Monday, June 6, 2011

Dark Literature and Young Readers ... or, You Know, Readers in General, Too

There's been a kerfuffle in the YA community over an article in the Wall Street Journal about the current trend of darkness in young adult literature. Is darkness a current trend? As far back as I can see in literary history, there has always been a fuss about what's published - for young readers, adult readers, whoever. This article, however, seems to have sent the YA writing community into quite the huff. My Google Reader has been bombarded with blog posts stating their opinion about the article. I haven't seen one blog post yet that stands up for what Miss Gurdon says.

Sometimes I look over at my four-year-old daughter and I freak out inside. I think about what she'll be exposed to in the future, even what she's exposed to now. I recently sat through a short class about addictions, and let me tell you - it was eye-opening. I discovered that children as young as four years old can get addicted to pornography. FOUR YEARS OLD? That shocks me to no end. I almost cried when I heard that because it's sad how even children are not immune to things we often consider only adult issues.

Then I calm myself down and tell myself, "You're a good parent, you're a good parent." I will raise my daughter with things like morals and standards and lots of love and a home that is safe and parents she knows she can come to about anything. Unfortunately, lots of children don't have those things, and that's where all that dark YA fiction comes into play.

Most of the blog posts I've read countering the article linked above have made the claim that teens need this kind of fiction because (1) it's the only place they can feel safe in their life, (2) there is usually a positive POV despite the dark subject material, and (3) teens need to be prepared for the real world.

Rather than going into my opinions on each of those, I just want to make the point that our world seems to be getting increasingly darker. It's sad, but true, and what I see as the real issue here isn't what's permitted to be published in YA fiction (or fiction in general), but how we're dealing with all these "dark things" in society. I see the issue that so many authors feel a need to write about these dark things as a reflection of what's going on in teens' lives right now. That's the problem. If there are so many rapes and drugs and awful things surrounding young adults - and authors feel the need to address these things and deal with them through fiction - then the problem doesn't lie in the fiction, now does it?

I recently read a book by our one and only Scott G.F. Bailey, and I was shocked at the darkness in it. I wrote to Scott and said, wow, this is really dark. He said, yeah, I know. It's an adult novel, and it disturbed me not with the subject matter, but the tones of the novel. Honestly, I have never read a YA book with such dark tones. Usually, even in YA novels that deal with darker subjects, the tones seem to be handled on a lighter level. Maybe, though, Miss Gurdon is really talking about tone in her article, not subject matter. Maybe there are YA books out there that I haven't read that are really, really dark in tone. Teens can handle subject matter. Adults can handle subject matter. I think it's tone that can really make the difference. I appreciated Scott's book. It was amazingly well done. I appreciated the darkness he portrayed because it contrasted the world in a way that helped me appreciate what he was really saying in that book - and I think he did it through tone. I wouldn't have seen those things otherwise.

So, with all this dark YA fiction talk, I think it's important to first realize where the problems really lie. If parents have issues with all that dark fiction, they should first realize that the world is a dark place, and to raise their children in such a way that helps them make their own firm decisions on what they should/want/need to read instead of freaking out that the dark fiction is going to destroy them in a world where they're going to face all of that anyway.


  1. I think the article would have been fine if Ms. G hadn't thrown certain authors and books under the bus.

    As far as the world getting increasingly darker, I truly believe that is the conceit of nostalgia. From the 50s - 80s, we had the omnipresent threat of thermonuclear war, the rise of a killer virus many feared would rival the plague (AIDS)... new terror will always supplant old ones, whether in small scale or large. Unfortunately, that is human nature.

  2. Bane: I see what you're saying about the darker world, and I agree to an extent. I think of it as darker nowadays because of how much closer it feels with the internet. I'm also very religious and honestly see the world as more evil now as it was 100 years ago, in a lot of respects. But I won't even get into that here. :)

  3. True - more easily accessible, which allows for cross pollination, so to speak. Hopefully one of those more cyclical things (and hopefully we're on the upswing). Sure as heck ain't as bad as the inquisition days.

    A nice book idea in there somewhere. The internet in the 1800's. Calamity Jane on Twitter. If you win your shootout, you get your victim's followers.

  4. I'm most likely in the minority but I agree whole-heartedly with the article. It saddens and amazes me that there is absolutely no rating system on books like there is on movies and video games. I'm not saying authors can't write dark YA, but place a warning on the cover.

  5. Very nicely put. I think the intent is probably the #1 thing to look at when determining the worth of anything. If the intent is to lift us out of the darkness, I'm all for it. I do think there is too much darkness. I don't believe it's a new trend. More accessible as you said, but not new.

