Well, not really. But if you are at all plugged into the literary side of twitter, and the young adult community in particular, you would have thought that was the case.
The culprit was Meghan Cox Gurdon’s posing of this question:
Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?
The result was a flood of vitriol, hash tags and quite a bit of rather ridiculous posturing in my humble opinion.
I read the article a number of times and I just don’t see it as the all out attack on young adult literature many make it out to be. To me it instead read as a complaint that yet another area of our lives seems to be becoming dominated by the dark side of life; and that maybe we should rethink this direction. There are caveats and acknowledgments that the issue is complex throughout but it is clearly written from the point of view of parents not an art critic.
To me the fundamental issue at the heart of this little internet controversy lies instead in the inability of many fans of contemporary young adult fiction to understand that there is a whole world out there that does not share their ideology or worldview when it comes to art, literature or raising children.
Sure, I think many in the YA community (reviews and authors) are overly sensitive and thus over reacted to what was really a rather standard response to popular culture. To be fair, I read YA fiction and can be sensitive about it myself but I don’t come from that world nor do I indentify with it strongly. There is a feeling that the genre or label has come of age in a sense and attacks on it in any form are attempts to snuff it out just when it has achieved something good.
But this article was not an attack on young adult literature or fiction for teens as a whole. Articles of this length are by nature made up of large generalities and Gurdon was simply asking whether it was a good thing that the hottest books for teens seem to be getting darker and darker; full of violence, language and sexuality that would have shocked previous generations.
Surely, this is not a shocking thing or a new complaint. Are people unaware that this sort of thing disturbs parents; always has and always will? It can’t possibly shock you that some parents are doubtful of the value of their kids reading about rape, incest and murder on a regular basis. Put aside whether you agree with it or not, why the anger and vitriol at what is a rather common belief and argument?
I think it is because it goes to the heart of the liberal view of art. More below.Here is the key section from the article:
But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. “I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,” the editor grumbled, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.”
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”
It is of course understood to be an act of literary heroism to stand against any constraints, no matter the age of one’s readers; Ms. Myracle’s editor told Publishers Weekly that the author “has been on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression.”
This is at the heart of the disagreement. There is a viewpoint that any attempts to stifle or disapprove of books by subject matter is de facto censorship and one step from book burning. That art is sacred somehow and that any criticisms are a giant step towards a very slippery slope.
One blog reaction highlights this in her reaction [emphasis in original]:
Articles like the WSJ one don’t just attack YA literature: they also attack the intelligence of young adults and YA readers, the act of reading, and the very institution of education and learning itself. The article is an attack on progress above all.
Get that? If you suggest that contemporary literature for young adults is too dark and violent to the point of desensitization it is an attack on reading, education and progress itself.
Um, no, it is not. The irony is the post bemoans the lack of discourse and the insistence on a black and white world – only to draw very black and white lines about the author she disagrees with. The world is apparently full of gray except for this article which is an attack on all that is decent and human.
The liberal view of art is that you can’t criticize art that pushes the boundaries because that is what art does. It is a trope that has become conventional wisdom: all art is attacked as dangerous and bad and then eventually becomes accepted as worthwhile or even great. Oh and any attempts to avoid focusing of the most brutal aspects of reality is prudish repression that is stupid and unhealthy.
This is the same thing. If you want to complain about dark ya fiction you are undermining all young adult fiction. Another author offered a profanity laden post to this effect. He refuses to justify his art. Fine, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree it is art or agree that it is age appropriate art, etc. (And by the way, if you want to counter the argument that contemporary literature is unduly coarsening our culture perhaps the angry F bombs are not the way to go. That author might write great books but that post made me think he was angry, vulgar and rather egotistical. )
Heck, I even read tweets to the effect that kids should be allowed to read whatever they want – that nothing should be off limits. Many seem unable to see that lots of people just don’t share this perspective. There are lots and lots of parents who are sensitive to the emotional and intellectual development of their children and would prefer to guide their reading and steer them away from things they think are unhelpful or potentially harmful.
And to counter this the twitterverse comes up with #yasaves – testimonials to the fact that dark and subversive ya fiction sustains and saves adolescents across the land. Forgetting for a moment that the plural of anecdote is not data, this does not take away the point of the article: that parents have every right to be worried about what their kids are reading and to make decisions about what they think is best for them. This is not censorship nor a threat to free expression but what good parents do. Dark books are not inherently moral nor are taboo subjects naturally part of maturity. There are good and bad, useful and detrimental, fine for some ages and not necessarily good for others.
Sure, lots of parents draw the lines very differently based on the way they see the world and on their child’s emotional and intellectual development (one would hope). But to say that there should be no lines is silly and flies in the face of reality (and of the nature of parenthood).
If you don’t believe me, suggest a nakedly racist book and see how the free expression folks react.
What I found interesting about this whole scandal was the seeming inability of some people to disagree without engaging in hyperbole and near hyperventilation. Take a deep breath, take a step back and gain some perspective. Whether you agree with the author or not, this is not an existential threat to the publication of young adult books dark or not. Bookstores are not going to start pulling books because of one article in the Wall Street Journal.
Many love to talk about tolerance and discussion but someone writes an article they disagree with on a subject near and dear to their heart and they react as if civilization itself is at risk (social media over-reaction, weird I know).
Gurdon’s critics complain that she is unaware of the reality teens face today, but I think it is just as likely that they are unwilling or in capable of understanding that large swaths of the population see the world differently that they do.
Reality is a two way street after all.