Today I welcome Jessica Park as part of the blog tour for her YA novel Flat-Out Love. She's here to talk about the recent Wall Street Journal articles about "dark" YA material.
Where to begin with the whole WSJ article (now articles) by Meghan Cox Gurdon? This is a huge topic, so I can just barely scratch the surface here. But I’ll start with this: The first article is obnoxious and annoying, and the second article is pathetic. I think that the second one is particularly idiotic. I can’t entirely dismiss Gurdon’s articles because it is true that young adult literature today does offer many, many books with dark themes. Welcome to the world. This is nothing new. The subject matter may have changed over the years, but teens being interested in “forbidden” or “risqué” themes is an ageless truth. It’s totally normal. The articles read like a pissed-off puritanical housewife from the 50s who has been forced to watch an unedited Elvis gyrate on the The Ed Sullivan Show. (Although we all know that housewife was secretly loving every hip thrust. Perhaps the same can be said about Gurdon and YA literature?) Anyhow, Gurdon is clearly rolling her eyes at the backlash that resulted from her first article and seems dismissive and disrespectful of the young adult community. She would have done much better to write an article that raised issues for discussion and didn’t make such ridiculously grandiose statements.
Instead, her presentation completely sucked. But she’s obviously not interested in presentation or thoughtful discussion.
My first thought when the storm exploded was that Gurdon reminded me so strongly of book reviewers who write scathing reviews for the apparent pleasure of tearing someone else to shreds. You know those reviews that I’m talking about. The ones where the reviewer just rips apart a book and author in such a cruel manner that one quickly realizes that the nasty review says more about the reviewer than it does the book. That’s what Gurdon sounds like as she pitches a childish fit about young adult fiction. My advice to Gurdon: Don’t read books that you’re not interested in. Unless someone has a gun to your head, put the book down, back away, and read something else. I’ve never understood people who complain, “Ugh, this book was so awful that I could hardly stand to turn another page.” Really? Okay. So don’t. It’s pretty damn simple. She doesn’t like certain books, so she shouldn’t read them. There are millions of books to choose from, so go read some squeaky clean thing.
Gurdon writes, “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.” Fair enough. There is no denying that there are popular culture trends. Young adult paranormal books, for instance, have grown in popularity. Publishers and authors are feeding that interest. For lots of people, books are a business, and some authors choose to write for a current market. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn a living and producing a product that will sell. But, there are also plenty of authors who write very tough stories about teen issues because these stories can help readers feel less isolated. They have characters with whom they identify, or with whom they have nothing in common at all but are nonetheless interested in. So what if a teenager wants to read a “dark” story? Frankly what I care about is that teens are reading. Really reading. The boom in the YA market is nothing but fantastic, in my opinion. I’m thrilled. Reading anything is what is important here. Building vocabulary, intelligence, creativity, and getting the brain working hard… all of that. I also think that losing oneself in different kinds of fictional characters and relationships and plots gets us all thinking about real life, too. How we connect with the world. Readers are smart enough to know the difference between fiction and reality.
Gurdon continues with, “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.” I really hate first statement. If a reader begins cutting, for example, after reading a book about a cutter, one can obviously not blame the book. One could, perhaps, say that, yes, the idea for that behavior stemmed from a fictional story, but the book in no way caused that particular manifestation of some sort of underlying psychological issue. The truth is that had the behavior not been cutting, it likely would have been something else. And I don’t have figures, but I would suspect that the number of teens who read a book about something that Gurdon considers unsavory and then suddenly act on themes from the book is probably minimal. (“Gee, I just read a book about bullying, so now I have the sudden urge to go beat up some random kid. Awesome idea!”) I grew up during the Flowers in the Attic craze, and I can guarantee you that had I had a brother, he and I would not have started an incestuous affair just because I’d devoured every book in that series. But the stories were intoxicating and salacious and naughty, and my friends and I loved every word.
I do, however, think that it is important that parents be aware of what their child is reading, in the same way parents should be aware of other things going on in their child’s life. If a teenager is only reading deeply disturbing stories of violence, abuse, etc., it’s important for an adult to figure out if there is a reason for that. But the same can said for almost anything; only sadistic music, only bloody video games, etc. It’s not really about books at all. What’s more important is to look at the teenager’s life as a whole. If you’ve got a kid who devours every supposedly-controversial book/game/movie/song she can get her hands on, but has solid social relationships, etc., and a generally “healthy” life, who cares? Books are not the source of a troubled teen.
And there are always other choices. The implication that the only stories available for purchase these days are books filled with “ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty,” is silly. Yes, actual shelf space in one of the few brick-and-mortar bookstores may be dominated by “darker” stories because that is what’s selling. Bookstores are struggling beyond reason to stay alive today, so from a business perspective, they’re making a smart move. But, my God, that’s not the only way to browse books. Get on the internet, go talk to a librarian, talk to other people, and find out about other genres.
One of the upshots of these WSJ articles is that it’s been absolutely wonderful to watch the YA reading and writing community rally together. The #yasaves hashtag is a whole separate blog (!), but I’m so proud to be part of a community where people share such intimate and personal stories about the saving and healing power of books. Gurdon and others will probably write more condescending pieces about today’s YA themes, but I might not even bother to read them. Because in the end, I see Gurdon as one of those annoying internet trolls who goes around posting flaming comments with the sole purpose of inciting anger. Her articles are more about her need for attention than anything else. Let’s go back to reading and writing.
Thank you Jessica for providing an interesting author perspective on the article. Be sure to check out my post earlier today with a review of Flat-Out Love and a giveaway!