Darkness Too Visible

Saturday, June 4, 2011

If you're a writer who's been anywhere near Twitter tonight, you'll recognize this as the title of an article published in the Wall Street Journal. about how horribly dark YA literature has become.

It begins with a forty-six-year-old mother lamenting the lack of acceptable reading material for her thirteen-year-old daughter. It was all "too dark", according to this woman, who apparently made the cliche literary faux pas of judging an entire wall of books by their covers.

On one hand, I have to ask why, if this woman makes a habit of buying reading material for her kids, this came as such a shock. The darker / more realistic tone to even paranormal YA has been trending for quite a while now. It's certainly nothing new. On the other, I have to ask if the article's author intended her title as ironic.

The only way to fight the darkness is to make it visible.

Sure, the girl who caught fire isn't the same as Buddhist monks or former soldiers who set themselves on fire to force attention onto the things and places the general public would rather forget exists, but books like The Hunger Games can make a social splash without the clinging stench of scorched flesh in the air.

Perhaps the person who penned this article, and the mother who objected to the books she's never read, are unaware of what drives YA writers to choose their content and audience.

Perhaps they're unaware that while Americans entertain themselves with shows like Survivor, real teens and children are fighting each other for scraps of food and garbage so that they can survive long enough to do it again the next day.

Perhaps they're unaware that while top teacher concerns in the day of Judy Blume, who they mention in the article as a comparison, were things like talking in class, chewing gum and skipping school, today's concerns are violence, rape, and gunfire.

Perhaps they're unaware that teens struggling with their sexual identity are at a higher risk of violence and suicide.

Perhaps they're unaware that Native Americans who still live in reservation communities have the highest suicide rates in the country, despite their small population.

Perhaps they're unaware that there are areas where hunger is a daily reality for kids in American public schools, and that the same kids beaten down by those in authority are often "difficult" because at home, they ARE the authority for their brothers and sisters because their parents are at work before they wake up and come home after they're asleep.

Perhaps they're unaware that there are families who "camp" for a living because a tent at national park gets them access to bathrooms and running water, and the weekly fee for their space is all they can afford.

Perhaps they're unaware that too many kids today feel like they're shouting into a hurricane without anyone on the other side to hear them and that they're being crushed by pressure from their parents, themselves, their friends and society to the point that if they don't make those tiny cuts in their arms and legs they'll be sliced to ribbons from the inside out.

Perhaps they're unaware that, statistically, someone that thirteen-year-old goes to school with will commit suicide or overdose or be raped or murdered or otherwise impacted by violence before graduation.

Perhaps they're unaware that girls the world over are victims of violence by family and friends. That they're sold and used until their AIDS and other STD riddled bodies are no longer profitable, at which point they're taken out with the trash. That they're kidnapped in areas where gender-bias has led families to destroy the girls born to them, in favor of sons, leaving an entire generation of men without enough women.

Perhaps they're unaware that a 140 degree, metal, semi-truck trailer can hold more than 100 people standing up as it rattles across borders, or that the people who choke to death on their own waste and body heat have paid out their life savings for a crap shoot that will end one of three places: freedom, death, or human bondage.

Perhaps they're unaware that most of the time, it isn't freedom.

Perhaps they're unaware that the electronics we use and the jewelry we wear often comes at the price of innocence on a scale most couldn't imagine, because it's the youngest who procure the raw materials under pain of death, until they die.

Perhaps they're unaware that in certain parts of the world, being larger than the gun you carry is the only qualification required for being a soldier.

I see an article lamenting that literature has lost its innocence and that the days of Judy Blume are past. But what I also see, that the article writer and the woman she featured don't, is a time when teens are no longer told they have to be quiet. They can speak and scream and share their pain before the burden of carrying breaks them. They can purge the poison that comes from hiding a canker until it festers beyond control and leads to something far worse than a fictional account of violence.

For the outsider, this is a time when they can find a sympathetic ear and someone willing to tell their story. This is a time when those forced to eat their sorrow can find others who are willing to stand up and scream the things their voices can't say. This is a time when it's no longer acceptable to pretend that things are nice and neat behind white picket fences where life is beautiful for everyone.

Is the darkness visible? Yes.

Should it be? Absolutely.

Grab a match and light it up. Burn the darkness until it has nowhere left to hide.

30 Chiming In:

Steph said...

you nailed this. perfect response.

Rachel Russell said...

