"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Let's all read about darkness and depravity!

Yesterday the blogosphere was all abuzz about this article in the Wall Street Journal called "Darkness Too Visible." The author makes the claim that fiction for teens is too dark and disturbing. The internets disagree.

My Master's Thesis was a YA novel. (Plug: As completed it was called After Graduation, but you can see here the revised version called Trendy Poseurs Go Home.) My thesis defense committee was made up of three professors who have all published YA fiction. They were each helpful mentors and facilitated my writing in every way they could. When I went in for my official defense, however, the first thing they asked was how I could uphold my novel as literature. I stumbled around for a few minutes muttering something about how Adolescent Literature (as it was called back then) is a valid sort and, um, meaningful to a--ahem--variety of people, when they stopped me. I was embarrassed and confused because I thought they were belittling my choice of genre when they themselves write the same sort of fiction. They, of course, weren't trying to embarrass me, and they quickly told me they understood the importance of YA fiction.

(I still sometimes wonder why they passed me, though, because I clearly had a hard time defending myself.)

That was fifteen years ago. Since then Harry Potter happened and Twilight and The Hunger Games, not to mention Sarah Dessen and Jodi Picoult and Meg Cabot. Which is to say that Young Adult Literature (as it is called now) hardly needs defending any more.

So let's talk about the criticism that YA books are brutal and violent and full of sex and expletives.

It's all true. But it's nothing new. And neither is the criticism. Catcher in the Rye and The Chocolate War and To Kill a Mockingbird have all been deemed obscene and immoral or for years. What I think is new is that so many people care. And they are staunchly opposed to censorship.

They argue that YA novels depict teenage life like it is. That reading about an issue, even if that problem isn't something you deal with, can expand your worldview. If it is something you personally connect with, you understand better that you are not alone.And that suggesting teens shouldn't read certain books about these problems because of vulgarity or violence is censorship.

A censorship argument like this seems to lead to the idea that everything out there is equally valid. My issue with this "anything goes" attitude comes from the point of view of a high school English teacher. In another article, Julie Daines suggests that there's a difference between being "edgy" and "trashy." It seems to me that too many YA stories are provocative just for the sake of being provocative. People will read if you just give them the right kind of hook. And I've seen that my students are no different. Hook them, and they'll read anything, even if it's just garbage.

Don't get me wrong. I love YA Lit in realistic or fantasy form. I love books, period. Most of what I expect all year from a regular high school student is that they understand that reading is good for them. I believe that all high school students should read and study each of the controversial books mentioned above, along with dozens more. But I also think the jury's still out on books like My Bloody Life and A Child Called "It." 

(Full disclosure: I have not read these two books, and I probably never will. However, I have read sections of these texts and have had enough students read them and tell me about them that I feel confident in discussing them as examples here.)

In the high school curriculum where I teach, students are encouraged to choose what they want to read. It's a reading workshop where choice is supposed to lead to engagement with a text. And these books are two of the most popular choices.

My Bloody Life is the true story of gang life in Chicago. The problem with this book isn't the graphic depiction (and it's plenty graphic), but the fact that students can't seem to tell me what the point is. A few can tell me something, but time after time, I have asked my students if the point of this depiction of gangland violence is to show the horror and tragedy of such a life, and most of the time they respond with something like, "It's just real, you know?" Or worse, "It's just cool." (Perhaps part of this difficulty is that they also think a film like Scarface is cool because "no one messes with him"; they don't have any concept of an anti-hero.) This is what people like the author of the WSJ article argue against: that teens will read these violent books and think they're "just cool." The provocative nature of this story seems to outweigh the point. I don't know if the author of My Bloody Life intended the theme that gang life leads nowhere (or to jail) (or to death). But if that's not the point of a text rife with sexual and violent "reality" then I don't know if anyone should be reading it, let alone teenagers who think gangs are cool.

