Friday, July 1, 2011

YA Saves--Counterpoint

After my blog post critiquing Meghan Cox Gurdon’s two attention-getting essays on YA fiction on Tuesday, I was advised by some commenters that I had stated my case a bit too broadly. I was forced to concede some points. I’d like to elaborate on those points. Because if you can’t argue with yourself, who can you argue with?

Point #1: Ms. Gurdon is not an idiot for stating her opinion or for sticking to it, if she truly believes it to be correct

Although I didn’t actually call Ms. Gurdon an idiot, I did say “Because when thousands are calling you an idiot, you should always stick to your guns.”

It’s not the worst that has been said of Ms. Gurdon, but this is my blog and I have a deep-seated need to be diplomatic, so let me clarify. When you truly believe you are in the right, you do not have to change your opinion, no matter how many people disagree with you. It takes a lot of strength to advocate for an unpopular opinion, and sometimes the unpopular is right.

I don’t think so in this case, but still. It can happen.

What I should have said is that when thousands of people are calling you an idiot, it is sometimes prudent to examine your position, inspect it for flaws, acknowledge the places you can bend, the places where perhaps you overstated your case, and provide concrete examples to back up the rest.

Extraordinary positions require extraordinary proof.  Ms. Gurdon did not supply any proof, even after her position was attacked. She cited no studies which have examined the effect of negative YA elements on YA readers. Provided no anecdotes from readers who date their personal moral decline from the day they read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." Quoted no parents who noticed marked negative behavior changes in their teen readers after they read "Rage."  She didn’t even recount a personal anecdote about how profoundly disturbed she was for days after she finished "The Marbury Lens" and how she’s been suffering ever since.

Instead, she rests on her observation that there are bad elements in lots of YA books, hypothesizes that these bad elements might have negative effects on some impressionable readers, and leaves that suggestion to fester in the minds of paranoid parents everywhere. She didn’t use the C-word, and has specifically asserted that she doesn’t believe in censoring books, but she must excuse the YA community for being afraid that others might be inflamed enough by her unsupported musings to make that very leap.

Because that’s what uninformed people do with unsupported fear-mongering. They take a hint of trouble with a capital T, notice it rhymes with C, and make sure that stands for Censor. If that’s not what she meant to do, she should have been more careful. Perhaps she could have taken the time to share with us how to judge the message of a book by its cover, or at least acknowledged some of the good things that can come of the books she’s attacking.

If she needs examples, she hasn’t been paying that much attention to #YASaves on Twitter.

Point #2: Some elements can feel damaging, in and of themselves, depending on the reader

Fiction can be powerful. In the hands of a master wordsmith, readers can come away from a scene or a book actually feeling like they experienced what was described. That’s not always fun. It’s not always healthy. It’s not always ideal. A detailed scene of violent rape, for instance, can have lingering negative effects on an individual, even if the author takes pains to show how the victim overcame her trauma. It can be unsettling to learn that such evil exists in the world.

I’m a huge fan of Dan Wells’s books about 15-year-old sociopath John Wayne Cleaver, beginning with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. I love the message of the books—that you can overcome any odds and choose your own path in life. That you can decide how to act, even if all your instincts are dictating a different destiny. I find the books inspiring and uplifting, in a bloody, gritty, screaming sort of way. Even though John witnesses and even does horrible things, the books never once suggest that the horrible things are good. They call evil evil and evil is overcome. I find them inspiring.

My mother disagrees. On my recommendation, she read the first book. She found it to be “soul-destroying.” She (rather insultingly) wondered how anyone could read such depravity and not be damaged by it.

My mother is a generally reasonable woman. She is not taken to fits of sentimentality or illogical thinking. If she found the books personally offensive to such a degree, it’s because she truly felt that way. Same with one commenter on my Tuesday post, who described her “soul damaging” experiences with two separate YA books. I’ve had several online conversations with this woman and find her to be very level-headed. (She liked Dan Wells’ books.)

So how do I reconcile my mother’s and my friend’s experiences with my own? I don’t have to. Everyone is different. Perhaps I’ve already been exposed to so much of the horrible side of life that it is harder to shock me. (I do read a lot of police reports.) Perhaps the elements themselves don’t matter as much to me as the overall message. Perhaps others are more sensitive. That’s okay. People are different. This is why it’s irresponsible to say that such-and-such an element is always bad—or always good.

I do want to make it clear that I do not feel my soul has been destroyed by any of the horrible things I’ve read about, either in fiction or in real life. It’s intact, thank you very much. (I teach Sunday school, so it better be.)  Souls are remarkably resilient, actually.

