Let There Be Dark

In ignorant and judgmental news, a recent Wall Street Journal article informs the unsuspecting populace of several terrifying (non)facts! Did you know:

  • There are no YA books out there that aren’t full of “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation” – seriously, you can go to Barnes & Noble and you won’t find a one!
  • This is totally new! YA books didn’t exist at all forty years ago, and back then books had the decency not to mention a lot of problems real people have, because obviously that is the healthy way to approach such topics!
  • Reading this kind of book will not only change your child’s developing taste, but will affect her/his “happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart”! These books will “bulldoze coarseness or misery into [your] children’s lives”!
  • Nasty authors and publishers don’t want books to tone down foul language in books, “provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation.” Bad, bad authors and publishers, with their realism and authenticity! And bad librarians for encouraging them!
  • Most teens don’t read YA anyway, because this kind of ugliness isn’t what they want!

This article ranges from eye-rolling to disturbing. It scoffs at the condemnation of censorship and even book-banning, implying that this is a parent’s duty. Either the author doesn’t realize that censorship goes beyond helping your own kids make choices to removing choices for other people, or she is actively promoting this behavior.

Also, she makes passing jabs at The Hunger Games and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I KNOW YOU DIDN’T.

There are some great responses to this out in the blogosphere – I especially like the one at YA Librarian pointing out the meaning of these books to some kids and teens, the one at Read Now Sleep Later telling of what “dark” realistic fiction has done for the blogger personally, and the one at the School Library Journal blog A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy, which dissects many of the problems (down to basic math) in the WSJ article.

Personally, I see great value to these books despite never having been drawn to them myself. (I’m a sucker for cheesy happy endings.) But here’s the thing: readers choose what they want to read. To a certain extent, parents may choose what their children read. But there is a definite supply-and-demand aspect that the author of the WSJ article seems not to grasp. These books aren’t being written and published because people feel like shoving unwanted topics down the throats of readers who’d rather be enjoying a nice (but tame, I’m sure! No more than holding hands!) romantic comedy. That would be a great way to never get published or to tank a publishing company. No, these books are out there because they speak to realities and to things that many people want – and sometimes need – to read. That’s why authors write them, that’s why bookstores stock them, and that’s why teens and non-teens read them.

(Although, as the SLJ blogger pointed out, seriously? This person was at Barnes & Noble and couldn’t find any Ally Carter or Meg Cabot or, you know, Diana Wynne Jones, or ANYTHING?)

Anyway: These books don’t exist for the people who don’t want them. No one will force any kid to read one of these books. If a teacher assigns one that a kid objects to or that a kid’s parents don’t want her/him to read, the parents can talk to the teacher about alternatives for their kids. But to look at all the stuff that’s out there and say, “Well, I don’t like that! I can’t imagine anyone liking that!”, and then to make the leap to, “Therefore, it shouldn’t exist!” . . . Well, if I operated that way, and industries had the bizarre idea that they should listen to me, beer wouldn’t exist, or shirts that you have to layer because they’re too thin to wear on their own, or uncomfortable shoes, or chalk.

So . . . yeah. Probably I am preaching to the choir here. But seriously, look at this article if you want to feel especially open-minded and well-informed by comparison.

11 thoughts on “Let There Be Dark

  • I dunno, I found what happened to Shona in The Dark Lord of Derkholm a little disturbing…

    …clearly I wouldn’t survive being a teen today. I have noticed, however, that if you go into the YA section of a bookstore the general color scheme of the shelves goes pretty dark. I always figured it was the world cashing in on the Twilight bandwagon. And even back in high school, once I’d moved on from Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder to proper adult SFF (without looking back, I might add), I did mark that a surprising number of my classmates–at least the ones who read books–seemed to read books with covers that featured teenage girls tugging at the shoulder-straps of their camisoles (not in a sexy way, more in a “here I am vulnerable and baring my soul” way) and looking distressed. I figured they must have to do with depression or abuse or drug addiction or something like it.

    I’m not agreeing with the main thrust of the article, btw, just trying to bring something new to the conversation. As someone who was always allowed to choose her own books, I deplore censorship. The adults in my life may have tried to guide my reading choices by urging me to “expand my horizons” and “try this one, you’ll like it, just give the first couple chapters a try,” (and in one memorable case, “Mary’s granddaughter is a year younger than you are and she’s already read Anne of Green Gables, so unless you think it’s too hard for you…”) but I was never forbidden a book. And I believe that was exactly the right approach, my high-school encounter with Jean M. Auel’s Valley of the Horses notwithstanding. I think kids are more resilient than adults tend to think. Either that, or they’re not as traumatized as adults think they will be simply because a lot of the stuff adults find traumatizing goes over their heads. But it’s the same difference.

    • The one part of the essay that I felt had a kernel of truth was the dark trend of YA lately, in that several authors report that they’re finding it harder to get lighter, funny YA published. But publishers will put it out there if people will buy it. The fact that the mother in the essay didn’t seek out a lighter, fun book if that’s what she wanted, that she didn’t support that kind of book with her purchase but instead walked out of the store “empty-handed,” illustrates a point that was totally lost on the essay’s author.

  • Yeah, I read this when Neil Gaiman retweeted the link and…wow. I especially like the part where the author writes that OMG books about self-injury might “normalize” that behavior. Yeah, those kids who are in that much pain shouldn’t feel normal by reading about similar experiences. They should feel like they’re the ONLY ones in the world! Feeling isolated is the only way for those poor freaks to get a grip on reality. I mean, have they tried not cutting themselves?

