Today I read this article from the Wall Street Journal criticizing modern YA literature:
Journalist Meghan Cox Gurdon writes of her displeasure with the trends in today’s YA novels, noting that teen fiction is darker today than it was when our parents were young. She paints YA books as a cesspool of violence, sexual deviance, and self-harm, with a lot of vampires thrown in. For her even the so-called “banned books” from decades ago like Go Ask Alice were not as bad as today’s teen books. She goes on to imply that if society cares at all about what goes on inside young people’s minds, then it should matter to us what they read. Her most odious comment however was that “entertainment does not merely gratify taste, but creates it.”
I admit that I’m no expert in a lot of YA fiction, but I defend its right to publish the kind of stories that it does. Gurdon finds stories about teens who were molested or are depressed distasteful. I find actual child molestation distasteful. She worries that teens who read these kinds of books are surrounding themselves with ugly images instead of beautiful ones. I think most teen readers are smart enough to know the difference between reality and fiction, and know enough about the world to understand it isn’t beautiful all the time. Gurdon wants to imagine that teen-oriented literature is so much more disturbing than it was decades ago, but think about the books we had to read in grade school and high school. My sixth grade class was assigned Romeo and Juliet. You know, the one where the teenagers commit suicide at the end. Then it was To Kill a Mockingbird, where the black man was accused of raping the white woman. In grade school I also had to read Of Mice and Men, where the guy gets shot at the end. Then in high school it was Oedipus Rex, so I got a two-for of murder and incest. Sorry, Ms. Gurdon, but teens have been reading depressing stories for a long time.
Gurdon also insists that the predominance of certain themes in YA fiction will only serve to normalize them in the minds of its readers, and may encourage teens to imitate the acts depicted in the books. I think that for any decent person out there, all the books in the world could never “normalize” a thing like molestation, suicide, or any kind of abuse. I read Trainspotting and most of Irvine Welsh’s other books when I was 16 and I certainly didn’t think that drug abuse was normal afterwards. Ask a teenager who’s a victim of abuse who may have sought solace in a YA story about depression or abuse if they think a book will make abuse acceptable. Seeking out a form of entertainment that one can identify with can be extremely cathartic. And for those lucky teens who do not have to deal with these issues, these books can just be entertainment for its own sake. And as for teens imitating acts they read in books, give them some credit. For most of them, a book is just a book, and anyone who imitates a violent act they read in a book is likely suffering from an emotional problem in the first place.
Much as I hate to admit it, I was a teenager once. I knew other teens who led normal happy lives, and some others who were alcoholics, depressed, experimenting with sex and struggling with their sexual orientation. We all sought out entertainment that we could relate to, and sometimes we sought out entertainment that was so dark we couldn’t relate to it. And guess what, we turned out ok. It should matter to us what young people read, but it should matter more that they understand what they read. That they understand the difference between fantasy and reality, that they know how to question what they read, and most importantly, that they understand that they are not wrong or perverted or deviant for reading a book with a dark theme.