Thursday, June 09, 2011

YA lit: The only genre whose public discourse has not changed in 40 years

Last week, this eminently reasonable op-ed about YA lit appeared in the WSJ:
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.
The same op-ed has appeared every few years in various newspapers and magazines since about 1969. It always generates the same outraged response from YA authors, ostensibly in the name of the children.* No one should be surprised that YA lit feeds off of book banning outrage--the genre was born from it. Book censorship had a decent history before YA lit came onto the scene in the late '60s, but no one remembers that history. Public libraries removed Communist and other politically incendiary stuff from the shelves from the '30s through the '50s, and many of these removals were challenged and overturned. Why then does the phrase "book banning" immediately make us think of Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye, while memories of those poor leftist tracts have totally faded from our consciousness? Mid-century Communists, whatever their other failings, at least had a political project, a project whose circulation was perhaps slightly diminished by library removal, but which did not exist merely for the sake of library circulation. Anyone can read Marxist ideas and remain unconvinced--a failure for the project. But YA lit of this "realist" strain has no argument except the exposure imperative. Children must be exposed to it or they will remain forever naive. This excuses every excess and failure of style and skill. The writing might be total crap--all the better. That's more real. Real people, after all, are inarticulate, and bad writers. The main thing is to describe in lurid detail ever more exotic forms of misery. (All things I've written about before.) The next step is to wait for adults to object to the lack of moral and aesthetic judgment contained in the work, and then launch the Typical YA Lit defense, which goes like this:
Think of the children! They must learn of the facts of life--the "real things" that happen to "real people" in the "real world"! These include, but are not limited to, the following forms of misery: racism, drug abuse, eating disorders, rape, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, incest, murder (preferably by gangs). These are the constitutive elements of reality (if your life does not feature them, it might not be real), from which you prudish parents have unjustly been shielding your children by such evasions as selectively introducing them to people who don't engage in these behaviors, moving to neighborhoods where these problems are uncommon, and encouraging them to avoid these fates themselves. This kind of "sheltering" is not only foolish, but it is downright negligent. That is why we, YA authors, are here to save your children from your misguided moralizing efforts by exposing them to these realities early without passing judgment. Only sufficient exposure can bring about understanding. And this is what the children themselves want to read. (We know this because they send us fan mail!) Wait, what now? You want to prevent your children from being exposed to our important work? This can only mean that you prefer to abet abuse, disorder, rape, and murder! Censorship! Censorship! We are being muzzled! The very fact that you object demonstrates how very important our work is--you are trying to hide the truth from your children, while we are revealing it! We are heroes!
This rhetoric merged with the supposed illiteracy crisis of the 1970s (it's hard to believe this was a real event) to create an entirely amoral argument for YA lit: kids these days don't read anymore, and non-reading leads to academic failure, school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and death. Therefore, we must encourage kids to read! Reading anything is better than nothing! And this is the key: somehow, the actual benefits of reading literature were never raised in all the sloganeering, and what remained was basically a call to force children to scan words with their eyes. If they pronounced some books "boring" then and refused to lend them their eyes, the solution was to find something more visually captivating that still contained words. YA lit, which made no pretense to be literary at first, was a natural candidate for this exercise. Thus, we get this tale of miraculous literary awakening from a 1972 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan (a journal for teachers and ed school monkeys):
In a local school, a student teacher purchased and took two paperback copies of Paul Zindel's The Pigman into a junior class of "nonreaders," and overnight two students read the novel. Returning the next day, they commented that this was the first book they had ever read and asked where they could find more like it… Their reading began with a few of the now young adult novels but led away and for a few, eventually, included some of the Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Stephen Crane found within the approved school sources.
If you are my age, you will perhaps recall how your teachers pinned similar hopes on such illustrious works as the Goosebumps series: "At least they're reading something! Who knows--maybe RL Stine will nourish a lifelong passion for Shakespeare!" I bet it will.

Which brings us to Alan Jacobs's very good point:
According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all...What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.
The reason that it is commonly thought that YA saves is because it's widely believed that reading saves. Reading is the opposite of illiteracy. Ergo, even reading the phonebook is a step in the right direction. This view is so entrenched in Jacobs's commenters that they can't even think of a book that could possibly do any harm. Even reading total crap apparently "helped develop my critical facilities." I'm hard-pressed to think of another activity that merits such unstinting praise that we can't even discern failure in it. Imagine if we felt this way about music: Even listening to tomcats howling in an alley helped me by showing me what disharmony sounds like. I now seek out alleycat wailing to experience this pleasure again and again. Jacobs offers a perfect example of harmful teenage reading--Ayn Rand--and even this is rejected because apparently reading Ayn Rand is valuable in helping us to see what is wrong with Ayn Rand.

