There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that is making its way around the Young Adult (YA) and librarian Twittersphere right now, even invoking its own hashtag #YAsaves. The gist of the article is that current YA literature is too dark, too violent, too graphic, and address topics far too dark for teen literature. It starts off with an anecdote about a mother who went to a bookstore and found nothing in the YA area that she felt was appropriate for her daughter; it was the equivalent of turning on the TV, flipping through a dozen channels out of the hundreds offered, and then declaring that there was nothing on worth watching. It certainly falls into the “isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time” critique of young adult literature (or any literature, for that matter).
For all the emphasis on the books and the subjects that they cover, there is little mention as to what is driving authors to write books that cover topics such as rape, self-mutilation, incest, homosexuality, drug abuse, and sex. From the article, it would sound as if the YA authors, publishers, and librarians of the world had formed a triad in order to promote these topics, parents and moralists be damned. The blame is placed on these groups for writing, publishing, and promoting it, even though it is the teens themselves or their parents who are purchasing or borrowing the content. If readers did not care for books like “Shine”, “Rage”, or “Speak”, then those books would live out their lives on the shelves in bookstores and libraries untouched and unnoticed. The almighty dollar dictates what kinds of books are going to be produced; even the Wall Street Journal should understand that the demand drives the market, not the supply, especially when it comes to literature.
I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed at the feeling of a need to rush to the defense of this literature by my fellow librarians. Too often I think it provides unnecessary validation to the opposing argument and frames the issue as a matter of what librarians consider appropriate or important. It should not be about us; it should be about the (mythical) standards that objectors wish to impose. To me, this is a time for some argument jujitsu and it starts with a question: so, what do you think is inappropriate and why? From there, just start objectively breaking down their answers. Is there a book they would consider to be appropriate? How much is too much sex, violence, drug use, etc.? Because if they want book selection to follow a criterion, let them attempt to define it. It’s really a trick question; there is no way they can define it in a meaningful and objective way. Let their words destroy their own arguments; they don’t need our help.
As it appears in others articles regarding objections to literature, there is the standard lament about how those objections are not readily sympathetic. As if it wasn’t enough in their own minds to be right, but they want their viewpoint to be popular as well. It’s a strange brew of arrogance and ignorance that goes into that sentiment. The arrogance of attempting to define standards based on personal subjective viewpoints, an “I know best for everyone else” idea that is neither original nor surprising in the long scope of history. But to never ask oneself why such objections are not popular, why they don’t receive wide support, and why people react to them negatively is just breathtaking. There is no examination or analysis of the counterpoint, a willful continuation of ignorance that just further perpetuates the vilification of the opposing party. (Don’t worry, I’m not excluding my fellow librarians from this either. It annoys the hell out of me when it happens.) Perhaps, upon some reflection, those who object to books or art might realize why there is strenuous opposition to their objections; for a society that values freedom of expression, it might be unpopular when it is felt to be curtailed.
The topics that these YA books address may be dark, but not as dark as adopting a worldview that doesn’t extend beyond oneself.
[Another good take is this post by Liz Burns, “There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!”]