Dark YA, the Wall Street Journal, and Censorship

Hang 'Em HighSaturday, the Wall Street Journal made some waves in the YA lit world by publishing an op/ed piece focused on how dark YA literature is becoming. Twitter erupted, with many quick to criticize the author of the piece, Meghan Cox Gurdon. Some excellent discussions of the topic can be found here, here, and here. But you’re not here to see what others had to say about the subject–you’re here to read my take on it (I assume).

So here goes.

First off, I agree with the basic premise of the op/ed–the idea that YA is trending darker and darker. I don’t think it’s a debatable point. You read things today in YA that you would not *ever* have dreamed of reading before. Explicit sex scenes of every flavor, violence, self-mutilation–you name it. I think a lot of people who don’t follow the YA scene would be very surprised to know what’s out there these days, and for that, I think Gurdon’s article does a good job of bringing it to light.

As an op/ed piece, it certainly was effective. It’s gotten people talking about the subject, and it’s no doubt gotten her a lot of eyeballs. (Which would be cooler if they were literal eyeballs, considering the subject matter.) Of course, she did so by resorting to a gross overreaction and oversimplification of the genre–one which I think was unnecessary and may even prove to be harmful. Leading with this quote is perhaps the most misleading item of the article:

 Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

So there are hundreds of books available, but one mother felt like she couldn’t find a single non-disturbing book. This was at a Barnes & Noble, mind you, so we can’t assume she was at Gothic & Gruesome, Inc. No–this was one mother’s experience and dismay with the current state of affairs of YA fiction. Gurdon goes on to name specifics and get nitty gritty about what exactly she means by “dark YA.” And her examples prove her point. I don’t think the internet would have exploded if she’d just been a tad less overarching. Starting with the quote from the mom seems to say that what Gurdon’s point out applies to all YA these days.

And that just ain’t true.

The thing is, Gurdon knows this. She’s a regular children’s/YA book reviewer for the Journal. In the sidebar to the article, she (or someone at the Journal) makes some recommendations for YA books that span the last 70 years).  I just read her review for Mockingjay, and it seemed to me to be fair and a pretty good evaluation of the novel. What I mean to say is that Gurdon has more to her name than just this article. She knows the YA scene, and she knows she’s simplifying it. It doesn’t help her case at all that she doesn’t take any space in her article to discuss how not EVERY YA book being published these days is full of gratuitous sex and violence.

In the end, YA fiction is just like adult fiction. There’s something for everyone. Like I said, I agree with Gurdon that YA is trending darker and darker. I wouldn’t recommend some books to all readers. Then again, my time working in a public library proved to me that some people will be offended by anything. Literally. Do I think it’s the responsibility of authors and editors to not offend people? No. It’s the responsibility of people to know what they’re getting into, and to decide for themselves what to read or watch.

Last night, Denisa and I were watching a delightful French romantic comedy (I Do, which I give a very strong 3 stars to and heartily recommend, with the caveat that there’s an extremely foul mouthed parrot and a scene of comic S&M–that doesn’t show anything.) In any case, we started talking about censorship and art. When I was at BYU, an exhibit by Rodin came to the art museum. It included his The Kiss sculpture. BYU didn’t allow it to be exhibited, which was fairly ridiculous in my opinion. If they didn’t want to show some of his best work, they shouldn’t have paid for the work to come to the university in the first place.

This is just to say that you clearly can’t please everyone. Such is life. I don’t fault Gurdon with writing a piece on what I see as an important topic to discuss in YA literature. I do fault her for portraying it as a one-sided, black and white issue. It’s more complex than that. Simplifying it no doubt got her more readers, but it does a disservice to the genre, and she should know better.

That said, I also believe people should do a bit more research before they seek to mob someone online. Gurdon isn’t as clueless as some of the comments wanted her to be.

Which makes what she wrote worse, of course, not better.

2 Comments

  • By Anonymous, June 6, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

    two things stand out to me from the article: (1) the idea that entertainment does not just satisfy tastes, it creates them; and (2) the point that in the quest to be “real” we may lose sight of what is desireable. As a parent, I beleive it will be difficult to keep track of what my kids are watching and listening to, and the idea of being aware of what they are reading seems to add a whole other layer of difficulty…unfortunately, it seems to come with the parental territory now-a-days. More to your point, Bryce, I think you’re spot on to note that the author made a major mistake by painting with too broad a brush. -TEC

  • By Bryce's Ramblings, June 6, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    Wow, TEC–an actual comment from you. I must be doing something right. 🙂

    Good point that entertainment also creates tastes, and one I didn’t address in the article. I think both that and the quest to be “real” are two way streets. Being “real” is influenced by reality, but it also influences reality itself, and so the cycle for “real” spirals who knows where.

    Not sure if there’s anything that can be done about that–it is what it is. As you say, the important thing is to be aware of what’s out there and be a good parent–whatever that means to you individually.

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