Monday, June 6, 2011

"Re: Darkness Too Visible," or "Why I'm Apparently Going to Hell"

While everyone has put in their two cents about Meghan Gurdon’s WSJ piece on YA literature (see this excellent parody, Laurie Halse Anderson’s response, & Philip Nel’s), I have to throw my coins in the pot, too, because I was as incensed as many readers were.
Gurdon’s piece bemoans what she sees as the prevalence of “lurid… dramatic… dark… darker than when you were a child, my dear” books in YA lit.
“…kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18. Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.”

Forty years, how convenient. YA, as a genre, was just getting to be a “thing.” But look a little further into the past to the 1800s, 1700s, even the 1600s. There wasn’t yet such a thing as children’s literature, but there was literature, & you know what it was about? Well, looking at fairy tales of the 1600s alone, you have kidnapping, incest, cannibalism, & necrophilia, to name a few. Those stomach-clenching pathologies are not new to literature. If the offensive part is that this literature is now marketed to teens, I’d like Gurdon to find me a single person who ever only read books marketed to his age group. (More on that later.)
“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.”

If what Gurdon thinks should happen is a return to the good old days of purity in literature, she doesn’t know much about literature. & if she thinks there is more purity in life than is reflected in literature, then she doesn’t know much about life. I was privileged to have a childhood free of any Laurie Halse Anderson- or Robert Cormier-esque experiences, but not all childhoods were. If any YA novel is a “hideously distorted portrayal of what life is,” then let’s talk about Twilight & the message it’s sending to young girls about their self-worth. But most of the realistic fiction Gurdon cited is not perpendicular to reality. Is reality free of “damage, brutality, and losses”? Ask the parent of a child who was murdered for being gay.

“It has to do with a child's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

I can only speak for myself here, but as a reader whom Gurdon would say “seeks out depravity,” I will say that this is a harsh, uninformed judgment, as wrong as saying that atheists cannot be kind and loving people because they reject the notion of a “kind and loving” creator. Am I less tender of heart, less spiritual, less moral, less happy because I enjoy media that is violent, gory, scary, grim, or dark? I might be more cynical, but I’m not less happy.

”Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.”

Yes, adolescence is brief. But I think Gurdon is using the wrong word here. She’s talking about preserving the innocence of a time in a young person’s life. That’s not what adolescence is about; that’s childhood, pre-adolescence. Adolescence is about leaving innocence behind, for better or worse. Is there anyone more inquisitive about the deviant nature of humans than a teenager? I really don’t think so. Maybe Gurdon doesn’t remember straddling that awkward line between childhood and adulthood but it wasn’t all fun & games, & YA novels help ease the transition, realistic or otherwise. Why did Gurdon not ask in her article why YA is rife with these books? Why did she not entertain the idea that authors are writing what teens want & need? Was she never a teenager crossing from naivetĂ© into the “lurid, dramatic, dark” world of being a grown-up?
People curse. Yes, even teenagers. Teenagers pepper their vocabulary with words their parents won’t allow them to use because they can, because in the smallest of ways they are exercising their independence. It’s a miniscule rebellion, & teenagers will do it until the end of time, regardless of whether you like or not. People also have sex, & who is more curious about sex than an adolescent?
It gets worse, Gurdon. People bully. People do meth. People murder. People die. There are depressed teens out there who practice self-mutilation. Is this a blanket endorsement of the horrors of the world? Definitely not. But darkness is out there. Some kids are living it, and for the kids who are lucky enough not to live it, you can’t stop the dark side of the world from holding a delicious intrigue, as weird as that is.
Gurdon has two problems, if I’m reading her correctly. One is that she argues realistic YA fiction is too grim. The other is that unrealistic YA fiction is too grim, like the wall in Andrew Smith’s novel “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts.” To this, Gurdon asks, where’s my happy ending? I say, awesome! A wall covered in rotting body parts!
I know I’m not speaking only for myself when I say that there is an entire population of children with a penchant for the dark, gruesome, & grotesque. How big this population is, I can’t say. They are the ones who seek out depravity, as she says, & this fascination, I believe, is innate. Since I’m always looking for an excuse to quote Maurice Sendak, from a Newsweek article:
Reporter: “What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?”
Sendak: “I would tell them to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.”
Reporter: “Because kids can handle it?”
Sendak: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered. … This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can’t be scared. Of course we’re scared. I’m scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can’t fall asleep. It never stops. We’re grown-ups; we know better, but we’re afraid.”
Reporter: “Why is that important in art?”
Sendak: “Because it’s truth. You don’t want to do something that’s all terrifying. I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child’s eyes. So what? I managed to survive.”

