Friday, July 8, 2011

Op-Ed: Rose-Colored Fiction Handicaps Teens


My Rebuttal To Darkness Too Visible

As the managing editor of a small press that occasionally publishes fiction for young adults, I was unable to simply ignore the position taken by Meghan Cox Gurdon in her WSJ op-ed piece “Darkness Too Visible.” But as a parent of 19 years, many of which were spent with intelligent and highly literate teenagers, I was also a bit dismayed by the continued endorsement of committee-sanitized fiction for teenagers in the 21st century.  It’s a noble intention, I guess, but it doesn’t serve the purposes of fiction, nor does it serve the purposes of education. As a parent, I have to call bullshit on this one.

Art is the ultimate equalizer. Art reflects life and compels thoughtful consideration about that life. And art that contains universal elements that engage a wide audience succeeds. If edgier, even uglier, fiction succeeds, then I have to suggest that perhaps it isn’t because the pathologies are being normalized, but because they are being recognized.

Refusing to acknowledge these back alleys of life alienates real live human beings. Hiding it for ‘decency’s sake’ just to make a few gatekeepers sleep easier and justify their jobs — well, that makes these dark events not-really-real, doesn’t it? And the next thing you know, the people who lived through these events, they become not-really-people.

It is the publishing industry’s job to sell books and it does that by providing a product that their customers can engage with and relate to. It is a parent’s job to raise children—more specifically, it’s their job to raise those children to become adults. As a parent, I’m personally not convinced that adolescents can become adults without some exposure to adult fears, concerns and even pleasures.

Ms. Gurdon is correct. Many older teenagers don’t read young adult books at all. I suspect that may be because, until the current trend in edgy YA fiction, many of the books typically labeled for young adults are, in fact, written for children. I know it’s part of our national obsession to keep young people as na├»ve, ignorant and disenfranchised for as long as legally possible—far past the point when biology and instinct demand that they become functioning adults. I’m not completely in disagreement with that policy; physical maturity aside, even older teens can make some distressingly bad choices for life in modern, civilized society. But teenagers aren't children, and the poor decision to lump books for 17-year0olds in with books for 12-year-olds just to reach a bigger market may be part of the problem. Twelve year olds are children. Seventeen year olds are not.

But I think we owe teens more credit than that. They need—and deserve—art for themselves, that reflects their lives and compels thoughtful consideration of that life. This is the age when people will face their first choice between desire and duty. This is the time they make those first value judgments about issues like abuse and rape and hate crime. This is the time when they will decide exactly how they will change the world. Refusing them art that explores these issues handicaps them by stripping away knowledge of the very ugliness, ignorance and violence that they will need to battle for the rest of their lives. Just when they need to learn about it.

And don’t sell them short by dumbing down or sanitizing their art.

I'd love to hear your opinions. Do you think that the currently slate of young adult literature is too graphic or too dark? Too violent? Or do you think publishers of 'children's' fiction are finally getting onboard with reality? Or do you think books for older teens should be relabeled and reshelved into a 'New Adult' category?