Monday, June 6, 2011

Young Adult Fiction--Too Dark?

I love the dialogue that the internet allows, between blogs and news sources and twitter and facebook and all the other outlets. My thinking is spurred every morning when I check my google reader and the headlines. Usually, though, those musings are kept under wraps, maybe informing a blog post someday, but not immediately shared.

Today is different. I had to react to this post by the inimitable Ms. Janet Reid, Sharky agent extraordinaire and to other impassioned posts floating around the interwebs. I fear I must disagree--or at least expound a bit on--this and many other eloquent assessment of Young Adult fiction and the place of dark themes within YA.

The post was in reaction to this article on YA fiction from the Wall Street Journal. In essence, the article bemoans the fact that the shelves of the teen section in bookstores are filled with dark, heavy topics. So, is that all right? And even if it is not detrimental, is it desirable?

Here's my thought. I agree with Ms. Reid that the dark stuff--the drug addiction, cutting, rape, and suicide on the contemporary side--is realistic and part of the world teens live in. I agree that they should be able to explore the challenges and nuances of their world through books. I agree that most YA spreads messages of building strength and character, and learning agency, as Ms. Reid says.


I also agree with the original article--entertainment does more than satisfy current tastes, it creates tastes. Perhaps the ever-increasing darkness of YA lit is testament to this. YA readers grow to like dark subjects, more dark subjects sell. Here's the thing. I don't think that books about cutting will make teenagers cut, or that books about homicide will make readers into murderers. However, I do think that books about dark subjects to the exclusion of other--very normal, also very "real" if we must use those terms--subjects will create a view of the world that is darker and less inclined to seek humor, beauty, joy, and any other number of, albeit dorky, nouns.

My own perusal of the teen section at my local B&N left an impression nearly identical to the woman quoted at the beginning of the article. Yes, I found books that I would give to my teenaged acquaintances to read. Yet the overwhelming impact--even merely visual impact--of the shelves was dark. From my own adolescence, I recall bright, colorful, inviting book covers with optimistic storylines and rich fantasy worlds. There were dark stories, sure--I didn't gravitate toward them. But there was always something for me on the shelves, too.

Today? I'm not so sure. A teenager who wants to find a positive, escapist story has to wade through mountains of dark books--literally dark, with piles of black book covers. I appreciate that teenagers have fears about their world and want to explore those uncertainties through books. Most of the books on the shelves speak to those fears. Yet, they also have hopes and--dare we admit?--the need to escape occasionally, too. Where are the books appealing to those desires?

I don't think, of course, that this is exclusive to YA lit. It seems that the darker the subject of a "grown up" book or movie, the more likely to receive attention and accolades. And yes, great art and great literature can come from dark subjects. Yet it can also come out of light, joyful subjects. I fear that we're focusing on the dark side of realism to the exclusion of the bright.

It is incredible to me that those in the bookish world can continue to defend the gritty, the dark, the violent, the sexual, and the provocative against censorship without realizing that, by their permission and their choices in the business of buying and selling, they have censored by elimination the other side of the coin--the light and, often, equally provocative. I don't suggest censorship of the gritty, but I do suggest that, whether we like it or not, we're shaping the tastes and mindsets of the consumer by what we put out there. That responsibility is great enough for the general masses, but even greater for young people.

Because in the end, here's the thing--young adults aren't stupid. They're savvy. They're smart. They don't need to be spoon-fed sensationalism in order to find enjoyment in a book. Perhaps it's time for everyone involved in publishing young adult lit to step down from the vantage point of both yellow-journalism-esque lurid trend-chasing and overprotective parental censorship and do what we should be doing for everyone: Publishing good, meaty, provocative books on every end of the spectrum. (Edit--Which, I meant to say, I think is the goal of pretty much everyone involved, barring the assumed ever-present evil sub-minority.)

And for me? Writing YA for the first time? Writing, even a post-apocalyptic novel that's inherently NOT dark and depressing, but hopeful? It only reinforces my desire to keep writing what I'm writing--real, honest, yet not dark. Because I think there's a place for it.


Jillian said...

Extremely well said -- and I'm glad you said it. You're right: there's nothing wrong with publishing some dark work for YA, but it does seem to be taking over, and that can influence a young mind to believe that life is dark.