Yes! So yes. I could not agree more.

veela-valoom said...

Did you notice that she recommended Ship Breaker?

How dark (and brilliant) is that book?

She contradicted herself with her recommendations which makes me think she's doing it more for attention than anything else. And it sucks because people will listen to her and not let their kids read wonderful books that she mentioned.

Kelley Vitollo said...

That is incredible. Well said.

Andrea said...

Amazing. You have nailed it. Thank you!

Janet Tait said...

Brilliant rebuttal to the WSJ. Thank you.

Suzan Harden said...

Thank you, Josin. That was perfectly said.

Becca C. said...

Thank you so much! Such an awesome rebuttal, I appreciate your bravery in speaking up!

clairegillian.com said...

Lovely. An eloquent response that hits the heart of the matter. Well done.

Carrie Butler said...

Great post, Josin!

Dennis Jernberg said...

I couldn't have said it any better, though I was considering trying. It struck me as the futile yet potentially dangerous protest of moralism in a notoriously conservative publication (Rupert Murdoch owns both the WSJ and Fox News), railing against the moral complexity of modern popular culture, a complexity conservative minds cannot tolerate.

It might not be a coincidence that YA cyberpunk is my current obsession...

Angie said...

In some households parents don't curse and don't rape their toddlers. As a parent I understand the mother's distaste with what is available to give to her child. Why should she endorse behavior that she has spent 13 years, 24/7 trying to teach her child is not okay. If she gives her a book that is filled with the horrors that life can show but her child has not lived them, then she is suddenly out of character.

Don't think that the darkness is any different than it was sixty years ago or in medieval Europe when women were witches because they attracted a man's attention and boys were left sitting on pegs. If were alive at 30 you were old.

The violence in YA fiction is the North American trend that makes money. I doubt these titles sell as well in Europe or Asia.

I am looking forward to reading your book but I think perhaps it would be a great challenge to make a story that is light instead of dark, would it be as easy to sell? Could you stand out as the awesome penman you are and break the trend on North American bookshelves. Would it be a blockbuster?

Can you see the lightness of life? I guarantee that it is there.

Jen said...

Perfect, Josin! Kids aren't dumb. Kids are smart enough to have their world view challenged.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Angie,

The point that the woman mentioned in that article missed (and a complete falsehood that the article writer didn't bother to dispute) is that there are TONS of YA books on the market that have nothing to do with dark themes.

Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series or Heist Society are the first that come to mind, but there are quirky, fun novels by several authors. Think Anna and the French Kiss.

There are fun, friendship books and quirky romances. Meg Cabot's books are far from dark and dreary.

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings is a paranormal that's on the lighter end of things.

If that woman had wanted to find something beyond "vampires and cutting", there was plenty to choose from, and there's no way a clerk and B&N wouldn't have known it. These are not unknown or obscure books/authors.

But instead, she chose to ignore the section of the store which would have fit her wants and, instead, point fingers at the section that didn't and decry it as wrong.

True, there were some hard things happening 30 years ago, but the reality of life for the average teen at that point was far different. Just like the reality of life for the average teen was exceptionally different in Medieval days. Most adults weren't literate then, much less the kids, which meant they had to rely on those who were for their sources of information. That's no longer the case, and it's one of the reasons the Dark Ages gave way to new light.

Even in households where the parents don't curse or engage in violence (I came from one), kids aren't immune to either. They go to school; they watch television. There was far worse language in the books we were assigned as "classics" than my parents ever dreamed of using.

There are kids who find themselves in darker books, and because of that, they find help and hope. If it's not your cuppa, then there are other bookshelves to visit.

I guarantee they're there.

Pretending they aren't is pointless and damaging.

Ellen Brickley said...

Oh, this. Just this. Brilliantly said.

Nicci @ Paper Dreams said...

Wow. Reading this just gave me chills. You said it all and I agree completely.

cookie said...

That was completely brilliant!

Dain said...

I love this, especially the following line:

"Perhaps they're unaware that in certain parts of the world, being larger than the gun you carry is the only qualification required for being a soldier."

Love it love it love it. YA saves, everyone. YA spreads awareness.

atsiko said...

Fantastic post. You see murders and rapes and suicides involving teens in the news every day, and for every one you hear about there are three ore you don't.

Even as someone who actively seeks out darker books, I've seen and read plenty of books with none of the themes or subjects this woman is complaining about.

Cynthia Lee said...