So are teens. Even well-adjusted teens who haven’t been traumatized by real life. Though many of them may not enjoy learning about ugly things and may find they have to reflect on them to an uncomfortable degree in order to process what they’ve read, process they will. If the truth has been told, even if that truth is ugly, they will eventually learn to accept it. They will move on. They will still be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. They will perhaps be wiser.

That doesn’t mean that there is a necessary virtue in facing the horrible things in life and accepting them. But for those who do, who can endure the adjustment, there is a world of empathy on the other side. There is an increased ability to understand the many ways a heart can be broken and how it can be put back together again. There is perhaps not as much peace, but there is still joy.

Point #3: Characters shouldn’t live in a consequence-free zone

The most damaging thing a YA book can do, in my opinion, is lie to a child. Telling a child, for instance, that they are worthless, or that they have no hope for happiness, can destroy them. They should never be told that good is evil, that evil is good, or that they have no power to choose between the two.

It should never be suggested that they can do what they want without suffering the natural consequences.

If there is any sometimes-legitimate complaint to be made about YA fiction today -- and, really, adult fiction has this problem, too -- I think this is it. Teenage characters get drunk and get high and are perfectly competent the next day. They never get thrown in juvie for smoking cigarettes. Teenage girls willingly sleep with adult men and no one points out that those men could now properly be labeled sex-offenders. They damage property, steal, and trespass and, so long as they’re having lighthearted fun while they do it, very few characters come away with a juvenile record and community service.

That’s just not accurate. Or, if it is, it might not be the best truth to reinforce.

One of the hallmarks of adolescence is a decreased ability to appreciate consequences. Many teens will unthinkingly destroy their own or someone else’s life because they don’t stop to consider what will happen next. The books they read should help remind them of the power of consequence—not reinforce their mistaken belief in their own invincibility.

It’s impossible, of course, when writing a book, to include a consequence for every last action – and even more impossible to include consequences that everyone will agree with. Authors must pick and choose which parts of “reality” will help build their theme, and which will distract a reader from the main story.  I think that, overall, authors in general and YA authors especially try to be very responsible with cause and effect. They try to show that negative actions bring negative rewards.  It doesn’t happen in every scene of every book, but I think few YA books can be accused of a blatant disregard for responsibility.

Responsibility is what parents are for. I frequently point out to my sons that, hey, this car chase they think is so cool? That “hero” will be paying off restitution on all those crashed cars for the rest of his life… if he ever makes it out of prison for sideswiping that cop car and causing it to flip like that. Aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer isn’t something to mess around with.

In the end, I think I can agree with Ms. Gurdon on this point: Parents should be the gatekeepers of what their children are ready to read. I’ll even take it one step further: Parents should be the tour guides as well. They should lead the way through the horror. They should answer questions and refer their children to additional resources. They should be a sounding board and a touchstone.

Above all, they should never presume to declare what is good or bad for someone else’s children. They should never declare that a certain work of fiction has no value for anyone. They should never judge a book by its cover.

So what did I miss this time? :)

[Note: this blog post was posted simultaneously on International Business Times-Business & Books, which also linked to my post from Tuesday: YA Saves--Especially when it shows evil. When they contacted me about republishing the first, I was already planning this counterpoint, so they published this instead. Go check em out!]


  1. Now you're famous. Great posts, both of them. Glad someone noticed and gave them wider distribution.

  2. I think you mean "deep-seeded," otherwise, great post, and good point.

  3. Thanks, Josh! And thanks for helping me edit this last night.

    Matt--Drat! Where were you when I was editing? Josh was obviously useless. :D

    (Just kidding. All mistakes are my own.)

  4. Wonderful post, Robin. And I agree with everything you said. Parents need to understand even the differences in their own children.

    It's funny but kids wanted to be treated fairly, which to them means them same. Unfortunately they're different people with different needs, strengths, and limitations. What's best for one child is not necessarily the best for the another, even if those children live in the same house with the same parents.

    I had this challenge when I had to decide that one of my sons wasn't up to seeing Jurassic Park when it came out in theaters, but his just older brother got to go. Later, when we were able to watch the film on TV (with the ability to comment), he finally agreed he would have been too scared.

  5. Donna--my 10-year old gets nightmares from monsters (like the ones in Zathura). My 6- and almost-8-year-olds don't.

    The 10-year-old, of course, thinks that means that NO ONE should get to watch scary movies. :)

  6. Sorry Robin. I guess my editing skills at midnight aren't that great.

  7. Josh--no worries. Ned missed it, too. Maybe I should just stop using cliches.... :)

  8. I apologized too soon. I did some research and "deep-seated" is actually the correct term.

    Using the "deep-seeded" term seems like it makes sense, metaphorically, but it is actually wrong. The article below does a better job than I can of explaining why.

    I'm not useless - even at midnight.

