The twitterverse and blogs have been buzzing this week about Darkness Too Visible, an article in the Wall Street Journal that decries what the author sees as excessive violence and general unsavoriness in young people’s fiction. Meghan Cox Gurdon uses as her stand-in a mother searching for a book for her 13 year old, unable to find anything that does not feature cutting, suicide, gore, bulimia, vampires &tc. The author goes on to assert that such fiction is putting ideas in young readers’ minds, that 40 years ago there was nothing to equal this kind of book for young people, and that while not in favor of censorship, protecting the minds and souls of young people is paramount.
Dudgeon has been running high in response. Melissa Rabey, writing for A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy (School Library Journal’s blog), hits all the major rebuttal points and aggregates links to other commentary. In Talmudic detail readers and writers of YA refute Gurdon’s assertions, testify as to how this literature has revealed and acknowledged difficult truths, allowed readers a safe place to experience and think about issues, reflect on choices.
All this is true, as is Gurdon’s premise that much darker material is being published today than was published 40 years ago. I’ve not seen much written about the larger context for current YA that may challenge readers (because there are plenty of books concerned with hair and clothes and boyfriends, sports and too much beer and the familiar sex of back seats and summer cabins).
We live in dark times. We are at war and in financial hardship as a nation. The level of sex and violence tolerated on network television and routinely encountered in video games and PG rated movies is exponentially higher than the norm of even twenty years ago. Artists reflect what they see and experience – as Gurdon mentions in talking about the rise of YA and challenging middle grade fiction in the 1970’s. To hold artists and writers responsible for the cause of creative work that accurately and powerfully mirrors young people and their experience today is to misunderstand the role of the creative artist in our cultural landscape. It is the artist’s job to tell their truth, to meditate on the world as they see it and to draw conclusions. Authors are telling the stories that reflect their experience, what they see, and what concerns them. All we have is our work. You only have to look at the current odds of getting published and make a living from writing to meditate on the lack of power the creative class has. Yet, story and art continue to play a central role in how we process the world around us, most especially for young people who are building their world view, cementing the people they want to become. A multiplicity of experience and viewpoints and a strong imagination help us to navigate and understand the world.
Is some of the YA literature on the market extreme? Yes. Is it for every reader? No. But if guiding young minds through literature is truly a concern then we would do well to focus on preserving our libraries, where knowledge and guidance exist in abundance; on valuing the community aspects of bricks and mortar bookstores and the function they serve socially, and then finding ways to keep them in business; on building an education system that produces thinkers instead of test takers.
As a young reader I never felt I needed protection. I felt I could find my way through and around literature that might not suit me, that might be over my head, that I might not be equipped to handle. Young readers are smart and discerning and they deserve our respect as parents and publishers and writers. As for that mother who stood in the Barnes and Noble and was not directed to and could not find a suitable book for her child, I hope she’s reading the responses, goes to her librarian or independent book store for guidance, and talks to her child about her concerns. That young reader might surprise her. At the very least families should be places we talk about books and ideas.
Update: A far more eloquent piece in response to the Wall Street Journal Article, by Sherman Alexie in that very paper: Why The Best Kids Books Are Written In Blood