I've seen more disturbing stuff than The Hunger Games on TV, on a weekend, in the middle of the day, when anyone's child could be watching.

The person who wrote that article is incredibly naive or, more likely, has professional advancement in mind and wants to stir some s*%t up.

ladydamonayde said...

Good response. I love the boldness in YA lit today. Glad so many people understand that.

kpowell said...

Amazing post Josin!! I couldn't agree more.

Delia said...

Well said, Josin. In particular, I agree with your response to Angie, because that's what I kept thinking the entire time I was reading the article. There are many gorgeous, fantastic books out there with nary a death or a rape in sight. I know, because I've read them. Perhaps the author should do the same.

Angie Jackson said...

Actually, I had a thought similar to this mother when I *was* the suicidally depressed teenager being forced to read suicidally depressing literature.

Writing can be inspiring, uplifting, hope-giving. But at the time when my peers and hormones were making life scarcely livable, I read books on mans inhumanity to man.

(And tried to kill myself.)

Matthew MacNish said...

Amen, Josin.

I also find it rather ironic that an article arguing against honesty and reality in YA fiction recommends Fahrenheit 451 as an alternative. Oh well, she probably didn't actually read that book either.

Angie said...

Josin,
Thanks for responding so kindly and directly to my comment. I felt that I had overstepped, mostly because I am not well read in YA, and am far removed from things Stateside thus feel ignorant, sorry. I read the article and the comments but commented too quickly on your blog.

The mother was surely in the wrong section and the person aiding might be better working somewhere else, or perhaps there is a book-burning crusade starting and the WSJ is part of it, the article is weird for other reasons. It is hard to tell.

My point to your post is that on this side of the Atlantic many titles don’t sing like they do in North America. Eat, Pray, Love was flop. Not YA, but a big seller. Harry Potter is not dark YA lit and people world wide, wait over night in lines to get a copy. My point is also that I think you have an awesome talent and can only hope that you not close yourself into a box. I can’t wait to read your book.

Josin L. McQuein said...

No worries, Angie. Unless it's a straight out attack on someone for no reason, I don't think there's really a line to overstep :-)

I will say that I'm amazed at the number of people who put Harry Potter into the "not Dark" category, though. Granted, I came in late on the phenomenon, but from what I've seen, there's murder, abuse, torture, etc. You've got characters dropping dead left and right, toddlers witnessing their parents' deaths, a couple tortured into insanity, a teen carved up by a depraved madwoman, a teacher suspended from the ceiling while a snake eats her alive, someone cutting off his own hand, kids using magic to slice each other open on bathroom floors. Imprisonment and near starvation of a minor, the horror of being kept in a closet for ten years, peer bullying / assault, creatures that force someone to live in a constant state of despair, teachers who torture their students by forcing them to cut words into their own skin, decapitated elves, slavery.... it goes on and on. Harry Potter's not a light series by any means.

I read something JK Rowling wrote in reference to a letter she'd received from an angry parent threatening to not allow her children to continue reading if there was going to be more death after book 5 or 6. Ms. Rowling told the woman that she'd be better off not buying the next book, then.

A similar situation occurred with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, with a parent lamenting that such stories might give her children nightmares. He told her (in his own, um... colorful... terms) to keep her kids away from it then.

People have every right, and even responsibility, to vet their kids' entertainment, but only their own kids'. Trouble arises when one parent ignores the rest and decides that the "danger" to their own child, and their own inability to control said child 24/7 necessitates the removal of anything that parent thinks might run counter to their own commands.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Hi Josin, just wanted to say I loved this post. You have perfectly captured why the WSJ article is wrong and why we, as readers and wrtiers, need to stand together to show the good in what is being written today.

I've linked this post in my own blog, here:

http://paulanthonyshortt.blogspot.com/2011/06/darkness.html

Kellie said...

Such a great response. I'm so awe struck by how well the YA and overall reading community have come together on this one.

My own little bit of input can be found at
http://www.books.4ish.net/2011/06/06/why-i-love-ya/

Brent Wescott said...

Not much to say that hasn't been said, but I wanted to add something about your line, "the days of Judy Blume are past." Blume was probably one of the first children's authors to push the envelope. Not just with Forever, but her novels about puberty were quite controversial at the time. Now they're quaint. Whatever we find edgy today will probably be just as quaint in 30 years.

More of my two cents on this from a teacher's perspective at www.buildingcastlesonthebeach.blogspot.com

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