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.


  1. Smart post. Uplifting and well put.

  2. Excellent point. In fact, I think the "angst" (as I always thought of them) books were my least favorites as a child and are of little interest to me today. YA is so much more than problem novels. And one of the great things about the expansion of the genre is that you can do practically anything.

  3. You know, sometimes I forget how freaking smart you are. Well said, my friend.

  4. SUCH a good rebuttal to that woman's ravings and to people's attempt to pigeonhole YA lit. I love it when you get all English Teacher-y on us, Loretta!

  5. Great article! I'm always amazed at people that have a need to judge a population by a few books they may be reading. If you're going to analyze art you have to look at the whole body of work. Nice job making that point.

  6. See also "False Censorship Claims Exposed by WSJ Author Attacked for Exposing Truth About Young Adult Books; Meghan Cox Gurdon Decries Incomplete and Uninformative Book Reviews" for views of others who agree with Mrs. Gurdon, like Ru Freeman, etc. Follow my @SafeLibraries Twitter for more on this story.

    "[D]iscuss whether 'a strong current' of YA books condone the dark and violent language and content that teenagers find within them." Bookstores now have entire sections just for this kind of book.

    "[T]he worth of books like John Green's 'Looking For Alaska,' a young adult novel which contains all the hallmarks of classic literature." Really?

    "Lara unbuttoned my pants and pulled my boxers down a little and pulled out my penis.
    "Wow," she said.
    She looked up at me, but didn't move, her face nanometers away from my penis. "It's weird."
    What do you mean by "weird?"
    "Just beeg, I guess."
    I could live with that kind of weird. And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.

    See, "Porn Pushers - The ALA and Looking For Alaska - One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children"

    "To assume a monkey see/monkey do response is to insult their intelligence, and the artistic merit of the work." That's your opinion, of course. Here's another author who says the exact opposite and which, to me, sounds like common sense:

    "I'm With Meghan Cox Gurdon," by Ru Freeman, The Huffington Post, 21 June 2011.

  7. Oh, is that the entire story of Looking for Alaska? I could have sworn it was a whole book.....Thanks for spoiling the whole thing for me SafeLibraries.

  8. Joanna, you know that was not the point. I am certain if we met in real life, we would have lively and enjoyable conversation. Please try to stay positive in the future.

    By the way, "Looking For Alaska is NOT Porn."

  9. But, SafeLibraries, that is EXACTLY the point. It is nearly impossible to judge a book's worth based on ten out of context lines. "Alaska" is full of beautiful passages, meaningful symbolism, and expert characterization. It's also a frequently painful coming of age story. This is not a book for 11 year olds; it is a book meant for 16 year olds. There is a big difference.

    Ru Freeman's article simply makes me sad. Why are we so afraid? There is nothing wrong with being protective, but I think the extreme response stems from fear that we've not taught our children how to think. Colleges everywhere are struggling with students who are unable to think critically, therefore are quite impressionable. I hardly blame literature for this.

  10. I'm confused as to why you're making these points on this particular blog post, SafeLibraries. Loretta's point is this: "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." And by doing something like dismissing the whole of LOOKING FOR ALASKA based on the sole sex scene in the novel, you are saying the same.


  11. NCLiterary/Sara, I have not dismissed LFA based on a few sentences. I was merely illustrating one reason why it is not "classic literature." I was not "essentially saying this genre is not worthy of true critical analysis," and neither was Gurdon.

    Gurdon was essentially asking what is in the books, why are they dark, and should children read them. And for asking such questions, a whirlwind of attacks have come her way and it likely won't stop.

    It's been my observation that the freedom of speech people will gang up on and rudely shout down anyone who does not agree with the anything goes message. Or, as Dan Gerstein put it:

    "The ... elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny. .... [T]he reality is that it is those who cry 'Censorship!' the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others."

  12. Loretta,

    This is the best response to the WSJ article that I've seen yet. Of course we should be treating and reading YA books as literature! And, books have ALWAYS been the safest place for kids of all ages to push boundaries and see what it would be like to feel someone else's pain (from someone else's perspective).

    An older teenager can read Ellen Hopkins CRANK and understand what it would be like to be a drug addict--without ever taking drugs.

    The scene taken from John Green's book is illustrating a sex act without love--therefore, it's awkward and empty. Later in the book, there is a more emotionally charged scene that brilliantly describes a very different experience when the main character is with the girl he loves. But, you'd have to read more than just one passage to understand that.

    The bottom line is this--reading expands minds.

    This is true whether you're a young child reading Maurice Sendak or an older teen reading Suzanne Collins.

    I think that Ms. Gurdon was simply reacting to a trend in YA publishing--a trend that will be over as soon as the next big thing rears its head. She didn't research the genre as a whole or give children's books the read that they deserve ... reading children's books as literature.

    Thank you Loretta!!!