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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The 'Is YA Too Dark & Edgy' Controversy

By Jenny Ramaley

Since we’re focusing on Hot, Hot, Hot topics this month, how about the brouhaha a couple of weeks ago when Meghan Cox Gurdon posted her thoughts about violence and depravity in YA novels? If you missed it, here are a few select paragraphs from her article, followed by responses from author Sherman Alexie and editor Cheryl Klein from Arthur A. Levine Books:

Darkness Too Visible

Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

By Meghan Cox Gurdon

Wall Street Journal (WSJ.com Bookshelf), June 4, 2011

 “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.
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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care. . . Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins's hyper-violent, best-selling "Hunger Games" trilogy and Sherman Alexie's prize-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. "It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power," Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet." . . .
Oh, well, that's all right then. Except that it isn't. It is no comment on Mr. Alexie's work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that's a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.”

Author Sherman Alexie took issue with her thoughts. Here’s part of his response, and the corresponding link to his entire article:

Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood
By Sherman Alexi
The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com Speakeasy), June 9, 2011

“As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.
And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sherman Alexie is the author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” winner of the 2007 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. He is currently at work on a sequel. His website is here.
Here’s part of what Cheryl Klein thinks about the “is YA Too Dark” controversy, posted on her blog at http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/ from Monday, June 13, 2011.

“And then with #YASaves itself . . . Is there dark stuff in YA, all about sex and death? Sure. But there is also I Now Pronounce You Someone Else and StarCrossed and Eighth-Grade Superzero and July’s The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, to name four books off my own list that are terrific and smart and not at all about angst; and I feel a little bit frustrated that YA is being tarred as a dark genre when there is such an incredible diversity that people just aren’t educated to see. (Or they can’t find the books in stores, because the darkness is what sells and therefore what gets on shelves.) If you’re scared about the darkness, by goodness, do more to celebrate the light. Read review magazines or YA blogs to find titles you approve of. Tell your local bookstore (whether a chain or an independent) that you’re looking for those kinds of books. Request specific titles, if you need to, and then buy them. Give those as gifts to friends whom you’re trying to educate about the genre and to teenagers. . . .
          Finally, the hard fact I always come back to whenever discussions like this come up: We (meaning writers, editors, publishers, even booksellers and librarians) cannot control readers’ reactions to the books they find through us. There may be readers who read books about cutting or bulimia or feeling suicidal (to pick three forms of darkness at random) and use them to start or continue those practices themselves. This is horrifying and sad but true. There will also be readers who already practice cutting or bulimia or who feel suicidal, who will truly benefit from seeing their experience reflected on the page and given that recognition by someone else; who will connect with that character, and be helped by seeing that character start to move back toward hope and out of the sickness, and may start to take that step themselves. This is inspiring and brave and also true.”

Here’s Jenny’s Two Cents:
I certainly enjoyed reading all kinds of books when I was a teen. Reading Go Ask Alice did not make me want to go out and experiment with drugs, but it did help me understand what was going on when an older girl I knew ran away from home with a drug dealer. The Outsiders didn’t make me want to stab any rich kids, but it gave me comfort growing up in an area where clear class lines existed between the haves and the have-nots.
Picking what YA books to read (and encouraging young readers to check out) is like my thoughts on drinking alcohol or eating rich foods – all things in moderation.  Just as devouring four Godiva chocolates at one sitting will make my stomach churn, reading four dark, heavy YA novels in a row will make me depressed.
Mix it up.
i.e. after reading 13 Reasons Why, try Twilight.

1 comment:

  1. When the WSJ article first came out, I felt like cheering. I still do. She's talking about judgement, and the lack of it--not so much any single book and its contents, but the overall picture and mood. As a parent and adult, I worry not so much about my kid reading a particular book, but their immersion in very dark, or highly sexual material. Or any other kid doing so for that matter.

    So it's not something to be legislated. (And by the way, it hasn't been; there is virtually no censorship in this country, which is the state preventing the publishing of material, despite how the ALA might throw the terms censorship and book banning around.) But sometimes it seems as if the adults and parents have thrown up their hands because there's so much "dark" out there already, why should we even talk about "dark" in books?

    It's a lot easier to write an interesting dark character or situation. Easier to get attention if it's edgy. Here's a challenge, but only if you're an excellent writer and master of your craft: write a book that, at its heart, is the opposite of depraved. One that is truly uplifting without being sappy, that is about a central nugget of good even if what swirls around is a realistic mish-mash. One that is emotionally true and good at the same time.

    Add in some excitement/adventure/twists and turns, and I think you'd also have something that sells well. Because I think there are a lot of teens who are tired of wearing all dark clothing.