Monday, June 06, 2011

YA novels, the culture war. and the politics of fear

By now many of you have seen or heard of the “article” in the Wall Street Journal, “Darkness Too Visible,” about alleged “depravity” in young adult fiction. If you haven’t, go read it, and I welcome your comments about it here on the blog (especially since that site is having trouble accepting comments).

The reaction from the YA world was instant and overwhelming. Late Saturday night Twitter was ablaze with protests, and a new hashtag, #YAsaves, telling how YA fiction had changed people’s lives, was the #3 trending topic in the world. (Which should tell you how many of us crazy-cool YA authors are home on a Saturday night. Woo!)

Like many authors and readers, I was outraged and saddened by the article, and by the cheerleading section in its comments.

What I was not, however, was surprised. It’s no accident that this opinion piece masquerading as journalism appeared in the Wall Street Journal, as opposed to any other newspaper.

The Journal’s news reporting used to be top-notch. They’ve won thirty-three Pulitzer Prizes, the last one in 2007, a gold medal award-winning story about executive stock fraud. All the while, their editorial page had a strong conservative slant—they were, after all, the paper of record for the business world, whose primary goal is profit.

In 2007, the Wall Street Journal was bought by Dow Jones & Company, a subsidiary of News Corporation, the same communications conglomerate that owns Fox News Channel. Many of the Journal's serious journalists and editors have since flocked to other news organizations, frustrated with the paper's new lack of interest in thorough, investigative journalism.

The people who run Fox News--and now the Wall Street Journal--want you to believe that America is engaged in a "Culture War," that the country is divided by moral issues such as gay rights, affirmative action, abortion, and feminism. We are not one American people united by belief in freedom and equality and our love for baseball and apple pie--no, we are at WAR with each other, dammit, and everyone must take sides.

This fearmongering belief was most memorably expressed in Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.

Really, Pat? Gay rights are as dangerous as Soviet nukes? Really?

Sadly, these days, more people than ever subscribe to this fear-based world view, thanks to Fox News and right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and his many wanna-bes. Every year, Fox host Bill O'Reilly yells about the "War on Christmas"--a manufactured controversy if there ever was one.

You might be thinking, come on, Jeri. You're an author, not a pundit. You write books for teenagers, you shouldn't be spouting about politics on your blog. In other words,


Well, normally I stay quiet about political issues online (as quiet as I can). If I commented on every issue that bothered me, I'd never get any books written.

But now, the right wing has waded into my territory. They're accusing me and my friends and our publishers of "us[ing] the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives."

When you start waving code words like "depravity" in my direction? I speak out. Lots of other authors and readers have spoken from the heart, in a non-political way, about how YA novels have changed and even saved their lives and how they provide a way for teens to deal with the darkness within and without. How many of them literally wouldn't be in this world if it weren't for books.

It's all true, and I totally agree. But I don't feel the need to repeat what others have said so eloquently. Everyone comes at these things from different angles. Mine is political, because it's what I know.

And, of course, musical, because that's also what I know. This crusade against "depravity" in YA books reminds me of the fight against rock 'n' roll back in the late fifties. Part of the controversy was about sex, but most of it, especially in the South where the music was born, was about race. White parents didn't want their kids dancing to black music, even if it was played by white musicians. Disc jockeys in Memphis received death threats for playing the music on white radio stations or for hosting mixed-race dance parties at black churches. (I wrote a short story about this tied to my vampire DJ series.)

The root of these freakouts is fear. Fear of the Other, whether the Other be a different race or sexual orientation or religion or mental health status. Fear that their children will grow up without that same fear.

I try real hard, but I don't understand that impulse. My parents weren't liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but they encouraged me to read anything and everything, even if it led me to see things differently than they did. They weren't afraid of the world that books could show me.

Not every kid is as lucky as I was. If we, as storytellers, can lay a path through the darkness, we owe today's teens nothing less.

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So well said, Jeri and I agree with you 100%!

Posted by: Blogger Kelley Vitollo at 6/06/2011 12:17 PM

I agree with Kelley- well said.

Posted by: Blogger Kelly Lyman at 6/06/2011 12:34 PM

Brilliant. You nailed it. I really do believe this is the underlying motivator of the article. And I couldn't be prouder of authors and readers for pushing back en masse the way they have.

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/06/2011 1:02 PM

Well said.

I think that the knee-jerk reaction to restrict anything with a "dark topic" is also missing a great opportunity - when parents and kids read books together it can be an easier way to discuss those difficult topics without it sounding like a lecture. Or at least it did with me and my folks (and I plan to do the same w/my kids). But if you want your kids to be automatons who only parrot back what you want them to, and to not have any free thought themselves, then I guess this wouldn't be an option.

