In case you aren’t following the world of YA Lit, I need to begin by saying there’s been a big brouhaha of late. It all started like this, when the Wall Street Journal published an essay about the “darkness” in YA Lit. Of course, a lot of YA writers and readers found this upsetting, and they blogged and wrote about it. Then today, there was a radio dialogue, between Meghan Cox Gurdon, the author of the essay, and Maureen Johnson, a well-known YA writer. Some smart things were said, and some dumb things were said (mostly by the last caller to the show). The word “pity” was used in a problematic way, and lots of YA fans called in to support Maureen. Pretty much what you’d expect.
Now, some of you may remember that I also wrote something about the darkness trend, for a newspaper, a little while back. My essay was, perhaps, less upsetting to the YA World. Certainly, nobody was as interested in discussing it on Twitter. But although I didn’t get anyone terribly upset, many of Gurdon’s concerns are my own concerns. And in a world where the sides of the debate tend to pull to extremes, I find myself sitting in the middle on this one. Which feels funny. I’m watching the sparks fly, and wondering if Gurdon and I might not agree on a lot, if we sat down over coffee. Off the air. As moms and readers.
Of course, I support my fellow authors. I understand why they felt attacked and misunderstood. I support their belief that we NEED books about all kinds of things, even scary things (and in some cases, especially scary things). I support their creative projects and tastes. I support any author’s right to write any book they want. As my wise friend Terra once said to me, “There’s a book for every reader and a reader for every book.”
But on some level, I agree with what I think was Gurdon’s initial impulse– the feeling that when we look around the world of books for kids, we see an overwhelming number of SCARY books. I get where she’s coming from. It’s the same corner I find myself in when my five year old starts talking about suicide, because he’s watched an older boy playing a video game at someone’s house.
And Gurdon has NOT, to my knowledge, suggested any form of censorship. Has she? Because that’s black&white with me, but I don’t think she’s taken any kind of book banning position at all. She just doesn’t like some books. Okay. She’s allowed. She’s even allowed to do a disrespectful job of explaining it. She’s even allowed to speak with unearned authority.
Just like we’re allowed to rant about it.
But I wanted to take a moment to point out what seem to be a few blurry areas in the conversation. A few things that I think are derailing the debate:
1. This conversation is REALLY about marketing, not writing. The problem (for me, anyway) isn’t about people writing whatever books they want, but about the fact that when something sells, the stores push it. The more it sells, the more it gets pushed. Hence, we now have an entire paranormal section in the BIG bookstore. We do NOT have a wacky-arty-classic-feeling-book section in the BIG bookstore. We do not have a “reminds you of your favorite out-of-print-books” section. We are lucky if we can find such a book buried under the pile on the shelf, though I know for a fact that Gurdon is aware of such books, because she’s reviewed mine, and quite favorably. This is not an issue that relates to what authors what to write, or even what editors want to publish. This is about stores wanting to stay in business. About publishers riding the gravy train to stay out of bankruptcy. Or–in some cases– about newspapers wanting to sell ad space. Ahem. This is about capitalism. Which always goes so well with art. It’s an interesting thing to talk about. MAYBE WE SHOULD TRY IT! Anyone want to do a radio show on that? On the wealth of books that don’t get airtime because they aren’t already trending? On the pressure exerted by the sales channels to produce failsafe products. Children’s books are not just products! Children’s books are the future of the planet, IMHO.
2. Not unrelated, this conversation is about so-called gatekeepers. Librarians and bookstore people most of all. If a person walks into a bookstore, these are the people who will lead them through the labyrinth of vampires and zombies. Somewhere on a low shelf, there is the RIGHT book for every child, in any bookstore or library. EVERY bookstore or library. If we don’t support these venerable institutions, who on earth is going to lead you through the maze? You think a website can really help you find just the book you want, for that kid who isn’t just reading the hot new thing? No, ma’am. Let’s see a radio show about how the overwhelming trends are supported in great part by the size of our “stores” and a devaluation of the people we trust to help us find the books we so badly need.
3. Imprecise language drives me bonkers. What the hell do we mean by “dark?” What do we think we’re doing lumping the book with serious “issues” in it alongside a dystopian landscape full of glowing were-monkeys? Really, people? REALLY? I find this hugely upsetting. Books you buy for a kid who has just lost a parent to cancer are “dark” and vampire novels are “dark” and Hunger Games is “dark” and cutting is dark and what about Vonnegut? Is he dark? Truman Capote? Dickens? How about Beowulf? Blake is dark as hell. Let’s find a better way to decide what we object to, and then let’s be clear about what that is when we attempt to complain about it. Cool? Cool. I’ll take a sad kid trying to find faith in humanity any day, but you can keep your fallen angels. Define your terms. Let’s see a radio show about what scares different people? Across a wide spectrum?
4. Not all YA books are good. Seriously. We produce bad adult novels and bad picture books and bad YA novels too. I love my community, but when we circle the wagons, WOW, do we circle the wagons. I think everyone has aright to write any book they want, but I’ll be damned if I want to read/buy/review/support them all. And I think that when we insist on shouting in support of everything in our little “club” that gets attacked, every single time, we end up looking like we have no standards in general. I’m not talking about the initial article here, but the twitterverse has been driving me nuts this way. Call me a snob, fine. I’m a snob. A lot of books suck, and a lot of YA books suck, and a lot of “dark” YA novels suck, and I wish the bad ones just disappeared into the mist. I won’t hashtag/blog-tour every book out there just because someone didn’t like it, and it happens to be YA. This said, you might think *my* books suck, and I will defend your right to say so, forever. But until I’m riding the trending-book-gravy-train, nobody is going to talk about it in the mainstream media. So I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. Let’s see a radio show where YA and Children’s authors review books critically and honestly.
I’ll probably think of more things to object to. I usually do. But I wanted to get this out. And I would ask that other people do the same– define your terms, explain your distress and frustration, but try not to jump on the bandwagon. Everyone has something to learn, just like everyone has something to teach.
I learned that from the Streatfield novel, Ballet Shoes. Which has poverty and orphans and stuff in it, but is not dark.
“N’oubliez jamais qu-une actrice continue a apprendre jusqu’ a son dernier jour.”