The problem with A Child Called "It" isn't theme. Most of my students can tell me what the main idea of the book is: "Child abuse is bad." It's a true story about a boy whose alcoholic mother abuses him physically and emotionally. It shows how this boy is able to overcome that abuse and succeed in spite of it. The problem here is in the simplicity. It's a one-note story, with unsophisticated language and manipulative writing. You get the point from page one, and then you're beat over the head with it. It's the car wreck you can't look away from. Of course it's sad what this kid had to suffer through, and I hope the mother paid for her maltreatment of her child. But I definitely don't need to read this book to understand that.

In these cases, I wouldn't say the gritty darkness, the "edginess" is worth it. I hope my students can graduate to more complex books with more difficult ideas to think about. And that they're not just choosing books because they're full of sex and violence.


  1. "In another article, Julie Daines suggests that there's a difference between being "edgy" and "trashy." It seems to me that too many YA stories are provocative just for the sake of being provocative."

    I agree with this so much! Your summary of the failings of My Bloody Life is right on. I far prefer Always Running for those students that simply must read a "gang book." Always Running has a clear central theme - those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. It always comes back to purpose. Is the author sharing this to be "just cool" and "just real" or are they writing it to share some deeper truth.

    I know I'm preaching to the choir with the above but I continually struggle to get my kids to understand that concept. It's as if they believe the books in my room sprang, fully formed, from the foreheads of their authors. And that these books should be absorbed only for the surface meaning because there could not possibly be anything deeper.

    I sigh, though, knowing what grade you teach. My struggles are still your struggles; I could have written this: "I hope my students can graduate to more complex books with more difficult ideas to think about."

  2. Spencer W. Kimball is quoted as saying, "Profanity is the refuge of a weak mind." I loved pointing that out to students. Surely, in the language of Shakespeare there is a word that more accurately and emotionally conveys your point than a four letter expletive. The reality is that finding the right word is hard. It's easier to #!@* it up and call that communication. On the same note, it's easier to titillate with graphic descriptions of sex and violence than to get at the emotional core of an experience and then transcribe that into words. It's my belief that graphic (in the sense of sex and violence) writing is really just lazy writing. "But it's the way life is..." I hear it already. Doesn't matter. To the great writers it never has.

  3. I was a little confused by your thesis story. Why did your professor's ask you to defend your book as literature and then let you off the hook like that? Seemed a bit odd. I'm not sure I understood what they were asking you.

  4. One of the main problems with censorship (but certainly not the only problem) is that the people driving the campaign to censor something often take a very shallow and superficial view of their targets. They look at something like Catcher in the Rye and see nothing but a kid swearing on every other page. So they lump it in with every other sort of "vulgar & profane" book. They wield censorship as a blunt instrument, with total disregard for context, depth, meaning, and artistic subtleties. One could almost draw the conclusion that people pushing for censorship are narrow-minded, reactionary, willfully ignorant, and insensitive...almost ;)

  5. Not to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, but according to me, saying that profanity is the refuge of a weak mind is like saying that garlic is the refuge of a weak chef.

  6. @ Amy: I've also never read Always Running. I've read very few gang stories. I watched Colors and Boyz in da Hood back in the day and have understood ever since that gangs are bad.

    The problem, of course, is that every student is reading their own book, and that does not allow for very deep understanding of a text. What are you gonna do?

    @ May: Which is why what is published in the first place is what's titillating.

    @ Moody: Sorry, that story is unclear. I think the profs wanted to see if I really thought that my work, and their own work, was valid literature. They phrased the question in a way where I was thrown off by their question. I actually thought they were considering that YA fiction didn't count. So I didn't know what to say. I thought for a minute that they wanted me to say YA wasn't good enough or something like that. Why they let me off the hook, though, is still unclear to me. Probably they just were bing nice.

  7. @ Bryan: I totally agree with you. I hope you didn't infer that I was pro-censorship from this. My point here is that others were calling it censorship to say that some edgy material isn't worth it. I'm against censorship, but I'm also against not finding your own limits to what you read.