    I think the problem is when things are dark just to be dark, or when we use justifications like "They're going to see this stuff anyway so why shouldn't I put it in?" I hate reading swearing. I don't care how "authentic" it makes the characters. There's nothing uplifting about it. Same with many other things. As far as I can see, this is just perpetuating issues, not helping them. But I've read very good novels about serious issues like rape or the holocaust that were so dark and yet so well done and uplifting. Maybe my "intent" and your "tone" are the same thing. Pretty close anyway.

  6. Butterfly: Yay! A different opinion! I agreed with some things in the article, yes, but I don't like how she went about it, or her tone. It seemed like a lot of bashing going on, and even some contradictions of her own opinions. Either way, I agree with you about "warnings" or "ratings" - we seem to do it with everything else - why not fiction? Covers SAY A LOT, unfortunately. I think there are probably a lot of very dark YA books out there that are actually very enlightening, but will never get picked up because the cover reflects only the darkness.

    Nisa: I love how you put that1 Yes, intent and tone can be looked at as similar things, in a way. Maybe tone is what the author intends. Hmm, interesting thought there! Because I've read some very dark literature (classics, even! Look at Crime & Punishment) and come out of those books more enlightened than had I read some other lighter fiction.

  7. Rating systems unfortunately only work when people understand what the rating means. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've watched parents purchase an M-rated video game for their 13-year-old because they don't know what the rating means.

    I'm not saying it's a horrible idea, but it can't be used as a parental shortcut. That's the sense I get whenever I hear calls for rating systems on books -- I'm not saying you, Butterfly, or you Michelle intend it to be used that way, but there are people who will do so.

    Also, Michelle, there was a great rebuttal of Gurdon's views by Christopher John Farley that ran on the WSJ blogs. Take a look:

    I get the sense that the readers of this blog are/would be the types of parents that read books with their kids and check to see if they want their kids reading a particular book. Parental involvement here is the key part, as I feel it always has been. But that's my $0.02.

  8. I think what's going on has nothing to do with children or an increasingly darker world. I think we (especially in America) live in a culture where intelligent social discourse has pretty much been sidelined and most of what takes the place of honest discussion of issues is meaningless noise. So we're all angry and scared about a lot of important things but the media tends to slap a happy face on it and throw reality TV and escapist fare at us as hard as it can. This is causing a lot of worry and anger and fear to bubble up in other ways, among them in literature. Our fears as real live people are being smuggled out into the open in the guise of SF/F (especially dystopian novels). I don't think literature has any obligation to be "uplifting." I think it has an obligation to be honest. I think a lot of people writing YA are afraid for their children but nobody wants to publish a novel about being afraid for their children, so we get this sort of counter-reaction. So we should not look at the fiction, but at the culture that creates it.

  9. Matthew: I agree 100% that the key is parental involvement.

    Scott: Yes, yes, and YES. That's exactly it, which is why I brought that up at the end about knowing where the problems REALLY lie. I think Matthew is right about parental involvement. Instead of being so freaking afraid for our children, we should put all that energy into raising them the best we can and being honest, like you say.

    My main point: "If there are so many rapes and drugs and awful things surrounding young adults - and authors feel the need to address these things and deal with them through fiction - then the problem doesn't lie in the fiction, now does it?"

    That's why the article annoyed me. It was handled in a way that pointed all fingers at fiction and not the real issues.

  10. Matthew: The rating thing is interesting - how you bring up people not understanding them. That may be true, but is that more of a problem with stupid people than anything else? The ratings themselves aren't a bad thing.

  11. Michelle: No, the ratings themselves aren't a bad thing, but there's a perception that slapping a rating on something means the problem will instantly go away. When in fact, the real event will probably mean teens will want to see/read/play that banned thing all the more and they will find a way to do so.

    I'm not saying that's the perception here, but it strikes me that lawmakers tend to call for ratings on entertainment so they can appear they're tough without actually being tough. Shortcuts, in essence.

  12. Matthew: That makes complete sense, yes. She even brings that up in her article, I think, about banned books. I don't think ratings are THE SOLUTION, by any means, but it would make things a little easier for parents trying to sift through everything.

  13. Wow, everyone's talking about this one. I had an offshoot post about it I just put up as well. I don't know that I agree with you as far as the world in general being darker. I do agree that we seem to focus on that as a society more and more though, as if we've lost the ability to realize how much more fun it is to hear about good things. This is why I don't watch the news, because it's rare that they ever report on anything uplifting. Anyway, as you said, the discussion of how evil the world is right now would be a whole other post LOL.

