By Sara Zarr
A recent article (opinion piece, really, though not presented as such) in the Wall Street Journal asked the question, “Is contemporary young adult fiction too dark?” Well, it didn't so much ask it as answer it. In writer Meghan Cox Gurdon's opinion: Yes.
The essential complaint Gurdon has is with the dark subject matter of many books written for teens. Though she does wind up recommending a few (very few, and most not very current) options for what she considers acceptable reading for young adults, issues of literary merit, story context, and overall Areté seem not to enter the bulk of her argument as factors that matter much when in fact they matter a great deal.
But that's not what I want to write about here. There have already been numerous eloquent responses to Gurdon's piece, in forums like Salon and Publishers Weekly, as well as on blogs and Facebook and Twitter. Also, as an author of young adult fiction, I can't help but take the critique of my genre personally and I get tired of this particular fight.
There's something else about the article that's been bothering me.
Gurdon writes, “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.”
Funny, I feel exactly this way about so much of contemporary adult fiction—especially the most acclaimed and awarded literary fiction, the books that are heralded in the pages of the same journals that make room for semi-annual outcries against the content of young adult fiction while rarely ever truly reviewing YA books in light of quality and context.
The fun-house mirrors in the most talked-about literary fiction show me that existential despair, marital misery, adultery, addiction, suburban malaise, and basic careless cruelty between people are inevitable and ubiquitous. That especially between midlife and death, life is one big flaming ball of self- and other-destruction that is temporarily escaped, here and there, via soulless sex and lots of cocktails.
Isn't that a hideous distortion, too?
Well, that's different. Those books are for grownups. We're talking about the shaping of young minds.
Gurdon worries that books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them” and that “entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.
Those statements could inspire another round of debate, but let’s assume they're true.
If I believe art and entertainment can shape people when they are sixteen, I have to believe that it can have the same or very similar powers when they are twenty-three, forty-seven, eighty. Research into neuroplasticity—the malleability of the brain, to oversimplify it—shows that we are forming new neurological pathways, deepening some and letting others wither away all through life. The frequency and form of input, the habits of the mind, can actually change the kinds of thoughts we're most likely to have as those thoughts take the pathways of least resistance. At any age.
Nothing magically happens at eighteen to make us immune to the power of what we see, hear, or read to affect our thoughts and eventually, perhaps, our behavior. Readers twelve to eighteen are not the only humans whose hearts and minds are being influenced by culture. We don't stop needing stories of hope and redemption and reconciliation and joy and beauty as adults. Which somehow seems to be the flip-side implication of the alarm expressed over the content in teen books, as well as a conclusion one could draw based on what kinds of stories tend to get the attention and applause in the adult literary world.
Perhaps grownups need those kinds of stories more than ever, as we enter into our lives with our own houses, bank accounts, careers, marriages, children, power, autonomy.
I know that the argument Gurdon makes will come up again and again in some permutation or another; it always does. And one difficulty, of course, is that what makes a story hopeful or redemptive is very much in the eye of the beholder, as is age-appropriateness. Overarching everything is the need for good parenting and moral instruction and the teaching of critical thinking skills, none of which are an author's job, even an author of YA.
And, I'm willing to concede that there's room for improvement or at least balance in what's available specifically for teen readers.
I only wish this conversation were also happening about general fiction and entertainment, in the same papers and journals that love to pile on YA. It's not as if sixteen-year-old humans are extremely vulnerable, and, somehow, three years later they are not vulnerable at all, and we can all stop worrying and read stacks of books about serial adulterers and chronic despair and interpersonal cruelty and remain unchanged.
There are good books, great books, about these topics, of course. “Dark” topics, you might call them if you were talking about YA, if you were a person who did not grasp that high schoolers live in the same dark world as you do.
We need context, we need excellence, everywhere. Not just for the young.
“Adolescence is brief;” Gurdon writes, “it comes to each of us only once....”
That is true about life, the whole of it.