    @ Paul: LOL, and there's way too much garlic floating around out there.

  8. So they were asking you to extol the virtues of your writing, in a general fashion, but you thought they were asking you to assure them they hadn't wasted their lives writing YA... I would have panicked too.

  9. Certainly not. There's a big difference between thinking a book is trash, and thinking it should be legally removed from the shelves. I totally get where you're coming from.

  10. Yup, and everyone is blogging about it.

    Personally, I think YA has taken a walk on the darkside because that's what has sold lately. From the goth kids of the 90's to the emo/scene kids of the 2000's, what do you expect?

  11. I don't like unnecessary violence. I don't like in television (this is why Family Guy so often grates on my nerves), in my movies, and I certainly don't like it in my books.

    I can understand the violence in Of Mice and Men. I can understand the violence in Lord of the Flies. I can understand when an author is trying to make a point.

    I think a lot of teenagers today miss the point and enjoy the violence. The surge in unnecessary violence in movies? It caters to an audience craving blood. Just like executions and tortures and bear bating were popular in history, we've arrived at a culture that enjoys violence. What does it say about the way we are headed? Another Dark Ages?

  12. I just want to post that the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper that ran said article regarding darkness in YA, lost all of its integrity when it was sold to Rupert Murdoch who owns FOX News. Personally, I feel that it is just another right-wing conservative pundit that attacks any belief system that strays from strict adherence to a morality defined by modern popular Christian ethics, creationism (intelligent design), and in John Stewart's words "exists as a selective outrage machine". The writer of said article has a place next to Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Anne Coulter. She just needs to reach out and claim her seat.

  13. I abhor censorship in all it's forms on principle. My view is "If you don't like it, don't read it." And "If you think this view is wrong, teach your children why and don't just say 'This is bad'." But then my view on reading has been kind of skewed anyway. I learned to read early and went straight from 'Dick and Jane' to '1984' and 'Brave New World'. Never spent alot of time noodling around in the YA section.

  14. Maybe the reason they read the book and say "it's cool" is because they don't understand the deeper meaning - because they haven't been taught to LOOK for the deeper meaning. In my English classes that's what we did, we were asked what we thought of the book and then the teacher gently guided us to search deeper and go from there. There were a couple people that always started out with "I like the fighting party" and the teacher asked, "Why do you think they were fighting?" and by the end of the semester there wasn't a single student that didn't start getting to that point on their own.

    I have read "A Child Called It" several times in my life and it never fails to make me cry. However, the purpose isn't to "beat you over the head" with the idea that child abuse is bad - if that's what you really believe then you're guilty of the same thing you are disappointed in your students for not understanding. This book was the first of its kind that was actually able to highlight WHAT exactly children can and do suffer through. Yes, child abuse is bad, but what is child abuse? His mother was a horrible person but why? It showed her go from being a normal healthy woman to being psychotic, it showed how and why people like the father are willing to stand by and let their children suffer hoping that one day it will end on it's own. It reached more points through psychological examination than most people will ever understand. Yes, he (the author) shared what he suffered through and told gruesome details but to declare it "trashy" is so offensive and disgusting. He wasn't writing this for shock value and if that's all you got from the snippets you read I highly recommend you actually check it out before making such baseless and untrue observations.


  15. I don't doubt that A Child Called It makes anyone cry. I'm sure I cried when I read it. But, that's the point. It's emotionally manipulative because it's horrifying without an adequate literary justification for the graphic depictions. The book doesn't explain the psychology of any of the abuse. It doesn't offer insight into why these things happen or how to prevent it. The parents are inexplicable cyphers (perhaps reflecting Peltzer's own confusion as to why this happened)and we are given no real insight into how Peltzer overcame the trauma.

    To say it was revolutionary in its depiction of what children actually suffer as the result of abuse is simply inaccurate. (Check out William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Innocence published in 1789).