  14. Eric: From a religious standpoint, I think "dark" and "evil" can be two very different things, especially when it comes to forms of art like literature. I think everyone is talking about this because it's bringing up a deeper issue than anyone is willing to admit.

  15. Excellently said, Michelle. I think you're the first person who asked, "Where's the dark coming from?" instead of why the dark is there.

  16. Laura: That was the idea, yes. I think too many people are only looking at the surface issues of that article and getting offended. Sadly.

  17. I probably shouldn't say anything on this topic since I'm not familiar with the books, nor am I familiar with modern day YA readers. But the one thing that comes to mind is what has always justified my own exploration of dark topics: understanding. To me, if the argument for writing about dark topics is to expose young people to the read world, then the books should delve into the topics in a deep way so that readers understand the human side of things. This is what happens for me when I visit an old internment camp, or when I read the transcripts of a young girl who was locked up by kidnappers for two decades. The details of the crimes have a certain shock value that can be intriguing. But the thing that I feel makes the human heart grow goes beyond the shocking details.

    Having said that, I'm okay with writers writing about whatever they want for whatever reason.

  18. Well said, Davin. I think that's an important point.

  19. See, what I don't like about the kerfuffle is that it was so predictable. You think the WSJ editors didn't know that running that kind of op-ed would spark controversy? They sure as hell did.

    Like Dorney says a few days ago, these writing community pile-ons are ugly, whether it's on a writer who for some reason decided to lash out at a reviewer, or on someone who publishes an opinion that smacks of censorship. I feel as though it's groupthink, and I detest groupthink.

    Why can't we be fine with people having opinions that differ from our own? I affirm that woman's right to express her opinion, and I affirm the rights of her detractors to the same. But this mass-mobilization of the book blogosphere leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    (My comments, of course, don't apply to this post, which I found thoughtful, well-considered, and not at all strident.)

  20. @Simon: "it was so predictable"

    That's sort of the bigger point that I think Michelle may be getting at. Everyone's willing to flap their hands at the violence and sex in YA books, but nobody's asking "why are people writing this?" Because there are reasons people are writing these books that have nothing to do with selling a lot of books.

    The stereotype is that YA books are written by women, mostly women aged 30-50 who have children of their own. Let's assume for the moment that this stereotype is true. Why are all these moms writing about these subjects? To hit it big in the marketplace? Really? Or is there some kind of conversation (or shouting, maybe) going on beneath the surface of our culture? Why don't we have a look at that? Why don't we listen more carefully?

  21. I get what you're saying Scott, but the question of why there is dark writing doesn't matter to me. To me, it's irrelevant if there are plenty of books out there that are dark or grim. If I don't want my kids reading dark writing in YA, I just won't have them reading those kinds of books.

    Having said that, I do believe there is more of a tendency today to focus on the darker aspects of life (not just in writing either). This would be the reason why we continue to see reality shows and Jerry Springer, why the news talks about 10 bad stories before casually mentioning one good "fluff" piece. We as a society (in the US anyway) continue to focus on the darker aspects of life rather than trying to inspire. I don't believe there are less stories about heroism and inspirational deeds; I just don't think people are wanting to write them or that readers are asking to read them.

  22. Simon: Yes, it was predictable, absolutely. I also agree that people should be allowed to voice their opinions. I think that article was mainly problematic, though, because she was pointing fingers at specific authors. That's fine to do except when it feels like it's bashing, in a way. Her opinion is fine. I even agree with some of her points. I think her tone and the way she went about things is what caused the majority of the stir.

    Still, that's all beating around the bush. The real issues are being ignored. Are they even issues, though? Parents need to be parents and talk to their kids about what's out there instead of solely letting them discover things in books, and when we do run across dark things in our entertainment and art, we're equipped to deal with it in a way that helps us see the point of why it's there. I know I'd have a danged hard time writing ANYTHING without those darker elements and subjects. They are what make a story worth telling - and usually how I highlight the more positive aspects.

  23. Eric: I think that if you look at a lot of the fiction (especially genre fiction) of the late 50s and early 60s, you'll see a flood of very dark stuff.

    I don't think it's that people don't want "stories about heroism and inspirational deeds" so much as people don't necessarily believe those sorts of stories right now. Certainly most Americans are cynical about heroism and nationalism and are worried deeply about the economy and the safety of the world in general. So I think that "optimistic" stories and "news" are just not greeted with trust by the public, and what's not being addressed is the well of distrust and anxiety pooling up under the shiny veneer of "uplifting" media.