I wouldn’t tell Gurdon to go to hell, but I would tell her, as my mom always said, that’s why they make chocolate & vanilla. The kids Sendak writes for are the kids who went from his picture books to Caroline Cooney’s in hopes that titles like “The Face on the Milk Carton” indicated a plot about a girl who disappeared, was brutally murdered, & whose brutal murder was depicted in all of its grim, gory glory. (It wasn’t.)
Why did I read Goosebumps, Lois Duncan, Suzanne Collins? Why did I read Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe? Why did I pick up “Frankenstein” when I was eight years old? Why did I curl up with my girlfriends in elementary school to watch Stephen King’s “It” over & over even though after it was over we couldn’t go to the bathroom alone? Why did I flock to books about dystopian futures that are never bright or happy?
Because I wanted to be scared. Creeped out. Disturbed. Nauseated. Shocked. I wanted to be afraid to turn out my bedside lamp. I wanted to get lost in a world that wasn’t my own. There is a thrill that comes from something shocking, or gross, or terrifying, or just different. That is not lost on young children, & it certainly isn’t lost on teenagers.
Where would Gurdon draw the line, I wonder? If you’re trying to keep kids from anything deviant, you’re gonna have to avoid picture books. Have you ever read “Guess What?” by Mem Fox (its wonderfully vivid illustrations depict a witch in her underwear & buttons promoting the Sex Pistols), or “In a Dark, Dark Room” by Alvin Schwartz (a girl’s head falls off), or “Outside Over There” by Sendak (a baby is stolen by goblins – have you ever seen anything as scary as the frozen face of the ice-baby?)?
Better stay away from all classic literature, too, as most books that have withstood the test of time are sure to offend in one way or another. Should the teen who shouldn’t read Lauren Myracle’s book in which a boy in a small Southern town is brutally beaten also not read Flannery O'Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” because – spoiler alert! – a robber murders a grandmother & her grandkids? Should he not read “Lord of the Flies” because children commit cold-blooded murder? & yet “The Hunger Games” is too much of the ol’ ultraviolence?
If these dark books depress Gurdon, or 46-year-old-mother-of-three Amy Freeman, I say, go back to middle grade. Is “Tuck Everlasting” tame enough? “Anne of Green Gables”? “Holes”? “Hatchet”? Just stick to middle grade – they’re wonderful, after all – and arrest your kids’ development. Because real life doesn’t mirror a middle-grade novel.
“It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options.”
Yes, parents, when your kids are little enough, you can put books in their hands or take books out of their hands if you so choose. (Though I would argue that a parent should never take a book from a child’s hands, unless it’s, I don’t know, pornography, in which case what is it doing in your house?) But by the time a kid has the urge to read YA lit, hands off, mom & dad.
I am a strong proponent of the belief that children are self-censoring. If a teen, or preteen, gets partway through a rough YA novel & feels that they can’t handle it, will they keep reading? No. If they read on to the end, can’t we assume that they have learned something? Or, God forbid, that they just plain enjoyed it? Why is this scary? In Anderson’s rebuttal to the article, she argues it’s because parents are afraid to tackle these topics with their children. I think that’s very valid. If Gurdon honestly believes books about cutting should spark fear in parents because it might encourage their children to cut, well, those parents should probably talk more with their children. Is there something gained in sheltering children from things like cutting, anorexia, rape, harassment, suicide, bullying, drug use, assault, sex, alcoholism, etc.? The move for preservation of innocence is both illogical & damaging. These kids still live in our world, don’t they?
As for “every other aspect” that Gurdon refers to, it’s like she’s likening watching mindless torture porn like “Saw” to reading “The Hunger Games.” She says “One depravity does not justify another,” but why did she never bring into the discussion the purpose of these depravities? What if there is a point? What if the depravity is a commentary on today’s society? What if it’s to reach out to a troubled teen? Or a non-troubled teen trying to understand a troubled teen?
“At the same time, she notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.”

This isn’t surprising at all. Kids read up, as I first mentioned… uh… four pages ago. Elementary students read middle-grade novels. Middle-schoolers read YA. Young adults read adult novels. Maybe not all kids, but I’d wager most kids. I bet the other 15 juniors are all reading adult literature, & according to Gurdon, shouldn’t that scare the grown-ups more?

“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.”

She closes with that, & I’ll close with that too because I have gone on long enough, & because this makes my blood boil the most. Those evil book publishers, right?! They just want to indoctrinate children with vileness and evil and dark thoughts, to rise up a generation of depraved evildoers. & if the publishers are bulldozing coarseness & misery into children’s lives, then so are the authors. Seriously, Gurdon? You think the aim of YA authors is to blacken children’s hearts and corrupt their impressionable little minds?

Give the kids a little respect. Actually no, give them a lot of respect. They’re no less smart or moral or kind or discerning than you. If anything, they’re more open-minded, inquisitive, and imaginative, because they’re growing up in a world with more books than you had.

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