Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dark, Dark Stuff: That WSJ Thing

It feels like every blogger and YA writer online has already comments on the Wall Street Journal article that sparked a Twitter upheaval (#YAsaves). If you need a run-down of it, Bookshelves of Doom (in a post appropriately titled "Another Day, Another Ill-informed Article About YA") has a summary. My favorite part was this:
...the article's author is the regular WSJ children's reviewer. So one would assume that she'd be aware that suggesting the YA industry is all about "bulldoz[ing] coarseness or misery into children's lives" might be going overboard. Especially in a piece that isn't in the opinion section.

But hey: Apparently not.
So the article's premise is this: YA books these days are too dark, full of evil, and those darn kids need to get off my lawn. According to the quoted "source," when she walked into the bookstore, all she could find in the YA department was "...all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."


Well, while my novel has nothing to do with vampires, I can assume, judging from a few specific scenes, that it is in the "dark, dark stuff" category. Pushing aside those specific scenes (because I don't want to spoil the novel for anyone), the genre itself would imply dark stuff: it's dystopian, a science fiction that takes place in a world that isn't ideal.

But--and I've said this before, but it bears repeating--the point of my novel specifically and dystopian novels in general--is not about the dark, dark stuff. They are all, at their heart, hopeful. Create a dark setting, but populate it with characters that are willing--are fighting--to rise above it.

You could read my book and focus on Eldest, and the mindlessness of the people on the ship, and the drugs and the murder and the dark.

Or you could look at it and see Amy, who won't give up her faith in either herself or the goodness of people. Or Elder, who--despite being raised in a dark society--learns to rise above it.

You can see the dark world, or you can see the people who rise above it.

Maybe our favorite quotations say more about us than the stories and people we're quoting.  ---John Green 

Okay then, let's look at some quotes from the infamous WSJ article:
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house 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.
Here's the thing. You may be seeing depravity, but I see hope. Give me Speak, and you may see rape, but I see a survivor. Give me The Hunger Games, and you may see children fighting each other, but I see people fighting oppression.

The article's narrow viewpoint indicates not what's wrong with YA literature--but what's wrong with the reader who wrote the article. She dismisses YA in one wide swath--but doesn't bother to apply the same sort of critical reading level that, I suspect, she'd apply to an adult novel.

I'm making assumptions here, but it's an attitude I've faced a lot with those prejudiced against YA. The attitude is merely this: YA novels are written for teens and therefore have no depth to them beyond the surface (because, of course, teens are kids and kids don't think analytically). This type of assumption drives me mad. YA isn't lesser in intellect, and deserves a thoughtful reader.

Here's another quote from the article:
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
I would say that the argument in favor of such novels is two-fold: not just to aid the teens who experience such hardships, but also to aid others into accepting or understanding teens in those situations.   The article cites a Lauren Myracle novel dealing with a homosexual character who is abused. The article focuses on the graphic nature of the abuse--but (without having read the novel in question) I'd be willing to bet that the novel isn't about the abuse, but the characters.

Sure, some YA novels are graphic. But there's a place for it. Let me give you an example from my teaching days--a novel that my students read was Elie Wiesel's Night. This is a common high school text for world literature students, and it is graphic. But the level of detail given in this book really hit home with a lot of my students. There's a difference between saying you're hungry and describing hunger. Between saying you're tortured and describing the whipping. Between saying a character died to describing the light that leaves his eyes.

I'm sure that the author of the WSJ article would argue that Night isn't a YA contemporary novel. But it is a novel read by teens, and it is graphic. And it proves my point: sometimes graphic scenes are needed in a story.

The WSJ article concludes with a note about gatekeepers, the parents and guardians and schools that decide what books are easily available to their teens.
Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"
Um. No. NO. It is not censorship for a parent or guardian to decide what book his or her child reads. It's parenting. I don't know of a single author who would ever object to a parent dictating what book his or her child should read. What crosses the line into censorship is when you try to parent not just your child, but all the other children, too.

And, as much as I suspect this article would like to actually censor some titles, it is not censorship to state your opinion. You have every right to do so. I encourage you to do so.

But please don't ignore the way #YAsaves, and please try to speak authoritatively on the subject by giving it more credence than just a cursory glance.


