When the Wall Street Journal/YA Lit brouhaha erupted Saturday, I read the article and posted a link with the following tweet:
Wow. Broad brushes, cherry-picked examples, misinterpretations and exaggerations, bald-faced lies: http://on.wsj.com/lVxoqs
But then followed it up with this:
I actually think it’s possible to make a rational argument that some YA might be too dark, but that article is definitely not it.
The thing is, I actually agree that some select bits of YA cross a line that YA lit probably ought not cross. However, I define that line very differently than does Meghan Cox Gurdon, the author of that article. She defines it merely as content: this book contains rape, and that book contains self-mutilation, and this other book contains violence. True, but it ignores the much more important question: what does that “dark” content mean, and how is it treated?
For those of you who only know me from my upcoming national-release book, let me fill you in on a little of my background. I had my first novel published in 2004, in the niche LDS market. If you live outside of the intermountain west, you’ve likely never heard of the LDS (Latter-day Saint, or Mormon) fiction market; it’s similar, in some ways, to the Christian fiction market: these are books written by LDS people for an LDS audience. They may or may not be religious. Generally speaking, they are books with characters who are members of the LDS church–but they can still be any genre from romance to mystery to historical to whatever.
I published three books in this market: a romantic comedy, and two political thrillers (a weird mix, I know). While the LDS market is (and other Christian markets are) notoriously conservative in terms of content, and I was well aware of that, I ran into a situation that surprised even me.
The following conversation took place in one of the books. The two characters are both LDS, both early twenties. The girl is playfully trying to get the guy to tell her something:
“You know where liars go?” she said, looking stern.
Thrust down to hell. Yep. 2 Nephi 9:34. My Mom had it embroidered on a pillow.
For those who aren’t LDS, “2 Nephi” is a book in the Book of Mormon. So what I was doing here was quoting LDS scripture, in a book targeted at an LDS audience, about LDS characters.
So what’s the problem?
Well, jumping to the end of a drawn-out battle that involved me having to escalate the situation past my editor and up to the managing editor and eventually up to the managing committee: this is how the book looked in print:
“You know where liars go?” she said, looking stern.
Thrust down to … Yep. 2 Nephi 9:34. My Mom had it embroidered on a pillow.
Yep, despite the context, despite it being a direct quote from scripture, despite me giving the scripture reference, the word “hell” was removed. The managing editor insisted that she got angry letters over this very type of thing, so it had to go.
Meaning and Context
I hope that the reason I brought this story up is obvious. There are some people who are so concerned about the specifics of “dark” content that they completely ignore everything else. (“Hell” is a swear word, so regardless of context it has to get cut!) My example above is simple and ridiculous, and if it hadn’t happened to me I’d have a hard time believing it. But the Wall Street Journal article is different: it’s both more important and more common.
Look at what Gurdon does, over and over; she references a YA book, cites the specific content she find objectionable, and then moves on to another book. She never attempts to analyze why that content is there, or what purpose it serves to the character or the story. The one that I find most maddening (though it’s hard to pick just one):
In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits.
So, she cites expletives, thuggishness and rape. Never once does she pause over the very title of the book! It’s called Inexcusable. That might be a tip that the book is not claiming that expletives, thuggishness and rapes are fantastic things that all kids really ought to try.
Look at every single one of Gurdon’s examples, and you’ll see a complete disregard for meaning and context. Hunger Games is “hyper-violent”! Shine is about drug use and sexual assault! OF COURSE these books are bad; they have bad things in them!
Like I said at the beginning, I think a rational argument could be made that some books cross a line that a YA book ought not to cross, but that line has nothing to do with the specifics of objectionable content and everything to do with context and meaning. If Inexcusable was called Excusable, and it was about how wonderful rape is, then yes, I think Gurdon would have a valid complaint.
Ultimately, I don’t think her op-ed will mean much. In some ways, it’s good that she wrote this–the articles that have already been written to counter Gurdon’s blind, irrational attack have done far more good for the benefit of quality literature than she and the Wall Street Journal have ever done to undermine it.