Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Good News Is That YA Doesn't Turn Your Kids Into Masochists

Last month Wall Street Journal critic, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an article in which she expressed her dismay in the current content of YA fiction. In her opinion it's too dark and the graphic scenes of violence, self-mutilation (cutting), sexual assault are not only unsettling they're contagious. In other words, if a teen reads about a character who cuts herself she might want to cut herself too because a book has "normalized" the behavior. This set off a fire storm on Twitter, chastising Ms. Gurdon which lead to another article by Gurdon and more Twitter outrage and most recently a NPR interview in which she defended her which point Tweeters went ballistic.

I don't think her article was worth the plethora of hostile Tweets. For one things, she writes for the WSJ so she was basically preaching to the choir anyway, certainly not to anyone who might buy the books and I don't think she has enough influence to encourage mass book bannings (which isn't what she wants anyway).  To be honest, I too have noticed that a lot of the YA books are pretty dark these days and certainly sex is not the taboo subject that it used to be in teen novels. I personally don't feel that a book always needs to be dark to be deep. But to say they normalize behavior? That's the part of Gurdon's article that gave me pause.  Books aren't like movies. Books engage your brain in a way that movies don't. They make you think not just about the basic plot or the overall message but the details. Movies wash over you, the images that are meant to make an impact usually do. You probably won't notice the extra standing by the tree paralyzed with fear, knowing that she's not going to be able to get her child out of the way of the monster, astroid, falling building or whatever. You might not really absorb her horror or her pain. You can't avoid the extra in the book because the author makes you read about her. The author (assuming he/she is talented) will make you understand that pain and hopelessness in your brain and feel it in your heart. Hollywood somehow manages to glamorize violence and desensitize us to violence at the same time. When you're desensitized to violence you may be more comfortable committing violent acts or dismissing the violent act of others.

Books don't desensitize us to anything. If we start to become desensitize to the events of the story we stop reading and pick up another book. So if books aren't desensitizing us are they glamorizing dangerous behaviors to teens? Do teens seek to emulate the protagonists they love?

Gone with the Wind, 75th Anniversary EditionI tried to think back to my reaction to the books I read as a teen and adolescent. I loved Gone With The Wind but I never wanted to be Scarlett and she certainly didn't make me want to spend my days pining away for a married man. I loved Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Guess it goes without saying that I didn't want to be like any of those characters. Since sex wasn't featured in the teen lit that was around in my youth I would buy racy Harlequin romances. To this day I still remember reading my first sex scene...I was in middle school. And yet I didn't choose to lose my virginity until I was in college.

But then what about those Sweet Valley High books I used to love so much? I went through that series like popcorn and I did want to be like those characters because the books made it very clear that everyone should want to be like those characters. The twins, who were in the center of it all, were described as the definition of beauty. That definition is as follows: having blonde lightly wavy hair, having green eyes and being 5'6". I spent my entire middle school years praying that I would reach 5'6". It was my only hope. I could never have blonde hair. I would always have impossibly kinky curls. My eyes would be brown to the day I died. So either I reached 5'6" or I would just have to walk around with a bag over my head praying that some blind guy would ask me out. Those books affected my idea of beauty. They increased my insecurities.

But I can't say that I wish I never read them. The reality is that many people do have this narrow view of what is or is not physically desirable. I was going to be confronted with that at some point in time anyway. At least I was entertained during the confrontation.

But more to the point, Sweet Valley High is very different than the books Ms. Gurdon has a problem with. Sweet Valley High was all about glamour. The whole point was to make you want to live in the twins' world. Any careless racism or what-have-you wasn't intentional (IMO) so we never really saw the dark side of it. The books Ms. Gurdon is taking issue with are ones that deal almost exclusively with the dark side of things. All you see are the negative consequences to bad behavior and you see it in visibly disturbing detail.

FrankensteinIn other words, wanting to emulate these characters would kinda be like wanting to emulate Frankenstein's monster because, you know, despite the misery, loneliness, violent tendencies and utter rejection from society he was actually a very intelligent, surprisingly relatable charter who was pretty cool in a dark and moody kinda way. So yeah, sure, sign me up for that.


AfterIt's hard to make cutting seem like an attractive activity and if kids are going to learn about substance abuse (and obviously they will) better that they learn about it in a book that ends with the characters self-destructing in gruesome and disturbing ways rather than in say...Hangover II. If a teen is going to get pregnant let's feel her emotional turmoil and pain as we did in Amy Efaw's After instead of giggling along with Juno (although I did find that film entertaining).

I do think that publishers need to publish more YA books that aren't all about doom, gloom and clinically depressed vampires. And it's silly to think a book is good just because it's gritty. But I don't think that YA, in its current state, is destroying America's youth.

And I can tell you right now, if YA books didn't feature teens who had sex (in what are still highly edited scenes) real teens would be sneaking off to the drug store to buy Harlequins the way I did.

Pick your poison.

Kyra "fashionista fatale" Davis


Terri Osburn said...

This is a good breakdown of the situation. I've only followed along on the fringes of this, but Ms. Gurdon seems to be missing two obvious (to the rest of us) facts. Not all teens live in a Disney/Leave It To Beaver kind of household and teens are not robots who cannot think for themselves.

When I read The Crucible, I didn't suddenly want to hunt down and burn witches. Reading MacBeth didn't make me want to kill my father. Stories can entertain us, enlighten us, and make us think. They can reveal a world we've never known or will never know, but that provide us a brief escape from our own world.

This reminds me of the hoopla over Harry Potter and the small-minded people who railed against wizardry and witchcraft and that Rowling was making kids worship the devil.

At some point, you have to realize this is ignorant and irrational and these people don't deserve the energy it takes to try to reason with them.

kyradavis said...

Agreed. I doubt Gurdon meant to start up a fire storm with her article and I do think publishing tends to be a little reactionary in their publishing choices in that if a few dark YAs sell well they're going to rush to publish as many dark YAs as possible, saturating the market and (apparently) pissing of the critics at The WSJ. But that doesn't mean there's something inherently wrong with the books, just that there should be more variety. Lots of people have made the argument that this helps disenfranchised teens feel less alone in their suffering. I'm sure that's true but it's also true that there are a lot of happy teens/adolescents out there who won't be able to understand these hardships in any real or substantive way if they don't read about them. Empathy is important as is the ability to understand that people have varied life experiences. A happy teen isn't going to start cutting just because she read a book about it and a serious depressed teen will behave self-destructively regardless of what she does or does not read. It's kind of like blaming suicide and/or Columbine on heavy metal music. These are theories that just don't hold up.

Terri Osburn said...

I grew up with that "blame everything on heavy metal music" policy many tried to push. I had big hair and torn jeans, banged my head and waved my devil horns in the air. Today I'm a normal (read: boring) mom who dresses my age and loves passing on the music to her daughter.

We turned out normal! For the most part. And so will these kids. Though maybe a few who need to know they're not alone will make it through to be a boring mom because they picked up the right book at the right time.

Cheryl said...

I find myself wanting to debate both sides of the issue but for me reading has always been an escape even as a teen so the book characters and situations were usually far from my reality and stayed just a fantasy.
The second dilemma is that so many of these dark angsty YA books are made into movies which removes the readers thought process but at the same time it often will draw teens to the books so it is all a toss up and as every reader is different and every book will impact it's readers differently, it's hard to make blanket statements. (I don't tweet so this is my response to the whole debate)