Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dark themes in young adult fiction, continued

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.


Barbara C. said...

When you mentioned picture books, I immediately thought of the latest popular picture book for ADULTS: Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach.

Red Cardigan said...

Yes, Barbara--isn't that just terrific? (sarcasm alert)

Seriously, I can understand some adults finding that funny (not me) but anyone who would actually read that book aloud to his or her children should have his or her head examined.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think some of the darkness might be tapping into the same undercurrents in our society that lead people to watch reality tv, obsess over murder trials, etc. It's almost a sort of Voyeurism. In the past, 'problem' novels were aimed at kids EXPERIENCING the rape/anorexia/etc--or who had close friends experiencing it. They were an attempt at therapy, a "you're not alone, here's how to cope," sort of thing.

Now they seem to be aimed at the general audience....

Though, could it also be that the present generation of helicoptered kids is so sheltered from normal pain and suffering that they're seeking out these books as an antidote? Because they haven't been able to experience failure and disappointment, because they've been protected from realities of aging and death (grandma warehoused in a nursing home instead of in the family home, a growing tendency NOT to take young kids to funerals and visitations), that they seek out pain from these artificial sources?

I think the question may not be "Why do publishers print these books?" (answer--to make money!) But why are kids seeking out this darkness when in past years they would have been reading sappy teen romance and sword and sorcery adventures? Why is the current generation so drawn to the darkness?

Maybe it's like sleeping beauty drawn to the spinning wheel--when you've been deprived of something in it's healthy, normal context (yes, sometimes people die. Yes, sometimes your team will lose. Yes, sometimes you fail the test), you start seeking it out in a more twisted form.......

Anonymous said...

My issue with the stuff advertised to young people is that it seems as if most is less expensive than classical good reads, that a lot of what I see available appears churned out, and too much dumbed down kiddie pulp fiction 'out there'.

It seems there's less opportunity for discernment, for something that will not detract from one's sense of equanimity.

On the other hand for storylines and not the prose, I've read an awful lot of Reader's Digest Condensed books in my time.

Notwithstanding. I remember at age 10 years checking out from the school library, reading and rereading The Witches of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, because it was exciting, even though I knew the details and ending by heart.

I've never been able to get past the first page of Moby Dick

Anonymous said...

We dealt with this by reading aloud to our son for at least an hour daily/nightly until - yes - the summer before his senior year in HS.

Of course he read school assigned books, but his RC middle school and competitive (public) Liberal Arts HS programs did not feature the kinds of books Red is discussing.

When he was four, we jumped from picture books to a mix of classic kiddie lit and The Boxcar Children to, at age 8, sci fi and fantasy written for all ages.

Even as our son is on the verge of starting grad school, he still wants to share good reads with us.


beadgirl said...

Barbara C. and Red, Mr. Beadgirl and I find that book absolutely hysterical, because it reflects the emotions we sometimes feel when one of the Beadboys gets up for the 50th time and he won't stay in his room and please please please just sleep already so we can have five minutes to ourselves and maybe eat dinner finally.

But that book was never actually intended for children, or to be read to them. It is purely for parents who are glad to know they are not the only ones driven insane by toddler/pre-schooler sleep habits.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

It appears that Justice Roberts is leading the Supreme Court in a direction that any attempt to regulate marketing to children is a violation of free speech. I'm not sure I'd want to go hard the other way, but it does highlight the absurdity of trying to find a "conservative wing" to the court. That all depends on which issue you are looking at, and how you define conservative. The "conservatives" appear uninterested in allowing family values to trump freedom of commerce.

There was a time when most marketers observed some commonly understood standards of good taste. But if anyone makes a lot of money breaking such understanding, it always initiates a "race to the bottom."