Sunday, June 05, 2011

Young Adult Fiction & Culture Wars

Saturday night I read a Wall Street Journal review of Young Adult Fiction.  The article starts with a scene of  a mother who "pops into" a big-box bookstore and fails to find a book she feels comfortable giving to her 13 year old daughter.   Then it laments that Young Adult (YA) books are much darker in 2011 than they were in 1970. We're given a list of "hideously distorted portrayals of what life is" in YA books:
  • kidnapping
  • incest
  • brutal beatings
  • pathologies (not sure what she means here)
  • profanity
  • murder
  • rape
  • pederasty
  • male-male pederastic rape
  • self-mutilation
  • suicide
(Uh, gee -- read any lower elementary Pirate books lately?  If only Judy Blume had written a YA book called "Lubber.")  Then follows the argument  that it is much more likely that these books will either sully the innocent or feed  depraved desires instead of challenging a teen's sense of isolation.   Briefly lingering over comparisons between YA books and the Internet and violent video games, the review concludes:
"...it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn't be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives." Book Review: Young Adult Fiction - Darkness Too Visible:

The article got many of my friends up in arms. I have to admit, my first response was, "What is this person really saying?" and my thoughts: "If there's objectionable materials in the library or bookstore, then read with your kids." (This is the same answer I give people who freak out about children unescorted on the internet.)

But it was late, so I went to sleep. Thinking about the article more, my sense is:

The author's introductory scene - that of a frustrated mother leaving a bookstore empty-handed - is indicative of a culture of parenting that wants children's products delivered to them without a time-investment. To re-word this, a consumer walked into a specialty store looking for a children's product without bothering to do prior safety research. Granted, books are not children's car-seats, but still. 

Taboo functions in our society as a protocol of engagement which protects the unprepared from powerful, sometimes deadly, situations. Last time I checked, people were free to choose how they navigated taboo. I'm not sure how publishing companies are bulldozing families otherwise; I mean, the mom in her example left the bookstore with no book and no money lost. Welcome to the free market.

There's a disingenuous tone in this review. When I see phrases like "real life," I'm reminded of the phrase, "Where is Middle-America anyway, and why would someone want to live there?" Overtly, the article seems to be about books, but secreted here and there are comments in code that say, "Our children's precious innocence is being fouled by dangerous books that will fester like a canker within their psyches and tastes. (Oh, and Books are like the Internet! You can't control it! It's everywhere! BOO!!)"  

So the article isn't a book review, per se; it's a culture-war manifesto from folks who like things black-or-white, and therefore more easily controllable.  Young Adult Writers, welcome to the world of Neo-Paganism and of folks who want network neutrality and an uncensored Internet.  Welcome to Don't Ask Don't Tell. [Editor's note:  Oh, wait; Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies ... we've been here before...]

Personally, I'm not wildly crazy about dark books; I'll be happy when Dystopia stops being the New Paranormal and becomes the Old Dystopia again. The migration of f--k into the general American lexicon strikes me as a little sad. But if you wont force me to read Anne Tyler or 1984, I won't force you to read The Complete Compleat Enchanter.

A lot of my friends have been Twittering with the YAsaves tag.  Reading their testimonials, Young Adult Fiction has helped a lot of folks.  I'm not sure that Young Adult Fiction saved me, although I was very glad for Mercedes Lacky's Magic's Pawn (when I was thirty). Truth be told, although I practically lived in the school library, Judy Blume didn't inspire me in 1977. I was too busy reading Tolkien, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Crystal Cave, and The White Mountains.

And playing Dungeons and Dragons.
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