The WSJ on YA Literature: Citation Needed

Jun 10, 2011 | The Publishing Industry

If you’ve been under a rock for the last week or two, or if you don’t follow the news on books, you should probably go read this piece in the Wall Street Journal on Young Adult literature. The angle is almost depressingly clichéd; if you don’t want to slog through the whole thing, you just need to imagine the following scene:

A middle-aged women, dressed in a conservative suit, pearl earrings, prim and proper hair styled only that morning, standing at a podium and tutting while saying ‘Won’t someone please think of the children?’

It seems almost endemic in society to underestimate anyone aged eighteen or below, and this article is no different. Here’s one line that leaped out at me as being more or less a summary of the whole piece:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.

The author, of course, finds this distasteful and wishes it were not so. She has a tendency to generalise to the point where I have to wonder how many YA books she’s ever read, because writing off an entire genre that you, personally, don’t like is the mark of someone who perhaps shouldn’t be in the Wall Street Journal. The rebuttals have been coming thick and fast into my RSS feeds ever since this article was published, and many people have taken to twitter to add their support of YA literature under the hashtag #yasaves. Surprised I am not, I must say. Tell thousands of people that the work they have poured their hearts into for years is essentially damaging? Yeah, that’s one hell of an invitation right there to get a lot of angry emails.

My problem with the article – and I suspect a lot of people think the same – is that it presents a blinkered and largely blind view of the world. It equates the controversial themes in YA books with ‘distorted portrayals of what life is’, as if teenagers are somehow immune to the frequently vicious nature of the adult world. It’s ignoring the fact that life, for many teenagers (I won’t refer to them as kids), is dark and brutal and sometimes nonsensical, and reading about situations similar to theirs helps them understand, and find strength through kinship with the characters. It also ignores the fact that teenagers with good lives, who might never be subjected to rape, incest, torture, etc, can still read these books and gain an understanding of what it’s like to live through these things.

Ms. Gurdon, the WSJ writer, dismisses this. She gives equal weight to a rather bizarre theory:

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.

At this point, I grew rather annoyed. I have a scientific background, and nothing irritates me so much as a serious statement like this without any actual support, such as a link to a study or relevant research. As this is the entirety of her argument as to why dark YA books are bad, I find it outrageous that she just presents it as fact; there’s no ‘I believe’ or ‘in my opinion’. This is meant to be taken as 100% verifiable truth.

As they say on Wikipedia, citation needed. You don’t get to present your opinion as fact on the Internet without someone calling you out or doing the due diligence you should have done to begin with. (That YA books can have a positive effect is not up for debate; I think at this point enough people have said as much that we can accept that as fact.) So, I went looking for stories of teenagers who were negatively influenced by YA books – and promptly found nothing. If there’s a mention of such an event as described above on the internet, my Google-Fu cannot find it. You would think that if there was an immanent risk of hundreds of teenagers cutting or killing themselves because they read about it in a book, the mainstream media would be all over it like flies on a cowpat.

This isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it pretty much solidifies my opinion that Ms. Gurdon is engaging in hyperbolic moral panic chicanery, a.k.a. talking out her ass. This reeks of the same silliness that the older generation seems to fall into every decade or so; [insert media here] is destroying the youth of today! It was rock music at one point, then rap music, then video games, then… oh, who cares. This is the same segment of the population who probably think Harry Potter is dangerous because it has witchcraft in it. Whether any media can unduly influence teenagers is still up for debate in scientific circles, so making any definitive statements one way or another is incredibly counter-productive.

Personally, I think it’s such a tired old argument that it really doesn’t have a leg to stand on at this point. But I’m willing to say that that’s only my opinion, unlike Ms. Gurdon.