|—||Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree (via bookoasis)|
|—||Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (via bookoasis)|
Trigger warnings for descriptions of cutting, references to sexual assault, and generally careless treatment of experiences less than picturesque.
That’s right folks. The illustrious Wall Street Journal has gone and reviewed all of Young Adult fiction in one little article! Leaving me wide awake at 7:30AM filled with nothing but rage. Fucking hell. But let’s go through this real quick, if only because doing so will maybe make my vision less blurry.
First up, before even reading the bulk of the piece, I saw the sidebar: Books We can Recommend for Young Adult Readers. Subheadings? “Books for Young Men” and “Books for Young Women.” And just like that, I want to punch something. Drawing such a sharp line between what’s “right” for boys vs. what’s “right” for girls not only smacks of cisgender privilege, but it’s also offensively simpleminded, not to mention heartbreaking because honestly, how many “young women” are now going to miss out on being given a copy of Ship Breaker, which is one of the best YA novels I’ve read all year? Also, I would have been completely unsurprised to read “young ladies” rather than “young women.”
I could probably write paragraphs just about these lists and the blurb reviews provided for each book on them, but I won’t, because there are bigger fish to fry. Much bigger, more rage-inducing fish.
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.
Will find himself. Will find HIMself. Will find HIMSELF. OK, I’m done. Wait, no I’m not. What Young Adult Fiction Reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon seems not to realize is that adolescence isn’t easy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that fun house mirrors are routinely used in literature to illustrate just how distorted life can be. (It’s possible my main example at this point in time is, in fact, the highly underrated teen movie, Drive Me Crazy; however, I ask that this not detract from my point, as fun house mirrors are obvious enough imagery that I AM SURE IT HAS BEEN DONE ELSEWHERE.)
And “depravity”? Really? As a teenager, I didn’t know enough about the world to truly know depravity, much less seek it out. That’s why I read as many books as I could get my hands on, and then some, under the guidance rather than censorship of my smart, involved, and also well-read parents. Privileged upbringing, sure, but in this context, I’m not apologizing for that because Meghan Cox Gurdon, you are writing for readers of The Wall Street Journal! But no, let’s blame the “careless reader” or the one who “seeks out depravity” (seriously, WTF), because adults never have any influence on what children read, and anyway, YA lit is so weighed down by unscrupulous crap that the kids just don’t stand a chance. Amiright?
Moving on. “There are of course exceptions.” O RLY. You mean to tell me that an entire vibrant swath of literature isn’t uniformly one thing. There are exceptions. I think what you mean to say is that there are entire sub-genres, all of which include good books and bad, much like – gasp – adult fiction.
But what is it, in YA literature, that Meghan Cox Gurdon finds particularly objectionable? Sexual assault. Self-mutilation. And, of course, that single word paragon of depravity and, erm, awfulness: “fuck.”
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
I’m not racist, but…. I’m not sexist, but…. I don’t discount the suffering of others, but I see no reason for my perfect children and others like them to be subjected to depictions of what happens to less perfect children.
I don’t know if Meghan Cox Gurdon realizes that the reasons for cutting, that the experience of sexual assault, that so much of the awful shit that happens when you’re a teenager, long before you have the words and knowledge and experience to fully process just how fucked up life can be, that all of these things are so fucking terrible that the last thing that a book is going to do is “normalize” them.
What a book can do is let you know that you’re not alone. That you aren’t broken or wrong or doomed to pain for the rest of your life. Beyond that, a book can inform and broaden the worldview of anyone lucky enough to have gotten through their young adulthood without being raped, without feeling suicidal, without feeling shamed into an eating disorder.
When, at 17, I found out that my closest friend had cut herself off and on throughout high school, the only reason I had any conception of what that meant was because I had read YA novels that didn’t flinch from admitting that everything isn’t sunshine and roses for teens everywhere.
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor [of Horn Book, commenting on the need to strip expletives from a book before it could be put in schools] spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” 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. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”
Ha ha ha, guys. It’s not banning, or censorship. It’s just good taste! And who could object to that? (Hilariously, one of Meghan Cox Gurden’s recommendations for “young men” is, I shit you not, Fahrenheit 451 – though lest you think her self-aware, it’s because “[t]eenagers whose families are maddeningly glued to screens may find Guy’s rebellion bracingly resonant.”)
And let’s not even get started on the book industry’s petticoats. I mean, why not evoke the horribly oppressive and sexist imagery of the hysterical woman to make your point about censorship? In an article about books for “young men” and “young ladies” – sorry, women.
I just can’t, you guys. This is maybe 10% of the awful shit that’s in this article, and I just can’t. I will tell you that Meghan Cox Gurden does eventually get around to blaming TV and video games for a lot of everything. Quelle surprise! And that she’s a conservative, pro-life Republican. Also shocking!
But in all seriousness: on the one hand, I question whether or not I should have taken this bait and let it jolt me awake in the way that it did, but on the other hand, I have to throw up my hands and yell, Why the hell wouldn’t I?!
Eventually, someone who actually knows YA literature will be given the opportunity to write about YA literature in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Until then, I’m going to continue to take the bait and care a whole hell of a lot about the ignorant assessment of a genre which for me has been formative and wonderful and endlessly important.
Oh, and to Amy Freeman, the 46-year-old mother of three with whom Meghan Cox Gurden opens: GO TO THE LIBRARY. My gut tells me your friendly local librarians would be able to help you find something appropriate for your 13-year-old daughter. In fact, that’s what they’ve trained, for years, to do.
Thank you to the people who added me on Goodreads! The security question was just the only one I could think of at the time, not meant to deter you guys from requesting me.
This site is addicting though, for real. There’s nothing I love more than keeping track of the books I’m reading, which might sound odd, but hey, that’s why I’m a fiction major I guess.
30 Day Book Challenge
Day Seven: Worst Book Read in the Past Year
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien.
It isn’t a terrible book. I just found it a little boring. I know other people love it though. I had to read it for my Women and Literature class here at UCC, and while what we talked about in class was really interesting, I just didn’t enjoy reading the book.