Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Depraved YA: An English Teacher-y Response

It's been a few weeks since Meghan Cox Gurdon's infamous article in the Wall Street Journal decried the current crop of YA novels as pits of depravity, luring our youth into lives as cutters, bulimics, and drug abusers.

The response ranged from ad hominem attacks (Gurdon is clueless, an idiot, stupid, old, out-of-touch, etc.) to thoughtful personal essays (Libba Bray, Sherman Alexie), to a tidal wave of tweets including the hashtag #YASAVES.

Do books have the power to save teens? Well, this has been my personal truth. I was a horribly insecure person during those years, a misfit, unsure of my place in the world. I hate to think of what would have happened to me without the lifeline books provided.

But in equating YA literature with self-help books, we cease to view it as literature. This is more dangerous than Gurdon's article. If an author's main goal while writing a book is to offer solace to the suffering reader, it often comes at the expense of characterization, plot, even diction, the writer's careful choice of words. (And you are insane if you think I'm going to offer examples, but there are many who use the story to serve the issue, not vice-versa.)

This mindset also makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the worth of books like John Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA, a young adult novel which contains all the hallmarks of classic literature. To describe it as a suicide book is to lessen the artistic impact of the novel.

Which leads me to the dicey topic of quality. This, I think, was an underlying message in Gurdon's WSJ piece. In evaluating these books solely on what she feels their impact is on a young reader, Gurdon is essentially saying this genre is not worthy of true critical analysis. Her method is not only impossible given the breadth of options in YA, it is simply not an effective way to critique art.

And YA lit is where some of the most exciting writers in any genre are crafting novels. Look at Jandy Nelson and Nova Ren Suma's use of language. Or Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth's expertise with plot. Or Sarah Dessen's ability to extend a metaphor. Or Charles Benoit's experimentation with point of view in YOU.

I teach literature courses to young adults. I know they are fully capable of looking at novels with a critical eye. To assume a monkey see/monkey do response is to insult their intelligence, and the artistic merit of the work. I hope Meghan Cox Gurdon eventually comes to that realization.