What seems to be lost here all sense of what it means for a book to be harmful. Jacobs's readers, and YA's defenders generally, are mired in the rhetoric of book banning and seem to think that if they admit that a book is harmful, that means it will either kill you or move you to kill someone else, and it should therefore be burned. But that is of course not what a harmful book is, and no one is proposing a ban on such books. The effect that harmful books have is either that they cement pernicious views of the world that adolescents are already inclined to hold, or simply that they waste time that could be spent on better books or better experiences. This is not world-shattering harm, of course, and perhaps that's why it's hard to notice against the supposedly self-evident good of reading. But growing up is a complex process of perceiving the reality of the adult world, and small things that do no more than draw one's attention away from one emphasis to another still play their part in forming these perceptions. When all the books marketed at adolescent girls are about eating disorders, high school social tyrannies, and sex, these topics form their intellectual horizons. Is being encouraged to inhabit such narrow horizons--to think there is nothing to do or contemplate beyond reputation-honing and calorie-counting and shopping--not a form of harm? It's not clear how spending three hours reading a trashy novel is superior to spending those hours playing video games or watching paint dry, but the act of eyes scanning words on a page has come to be thought a morally upstanding activity.

*Do you want to know how old and tired this rhetoric is? Below the cut is a short history of Judy Blume and her reception in the 1970s from a paper I once wrote on this topic but will not impose on you involuntarily (complete with archival research--thanks grad school!):

In a feature essay in the New York Times in 1969, the paper’s children’s book editor made a call—itself quite in the style of overwrought teenage poetry—for a more authentic approach to books for adolescents, demanding that the new literature speak to adolescents like rock music:
“It comes to them hot and strong, uninhibited, expressing their moods and longings. It moves. Sometimes it’s tender, sad, a lamentation. Then it’s wild and irresponsible. Sometimes contemptuous of tradition, sometimes it goes nowhere, as if it were waiting, just as they themselves often wait, for what’s going to happen next. And what we need are books to match their music; books that handle life’s depths and despairs, its joys and exaltations, too. What’s needed is to pick up the beat and tempo of life as it’s known to them...Teen-age books are carrying on a love affair with the past, venerating the old, traditional ways and days, old modes and styles. They are still trying to indoctrinate their audience with the noble virtues, still sermonizing…”
Judy Blume was not the first writer to heed this call to depict without moralizing, but her career as a young adult writer, beginning in 1970 with the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, is among the most prominent and controversial. The book appeared at the beginning an era of what was soon christened “new realism,” “problem novels,” and “young adult” literature—books for younger adolescents that matter-of-factly depicted sex and the panoply of controversial social issues that had absorbed adults in the decade before. Often praised for its courage in exposing these issues to a squeamish public, the genre found its share of skeptics even before it fell into parents’ hands. “Some years ago, when the taboo was lifted on treating subjects like drugs, poverty and premarital sex in writings for children, books on relevant topics slid off the presses and into libraries and bookstores, in many cases merely replacing old clichés with new ones seasoned with a bit of street language,” wrote one reviewer in 1972, just as the books were becoming mainstays of children’s publishing.

One by one, Blume’s books approached such topics as menstruation, sexual awakening, divorce, peer pressure, masturbation, body image, adoption, and random violence through stories of adolescents who face these problems. The books were meant to be informational as well as entertaining; Blume said that the impetus for Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, whose heroine spends much of the book contemplating her pre-pubertal body and anticipating her first period, was the relative lack of information about puberty and sex available to girls raised by traditional and reticent parents. “When I was nine, my father sat me on his knee and gave this vague version of the facts of life, which left me with the impression that whenever the moon was full, women all over the world were menstruating,” Blume told a reporter in 1978. She contended that she was only serving a need that had been too long ignored by parents: “to kids of the age I write for, [sexual topics and body changes] are the consuming interests.” Blume’s books were very much efforts to educate children, but this education had to be undertaken against and over the wishes of parents, many of whom did not agree with Blume that this education was essential and best conveyed to their children by strangers.

In addition to information, Blume sought to provide her readers with form of therapy by giving public voice to the things they had previously encountered only privately. “Realism is letting young people read about some feelings they have and coping with some problems they have. There is a need to let them know that they’re not alone in the world,” Blume told the LA Times in 1980. But there was a puzzling contradiction contained in this formulation of YA literature’s purpose: how can experiences which are either common enough to merit popular attention or effectively universal like puberty be at the same time so traumatic and isolating? What Blume had managed to confuse in her campaign to spread knowledge was the difference between ignorance and privacy.

