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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Perception, Perspective, and Backlash

The Twitter world blew up while I was sleeping. I miss everything because I sleep.  A Wall Street Journal article took aim at the current content of Young Adult (YA) fiction. In the world of blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, the backlash was instantaneous, birthing the #YAsaves hashtag and now a more permanent YA Saves Project

So, what's all the fuss? Obviously, readers, writers, agents, and editors felt defensive, and I can see why.  I found myself bristling as I read the article.  Since I came to the party late, I didn't face any initial emotional reaction, though, and I've had time to re-read the piece.  In the end, I can cull some reasonable points from within what I think is fairly divisive and accusatory rhetoric.  Basically, I think the opinion may have validity, but it came across in a way that made people feel attacked and negated import positive outcomes of these "dark" and "grotesque" themes. 

Here are a few points she makes which warrant attention:

1. Parents should monitor the books their kids are reading.  In many ways, I took her article as more of a warning siren to people who may be unaware of how much more graphic YA fiction is today than it used to be.  I'm not opposed to that.  I have two WIP YA manuscripts with very edgy themes.  The thing is, I haven't been a teen in a very long time, and they reflect my own reality then, so I don't think these themes are necessarily far off the mark. However, parents may think that books/literature are inherently fair game, unlike video games and movies, simply because they are published books.  Aren't books always good?  Always a better alternative to mindless activities?  Maybe, maybe not.  At the very least, parents should be sure the books are age appropriate and they should be prepared to talk about potentially disturbing themes.

2. Another assertion posited by Cox Gurdon had to do with the age old question: does art imitate life or vice versa.  She states, "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." 

This is where I will take a controversial position and agree with her.  That is, in fact, how all popular culture has pushed the boundaries.  It's pretty much the same thing George Gerbner found in media studies--it's a form of cultivation theory. 

I know we all want to balk at the idea that media, books, entertainment can influence us negatively.  We like to think we're smarter, better critical thinkers, immune to the influence, etc.  But I'll admit it.  I learned a lot from The Best Little Girl in the World. Did the book cause me to have an eating disorder?  No, but I know it escalated things.  

The problem with the WSJ article, though, is that it points blame and then doesn't see any alternative perspectives.  While the content may be dark and it may have some negative influences, is that YA literature does save. These mature themes showcase that teen problems are real.  Rather than seeing this as a reason to attack people who produce the art, it would be good to look at what's going on with our teens. Why is this the reality?

An earlier article from WSJ addressed the same issue in a much different way.  I was intrigued by that one because I'd read all of the articles mentioned. The conclusion of Roiphe's article astutely states, "As alarming as these books are, there is in all of this bleakness a wholesome and old-fashioned redemption that involves principles like triumph over adversity and affirmations of integrity."   

That's the missed component of the most recent discussion.  The themes may be shocking, but unless you read them, you don't know what the ultimate takeaway is, which takes me back to #1--parents do need to know what their kids are reading.

I'd love to hear more thoughts from different perspectives on this.


  1. You have managed to concisely sum up every thought I had on this matter. The fact remains that the facts presented in the article are correct - YA lit has taken a darker turn, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a simple light-hearted read these days. But I do feel that comparing, say, The Hunger Games with Judy Blume's fiction is unrealistic. The audience is different - if you ask me, Blume wrote MG, not YA - and times have changed. Unfortunately, in this day and age, teens' lives *are* often that dark, are often tinged with danger and regret. It amazes me that teens today lead lives that are vastly different than mine, and I am only 28.

    The thing that the article neglects to point out, in my opinion, is that while, yes, the material is powerful, the impacts can be largely positive and helpful. An example of the texts mentioned in the article was Go Ask Alice. I read that book when I was 16 and it was absolutely life-altering in every possible positive way.

    I'd also like to point out, as you did, that this is not a new accusation against the YA Lit World. I found it to be a tad of an overstatement that the article claimed that modern YA lit was lacking in quality (not at all what I read) or that, if there wasn't a big, nasty backlash, this train of thought would creep into mainstream idealogies.

    Er. This is an article on the Wall Street Journal website. I do believe that *is* mainstream, no? This kind of flare up happens on a regular basis - I mean, hasn't the witchcraft in Harry Potter been fodder for complaints about morality in YA fiction for a decade? This isn't new, and I'd argue that, really, in the grand scheme of things, it won't change anyone's reading habits. If you were or were not allowing your kids to read certain books, that will likely still be the case after you read this article.

    Someone also asked me if I would want to be on the end of such a scathing review of my work, as the article's author was exceptionally harsh on a handful of modern YA novels. The answer to that is of course not, but I'd also submit that I feel that if you're going to write controversial material, you should expect criticism - founded or not, and politely phrased or not. This is simply part of the publishing world.

    The larger problem with the article, for me, was the sweeping generalities the author used. There *is* modern MG and YA that deals with lighter fare, but those are not the books that make headlines or have such vocally voracious followings.

    Thanks for posting this. It's very nice to know that there's someone out there who feels similarly to me.

  2. Excellent points, Ang! This is such a good one, "There *is* modern MG and YA that deals with lighter fare, but those are not the books that make headlines or have such vocally voracious followings." I had the same reaction.