Continuing our discussion of young adult (YA) fiction: isn't it disingenuous to complain about dark themes in YA books while expecting one's high school-aged children (even, or perhaps especially, if one is a homeschooling mom) books dealing with adultery, regicide, brutal murder, false rape allegations, carefully plotted vengeance, war, a bigamous plot against an innocent girl, and so on?
The easy answer to this objection is that it is much easier to identify the classic literature of the past than to select, from among dozens or hundreds of promising new books, the one or two that might possibly rise to such a level someday. When a work has stood the test of time, its merits are usually seen clearly, and even its flaws do not detract from its overall worth. It is harder to judge among contemporary books and choose unerringly those few which have something truly worth saying, and so universal and compelling that young people will still read them in a dozen or so generations.
But that is, of course, only part of the answer. None of the works I listed above were originally written to be read by teens, let alone by eleven-year-olds. There are precocious eleven-year-olds who could read every one of those books on the list without coming to believe that the adult world is so steeped in evil that there's no trusting it, or that tragedy is a certainty, comedy a sad joke, and hope and goodness only rarely found, and then only after the kind of adversity that would lead an average person to give into despair long before either one appeared--but eleven-year-olds of that kind of maturity and wisdom and capacity for pondering adult themes and ideas are not to be found everywhere. No; these books were written for adult minds and adult ponderings. We share them, with guidance, with our teens and young adults to help them grow in understanding, but we don't present them as light entertainment, or expect our children to read them this way. If they do, they have missed the point, as certainly as a young man I knew who read Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace and thought it was a comedy about a really stupid woman who deserved to be laughed at for her mistake once did.
And there's another aspect to this matter, too: quite frankly, most of the books Guerdon was discussing in her essays do not even aspire to be considered great literature some day. They are written to be escapist fiction--and there is nothing at all wrong with that. Not all fiction writers have literary aspirations, and there is plenty of room in a healthy person's life for books whose purpose is to entertain or amuse.
So: can escapist fiction have dark themes? Even escapist fiction written for the young adult market?
My answer to that is a qualified yes; that is, I think that dark themes in young adult literature may be fine, but it is not therefore a given that all of them are. And a lot depends not only on what theme it is that the author intends to explore, but how he or she intends to explore it, and what purpose the exploration may ultimately have.
For example, suppose an author who writes for the YA market wishes to delve into the topic of child sexual abuse of boys, a dark theme indeed. Does the author plan to include graphic and explicit "flashback" scenes in which the teen recalls, in vivid and unrelenting detail, the abuse he has suffered? Are those scenes, intentionally or not, exploitative of or demeaning to young men who have actually suffered such abuse? Are they written to be titillating, to shock and at the same time, grotesquely enough, to arouse those who might be tempted to commit such abuse? Are they written purely for the shock value, and because the author has a pretty good sense that his or her publishing company will be more likely to publish and heavily promote such a book?
And what purpose, for the character, does this graphic and explicit recall have? Is it to help him work out his own dysfunctional issues, thus providing a hopeful note to those who have suffered as this fictional character have? Is it to create an excuse for his own sexual predations, about which he is conflicted but which he yet continues to commit? Does the character act out in endless destructive ways, turning to drugs, alcohol, and other excesses to deal with his ugly memories? Is there any hope for him, or does he end up destroyed?
The answers to most of those questions do not, to me, make the difference between whether a book ought to be published or not; the answers to those questions are the difference in whether a book ought to be marketed as young adult fiction or not, and aimed at children as young as eleven. The biggest problem I have with young adult fiction is not that some of it is dark, or even that some of it is admittedly garbage (because even some children's picture books are garbage, which is why parents ought to be heavily involved in their children's reading choices until they are approaching adulthood, by which I mean seventeen and eighteen, not eleven and twelve). The biggest problem I have with some young adult fiction is that it isn't really for young adults at all, and that selling it to this segment is more about profit, marketing, and advertising than about literature and book standards...
...but more about that tomorrow.