  9. Josh, my humblest apologies. I'm coming to you with all my midnight editing needs.

    This is what happens when I use terms that I understand the usage of, but not the actual definition of. :)

  10. I definitely agree that every decision needs some consequence, either good or bad, depending on the action. Having consequences makes your written work a stronger work. As an example let me compare how two TV shows I followed handled consequences.

    My favorite TV show of all time is Babylon 5. In many ways this show was written more like a book then a TV show. The characters grew and changed over the course of five seasons. You could see the choices a character made reverberate in future episodes and seasons.

    I also used to watch Star Trek as well. But in Star Trek, a characters choices rarely had any effect beyond the episode that the choice occurred in. And since there was no consequences to a characters actions, the characters never changed from episode to episode. This made it easy to predict what the character would do in any given episode.

    And this is why IMHO that the Babylon 5 TV show ended up being one of the most highly regarded science fiction TV shows ever produced.

    I also feel that characters which experience consequences become stronger, more dynamic dynamic characters. These characters are also more interesting to write about as well.

    I have always loved to read because reading helps me reduce my stress level in life. Which is why I don't enjoy reading books with extreme or disturbing subject matters. While I know that those things exist; reading about them only seems to add to my stress, not relieve it. So while it doesn't bother me that authors write books containing "soul-destroying" things (as my Aunt calls them) exist. I have have no desire to immerse myself in them.

    Which is why my wife and I are not planing writing disturbing imagery or subjects into our books. In reality, we are trying to write stories that we enjoy reading. I doubt you would enjoy reading a story of ours that was otherwise.

    That doesn't mean that our writing doesn't contain evil characters (it wouldn't be Epic Fantasy without them). But there is a difference from having evil in a book and having to write from such a perspective. When I write, I need to write as if I am looking through my characters eyes, I need to feel what my characters are feeling, and I need to understand my characters thoughts and emotions. So I don't write what I don't or can't feel inside of me.

  11. Eric--Yes! Character growth only happens if there are consequences. Also, writing what you love to read is soooo important. If a writer doesn't enjoy reading gritty stuff, any gritty stuff she writes will probably sound hollow or, worse, preachy.

    There is also a vast audience for lighter, non-disturbing fiction. I enjoy both kinds--but mostly the lighter stuff. I have to be in a certain kind of mood to appreciate grit.

  12. It feels presumptuous to critique the rhetorical choices of a NYT writer, but I think her problem was the lack of clear thesis statements. She needed to state exactly what she thought should be done about the extreme grit and grime in YA lit instead of leaving her audience members' imaginations to run amok. My impression after reading her article and listening to her interviews was that the changes she'd like to see aren't actually that upsetting.

    If she'd said, "Book reviews should warn the readers of X, Y, Z content," or "Publishers should recognize the market for lighter YA fiction" or even "Writers should consider the idea that much of their audience is still innocent of X, Y, and Z content," I don't think she would have encountered the outrage she did.

  13. ETA: Sorry. My above comment referenced the NYT article, but it was actually a WSJ article.

    The other thing I wondered--considering this situation as a parent, not as a wannabee writer-- is that it seems that few people are acknowledging the innocence of many young readers. There seems to be a presumption that YA readers are already familiar with cutting, incest, rape, homophobia on more than just a theoretical level, and therefore putting these things in books that YA readers will read, and not warning them first, is not exposing them to anything they're not already familiar with. I find that assumption quite disconcerting.

    In his response, Sherman Alexie wrote "When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

    No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged."

    But as I read this, I thought, "There are many of non-privileged children who've not been raped or hazed or subverted. They're just kids trying to be happy in a crazy world. THOSE are the kids I want to protect." I feel like this discussion has ignored those kids or at least felt that their innocence is disposable in the face of potential "catharsis." (I put catharsis in quotations because I don't it's real catharsis if you have to first introduce new fears to your audience in order to provide that catharsis.)

  14. And to be clear, when I refer to wanting to protect kids who've not been traumatized, I'm not dismissing kids who've suffered atrocities. I'm just recognizing that, as Alexie pointed out, trying to protect those children through the content of the books they read is futile.

  15. Heidi--I agree with all three of your comments. :) When pointing out a problem Ms. Gurdon really should have specified what solution, exactly, she was proposing. By just identifying the problem, she left open the torches-and-pitchforks solution.

    My own children are rather young for me to really know what I want them to be learning about this later, but I'm actually a bit torn. I don't want them paranoid of the world, but I don't want them making unfair judgments about it, either. I don't know that knowing about the evil things in the world necessarily decreases their happiness. It might make them wiser and more able to make choices that will ensure that happiness. *Feels her way along with everyone else*

    Thanks for your comments!