July 07, 2011

What is Lit?

Lauren Myracle apologizes to Meghan Cox Gurdon on NPR for characterizing her notorious Wall Street Journal YA essay as "idiocy."

And here Meghan Cox Gurdon spars with Maureen Johnson.

I agree that "idiocy" isn't precisely the right word here. Gurdon is cordial and intelligent, and she makes her points clearly. I still think she's wrong, and she makes it pretty clear why we disagree: in the end, she doesn't see "children's literature" as literature, but rather as a mere element of pedagogy. I think that's a spectacularly wrong-headed, narrow view -- of children's lit, and of literature as a whole -- but if you accept it, her case against "objectionable" currents in YA publishing makes perfect sense. Just as we agree that reducing the fat and sugar content in school lunches, say, is a wise policy that will increase health and well being, why can't we agree to reduce the darkness and squalor in the reading materials we feed them as well? If you don't believe there is value for readers under the age of eighteen in the experience of seriously engaging with a text, or even if you believe that this value is secondary to the far more important goal of molding their minds into the proper, most beneficial, most desirable shape, literary questions and criteria simply crumble away. All that matters is the end result, the practical goal of producing a contented, well-adjusted person. Now, I'd love for more people to be content and worry-free and filled with joy and light, I suppose, but that's not what art, even when "consumed" by young people, is or should be. The very notion that that is what it should be I find vaguely unsettling. But the realization that smart, articulate people who are in charge of things in the world take that view without serious reservations? I find that actually a bit terrifying.

If Meghan Cox Gurdon were the Wall Street Journal's Parenting or Cultural Conditioning Critic, there would be little more to say. But she's not. She's ostensibly the Children's Literature Critic. Thus, a kind of sleight of hand occurs, where parenting advice and pedagogical philosophy masquerade as a literary critique. If you want to have a discussion about the challenges of parenting, that is well and good. Maybe certain books, video games, movies, or music really do have an undesirable influence on developing minds; maybe, as Meghan Cox Gurdon seems to suggest, depicting dangerous or objectionable activities in books "normalizes" them and makes it more likely that readers will emulate them. I think that's hooey, mostly, and again it reflects a lack of respect for teens as readers, but Meghan Cox Gurdon is certainly entitled to discuss it, and has a point when she says that such criticism is legitimate and that her opponents are over-reacting when they characterize the discussion as tantamount to censorship.

It's not literary criticism, though. It's not even in the same universe as literary criticism. Saying that a reader, young or otherwise, would be better off not having read a particular book has more to do with politics and social conditioning than art. That's a terrible criterion for evaluating literature (and I'd say it's also a pretty poor basis for pedagogy as well, as it happens.) At any rate, the teen readers whose interests she is so concerned about, and the rest of us, too, deserve better.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 7, 2011 08:49 PM | TrackBack