Teh Interwebs (or at least the sections of it that I inhabit) have lit up in the past few days in light of an article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon that portrays contemporary teen fiction as “a hall of funhouse mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”
Backlash against the article has been great. Multiple articles, like one from Salon and another from the Guardian , have expressed opposing viewpoints. The hashtag #yasaves hit incredibly high on the trends list of Twitter. Bloggers (like me) have been writing their opinions on the glory that is YA (young adult) literature.
I won’t deny the dark nature that permeates some YA literature today. I’ll give Gurdon the benefit of the doubt that YA lit is indeed darker in many ways than it was 20 years ago. (Although the idea that you can’t find joy or beauty in today’s YA fiction is absolute bullshit. Gurdon handpicks some books that do indeed support her argument half-heartedly while conveniently ignoring teen bestsellers like those of YA-chick-lit goddess Sarah Dessen. And you read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and tell me that it’s not one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever read, in spite of its gritty honesty.)
I’m not going to pretend that I have some amazing story about my on-the-edge-of-destruction hopelessness and how some gritty, dark, scary YA novel helped me cope and “saved my life.” Some people do have those stories, and I champion them. I can however, tell you stories about the deep and meaningful things YA did for me. I can tell you the story of my heart breaking when I read the classic dystopia that is The Giver by Lois Lowry and fearing for the future of my generation if we continue to try to police the way people feel and act. That book awakened me as an activist. I can tell you the story of being awestruck at John Green’s perfect capture of my goddamned teen angst in An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska and his ability to simultaneously meet his readers in that angst and pull them out into a world filled with wonderful, amazing, beautiful, screwed-up, glorious other people. I can tell you the story of sneaking home David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy from the school library and reading it on edge, breathlessly, in one night, weeping at the end because I had finally found a book that made me feel okay with who I was and wanting so desperately to join Paul, the protagonist, in his world where people are just people.
But more than discrediting an entire portion of literature that I am dedicated to, and more than ignoring the fact that “this kind of reading…serves to remind us of our humanity and our need to reach out and understand the emotions of others” (Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson, Literature for Today’s Young Adults, p. 214), Gurdon seems to celebrate some twisted view of literature for young people that I find patronizing, colonizing, and, frankly, dangerous: that YA fiction (and even children’s literature) should present a world that is happy, carefree, and all tidied up at the end.
This “escapist” view of children’s literature is an attempt made by adults ostensibly to “protect” young readers from the nasty realities of the “adult” world. But who are they really protecting? As has been pointed out by countless others, these books exist because they are the reality of some kids. Attempts to protect young people from reading about rape, incest, homophobia, drug abuse, violence, war, and other unfortunate realities seem to me to be attempts to shield our own visions of what childhood or adolescence ought to be, rather than the realities of what it is.
After all, isn’t the whole idea of YA literature that adults write novels for people who they already don’t identify with (with the exception of the rare teen author)? The system itself is set up to be patronizing–some theorists have called children’s literature a type of colonization of childhood by adults. More and more, I find this assessment to be valid. I’m not saying that we ought to scrap the system. It works, at least in part. But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t colonize to the point where young people’s experiences are invalidated. We’ve seen how that ends up (cf. every freakin’ colonization that ever happened and its results in oppression today).
Daniel Handler has written, “Certainly there are times when we want to escape to a trouble-free, imaginary world. But when the real world is so searing that it cannot be glossed over, we can find value in stories that admit the world is tumultuous, instead of reassuring us that it is not.” This is why YA Saves.
Look, teens read teen angst because they get it. I know, I was there quite recently. I still read it, because I eat it up.
This world is a harum-scarum place. I got through it with the help of my YA novels. I still get through it because of my YA novels. They do more for me sometimes than almost anything else. They still challenge me. They still resonate for me. From despair, from self-absorption, from closed-mindedness, from depression, and from unbridled enthusiasm, they still save me.
Here’s a couple more links to reactions that I found fabulous:
A response by Sherman Alexie himself.
A parody of the article written about adult fiction.