My new goal is to make young adult literature happier, one book at a time.
By MEGHAN COX GURDON
Edited by Brian Ray
Amy Freeman stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, feeling
thwarted irritated and disheartened slightly bored. She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and melodramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter with a straight face. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark cliche, dark whiny stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.
dark solipsistic is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker More narcissistic than when you were a child, my dear: So dark self-indulgent that kidnapping moaning and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings groaning and wallowing and Emo music are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children spoiled little rats from the upper-middle class 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 eye-rolling detail.
Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it. 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. If teens are going to swear then, for God’s sake, give them a real reason for doing so.
There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out
depravity self tortured confessional mush —will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses wimpiness, misdirected soul searching, and inflated emotion of the most horrendous kinds. Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness navel-gazing probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. But we do seem to be raising a generation of girls and boys who can’t think beyond their own nose, and many who listen to Lady Gaga on every kind of Apple device imaginable but don’t know who Steve Jobs is.
Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it. [yalit] Raul Allen If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Plato was right. People shouldn’t be reading fiction or poetry because it’s too emotional and sets a bad example. In fact, all teenagers should be reading The Republic. That’s it.
Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once (which is great news for people who find high school dull and confining); so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn’t, on a personal level, really signify. As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. But there was certainly Wuthering Heights, which we should also burn every single copy of since it promotes the same mood-injected, anxious ambivalence about romance and family.
This novel's feeling happier already.
There was simply literature, much of it about screwed up alcoholic and drug-addicted adults rather than their kids, some of it accessible to young readers and some not–but most of it very, very depressing. As elsewhere in American life, the 1960s changed everything. In 1967, S.E. Hinton published “The Outsiders,” a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry. Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to children’s bookshelves. A purported diary published anonymously in 1971, “Go Ask Alice,” recounts a girl’s spiral into drug addiction, rape, prostitution and a fatal overdose. A generation watched Linda Blair playing the lead in the 1975 made-for-TV movie “Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” and went straight for Robin S. Wagner’s original book. The writer Robert Cormier is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to teen narratives. His 1977 novel, “I Am the Cheese,” relates the delirium of a traumatized youth who witnessed his parents’ murder, and it does not (to say the least) have a happy ending. Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what’s on shelves now.
In Andrew Smith’s 2010 novel, “The Marbury Lens,” for example, young Jack is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he encounters a curious pair of glasses that transport him into an alternate world of almost unimaginable gore and cruelty. Moments after arriving he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. Where the f— was this?” Sounds like something Neil Gaiman wrote and then scratched out. No happy ending to this one, either, depending on your point of view. In Jackie Morse Kessler’s gruesome but inventive 2011 take on a girl’s struggle with self-injury, “Rage,” teenage Missy’s secret cutting turns nightmarish after she is the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.” Missy survives, but only after a stint as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Maybe I’m missing something, Missy, but you don’t sound highly qualified for a job as one of the Horseman of the Apocalypse. This position largely involves slicing other people’s limbs to ribbons and turning the world, rather than oneself, into a mess of meat and blood. We’re really looking for a James Hetfield/Metallica type of person here. Thanks for your application. We’ll keep it on file.
My Commentary: The concept of the “child” has existed for barely a hundred and fifty years. The “fairy tales” we know were once folk tales intended for general audiences–and they were quite raunchy and graphic. So my problem lies less with the darkness of young adult literature and more with the incessant moodiness and self-defeat in it. My first book was treated sort of like young adult literature. The main character goes through some tough shit, but she never sits down and starts cutting herself. I also make darkness funny, not woe-is-me. The great literature of the olden times had enormous despair and violence. When you think about it, there’s not a huge difference between “The Great Gatsby,” “East of Eden,” and the Twilight Series–except I’d say the first two were actually written rather than manufactured. The main line of Gurdon’s critique stands, but she gets carried away with “darkness.” Also, I think it’s largely a good thing literature in general has taken up topics like depression and psychological illness. While it’s true that literature inflects mindset, not writing about adolescent disorders doesn’t make them go away. We don’t need less darkness, we just need books that deal with those issues rather than trying to cash in on them. I think that’s Gurdon’s main point, although she takes a helluva long time to make it. Looks like someone got paid by the word. Anyway, this is what my generation did when we got depressed:
BOOKS FOR YOUNG WOMEN: You should all go read Brian Ray’s “young adult” novel, Through the Pale Door.
For a very long discussion and summaries of other books, which may or may not have profanity, go here.