Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Context

What probably bugged me the most about the WSJ YA piece was its blithe anecdotalism: the author found four YA books that (she thought) proved her point but ignored not just everything that had been published since The Chocolate War but the many, many books being published for teens today to the point of looking like an ignoramus even to those who would like to agree with her. As I said yesterday, to wring your hands about contemporary problem novels and not even mention Ellen Hopkins (who has an audience far larger than that for the four books Gurdon mentions combined) or, as I think of it today, Laurie Halse Anderson, makes it easier to dismiss you as a Sarah Palin-like no-nothing crank, chirping merrily on about Paul Revere ringing those nonexistent bells in defense of the as-yet unthought-of Second Amendment to a still-unwritten Constitution. It's as if I took my favorite bad picture book, The Gift, about a personified pumpkin who agrees to be made into pie so that people might eat, and said "See? This is what's wrong with picture books today! No wonder people aren't buying them."

I'm reminded of the time when, after many years of not watching TV, I randomly caught an episode of Married . . .with Children and saw a visual blowjob joke involving an eclair. What??? This was not on Bewitched! When I started editorializing madly to my friends who a) had watched TV regularly over time and b) were completely up on the controversy Al Bundy et al regularly courted, I quickly learned that the problem was not so much the show but that I had not been paying attention.

But I have been paying attention to YA publishing for thirty years (here's my take on the last Bleakness Outrage) and can confidently tell Megan Cox Gurdon that you can find an example of just about anything in its purview, and that the books she cites are far from typical of the genre as a whole, which in the main has been given over to high-concept, hook-heavy beach books whose most alarming characteristic is their resemblance to one another and sheer replaceability. Do you think the Wall Street Journal would like an op-ed about what's wrong with that?

19 comments:

KT Horning said...

The irony is that the "high-concept, hook-heavy beach book" was probably exactly the sort of thing the mother of the 13-year-old girl was looking for, and she couldn't find it.

Blythe Woolston said...

Thank you, sir, from the bottom of my bleak, dark heart.

thommy said...

My concern with the article is that it looks at what appears on a bookstore shelf as a microcosm of what's available. My problem with much of the tiwtteresponse is that it argues with the article on its own terms, without questioning the logic. Gurdon is basically saying "I don't like these books before me." The appropriate response to that is not "But those are terrific books that save lives!" The response should be "You don't like these books - let me get you to a librarian and we'll find you some books you do like." I think that the article misses the point, and our response misses an opportunity.

Elizabeth Fama said...

"YA publishing...which in the main has been given over to high-concept, hook-heavy beach books whose most alarming characteristic is their resemblance to one another and sheer replaceability." -- RR

Wait, am I reading this sentence right? Oh, I get it: you're trying to rabble-rouse a different fight, to distract from the old one. Clever!

Moira said...

I randomly caught an episode of Married . . .with Children and saw a visual blowjob joke involving an eclair. What??? This was not on Bewitched!

Well, I've never seen any of Paul Lynde's outtakes....

[insert Uncle Arthur's laugh here]

Anonymous said...

You know how Roger thought Go the Fuck to Sleep was funny until suddenly he said, "But, wait, it's not *that* funny, and these people are now acting like douchebags?" I think something similar is happening here.

Sure, books are important and they change lives, but let's not lose all perspective, okay? Because then we just look stupid and no one listens to us and we get played again and again by people like Gurdon who is using her inflammatory rhetoric to get eyes on the page, without, I think, any sense of responsibility for the damage her fear-mongering, censorship-encouraging article might do.

Instead of rising predictably to her bait like Pavlov's dogs, we could ask why it is that people seem to be incapable of finding a book without a librarian to hold their hands. "Get a librarian to do it for you" is that really a workable system?

It seems to me that Barnes and Noble is trying its best to encourage conformity in a population that is really vulnerable to conformist propaganda. They want the YA market to narrow to a single, easily identifiable trend-- all the books being essentially interchangeable, as Roger said --so that they can sell Vampire books this year and mermaids next year and maximize their profits. Are we going to go along with that? Could we stop it if we tried?

I'd be really interested to read more about those things. I already know books save lives.

Melissa W. said...

Did we see articles like this before YA achieved the high profile it now enjoys?