It strains the imagination to believe that puberty, which had been occurring in humans for some time before the publication of Are You There God?, was utterly mysterious to everyone who experienced it. That explanations had not been marketed to children before the new realism hardly means that they were not being transmitted, and Blume’s books did not so much provide girls with new information about their bodies or sexuality as heighten their sense of its importance in their lives and promote discussion about it—they created the consuming interest that Blume claims her books were intended to address. The early reviews of Blume’s books emphasize the social aspect of reading them; they describe friends passing around copies with the important pages dog-eared (“page 85” of Forever—the sex page—became such a widespread code word among girls that newspaper features were dedicated to its meaning). One middle school girl interviewed by the New York Times about her interest in Blume’s books said, “[Adults] get mad because we read Judy Blume, but we knew about that stuff before.” Even Blume herself, growing up in a world devoid of Judy Blume books, recalls stuffing her bra and faking her first period, hardly the behavior of a girl who is clueless about sexuality. Blume’s innovation was not in telling girls the facts of life, as she sometimes claimed, but in making the facts of life into a matter of public education to which all children must be given access, regardless of their parents’ wishes.

Book removal efforts elsewhere during this period demonstrated that even the most innocuous passages could arouse parental opposition. However, opposition to Blume did not come solely from parents offended by the mere mention of controversial sexual or social issues in children’s books. More often, objections came as a result of her amoral treatment of these issues. One mother interviewed by the New York Times in 1978 expressed a similar disappointment with Forever: “I’d rather have my daughter read pornography than Forever. At least she’d know that was wrong, instead of having a book about a nice, normal girl who has sex and then it ends and the book’s over.” When parents in the affluent, liberal Washington suburb of Bethesda complained in 1980 that Blubber’s explicit language and depictions of cruel bullying made it inappropriate for the elementary school library, one of their objections was that the bullying was never redressed or punished. But Blume countered in a Washington Post interview that, “The fact that it’s not resolved is the most important part of the book. I don’t think you can change children’s behavior. You can make them aware.”

Raising awareness—one of the decade’s most popular and inane social projects—was the second great impetus of the new realism. It was premised on the assumption by writers like Blume that the best way to address the conflicts she chronicled in her books was to depict them stripped of consequences that could be mistaken for moral lessons. “Blume explores the feelings of children in a nonjudgmental way,” wrote Robert Lipsyte, himself a YA author in The Nation. “The immediate resolution of a problem is never as important as what the protagonist…will learn about herself by confronting her life.” But the idea that the behavior of the characters in YA novels—the social cruelty, illicit drug use, premarital sex, and so on—were intractable facts of adolescence was a radical one. Although G. Stanley Hall had first suggested in 1905 that adolescence was a fraught stage of development, characterized by rebellion against authority and established norms, parents continued for several decades to labor under the evident delusion that there could be convincing moral arguments made against such behavior, and that their children could actually be persuaded against behaving irresponsibly through some combination of reward, discipline, and moral education.

The new realism moved away from that view by presuming that teenage rebellion was inevitable and intractable. On this view, moral education and persuasion is doomed. The best adults could do was make sure that teenagers were “made aware” of how to minimize the damage resulting from their bad decisions, as in fact the ideal parents in Blume’s books do. Real parents who remained hesitant to reveal to teenagers all the secrets of adulthood that Blume’s books dispensed were now more than merely protective; they were downright negligent. “What’s called the new reality is just common respect for the child,” the vice president of Harper & Row Junior Books said in 1980. Where risky behavior is certain, ignorance and naivete can only result in riskier behavior. The teen who doesn’t know about birth control will not only engage in premarital sex, but he will impregnate his partner in the process—a worse outcome for all concerned.

Although Blume’s books treated parents who withheld information about sexuality from their children as contemptible, Blume herself was careful not to characterize herself as an enemy of insufficiently progressive parents, but rather a supplement. She explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1978 that the problem was that, “Kids close off at 14…I know it’s not easy for every parent to discuss sexuality. That’s where my books come in. It’s easy to use somebody else.” But while she may have aimed to position herself as only “a bridge of words” between parents and their alienated children, as Lipsyte put it, the reality was that, by the end of the decade, the new realism’s ubiquity in libraries and on booklists made the books more than an optional parenting supplement.

By driving a wedge between parents and their children, YA authors found themselves in the rather strange position of speaking in what they took to be the best interest of children by speaking as children. According to her own view that children and adults inhabit two mutually hostile worlds, Blume could claim to be no more “in touch” with teenagers than the parents whose authority she was supplanting. By refusing to moralize, Blume found a way to overcome her own adulthood and “relate” to children. Judy Blume told pre-teens exactly what they wanted to hear—that all their parents’ talk of guilt and consequences was nonsense; in reality, there would not always be repercussions awaiting them for bad behavior. The girls who taunt Linda in Blubber are never taken to task, and Katharine and Michael’s premarital sex in Forever results in no pregnancies, venereal diseases, or even broken hearts.