    I write tragedies. Not because I want to bring people down, but because I think people already see the world as tragic, even if they don't admit it. And I want to talk about that, not anaesthetize myself with happy stories. I don't think I'm alone in this.

    I will say that I don't know that the world is a scarier place than it was 20 years ago. But in America at least, I can't recall a time of greater uncertainty. For the first time in my life, America is not the dominant world power. We don't have the healthiest economy and we aren't necessarily the leaders in development or productivity et cetera. All the parents I know are more worried about their kids than my parents were.

  24. Scott - Michelle gets to my point however, that I don't believe it's an issue. Parents need to be parents, as she says.

    I'll have to bow to your (or anyone else's) memory with regards to the 50's and 60's literature however, as I don't honestly know if this is true or not.

    I disagree with your assertion that people don't believe more inspirational stories however. A well-written story carries itself, regardless of the cultural or societal temperature (assuming it's published, marketed, etc). The Twilight-esque type books notwithstanding (by this I mean poorly written books that still do well), good writing is good writing and I do believe that's enough for people to enjoy a given work and get lost in the story. I can't honestly explain why it seems that people enjoy misery and relish tragedy these days. Intellectually it makes no sense to me. But I'm not buying it that the problem is cynicism and the belief that there are no better stories out there waiting to be told. Are we really at a point in human history where despair is the only appropriate choice? I refuse to believe it and I don't think the majority of people do either. I argue instead that people are aching for something inspirational to read and yet the only thing being churned out by the machine is tragedy (or worse, telling the same stories over and over with different actors). And since the power structure we live under seems to do very little to improve things around us, people just accept what's available.

  25. Eric: So you argue that people are only writing all these dark novels because of the publishing industry? That people only buy them because they're what's on the shelves? That kids only read them because that's what their parents give them? And that meanwhile the majority of readers and writers want something optimistic? That the people writing these dark YA books would rather write happy tales?

    "since the power structure we live under seems to do very little to improve things around us, people just accept what's available" is a pretty good premise for a dystopian novel. Like 1984, maybe.

  26. I agree with Michelle, that there is absolutely a difference between tone and subject matter. I recently finished Speak a young adult novel (from about 10 year ago) that is about a girl who was raped just before she started highschool. So, the subject is dark, I suppose. Yet, I personally wouldn't call it a dark novel.

    I wrote too long a comment, so I tossed it up as today's blog post.

    @ Scott. "That the people writing these dark YA books would rather write happy tales? "

    IMHO, I think people only *market* many of these dark books as YA for reasons to do with the publishing industry. They would still write them dark, but call them adult. Just think. If Nabakov were writing Lolita today, he'd be told it's YA because Lolita is twelve.

  27. Well, here's my thinking...
    Dark stories are emotionally powerful and enchanting. Sometimes we like to read things like that to make ourselves feel better, knowing we don't have it as bad as the folks in a dark story.There is something magical about a depressing world so different yet similar to our own. That's why it's common, because people are attracted to sad things.

  28. I am soooo out of the YA fiction loop. But that's because I took myself out of it.

    Re: the WSJ article, I haven't read or heard of any of those books. Maybe some of them are appropriately dark, as in written in the right tone for the story. But when I see a million billion YA books at B&N with covers depicting the same story over and over, I just think: bandwagon. And sensationalism. The news is all sensationalism. I can't even read a weather article without words like "devastating," "harrowing," "wreaked death," and "terror."

    It seems like gruesome sells. Nevermind writing well or telling a good story. I'm not saying all dark YA lit has bad writing or stories (Speak is wonderful!), but if these people are writing these books to give a voice to teens and/or let them know they're not alone, at least they could be less sloppy.
    Taken from the WSJ article: In Jackie Morse Kessler's gruesome but inventive 2011 take on a girl's struggle with self-injury, "Rage," teenage Missy's secret cutting turns nightmarish after she is the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. "She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn't breathe." Missy survives, but only after a stint as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    No way. If her arm was sliced to ribbons or her belly was a mess of meat and blood, she would be dead.

    Also, I think a story about parents being afraid for their children sounds interesting. B/c I hadn't thought of that. Especially in this context. I think the best stories are the ones that challenge (not to be confused with arguing against) my thinking.

  29. I don't think the world is any darker these days than its been throughout history. What's communicated may be more frequent, but that is a reflection of today's reality, not a precursor.

    I think the fear is that reading dark material introduces dark thoughts into innocent minds, and the next step will be for young people to act out on those thoughts. I don't believe that will happen, though. While I find Hannibal Lector to be one of the most intriguing antagonists in modern literature, I do not want to go out and kill and eat people.

