Friday, June 10, 2011

On "Dark Stuff"

I try not to be lazy, but it happens. I haven't been this lazy before—not lazy to the point of actually reposting something from the StAR blog here, or vice versa—but today is the day . . .

Laziness is only part of it, of course. This is an issue about which I care very deeply, as the following will hopefully make clear.

Dark Stuff.

A great debate is currently raging on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Forget rogue politicians and the stock market: the controversy of the week was spawned by a harmless article by one of the Journal's regular writers, lamenting the darkening trend in YA literature. (A note for the faint of stomach: none of the links in this article are recommended to those eating lunch.)

Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble . . . 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 dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." . . . How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear . . . 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. . . . 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.

The article goes on from there, with Ms. Gurdon lamenting the darkening trend and concluding with a plea to the book industry to tone it down. "[E]veryone 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."

The responses to the article were strong, many of them strongly negative. Apparently even suggesting that all books are not for all ages or all people is—evil. (Check out the comments thread if you think I exaggerate.)

So then, in the "Speakeasy" section of the Journal, Sherman Alexie (whose award-winning autobiographical YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was given a negative mention by Ms. Gurdon) was offered a chance to respond.

Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students—teens and pre-teens—who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I've ever read. . . . So when I read Meghan Cox Gurdon's complaints about the "depravity" and "hideously distorted portrayals" of contemporary young adult literature, I laughed at her condescension. . . . Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell? . . . I can't speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self. . . . When some cultural critics fret about the "ever-more-appalling" YA books, . . . they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

And, having given both sides of the debate room to express themselves, now the dear, silly Journal is doing a poll on the issue. The poll asks simply "Are dark themes in youth fiction helpful or harmful to teenagers?" The two answers offered: "Yes" and "No."

Really? Really??!!! Aren't the two articles you've just published and the responses to them enough to tell you that it ain't that simple? Define "dark themes". Define "helpful" and "harmful". Tell me what kids we're talking about. Tell me what proportion of what they're reading is going to be "dark". At least throw in a middling answer like "Maybe", "Sometimes", or even the humble "I don't know"!

I agree with Mr. Alexie, up to a point. These books are being written by and for people who have been terribly hurt. Most of the negative responses to Gurdon's article and the positive responses Alexie's article are coming from those who've had experiences like Alexie's. For someone who has been hurt as a child or teen, a book that depicts similar happenings may provide them with the sort of understanding and support that was tragically lacking when they looked to the adults around them for help.

But how many children and teens suffer in this way, and consequently feel the need to read of such things? I don't know; I can't even guess. I'm not omniscient: I'm neither a pollster, nor a sociologist, nor God. But I suspect, as with many such subjects, most of the people who become exercised about this issue are far out-represented by the silent majority to whom no such terrible things have happened. Maybe because I've led a happy ("seemingly privileged") life myself, I'm too inclined to see the world in rosy colors. But I suspect that it is rather Mr. Alexie and those like him, whose experience of life is the exception.

However, even if (God forbid) I'm wrong about the balance of suffering in the world, I wonder—can it really be helpful to dwell on your tragedies? To escape evil one must be able to look it in the face, and then to turn one's back on it.

I never went through anything remotely like what Mr. Alexie or any of the protagonists on Ms. Gurdon's list of books went through. But I've certainly suffered a few scaring events and betrayals in my life. There are two of three I will never forget. But I can't think that reading about people who've suffered similar things would help me "process" or "get over" those memories. What helps more than anything else is to see that the world is larger than it seemed in those moments, when the only thing you knew was the pain of loss. What helps is to know that there are other days, other people, other places, other lives.

"Move on?" The suggestion is an insult to anyone who's suffered. "Forget it?" Impossible. But what about: Add on. What about: Grow.

In the midst of World War II, Winston Churchill admitted that among his other reading material there were the works of Jane Austen. Jane Austen, you say? Whose militia is best represented by the effete George Wickham? What could books like that possibly do to help readers in a world of Blitz and Holocaust? A harmless diversion. Escapist literature. Not really very true to life—at least not to the life that statesmen and soldiers were living, and have to live.

But it is to that life that we all aspire, and should aspire. Someday we too will be in a position—or perhaps, most of us already have been, and still are—to mete out to others according to—well, some measure, some measure which we will have to choose. It should not be the measure according to which it was measured to us. Please God, we will be able to look back on what we endured, however great or slight it was, and say, "I will not so do." But "will not do" is of little help in determining what you will do. We need models of goodness and beauty as well as medicines for evil and ugliness. After the operation, after the in-hospital therapy, we need to walk on our own—we need to run again, we need to dance—not to keep on reworking the same tired, sick motions that our ailing body had to go through in the wake of the accident or the illness. To do that is to remain forever wounded.

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