Don't forget, this is day one of the Elana Johnson POSSESSION Launch Festival of Awesome! Today, go to Lisa and Laura Roecker's site and comment to enter to win a signed copy of POSSESSION and learn the secret time that you need to use the Twitter hashtag #taggedPOSSESSION to win another signed copy of POSSESSION!

We're giving away 15 signed copies of POSSESSION throughout this week's blog tour--be sure to visit and enter to win! Tomorrow's giveaway will be hosted at Shannon Messenger's blog!


AimeeLSalter said...

I love what you've said here, especially "What crosses the line into censorship is when you try to parent not just your child, but all the other children, too."


Though, I'll have to disagree with you on "I don't know of a single author who would ever object to a parent dictating what book his or her child should read."

I've read several authors blog about how teens should be allowed to read their books regardless of what parents think. (Even, once, an author encouraging kids to hide their book behind a Charlotte's Web dust-jacket).

Ironically, that's the very mentality I had as a teen. Now that I'm parent? Not so much...

Anyway, I love how you've discussed this article, rather than just bashing the reviewer. I'm pointing others to this post. Thanks!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with you. My daughter and her friends want to read YA stories with "dark" themes. They are moving toward adulthood and that's what interests them. And I was glad my daughter read SPEAK, because it was a good book and to help her realize what happens out there in the real world.

NeuroHormone said...

The books I read help me build the person I am today. I tend to choose a certain book because the character is struggling with the same issues. I want to see how they deal with it. =)

Tere Kirkland said...

No matter what her opinion on the dark premises of these books, without actually reading them cover to cover, she's obviously missing out on the bigger picture, the REAL message, which is, as you say, HOPE!

And anyone who dismisses a book without really reading it is the worst sort of censor. An IGNORANT one.

Melissa/welachild said...

Great post!
Like you pointed out, "There's a difference between saying you're hungry and describing hunger. Between saying you're tortured and describing the whipping. Between saying a character died to describing the light that leaves his eyes." and isn't that the job of a writer, the purpose of a good book. To help the reader feel ALL the sides of life, good and bad. To open our hearts to the suffering of others. But most importantly, to give us hope.

Erin Bowman said...

"It is not censorship for a parent or guardian to decide what book his or her child reads. It's parenting...What crosses the line into censorship is when you try to parent not just your child, but all the other children, too."

Amen. Well said, Beth. Well said!

Lisa Mandina said...

I have to wonder if this person has really read the YA books she's talking about. As someone who works in a bookstore, and currently reads mostly YA, I really feel like there are so many more good stories being told at the YA level than at the adult level. It's like adults can't have any fun or imagination in their stories, but YA does!

JPK said...

Okay. Firstly, the term "YA" drives me nuts. Let's be truthful here ladies, it's really YW (Young Women) - who are we kidding. You know this to be true, just read the backs of 50% of the books on the shelves.

Secondly, I cannot stand the "YA" book covers that are being used today. The cover is the first thing we see when buying a book, our first interpretation of the book. It's huge. As normal, responsible, concerned parents out there trying to do what's best for our kids, why on this green earth would I choose a book based on the images I'm seeing now? They're terrible. They represent what's going to come once you crack that spine. "Young Adults" (girls) for some reason want graphic, gory depictions of life. I'm not so sure that's the best thing nowadays...

Why can't they all be like the Children's/ Juvenile fiction books, the Harry Potters, the Percy Jacksons, the Artemis Fowls. All great covers, all great books. All read by young and old alike, male and female. You don't need gratuitous details on every single subject just because you're "a big girl now." Good stories can be enjoyed and be captivating without all the Gothic wannabe filler garbage.

Just my rant.

Megs said...

Even when I was still a YA reader, it bothered me how hard it was to find YA fiction that wasn't dark. I didn't dismiss it, and I do love some of it (your book, btw, is not dark dark—tone and graphic handling of dark elements has more to do with that), BUT I personally prefer to have some stuff that is light, beautiful, inspiring withOUT dropping me in the dark first. It is possible to write inspiring without sticking to just dark. But it's a growing trend to not have much in the way of that sort of stuff.

I understand the blogger's point, but not from the perspective of dismissing the fiction. From the perspective of being STEEPED in it. I wish more people would write about light and imagine beautiful things than always have to pound us through the worst first.

Not to say the other fiction doesn't have its place. But it should would be nice to have a bigger place for lighter stuff.