On June 4, 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon published an essay called Darkness Too Visible in the Wall Street Journal in which she made a perfectly valid observation that there was a lot of darkness, drug use, sexual misconduct, violence, and general ugliness in YA fiction these days. If she'd just pointed it out, we'd all have just nodded our heads and commented on how observant she was. She didn't stop there, though. Instead, she vilified the practice, accusing those who write dark-themed YA books of poisoning the minds of the rising generation. She argued that exposing them to such awful themes made those themes more commonplace, and made the readers correspondingly more likely to mimic the actions of the deeply flawed protagonists.
Twitter exploded (see the #YASaves hashtag). YA blogs screamed (see Nathan Bransford's list of responding blogs). Almost everyone was firmly in support of dark YA and lashed out at Ms. Gurdon for saying such awful things about it.
The June 28, 2011 WSJ contains another essay by Ms. Gurdon entitled My 'Reprehensible' Take on Teen Literature. Because when thousands are calling you an idiot, you should always stick to your guns.
Her new essay is shorter than her first, but again makes the point that dark YA serves to normalize themes we'd do better to shelter our young ones from:
Now Ms. Gurdon has a valid concern. We may not agree with her conclusions, but I'm sure none of us wants to unintentionally encourage our young readers to mirror the bad behaviors of our characters.It is true that so-called problem novels may be helpful to children in anguished circumstances. The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and "cutting" (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.
There are real-world reasons for caution. For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
I think, though, that Ms. Gurdon is missing the key difference between drug education programs and stories. Drug education programs give warning information. In much the same way sex education has been criticized for encouraging teenage sexual activity, drug education can't help but convey the idea that "we expect many of you-who-are-sitting-in-this-room to try this."
Stories are different.
Stories. Are. Different.
I attended college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. That's that Mormon school, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and proud to be listed as the most "Stone Cold Sober" school in the United States. Our honor code couldn't eradicate the foibles of youth, but it sure did a lot to discourage most of them.
My "home" building was the Harris Fine Arts Center, which would occasionally place barricades at all entrances warning conservative students and faculty that a "possibly offensive" fine art exhibit was currently on display in the main gallery. They did that not because they believed that the exhibits were worthy of censor, but because conservatives would complain otherwise.
Conservatives liked to complain about the theatre productions, too. When Brecht's The Chalk Circle was produced there, the department head received letters criticizing everything from the man taking a bath, fully clothed in the upside-down-table-tub to the man-removed-his-belt-and-threatened-to-rape-the-girl scene to the fourth-wall violations. *Gasp!* Such letter-writers thought that such plays ought not to be produced at a church university. Such letter-writers didn't know their church history.
Joseph Smith, the first LDS prophet, formed theatre troupes. Brigham Young, the second prophet, acted in them. When the saints relocated to the desert that was the Salt Lake valley, the crops were barely in the ground when the first theater was built. Brigham Young insisted that his 10 oldest daughters act in the productions so that the productions would be well-attended.
These productions were not full of sweetness and light. The plays weren't all about Jane finding the gospel and how much better her life was, now that she never cursed. The plays were about evil.
Brigham Young said:
Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls … can be revealed, and how to shun it” (sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1941, p. 243).Did you catch the catch? You can't teach the consequences of sin without showing it. That's the original purpose of the theater: to teach the audience through story what they can expect if their behavior should mirror the behavior of the characters. That effect is called catharsis--we get to purge negative emotions without screwing up our own lives in the process.
No matter your religion, the principle holds true: people (including children) learn better through experience. We don't want them to experience rape, violence, drug use, cutting, bullying, damaging sexual relationships, or petty ugliness in their real lives. What to do? Catharsis. Vicarious purging. Expose them to a character they can relate to who will crawl through the muck for them, and take them along. Show them how--and WHY--bad decisions are made. Let your young readers scream at the pages and curse the character for being an idiot. Let them understand what might lead someone to be that stupid. Let them feel within themselves their own tendencies for error so they can take steps to fix them before they manifest.
Toward the end of her essay, Ms. Gurdon quotes from the back cover of a recently-received YA ARC:
It so happened that, as the Twitterverse was roiling over "Darkness Too Visible," I received an advanced reader's copy of an "edgy paranormal" teen novel coming out in August. Have a look at the excerpt on the back cover, where publishers try to hook potential buyers: "I used to squirm when I heard people talking about cutting—taking a razor to your own flesh never seemed logical to me. But in reality, it's wonderful. You can cut into yourself all the frustrations people take out on you." Now ask yourself: Is a book the only thing being sold here?Which, of course, demonstrates the folly of rhetorical questions. The excerpt on its face calls the practice of cutting illogical--but then provides a character who can explain why a teen might succumb to such an illogical practice. A character who will take the reader through that experience, in all its horror and folly and--I trust and hope--ultimately explain how to overcome the addiction of self-mutilation. For those who might be drawn to the practice, this book could serve as a life-saving reality check. For those who have never heard of it and would never do it, this book could still teach them about the damaging effects of addiction in any form and the value of staying far away from it.
No one--not even Ms. Gurdon--can know what the ultimate message of the book is without READING IT.
Now, I support Ms. Gurdon's right to express her opinion. I just wish she'd be more responsible about it. Rather than spotting scary themes, scenes, and habits in YA books and bemoaning the possible effects of exposing children to such horrors, I wish she'd take the time to read the books she's attacking. I wish she'd focus her attack on a book-by-book basis, pointing out what is TAUGHT, rather than what is SHOWN. I wish she'd criticize the moral of the story, rather than the means of delivery.
She might find that some lessons are most effectively learned in a crucible of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things.
Especially if those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen to a fictional character, instead of a real-live teen who was discouraged from reading about them for fear she'd learn too much about the horrible things in life.
What terrible things did you read about as a youth? Did you go right out and try them yourself?
UPDATE: Don't miss my YA Saves -- Counterpoint post. It was also published on International Business Times - Business & Books, which also linked to this post. *Waves to IBT readers*