    A careful reading will reveal that the post never called the book "trashy." Instead, the post points out that the message of the book is one that no rational person would disagree with and so to witness Peltzer's degradation and torture serves no purpose other than to titillate the reader. It's like watching a car accident - you can't look away because it's horrifying, but did you learn anything from watching it?

  16. @ Moody: Yeah, it was kind of a threatening way to begin a thesis defense.

    @ Bryan: Exactly. Well put.

    @ McKenzie: Have you read another interesting blog or two about this that you would share? This is my obsession of the week.

    I'm sure the goth/emo kids love some of the YA stuff that speaks to them, but I think it's more than just them that are buying these books. Twilight exploded because moms loved the romance. Then publishers thought they could replicate that success with edgier vampire stories. And so it goes.

    BTW, I've tried to read your blog, but my computer can't seem to read your page. The colors don't contrast enough so I can't read it. Have you had other difficulties like this?

  17. @ Chanel: I agree that we shouldn't enjoy violence. But I can also justify watching Die Hard because it's such an unrealistic fantasy.

    @ Michael: I agree that the article in question is one-sided and poorly researched. But I have a hard time believing in such conspiracies. I just read an essay about the media by journalist Chuck Klosterman who logically argues that "there is no way the espoused Aryan masterminds who run the world can affect the content of any daily story; they usually have no idea what the hell is going on with anything in the world, and certainly not with anyone's writing about it."

    @ darev: Some people would argue these days that 1984 and Brave New World are YA books, or at least that today's "dark" books for teens are direct descendants of Orwell and Huxley.

  18. @ TK: Anonymous above said it better than I could because I haven't read the book. My intention, of course, was not to be dismissive of something that's important to many people, but to point out that for this kind of human tragedy that everyone should be more aware of, I think there are better texts to read. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes to mind as an example of a story (told specifically and graphically) about a child who was abused in several ways and overcomes her various states of oppression. The story is told without sensationalism, and Angelou shows her progress from child to woman. The language is literary and challenging, something I haven't seen in A Child Called It.

    Your point about teaching students to understand the meaning of a text is important. The trouble is that where I teach, students don't get much of this training. They are asked to choose their own books based on interest level rather than literary merit. And when everyone in the room is reading a different book, it's pretty impossible for a teacher to help anyone get very deep into a text. I wish it weren't this way, but that's the reality I deal with every day.

  19. I think you're getting flak [?] for my "a book is trash" comment. To the commenters above: I was speaking in general, of course, and not specifically about any of the books he mentioned, as I had not read most of them.

  20. Nicely put. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there's always good and bad, but rarely black and white. Some people will write simply for shock and awe, and others for the edification of the readers.

    I commend any teacher that works to help our youth find those books that are really worth reading.

  21. Thank you for this post!!! I agree! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Well put Brent. Bravo.

  22. But when you step back and look at the situation from a wider view... Some people write to shock. Some people write to make you think. Some people read just for the shock value. And some read to think. It's been this way since books were invented. Heck, it was that way when all there was were spoken tales. Some people wanted to reflect and some wanted to be titillated. And younger people will almost always take excitement and titillation over something more cerebral.

  23. @ Bryan: It's okay. I implied that those two books are trash. I deserve some flak if others disagree.

    @ Julie: thanks. Unfortunately, I think those who write for shock value make the most money these days.

    @ Natalie: You're welcome, you're welcome, you're welcome. :)

    @ darev: You're right. I feel like I have some responsibility to guide my students to the kinds of books that are more than just titillating. Even if we don't specifically teach "Literature" any more.

  24. Oh, Lord. A Child Called It. Some fool (perhaps myself at a yard sale) got me that book when I was younger. The above analogy to the car wreck is indeed correct.

    Though it should be noted that I can and do look away from car wrecks on the highway. I've learned I haven't the stomach for it.