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.