Saturday, December 29, 2012

YA lit and the social crisis of the sheltered childhood

And, as if NYT Styles reads my blog, the weekend profile does exactly what the anti-treacle article deplores - endorses the nonsense of YA lit "realism." It features the endless tired tropes about the noble imperative of "exposing" children to seediness and tragedy - if you don't do it now in the "safe place to explore" that is books, then surely when they actually confront these "realities" in due time (and who doesn't eventually come face-to-face with a meth-addicted rapist serial killer during an unintended teenage pregnancy while one is stoned after senior prom?), they will be so naive that they'll necessarily succumb:
Ms. Myracle, 43, a newly divorced mother of three, ruffles feathers because she unflinchingly addresses the pitfalls of adolescence. Many people would prefer that she not write about teenagers dancing topless at a boozy frat party, or smoking marijuana to impress a friend with benefits. While she understands their impulse to protect children, she feels it is more dangerous to keep knowledge from them....Give your kid some credit for being smart — just because they read about something doesn’t mean they will do it,” she said.
But if they never read about it, does it mean they will? Such is the patently absurd implication of this argument. Once again, let me quote Alan Jacobs's excellent response to this persistent and ridiculous claim that YA lit can only have a salutary effect on its readers and never a damaging one:
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...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.
The best part of this article is that exactly the same article was written by the NYT 35 years ago about Judy Blume, complete with the introduction about the outrage of banning books that simply speak The Truth about children's lives (and, in case you hadn't noticed, The Truth is only ever The Grim Truth), the beautiful and selfless intentions of their author, said author's own "non-judgmental" parenting style and its success, the misguided outrage of reactionary parents who oppose her books, and finally, her special claim to credibility as an author of books that "authentically" portray an experience that she herself admits is closed to and set against that of adults (that's why they need her books, of course, to do the parenting work that they can't manage b/c they're so out of touch). And what is that special claim to credibility, exactly? Bizarrely enough, it is that the author is herself a kind of child. Consider:
1978: “[Blume] is emotional, impulsive, endearing, innocent….She could fit right in as a guest at a seventh-grade slumber party.”
2012: Early in her career, [Myracle] said, someone asked her at a book reading why she writes about teenagers. She replied, “Because I haven’t yet grown up.”

So that's a rather odd claim about the morality behind YA realism. We must not use our adult authority to "moralize" to children; indeed, we must drop the entire pretense of authority and become children alongside them if we ever hope to understand them and keep them out of trouble. But should we even try to keep them out of trouble? Isn't that authoritarian, an imposition of our values on others? Shouldn't they make their mistakes and learn from them? Well, there is some moralism we can get behind - for example, the moral imperative of exposing and not-judging. Children need to be told, in great detail, what bad things lurk in dark corners (all the corners, preferably) of this world, but not so they know what to look out for and avoid, just so that they know. Consider, from the 1978 article:
People complain, especially with "Blubber"--where the kids' horrible cruelty to the fat girl is never punished--that Judy Blume raises questions and issues without solving them. Her response is that she doesn't have solutions. Her aim is just to get problems out in the open.
And what exactly is the value of that? Presumably if bullying is a real problem endemic to children's lives, they already know it exists, and it's Blume who's late to the party. I understand that cathartic self-identification through literature is possible, but of all the "issues" in society, bullying must be one of the most solvable. Maybe not solvable as a widespread social phenomenon, but it's not cancer or a tree falling on you - it can be addressed at least in the context of one's own school life. But unlike Blume, Myracle claims that despite their raciness, her books “overall [have] a very moral message." Well, what might that be? We're never told. She seems to be willing to advise against certain behaviors - making rape jokes, bullying, and - weirdly, but perhaps fittingly - permitting children to keep secrets from their mothers. When you withhold nothing from your children, perhaps it's reasonable to expect the same in return. That's what best friends are for, and you're nothing if not their very best friend. The only immorality we learn of in this account is that of "passing judgment" on the choices of others, and of not giving others choices in the first place:
One afternoon after Ms. Myracle picked up Jamie at school, he recounted how a seventh grader was smoking pot on school grounds and offering it around. He was upset and shocked. Ms. Myracle didn’t pass judgment or ask him if he had been involved. “You know you can choose your friends, and you can always say, ‘No,’" she said.
It's not bad per se for a seventh grader to be smoking pot; that's just a lifestyle option. Your own children should be free to choose whether or not they wish to participate. The moral question is one of choice - would you be so harsh as to foreclose your children's choices by requiring them to refuse marijuana? Therein lies your error. You cannot change your children; they are forces of nature. All you can do is hope they don't for whatever reason choose to self-destruct, and if they do so choose, your job is to watch them, all the while being perfectly honest with them about the various ways other people have gone about self-destructing. This is the lesson that the notably adult-sounding mothers in the 1978 article have learned from Blume: "I'd like [my daughter] to be a lovely, charming, vital young lady. Those are just my dreams, of course. They aren't that realistic. All I can do is keep my eye on her until I'm no longer the one responsible." 

