Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You want car crashes? Yes, you do.

Katie Roiphe's Wall Street Journal article about dark days in YA literature is deja vu all over again and again. We last had major hand-wringing over the alleged bleakness of YA about a decade ago with the publication of books such as Norma Fox Mazer's When She Was Good and Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves. Roiphe seems to have missed this moment; more eccentrically, when she does acknowledge that YA has always had its dark side, she reaches back to Catcher in the Rye and over to Little House on the Prairie for her examples. As Elise Howard points out in a comment on the WSJ site, what about such YA evergreens as Lisa, Bright and Dark and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden? It seems that Roiphe has missed the fairly essential point that YA was at first defined by its darkness; without any apparent irony she writes that "it may be no coincidence that the dominant ambiance of young-adult literature should be that of the car crash about to happen." The road of YA lit is littered with car crashes, a signal event of just about every problem novel published in the 1970s.

We should be used to journalists painting in broad strokes; the real gap in Roiphe's essay is its lack of any acknowledgment of the enduring popularity of books about problems, death, evil, etc. among everybody--look at any bestseller list. When Frances FitzGerald was writing a similarly themed piece for Harper's a few years ago, I kept hammering her to understand that teens--and kids--read for the same reasons adults do. As Thumb points out to his friend Susan, in Ken Roberts' excellent new Thumb and the Bad Guys, "without bad guys, Harry Potter books would just be stories about school."

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love reading the always insightful, always laser-bright and informed Katie Roiphe.

1. http://www.doublex.com/section/life/get-your-kid-your-facebook-page

2. http://nymag.com/news/features/2007/sexandlove/30928/

3. http://www.aaets.org/article137.htm

jamie said...

Hope this isn't too much BSP, but I said exactly this same thing as you in a blog post 2 months back:
http://www.adlit.org/mashup/30894

Anonymous said...

Roger, I'm not sure we read the same article. Sure, you can selectively pick out some hand-wringing here but it largely supports your assertion that YA readers love their sturm und drang.

As for kids and adults reading for the same reasons, yes, maybe, if you're talking about recreational reading. But literate adults don't worry about decoding, as the newest readers do, and they are seldom called upon to read aloud, and they aren't assigned book reports, nor are they tested on what they've retained. Reading can be a lot more stressful for kids, and I don't say that as an indictment of schools, just as a simple fact that helps explain why children's books have always carried a much heavier load than books for adults.

Roger Sutton said...

Well, Roiphe is talking about recreational reading, too, as far as I can tell. My point is that this is a trend piece that, held up to the light, demonstrates no trend.

Alex Flinn said...

Ah, the good old WSJ. If the popular books are dark, they're ruining our kids. If the popular books are fluff like GOSSIP GIRLS, that's bad too. Guess the kids should just read the classics . . . oh, but those are mostly dark too (My 8th grade daughter's school reading included OF MICE AND MEN and ANIMAL FARM) . . . maybe they shouldn't read at all and just watch Nikelodeon.

The fact is, if there's nothing to complain about, there's no news. And the WSJ is a newspaper, not People magazine. So, really, the fact that the WSJ is even writing about YA literature shows that it is important and newsworthy. Rejoice.

Anonymous said...

Alex, I can't. It just gripes me so much whenever the NYT or WSJ write about my field and reveal how completely shallow their understanding of it is. Maybe the reason it upsets me so much is the way it implicates how little they probably know about any other field. Sigh.

Alex Flinn said...

Well, you know the saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity . . . as long as they spell your name right. A few years ago, some writer came up with a whole BOOK about how YA literature her kids were assigned in school was too depressing (It got a LOT of press, so I think it's interesting that I can't, for the life of me, recall or even FIND the title on Google). She mentioned my novel Breathing Underwater, but referred to it as Breathing Lessons (the title of a Pulitzer-prize winning adult novel by Anne Tyler), leading me to believe she probably hadn't actually read it before declaring it too dark. I wrote to the publisher to request a correction. If I'm going to be maligned, I want my title spelled right!

Last time I looked, my book, and others like it, were still selling.

Anonymous said...

Alex Flinn,

NO. BAD. I am tired of the complacent acceptance of anti-intellectualism and ignorance in public discourse, and I refuse to look on the bright side of it. So there.

Harrumph.

Roger Sutton said...

Alex--Welcome to Lizard Motel, Barbara Feinberg

Alex Flinn said...

Yep. Lizard Motel. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that must be the last time Elise Howard actually read any books (judging by that wonderful series she published R U One Too). It frightens me that Harper has people like her in positions of authority.

Roger Sutton said...

Elise has a great essay in the upcoming Horn Book about her experience as editor of The Graveyard Book.