Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Embracing the Human Condition

Since June 4th, the blogosphere and twitterverse have been teeming with authors and teens in arms against Meghan Cox Gurdon's "review" of YA fiction in the WSJ.  Her piece is rife with manipulative little tidbits from concerned mothers who worry that fiction will encourage deviant or self-destructive behavior in their impressionable children.  Gurdon takes a paper-thin view and paints it with a broad brush.

A large part of the outcry against her article has responded to Gurdon's argument that "books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures."  Yes, it's the old the book made me do it ruse.  Several authors spoke out about the lunacy of this assertion, none so eloquently as Sherman Alexie.  The primary point of his response is the cathartic, re-affirming value of dark YA literature that offers kids in dire situations a sense of salvation.  "They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them."

Grace Troxel echoes that sentiment in her blog and defends dark YA literature for its ability to "contextualize" the difficult issues that teens already face and often feel they are fighting alone.  She further argues that these novels create a dialogue where for years there has been none.  And it's that very lack of dialogue that is most dangerous to our children.  

Still others, like Becky Levine, stand up against the ridiculous suggestion that the industry is trying to "bulldoze coarseness and misery" into the lives of our teens while a swarm of tweeters exclaim "#yasaves" and continue to slap back Gurdon's elitist "gatekeeping censorship" disguised as the ever-popular and totally condescending concern for the greater good.  I won't get into the question of parental guidance here, but suffice it to say I am an involved parent.

For the most part, much of the conversation I have read so far has focused on the value of YA to change the lives of teenagers who have experienced the worst of this world or the ability YA literature has to contextualize situations and start a dialogue for disenfranchised or marginalized adolescents.  All of this is valid and important.  But there is an even more crucial idea under attack here:  The human condition.  Sherman Alexie touches on it:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

I think about my own son, a white, middle-class teenager who has faced some upheaval and disappointment along with the typical angst of adolescence, but nothing like addiction, rape, poverty, or mental illness.  Does that mean he should never read anything that deals with such harsh subjects? What do books like Speak or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Scars have to offer my son?  The same thing that the Harry Potter books or the Percy Jackson series or any number of zombie books that he has read offers.  A look at the human condition.  We are flawed.  We have fears.  We make mistakes.  We get betrayed and hurt and life gets messy.  And some kids have been subjected to as many horrors as adults, perhaps even more.  But we pick ourselves up from whatever our circumstance and choose how to respond.  The majority of kids (a hopeful estimation) may never know such dire circumstances as those in some of the books they read, but for most kids (even the privileged), adolescence feels like a battleground where the choices they make have far more complex and far-reaching consequences and reinforcements don't always arrive on time. At least they can go through the paces and explore those questions through the pages of a book where the monsters are only ink and shadows and the kids are ultimately heroes.  

It is a hard lesson to learn that the world is not a warm lap and tender kisses and sunshine all around, but adolescence is for finding yourself as well as learning how to deal with the realities of this world. My son is not about to go cut himself or smoke crack because he read about it in a book, no matter how devastated he was by recent personal events.  But he may understand a classmate's behavior a little more. He may develop a stronger sense of relativity and compassion.  He may find a strength he never knew before.  He will have an even better sense of what it means to be human.  And he will choose what he becomes.  

While I would like to protect my children from all the ugliness in the world, I would do them far more harm if I pretended it didn't exist.  


  1. I wonder if the character ever read Dickens. Or maybe his books ought to ba banned too? Still, there's nothing new.
    In 1920-s the Bolshevik enthusiasts running the orphanages (which were quite numerous, considering the WW1 and the consequent covol war) proposed to do away with books of fiction altogether. Because such books are, well, fiction - they aren't real, they're a fruit of someone's imagination, and the New Man living in the New World needs nothing but hard scientific fact.
    Turned out, they couldn't even keep pre-school kids from the terrible trauma-inducing bourgeous manipulative scary fairy tales - bacuase the kids would make their own.

  2. Isn't it amazing how a liberating, human, imaginative response to the hard lessons of the world can be deemed so dangerous and nearly exterminated because a few people are afraid. Often, these are the same people who claim to be involved, enlightened parents. If they only knew...

    My 14-year-old son has just decided that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 will be his next read.

  3. I love your last sentence there. It pretty much sums up how I feel. Yes, there are terrible things in the world, and as a parent, I find it's my responsibility to prepare my kid - as gently as possible perhaps - for reality, not allow him to grow up in a charmed bubble that will one day pop and leave him totally naive and ignorant.


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