It's not a black and white topic. I would LOVE to see some more hopeful work mixed into the YA shelves.

Huntress said...

This reminds me of a conversation with a foreign exchange student who expressed amazement at the attitude of America’s youth toward a good education.

He said, “Excellence, good grades, and students who follow the rules hold a lower social class than the ‘bad’ kids. People make fun of the straight A students and slam them with terms like do-gooder, nerd, geek.”

Now, to put that into context, think how some people sneer at the ‘feel good’ books. Think there’s any similarity?

There are ratings on movies, video games, and the like. Why not books? I’m not suggesting censorship necessarily but why not a warning about content.

Bottom line, whether it is TV, movies, or YA novels, pushing the boundary sells.

Huntress said...

Hey, tiptoe over to my blog and take your Blog On Fire award.

dolleygurl said...

I agree with some points. I have walked through the YA section recently and there is A LOT of books on dark subjects and A LOT on the supernatural, Vampires, Witches, etc. I too have wondered where at the types of books went from when I was reading YA (only about 10 years ago). I remember shelves packed with spy stories, Little House on the Prairie, Dear America, Ann Rinaldi, Eva Ibbotson, etc. Now I am LUCKY if I can find anything like that amid these new titles. I think that the market tips both ways - if something is a hot seller of course publishers are going to go for that type of book. And then we become swamped and overwhelmed and things change to a new direction. I don't think we should censor teen books, I do think that exposure to some of the more gritty topics is not a bad thing, but there should certainly be alternatives as well. Well worded post!

anachronist said...

A great, truly inspirational post.

Let's face it - young people nowadays live in a much darker times. If the books don't reflect it, they will lie and who likes lies, even if they are pretty?

Of course it is good if a book offers also some hope and shows that there are solutions out of even very difficult situation. As you wrote, young people aren't stupid but they are still very young and sometimes very naive. They, however, appreciate nothing more than honesty.

Carrie C said...

That took courage to write, Rowenna, and I'm glad you did. Just like with television, I'm afraid we're sacrificing stories for sensation. But I'm optimistic about the power of narrative and imagination, and I know that writers out there like you will provide the great tales we all need to read!

Maybelle said...

Thank you for your eloquent response! I had similar thoughts floating through my head, except you organized, expanded, and added your own opinions.

The (silent?) censorship of "good" things that's going on right now as result of this flux of "dark" materials - good point. These days, walking into the YA section - it feels almost lurid. And it's not because I'm offended by sex, horror, and so forth (I'm writing a dark fantasy myself that goes way over R rating). I feel as though the over-emphasis on "dark" subjects has taken a "cheesiness" of its own (like how overused tropes get cheesy after awhile).In the end, it all boils down to taste.

Rowenna said...

Thanks all for your thoughts--it's such a complex issue and I think there are a lot of really valuable viewpoints. I just hope, ultimately, the writers keep writing and the teenagers keep reading, and that there's plenty of different stories and themes to go around.

Miss Rosemary said...

I agree with you 100%. The issues need to be out there and they need to be talked about and the books won't make readers into disturbed psychos, but it is darkening the view of the world. I think I;m a prime example, not because I read too many of the dark novels, but my mother always used to say my writing was too "dark." I'm also much more cynical than she is. It's a generational thing too, but my outlook, based on what is around me, is opposite of her outlook, based on what was around her.

Calise said...

I really agree that it's not just less darkness that is needed in YA fiction, but more positive, more hope. I don't think that means stories need to be any less "difficult"--and by that I mean the archetype in all good novels of people overcoming huge obstacles--or less complex, as complex as our world is. But one of my favorite reasons to write for young adults is that they are so often less cynical and can still have hope inspired in them. If we're not liking what we're seeing in the world, who better to inspire to change it than teens?
Love the idea of a hopeful post-apocalyptic novel, btw. I'm going to follow and hope to hear more about that definitely.

Rowenna said...

Calise--thanks for dropping in! You're so right--young adults often have more idealism than us crusty old farts :)

Rosemary--true--I think I'm the same way, more cynical than my parents. Or maybe they're just nicer about it. :P