    Disparaging The Hunger Games was bad enough, but Sherman Alexie? Seriously? What is objectionable about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? I almost hope the author was like, “Oooh, he said ‘Indian’, OMG RACIST!” Because that would be weirdly, triumphantly awesome.

    I don’t think I have the energy to keep going here. It’s too infuriating. Plus you and other bloggers have said it all. But yes. What the hell. Those librarians and their freedom of expression, always playing the censorship card…

    • On “normalizing” self-harm

      Not having read any of the books in question, I’m not the most qualified to comment. But I can see how there might be a concern depending on how self-harm is addressed in books that contain it. If it’s treated as a real problem that needs to be worked through with the support of family members/loved ones/possibly a therapist, sure, by all means. But if there are a lot of books out there that use self-harm simply as a barometer of how depressed a teen protagonist is feeling, or if it’s over-used by protagonists coping with problems that aren’t quite up to that scale (thus possibly sending the inadvertent message that “yes, what you’re going through IS bad enough that you should hurt yourself because of it”), or worst of all, if a suicide attempt successfully serves the purpose of bringing a protagonist’s problems to light and earning the sympathy of other characters… then I think you have a problem.

      • Re: On “normalizing” self-harm

        depressed a teen protagonist is feeling, or if it’s over-used by protagonists coping with problems that aren’t quite up to that scale (thus possibly sending the inadvertent message that “yes, what you’re going through IS bad enough that you should hurt yourself because of it”)
        I’m not I understand what you mean by this bit. Problems that aren’t “up to that scale”? In what sense? In my (limited) experience, self-harm isn’t really about external events so much as inner turmoil, which might be caused by a lot of different things. Maybe even just brain chemistry. I don’t think reading about it is going to inspire anyone to self-injure unless they were already heading down that road. And the reasons people do it are always “bad enough,” from their perspective.

        But again, I’m speaking from the impression I’ve gained, so my sense of it may not be entirely accurate. I’m just not sure about the inadvertent message you’re talking about: I don’t think readers will go, “Hey, I’m going through some problems, maybe I’ll slice up my arm like X did in that book I read” unless they were already in a fairly unstable mental position. Because to self-injure, you really have to be.

        If you’re saying it might plant the idea in their heads…well, maybe. At the same time, writing about it– in a realistic, “this is unhealthy behavior” kind of way, which I hope any author would have the sense to portray– also helps the recovery process, not just from self-harm but from the depression and self-destructive turmoil that causes it. I don’t think it’s so different from writing about suicide– surely books about suicidal teens don’t up the suicide rate? Because I doubt they make the case that suicide is painless.

        And it can start conversations– if parents and educators become more aware of self-injury as an issue and make more of an effort to talk about it, that could be a positive kind of normalization.

        • Re: On “normalizing” self-harm

          What I meant by “up to scale” was that, from the point of view of a writer, I know it can be a struggle to match your characters’ actions with appropriate motives. Certain things need to happen to move the plot, so you need to give your characters reasons to do those things, but (at least in my experience) sometimes the best reasons you can come up with are kind of weak. I agree, I don’t see anyone saying “maybe I’ll cut myself like in that one book I read.” But many books is a little different. If you’ve got someone who’s (say) unpopular in school and reads books in lieu of hanging out with friends, and is miserable because they are unpopular, well, if they end up with a slew of books in which characters cut themselves because they are miserable about being unpopular, it might give the impression that this is the normal, accepted thing to do in that situation, everyone else probably does it secretly, maybe it really does help, etc. Again, I have no idea if that’s how it tends to be presented or not.

  • Your bullet points capture the absurdity so perfectly.

    I also wondered why the mother in the story didn’t do what any sane, sensible adult would do, and ask a bookstore employee for help finding a book appropriate to her tastes. That’s what the store employees are there for. There are tons of books out there for 13-year-olds that aren’t about vampires, suicide, or self-mutillation.

    • The SLJ blogger says that the woman from the article commented on the article somewhere saying that a B&N employee offered her help as she “flipped through” seventy-eight books, but that the employee hadn’t read any of the books herself and was unable to offer actual help. So . . . gah. B&N needs to either choose or train its employees better, I guess, and/or the woman needed to ask someone else for help.

      • Indie bookstores usually have extremely knowledgeable staff who can reel off recommendations to suit any reader. With the chains, it varies–I know of an excellent chain store where the employees know the books inside out, and have recommendation lists to suit all tastes.

        Really, for a 13YO light read, she would have been better off in the MG section. Or she could have bought a classic that she herself had already read, if she was really in that much doubt.

  • Eegh, I couldn’t read the whole article. I can tell you that I did a group project on the media last semester and my conclusion was that the Wall Street Journal is written by conservative morons.

    But, yeah, teenagers are not idiots. They know how to select literature that meets their needs. They can handle pretty much whatever you throw at them, and if they can’t handle it, they will put the book down and read something else.

    I’m sure that some fiction for teens is unnecessarily gratuitous and doesn’t handle Serious Issues properly. But, um, welcome to the real world. Not every receptacle of knowledge is filled with 100% correct ideas. If you object to the content of a specific book, that’s cool. But, hint: the things that society notices and labels controversial are usually very different from the things that are most problematic in literature (like hidden sexism and other covert cultural messages).

    People like this seem not to remember what it’s like to be a teenager. The underlying assumptions they make about what’s good or bad for teenagers are just really strange.

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