As I've said before, YA lit is perhaps the only aspect of childrearing, the only genre fiction, whose marketing pitches haven't changed a bit in the last 40 years. Lauren Myracle is Judy Blume, although it's not clear just why we need her if we already have Blume, who wrote a book describing the "drama" and "mechanics" of teen sex three decades ago, and I'm pretty sure that little about those logistics has changed since. What is clear though is that we can't, at any cost, obstruct children's access to these important works. That's censorship, and censorship, even of children's material, is the greatest sin against freedom. We may not quite be able to judge the literary merit of these books, although we may become confused sometimes, as the did the National Book Award committee when, "It emerged that “Shine” was wrongly nominated because the judges had confused it with another single-word title. [Myracle] was asked to drop out, a crushing blow." But at least we know they have social merit precisely because they inspire opposition, and so long as anyone out there objects to such books and any child remains unversed in the possible traumas of youth by age 12, we know we're still living in the dark ages of 1967.

Thus sayeth a wise commenter to this article: "In sum total, Ms. Myracle is simply doing the duties, responsibilities, AND obligations that many--perhaps most--parents absent themselves from without leave." The greatest error of childrearing is not allowing your children to do terrible or self-destructive things, it's preventing them from knowing about them. All praise to Lauren Myracle: unacknowledged mother to us all.


Kate Marie said...

This is brilliant. Thanks for this.

David said...

OK, I'll play Devil's Advocate for a second.

In Volume II of Democracy in America, Tocqueville attributes the strengths of American girls to their knowledge of the world:

"Long before an American girl arrives at a marriageable age, her emancipation from maternal control begins: she has scarcely ceased to be child, when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse. The great scene of the world is constantly open to her view: far from seeking to conceal it from her, it is every day disclosed more completely, and she is taught to survey it with a firm and calm gaze. Thus the vices and dangers of society are early revealed to her; as she sees them clearly, she views them without illusion, and braves them without fear; for she is full of reliance on her own strength, and her confidence seems to be shared by all around her."

Wouldn't YA realism count as a worthy form of revealing the dangers of society to children? Wouldn't "[obstructing] children's access to these important works" harm them not primarily because it obstructs their freedom, but because it obstructs their ability to arm their reason and virtue?

Andrew Stevens said...

I also believe this is a brilliant post. I've always loved that old post of yours on YA lit. It made me think about the issue from an angle I'd never considered before.

On a minor, unrelated note, your blogroll has a typo in it. Cheapness Studies says in memorium instead of in memoriam.

Jeff said...

Nicely put, MSI. By comparing the 1987 and 2012 YA author profiles, I think you've put your finger on something much bigger: how weirdly ossified the tropes, premises, and conventions of much of our popular culture have become. The same is happening beyond YA lit. Early science fiction authors studied math and science; many of their successors aspire only to ape their predecessors. And when I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone in a barber shop last week, the cover story was an interview with Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin; inside, two current pop stars pretend to giggle nervously about revealing to the magazine that they've...smoked pot. Much of the issue could have been a reprint of the magazine from 1982 with the names updated.

Anyway, that ossification undermines the credibility of YA authors. If they can't see that their genre is still functioning under assumptions that are older than many of their readers' parents, how can parents trust them to give kids an accurate take on the society around them?

Miss Self-Important said...

KM and AS: Thanks. And yes, memoria is fem. first declension. I did not pay attention.

David: Maybe, but what does it mean that, "the great scene of the world is constantly open to her view"? I'm not sure what the children's literature of the 1830s was, but that of the period right before it and right after was not concerned with "realism" in the sense of value-free depictions of misery. Not even adult literature really takes that up in the US until the late 19th C. social novels like Dreiser's, I think. So the scene of the world is unlikely to be the scenes of books.

Two possibilities do come to mind though - BF's depiction of his childhood in the Autobio, which Tocqueville knew, and a bit later than DiA, Twain's depiction of American childhood in Huck Finn. Both of these are childhoods in which adult authority is notably absent and the boys experience the seedy side of society very early. In that sense, nothing is hidden from them, but it's not b/c there is a pedagogical mission to expose them to it. It's just a circumstance of their lives - BF's father is too poor to keep him in school and has too many other children to control BF, and Huck is an orphan. But both of these works are I think partly critical of the open childhood they depict - it's very freeing, but not very conducive to virtue. Almost all of BF's similarly free friends become drunks and end up in Barbados. Huck's character is intended to indict the moral depravity of the South, where a low, thieving orphan has more virtue than all the supposed adults and authorities around. In other words, these are not clearly celebrations of early exposure to the world as criticisms of adult neglect and cravenness. BF is, I think, always personally proud of his early freedom, but he is troubled by its effect on his character and especially on the character of other ambitious boys whom it destroyed, although I think he believes that an aspect of such freedom will always be the estate of democratic children, even after there is more wealth, more stable family structure, and more institutions established to keep them in line, all of which he worked to bring about as an adult.

