Young Adult Literature's Sorry State
Gurdon, Meghan Cox, USA TODAY
ON JUNE 4, 2011, the number-one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number-two topic on Twitter that day--almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous--had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature ... by me. Entitled "Darkness Too Visible," my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult--those aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age--a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.
Books show us the world and, in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like fun house mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent--and, for some kids, very unhappy--but, at the same lime, we know that, in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective; nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person present tense--"I, I, I," and "now, now, now." Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader, and to make the reader feel as if he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal prison, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open.
The late critic Hilton Kramer once was seated at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen, who asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he had savaged in print. "No," Kramer said, "they're the ones who made the bad art. I just described it." As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.
I do not presume to have a nose as sensitive as Kramer's--but I do know that criticism is pointless if it only is boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children's books, is to engage the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct, "discrimination." Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher's Weekly warned of a "danger" that my arguments "encourage a culture of fear around YA literature."
However, I do not, in fact, wish to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste--that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience, and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.
Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: "You are naive if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives."
What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples--but with a warning that some of what you are about to read is not appropriate for younger individuals.
A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, "covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. …