Age Limits and Expiration Dates
The virtual storm in response to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article on dark content in YA lit has mostly passed, but I’m still more than a little caught up in it. I was, not so very long ago, a voracious reader of books on the YA shelves in my local library (though teenage me tended to favor fantasy over books set in the real world). I read books then that still haunt and astonish me now, books that would stand up to the test of academic criticism, books that were very, very real to me, that have helped me become the (mostly) well adjusted and (I hope) open-minded adult that I am now. Gurdon has little sympathy for the literary culture that has formed around writing intended for young adults, however. Her article, scoldingly titled “Darkness Too Visible,” lampoons YA lit for making “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings…just part of the run of things,” grousing that “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.”
According to Gurdon, the underlying problem is the publishing industry, that menace intent upon wreaking mayhem in the butterfly-delicate minds of 12-18 year olds. “Alas,” wails Gurdon, “literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books.” She quotes from an editor of YA lit, who, frustrated by having to clean up a Chris Lynch novel so it could be made available in schools, wrote to an industry magazine, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.” I’m not sure what the most offensive part of Gurdon’s response to this quote is, so I’ll let you be the judge: “By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor 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!'”
The article ends with an invitation to parents to stand up to the evils of literary culture, trumpeting “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.” Because, you know, that’s what the publishing industry exists to do.
In the days following the WSJ article, many people, including YA authors and readers themselves, wrote and posted eloquent defences of YA lit and the darkness in it. They’ve said what I would have wanted to say about YA lit and why sometimes the themes that Gurdon railed against can do powerful, salvatory things for teens in crisis. They’ve also said some things that make a lot of practical sense when it comes to choosing and talking about YA books. Here are a few notable moments from the responses I read:
The Guardian collected a number of tweets from YA authors under the hashtag #YAsaves, including these words from Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the controversial Speak:
“Teens read YA books and take away positive, moral guidance. In order to show kids why certain behaviours are dangerous, you actually have to discuss the behaviours. Scary, I know. It’s tough being a parent. But it’s tougher being a kid who has clueless parents….Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.”
YA author Maureen Johnson’s piece for the Guardian:
“If subjects like these are in YA books, it’s to show that they are real, they have happened to others, and they can be survived. For teenagers, there is sometimes no message more critical than: you are not alone. This has happened before. The feeling that you are feeling, the thing you are going through – it is a known thing. Articles like this one grossly underestimate the teenage reader’s capabilities. Kids know how to process a story. Moreover, this article completely ignores the broad scope of YA (which merely indicates a book with a suggested readership of 12-18, a wide range). The term covers all genres. Cox Gurdon might as well be saying: ‘All food is Italian food, and I don’t like Italian food, so it should not exist. The fact that it does exist means the food industry is forcing it on my children!'”
“Where are the booksellers, the librarians in [Gurdon’s] argument? Experts exist for a reason. If parents, or teens for that matter (who actually do a pretty damn good job of self-selecting what they’re comfortable reading), are feeling besieged by what they think are the only books out there, then talk to a bookseller about what you feel is appropriate for your child to be reading.”
“As a mother of two voracious readers, one of whom is just shy of the traditional teen lit range, I can certainly vouch that the YA section of your local bookstore can be a pretty damn grim place…and no, not all of it is great literature. Remind me again when there was a time when there was nothing but great literature from which to choose?”
“There’s something almost comical about raising [children] with tales of big bad wolves and poisoned apples, and then deciding at a certain point that literature is too ‘dark’ for them to handle. Kids are smarter than that. And a kid who is lucky enough to give a damn about the value of reading knows the transformative power of books.”
“As teen blogger Emma eloquently explains, ‘Good literature rips open all the private parts of us — the parts people like you have deemed too dark, inappropriate, grotesque or abnormal for teens to be feeling — and then they stitch it all back together again before we even realize they’re not talking about us.’ That’s why it matters; why, in the name of protecting teens, we can’t shut them off from the outlet of experiencing difficult events and feelings in the relative safety and profound comfort of literature. Darkness isn’t the enemy. But ignorance always is.”
Yes, yes, and yes.
A while back, Michael pointed out that we don’t talk about the gender of our submitters when we’re evaluating a piece for publication. I realized, reading all this, that we also don’t talk about YA lit. It’s a different kind of “not talking,” though, born out of our concept of audience more than our concept of what we should or should not be publishing. The de facto audience of literary magazines is, let’s face it, often neither mainstream nor in the 12-18 age range. The stories, essays, and poetry we publish are selected accordingly; that is, they are selected with the expectation that they will be read by a fairly particular adult audience. When I asked around, very few of our editors had more than a passing familiarity with literature targeted at young adults, and I imagine that is true for many of us who work at small literary presses and journals. In fact, it’s probably true for the majority of adults, including those who are raising children.
Knowing this, I decided to take one for the team and visit our local Barnes & Noble. The new YA section the B&N powers-that-be are helpfully (or hurtfully) calling “Teen Paranormal Romance” occupied a place of prominence, of course — though I overheard two teenage girls talking about how tired they were of vampire stuff, so that prominence could be on its way out. Actually, beyond the glossy dark covers in “Teen Paranormal Romance,” I found that B&N was doing a pretty good job of showcasing lauded, award-winning YA books. Their display of “Must-Read Books” for teens included some of the books Gurdon jumped on as too visibly dark, like Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a few books that have been around for a while, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and some, like David Leviathan & John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, that are more recent. Almost all of them had a flashy sticker announcing their nomination or reception of a major literary award. These were books that meant business, the kind of books that I would have been reading after school (maybe even during it, on the sly) if I were still a teen. I want to read them now, too — and I hope other adults might want to read them, especially adults who are involved in making and breaking literary respectability, and adults who are raising children.
After all this hullabaloo, I’m feeling a little worried. I’m feeling worried that YA lit is not being taken nearly seriously enough, and that the YA audience is not being taken nearly seriously enough. With the exception of people whose careers deal explicitly with YA lit — and I’m including librarians here — it just doesn’t get much attention from the literati. I’m convinced, though, that the best YA lit could stand up to the same kind of rigorous examinations we put non-YA lit through in universities, and I want to see it happen. I’m convinced that kids ARE smart, and though they might miss elements in a text that an adult reader would appreciate, they should be given more faith as an audience. If there’s one thing I have learned about kids from my short time observing them instead of being one, it’s that every now and then, kids will sneak-attack adults with their perception. We are prone to forget that their struggles, small or big, seem enormous from their perspective, and we are even more prone to forget that they understand, to some level, things we might not expect them to understand.
There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to TMR’s new online textBOX anthology, but I think what excites me the most is that we’re pulling these stories, essays, and poems from the archives with the dual intention of saving them from a dusty demise in our storage room and getting them into classrooms. We aren’t thinking of them as YA lit, but we’re thinking of them as though teenagers, not just adults, are going to read them. We’re trusting that young adults can make sense of and maybe even connect with what we publish, though we don’t set out with a YA audience in mind when we’re putting together a new issue. We look for great content; that is our criteria, and that will never change. It’s just got me wondering: what makes a piece of literature YA? Is it the author’s intention? The publisher’s? The perspective from which a story is written? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers here. I guess that means it’s time to get back to my reading, with a little something-something from the YA shelves thrown in.
Sara Strong is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri. She is an editorial assistant at The Missouri Review.