Here's an interesting article from 1960, when the Western had taken over American television sets and American women went into a tizzy over the souls of their men.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19601106&id=z2YUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CAEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5234,907321

Westerns were considered "morsels of violence, sadism and subliteracy" as well as an "outlet for homicidal urges." Despite a lack of data to prove their theory, doctors warned that Westerns were the main offender in "emotionally provoked chest pains" in male heart attack victims. And a New York psychologist is quoted as correlating the masculine appeal of Westerns with the tight pants worn by TV cowboys because tight pants "historically have been a badge of masculinity."

Same song, different key?

SvM said...

I agree with Thommy except I would say, go find a bookseller! A good bookseller will find more than one book suitable for any reader. That's our job. And when we do it right, customers leave satisfied and happy. There are many things in the article that made me mad, but the opening was more than enough to set me off--the problem obviously wasn't selection. It was yet another chain store stocked with too many books and not enough booksellers to sell them.

Anonymous said...

Parents paying attention to what their teenagers are reading (and getting occasionally riled up by it) is absolutely fine by me, as I once wrote in an ancient Horn Book article, and I've also gone into a Borders, back in the day, and been totally creeped out by the featured YA selections. Sure, there were probably many fine books available, but who wants to risk all those melancholic werewolves and zombie prom queens to find them? Here's what I wonder: has anyone ever compared the content of current YA bestsellers to current general bestsellers, or, say Printz Award winners to recent Pulitzers? Maybe the anecdotal complaints in the WSJ article are overblown. Maybe they aren't. Surely it can't be that hard to rustle up some hard facts.

Anne Quirk

Roger Sutton said...

That's the eccentric thing, Anne--what the article describes is NOT what you find glutting the shelves at B&N or Borders. They are all relatively low-profile books. So how do they constitute a trend?

Anonymous said...

Roger, am I suppose to reply? I'm a stranger in these parts.... Anyway, my query isn't really about trends or whether or not the WSJ illustrative examples are apt, but about cultural context: are current YA bestselling and/or award winning novels notably more lewd or nihilistic or just plain creepier than their counterparts in adult fiction. If not, which seems easy enough to check, then we can relax with some herbal tea and, if so inclined, bemoan the general state of moral decline. But if there is a notable difference, then the worries of unhappy parents deserve more respect.

AQ

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about the MWC argument in reverse. So every time the NYT or the WSJ publishes something stupid, there's a big to-do online and I read about it. I don't actually follow either of these closely. So, I am wondering if I am I unfairly judging these sources by their occasional moronic outbursts, or are they dumb like rocks all the time?

Anonymous said...

Another anonymous is saying: No way, no how, do I want any YA author to "Save" me. Have you ever read their tweets and statuses? Bunch of drama kings and queens and crocodile tears. Where there is a saviour there is a victim. And reading about their personal lives, their eating choices, and NOT about their book business unless it's a melodramatic poutrage is enough victimization for me.

Roger Sutton said...

Anne, I'm not understanding your comparing levels of brutality, depravity etc between contemporary adult books and contemporary YA books. The WSJ hasn't brought adult books into the argument at all. But for what it's worth, Amazon's bestselling books for teens does not include a realistic novel (the subject of the WSJ complaint)until number 19, and that's Grisham's parent-friendly Theodore Boone.

Roger Sutton said...

Anon 8:34, I don't read the WSJ so can't comment but I like the Times, which last week ran an excellent, informed piece by Pamela Paul, the new children's book editor there, about Judy Moody. What you're seeing in the case of this WSJ article is the reaction of those who hold a subject very close to their hearts and defend it fiercely against those who don't know how little they know.

KT Horning said...

Roger, you're kidding when you classify a book about a 13-year-old lawyer as realism, right?

Anonymous said...

the WSJ posted a response to their article by Sherman Alexie:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/

Anonymous said...

As much as I agree with Sherman Alexie, and I think his argument was clear and compelling, I still think it's a mistake to try to defend books on the grounds that they are "good" for people. It plays right into the arguments of people like Gurdon that if a book can't be proven to be "good" according to a definition they get to control, then it shouldn't be on a shelf. Barry Lyga has a much less poetic response than Alexie. I doubt they'd publish it in the WSJ, but . . .

http://barrylyga.com/new/wsj-ya-art.html

The books in B&N are there because there is a market for them. No one is forcing kids to read these books. No one, not even a parent, has a right to control what goes on inside someone else's head. Influence, yes, control no. People like Gurdon should be told to butt out.

Liz Rosenberg said...

Some beautiful exceptions, but I'd have to say that by and large these days neither the kids NOR the books are all right. And we're not helping either by claiming they are.