, quite different things entirely.

Posted by Dr. Frank at June 7, 2011 08:44 PM | TrackBack


Posted by: Jen Dutton at June 7, 2011 10:48 PM

i agree so much! i thought the associated online poll summed up the article's whole ridiculous attitude: "are dark themes in youth fiction helpful or harmful to teenagers?" IT CAN ONLY BE ONE OR THE OTHER. ALSO THOSE ARE THE ONLY TWO POSSIBLE CHOICES. ALSO IF YOU SAY "HELPFUL" YOU ARE PROBABLY STUPID.

Posted by: jesse andrews at June 8, 2011 01:49 AM


Posted by: Susan Van Metre at June 10, 2011 08:41 PM