Posted by: Anonymous kindle-aholic at 6/06/2011 1:58 PM

I think this is the first post I've seen that took a political angle on the WSJ article. I love this.

Posted by: Blogger Emma at 6/06/2011 3:03 PM

I don't write YA, so my views on this are strictly that of a mother. It's my job to decide what is appropriate at what age for my kids. And any parent can tell you that not all kids are the same.

At 17yo and 15yo, I don't censure what my kids read at all anymore. But three or five years ago it was very different. It's not an age thing so much as a maturity issue. Since I've been more relaxed, my older daughter especially has read some eye opening things. Horror, graphic sex, realistic violence. Some of the books she set aside. Some broke her heart.

But I think she's a better person for getting to read all of those (many) books. And she has learned to become heartless about leaving books that aren't working for her. And that's great. Not every book speaks to every reader. Especially for young adults who face such changes, what is meaningful to them this year might feel shallow three years from now.

Posted by: Blogger Julia Broadbooks at 6/06/2011 3:14 PM

Something that struck me about the complaint was that writer seemed to be saying "the world is this way" and these books don't reflect that--these children won't be reading my worldview. One of my own joys of parenting, however, has been to watch my kids discover and interpret the world in their own ways. Not that I had a particularly bad or good childhood, but they're different people from me and they have insight. I'm glad to have access to their views, and I've sure learned a lot tagging along. I suspect this attitude puts me in the non-WSJ political camp.

Posted by: Blogger Ann Marie Gamble at 6/06/2011 3:16 PM

Thanks for the comments! My hope was to give the controversy some wider context. I know that sometimes focusing on the bigger picture can cross the line to sounding like a conspiracy-theorist.

Kelley & Kelly: Thank you!

Jenn: Isn't it great that authors and readers have come together like this? It's never once turned into a "some YA books are better than others" argument.

kindle-aholic: It's wonderful when parents and kids can talk about subjects, and I agree that it can be a lot easier to broach difficult topics in the context of what happens to a character, rather than a real person (especially the son or daughter themselves).

Emma: It probably won't be the last. At least, I hope not. Things may settle down, or Bill O'Reilly may decide this is the next front in the culture war. After all, it's a long time until Christmas! ;-)

Julia: Good points. And the wonderful thing is, there's a large spectrum of books for YA readers now of all ages. It might not be obvious by the choice on the shelves at the local B&N, but a good librarian (or, dare I say, Amazon and its "readers who bought A also bought B" feature) can help teens find the books that are right for them.

Ann Marie: That's wonderful that your kids' different interpretations of the world from yours brings you joy instead of fear. I can only imagine how proud you must be of them. :-)

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 6/06/2011 3:42 PM

It always irritates me when someone takes something that's written for older teens and then complains that it's not appropriate for their middle or elementary schooler. Everything in the YA section isn't written for her 13 year old but there is plenty of light and fluffy if that's what you want.

Dark topics are important though. They said on the Today show that the best way to teach Empathy is to have your kids read. Kids read books that are difficult and they develop empathy, to relate to those who are different than them.

Posted by: Blogger Sara at 6/06/2011 5:25 PM

This is brilliantly said, Jeri. I'm with you all the way. Fear has been ruling our lives for far too long. Only when we shed light on issues that are dark will we rise to the challenges. You rock, girl.

Posted by: Blogger Janet Fox at 6/06/2011 9:14 PM

What I like about all of this are the discussions going on many of the blogs I follow. I work with a lot of right wing conservative-Bill O'Reilly lovin' peeps and it's all I can do to keep my mouth shut when a few of the more extreme ones get on a tangent. I can't begin to imagine what they'd chime in on this subject. I feel for their kids...or the kids must be on a tear from the repression.

I know I work with someone on occasion who absolutely freaks out about Harry Potter and not in a good healthy way.

The wonderful thing about our life is that we can choose to read or not read the many books that are out there. I look forward to when my now 8 year old daughter is ready to move on to reading YA and I will read along with her as I already enjoy a well written intriguing story, YA or no.

Posted by: Blogger Vickie at 6/06/2011 9:26 PM

Love your post I encourage my two teens to read anything and everything they want to read. They are trying to add to much censorship in authors and books nowadays and it is very frustrating.The article just makes me mad I don't think they live in the real world or they would not be so shocked. To call a book garbage is just wrong if u don't like it don't borrow it from a library or buy it and to say u can not walk into
a bookstore and find anything then u are not looking.

Posted by: Blogger Read Between the Lines at 6/06/2011 11:43 PM

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