Indeed, the only way for adults to overcome their traditional authority over children was to become increasingly like children. One of the most common ways that reporters described Blume was by emphasizing her own childishness. “She is emotional, impulsive, endearing, innocent….She could fit right in as a guest at a seventh-grade slumber party,” wrote one reporter in an adoring 1978 profile. Another described her as having, “something of the eternal teen in her bubbly enthusiasm.” Children’s book reviewer Zena Sutherland even rejoiced that adults were increasingly interested in reading children’s literature. “Now you don’t have to be young to like children’s books,” the headline of her 1974 Chicago Tribune article proclaimed.

Blume believed that withholding truths about sex and violence was a dangerous injustice to children. “I hate the idea that you should always protect children. They live in the same world we do. They see things and hear things. The worst is when there are secrets, what they imagine, and what they have to deal with alone, is usually scarier than the truth. Sexuality and death—those are the two big secrets we try to keep from children…” And it is no doubt true that children must be told these truths eventually if they are to become adults, and thereby bearers of these secrets themselves. But how should these secrets be revealed, and by whom?


Noelle said...

I think there's a rhetorical problem here that could be solved by making a distinction between, say, "dark" and "explicit," and by considering how themes are handled. By a superficial application of Gurdon's standards, many, if not most, of the classic works of world literature could be considered quite dark. Hamlet? Ghosts, plots, murder, insanity, suicide, everyone dies at the end. The Iliad? War and more war, gory deaths, implied sex, mutilation of your enemy's body, a partial resolution shadowed by the knowledge that Troy will be mercilessly destroyed. But these are the Great Books that many conservatives would argue should be required reading for high-schoolers.

Miss Self-Important said...

That's a very common trope of YA lit outrage--that it's no worse (and implicitly, just as good) as great literature, which also deals with the same "themes." Do you really see no difference between the Iliad and Smack on these grounds? They're quite the same b/c both invoke death?

Discussing "theme" as the purpose of literature ("this book touches on x,y,z important themes") is a way of evading the argument that the work makes. Themes do not exist simply to be "touched on" one after another. You would not want a high school student to write a composition simply listing a book's "themes" anymore than you'd want him to regurgitate its plot, but rather to see a theme as a signal for the argument underneath. Homer's argument about death is that mortality is what makes experience and relation important and meaningful to men, and irrelevant to gods, who have no conception of either love or pain. What is Melvin Burgess's argument about death? It happens to some people from doing too much heroin.

So I don't know if distinguishing between dark and explicit themes clarifies the problem, although "explicit" certainly has a seedier ring to it than "dark." But beyond that, I'm not sure what the content of the distinction really is and how making the distinction would avoid the problem of simply listing themes and comparing their invocations across work. Is sex dark or explicit? Does that mean it's well- or ill-used in a work?

Noelle said...

That's a very common trope of YA lit outrage--that it's no worse (and implicitly, just as good) as great literature, which also deals with the same "themes."

I should have been clearer (well done, me!)--I definitely don't think Random Death-y YA Book and the Iliad are at all comparable. I actually agree with Gurdon, but I think the terminology should be refined. What does "dark" mean here? "Bad things happen," or "Bad things which are described in gruesome detail happen for no other apparent reason than to happen"? Gurdon's using it to describe the latter, but that seems, to me at least, to make having a word for the former necessary.

I'm not sure what the content of the distinction really is

Given the recommendations in the sidebar, it's obvious that Gurdon/the WSJ doesn't think that "Bad things happen" automatically makes a book objectionable. This is why I think a distinction would help--a lot of people, including me, would probably say that something described as "a grueling post-apocalyptic novel" was "dark." I'd keep that word and assign "explicit" to a book like Scars, which doesn't sound like much more than a nasty exercise in voyeurism.

I'm not sure if I'm making much sense, to myself or to anyone else, but I suppose that, in the end, what I'm saying is that I think Gurdon's case would have been strengthened if she'd gone ahead and stated that the opposite of Explicit Writing Is Truthful Writing doesn't need to be the YA-outrage straw man of Writing Must Ignore Bad Stuff, but can be, or even should be, Writing Can Be "Dark" Without Being Corrupting.

Miss Self-Important said...

I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure that dark vs. explicit clarifies the difference. These terms seem to point to the coverage of certain topics (death, or sex) rather than the use of the topics, which is what differentiates random death for the heck of it from death as an argument about how to live. You're right that Gurdon's essay doesn't really deal with the distinctions you propose, and I think we find it difficult to make them because we are so convinced that reading is good and can't quite put our finger on the precise harm that reading bad books inflict. Perhaps the place to start would be to say in what sense writing can corrupt, and then it will be clearer how writing can be dark without being corrupting.

Tim said...

"the act of eyes scanning words on a page has come to be thought a morally upstanding activity"


In Madame Bovary, Flaubert writes that when Emma poisons herself with arsenic, it tastes "like ink" -- a clear suggestion that her suicide was (at least partly) the result of having her consciousness shaped by the trashy romance novels she read as a young girl.

What a fundamentalist hayseed that guy was!