    A political pundit using aggressive rhetoric does not lead to shootings and murder. An unbalanced individual lacking proper intervention does. The same can be said for a dark-themed novel, or a rock song. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE did not kill John Lennon. Ozzy Osborne did not drive kids to suicide.

    The depths of human degredation have been plumbed by authors before. Marquis de Sade, anyone?

    I recently read Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God" and believe me, there are some dark themes exposed in that narrative. Murder, rape, necrophelia...All things you can also find on the evening news.

    I live in Ohio, and we have a man on trial who raped, murdered and dismembered 11 women. We also recently had a lunatic tree trimmer that murdered two women and a young boy, chopped them up and stuffed them in a tree. In Europe there are suicidal people selling their bodies to cannibals. Merciless killing of innocents and other wartime atrocities. And this is not new.

    Here's a bible story, let me know if this qualifies as "dark":

    Saul tells David that, in order to win the right to wed his daughter, David must bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines. David then kills and circumsizes 200 Philistines, bringing home the foreskins and counting them out for the king.

    Yes, dark literature has been around for quite some time...

  30. And of course there is an antidote for the deluge of books-our-kids-should-not-read being forced upon them by the money-grubbing publishing industry:

    Mass illiteracy.

  31. Every generation always believes that the world is a darker place than it has been in the past. I am a social historian, and I can assure you that the world is most certainly not!

    As far as the concerns over dark YA fiction go, people should go read a few Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers Grimm fairytales in their original formats. There's some darkness for you. In any case, I am inclined to worry about the kids who are not reading at all than the ones spending their free time reading dark YA stuff, I know which ones I think are more likely to get into trouble.

  32. DARK? Nothing new there. Most fairy tales are dark and gruesome, with people getting fried, boiled, tortured and eaten. not forgetting those that have been trapped in a tower for decades or poisoned by evil parents.

    If these jopurnalists believe that writing is too dark, then they ought to look at the news they report and how they report it before pointing a finger elsewhere.

  33. Excellent post, and your point is very well made. And I totally agree.

    It's a terrifying world out there. I try not to think about it too much. I have a 7-year old, and she's so beautiful and intelligent and innocent, and it scares the heck out of me to think about the evil she might be exposed to, no matter how good we are as parents. We can only shelter her so much...and we can't shelter her too much either. There's a line we have to draw, and I think you said it perfectly - the most important thing you can do is raise your child to be comfortable coming to you about ANYthing.

    The world is a scary place. I understand why literature, even YA, reflects that. This is the world in which we're living. Though I, myself, can't write what I'd consider dark literature because I can't handle the emotional drain it would have on me, I understand authors that feel the need to do so. And tone is the major thing that makes a work of literature dark. You can write about anything and make it light and fluffy...or you can write about that same thing and make it dark and scary.

    But the main problem definitely doesn't stem from writing. I think the books out there reflect society as it is. It doesn't create a dark (or light and fluffy) society.

    It's sad, but the best we can do is raise our children as best we can. We can't fix the world.

    Though, then again, perhaps writing is our opportunity...perhaps it's our duty as try to brighten this dark world.

  34. Tara: I really appreciated your post! It's true that tone makes a huge, huge difference. It isn't so much about the subject as it is about how it's told and handled, and you don't really see that from a cover on a book, or sometimes even from the back blurb. I think that's where that lady in the bookstore ran into a problem - her perception of what's out there.

    McKenzie: Good points! A lot of people don't admit that they attracted to sad things, though. Sometimes I wonder how prevalent it is. Who knows.

    Annie: It's a good point about challenging the way we think. You also have to look at how society is right now and how so many people are unsure about the future, about wars going on, about our economic stability. That rubs off on the things we produce, and it often has to be even stronger than what our real fears are so that it does challenge how we're thinking. I'm just thinking out loud, but I like the direction you've got me in!

    Rick: Ah, point taken! Mass illiteracy sounds worse than dark literature to me. That would lead to much worse things. Do you think any of those crimes you spoke about came from those people hiding in their homes reading dark paranormal fiction? Possible, but not likely, in my opinion.

    Helle: Everyone keeps telling me the world isn't darker now than it was in the past. I can see it both ways, but I won't go there. It's probably more a matter of perception than anything else. There's no physical barometer for that kind of thing.

    I love what you say at the end of your comment about which kids are the ones who are more likely to get into trouble. :)

    Martin: Exactly. :)

    April: Yeah, we can't fix the world in one fell swoop, that's for sure. We'd never get everyone to agree on what an ideal world is, anyway. Many of the people out there would say it contains dark fiction. :)


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