The other alternative that could be on Tocqueville's mind is the kind of cloistered upbringing of Emile and Sophie (doesn't he say in DiA that he's influenced most by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Pascal?), who don't have contact with anyone but their own families until late adolescece. That's clearly radically different than the American situation. So it's possible that what Tocqueville is commenting on is that American children develop virtue through experience with and in response to their societies, which is the model of the development of mores in DiA generally. But if that's the case, there's not much parallel b/w what Tocqueville describes, and reading about bizarre permutations of social pathology, or about the glories of menstruation and breast development in your cloistered suburban bedroom at age 12. This makes vice and danger attractive and interesting, not clearly objects of revulsion and avoidance.

Miss Self-Important said...

Jeff: I think they stay relevant largely b/c having your book "banned" - which is actually just having it removed from a single school or public library, or potentially just having someone request to remove it - continues to have so much cache. If Joe Schmo in Moscow, Idaho doesn't think his kid should read your book, that means it must contain Deep and Hidden Truths That the Powers That Be want to keep from you, like the books on the Church's Index in the 16th Century. Judy Blume and Lauren Myracle are right up there with Martin Luther and Galileo. The children's book industry has gotten a lot of mileage out of conflating the Church's authority over souls with democratic municipal authority over minors - it's all just people who want to keep the Truth from you!

But it's definitely true that the risque substance of YA lit has not actually changed since the mid or late '70s. Now they're just recycling the old themes - puberty, sex, drugs, abuse, divorce, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, race and sexuality, poverty, etc. - into different combinations, or even the same ones, since there's a good chance that the readers haven't read the older versions, and if they have, they don't mind a remake updated to include cell phones and brand names.

Jeff said...

Yeah, that's just it: touting your novel as having been "banned or challenged" does still convey a certain cachet, but it shouldn't. The number of cases is small, and a "challenge" can be as insignificant as a parent questioning the age-appropriateness of a book. Reasonable critics, I suspect, threaten the shared delusion that YA authors stand as the last noble defenders of enlightenment.

Miss Self-Important said...

Reasonable critics have other obstacles though in addition to debunking the glamour of "banned books." This kind of realism makes a moral claim about what reality is. That is, reality is misery and pathology - your comfortable suburban life is not, strictly speaking, real, but rather an illusory bourgeois bubble. That's a claim made on behalf of adults too by contemporary realism, at least since the more sincere exponents of New Journalism. (Earlier American realists like Dreiser and Sinclair were more overtly moralistic.) You need to know what's "out there," maybe in part so you don't fall prey to it, but also just so you don't appear naive when you do. That's a bigger argument to criticize.

And another big problem is the vagueness of quality standards for children's literature. Children like what they like without giving or even conceiving very good reasons for it. And whatever people liked as children, they tend to assume is good as adults and recommend for subsequent children. (I'm completely guilty of this as well.) It's not a terrible system on the whole, even if what is good about the books remains unarticulated - the last time I looked over the Newbery and Caldecott winners from the past 30 years, the choices struck me as usually quite good and they only occasionally succumbed to the cheap seductions of advocacy lit and realism. There's definitely political pandering, but not as much as you'd expect.

Withywindle said...

Are you there, God? It's me, Martin.

Miss Self-Important said...

I must, I must, I must increase my bust. I can do no other.

alex said...

I agree with you, generally, but I'm not sure that Judy Blume is so representative of this problem. (And not so sure this is just a YA problem- Precious?)I read most of her books. They are not about drugs and poverty and teen rape. They are about divorces, and friendship issues, and other assorted totally not-out-of-the ordinary life issues. (Yes, there is the one sex book, and I remember my mom telling me not to read this until I was older.) Divorce and friendship and bullying are not sordid. Why should YA books not be about them? Is the issue that it focuses too much on them, at the expense of other noble things teenagers should be focused on?

I think the Rachael Robinson books are excellent. And the main character in Blubber does learn a lesson about bullying when she herself is bullied. The adults are not clueless so much as occupied with other things, which seems to be a generational difference from today's culture of hyper-focused parenting.

Miss Self-Important said...

Blume did write some books about "sordid" topics - the main character's father in Tiger Eyes is randomly murdered, I think. There is also one early political book about racism, but I don't recall the plot beyond the political point. But yes, her mainstays were mostly puberty and family problems. This is from the earlier post on this point:
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.

I think you're right that friendship is a consuming interest for her, but all girls' books or books that in appeal to girls - realistic and not - are about friendships, and yet not all girls' books make friendship about mutual boob enhancement and period anticipation. I think children are open to suggestion about what to be interested in at this age, and Blume does them - especially girls - little service by suggesting that what they should aspire to is menstruation and crushes on boys. It's true that there isn't much available for them to do in the world at 12, but you could consider, for example, Anne of Green Gables, or maybe Harry Potter (though as you know, I haven't read that) as alternative depictions of how to conduct friendships. Harry Potter was evidently no less interesting to children just b/c they couldn't actually be witches, but the idea that friendship is "having adventures" out of the sight of adults is easily transferable to the constraints of real life. Or, in Anne of Green Gables, it's learning to be good, which is indeed a long, difficult process. I don't think you need (other people's) family drama or self-dramatized pubertal changes to find something to think about at this age.