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Young Adult novels are good for nothing.

June 7, 2011

Today's guest expert: Sam Goldwyn.

I don’t know which I find more repugnant — the Wall Street Journal column attacking  tween books as “pathological,” or the response of authors (and, to be fair, readers) who claim YA novels about rape, incest, cutting and other lurid issues “save lives.”

Both sides seem to be laboring under the idea that literature is supposed to be good for you, that reading is supposed to be therapeutic. Books are supposed to be a kind of medicine,  apparently, while writers are supposed to be something like social workers.

A more offensive perversion of what literature is and does is, to my mind, scarcely possible — reducing fiction to nothing more than a subset of propaganda. Blech!

For a full list of summer programs offered by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the website at

Let me say again what I’ve said many times in the past (obviously some of you were fiddling with your smartphones): Reading is good for absolutely nothing except the most hedonistic solitary pleasure.

Today’s dyspepsia is brought on by Meghan Cox Gurdon’s column in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal in which she argues that teen fiction has become so “rife with depravity” that it almost constitutes child abuse.

“[B]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,” writes Cox Gurdon.

Apparently Cox Gurdon doesn’t know any actual teenagers, who, in my experience, can imagine anything. I’m guessing she’ll next go after fairy tales. It can’t be good for tots to hear stories of abandonment, cannibalism and murder (“Hansel and Gretel’), right? Puh-leeeze.

Cox Gurdon’s column ignited a storm of objections, with author Maureen Johnson setting up the Twitter hashtag #YASaves, where she asked people to respond with stories of how Young Adult fiction helped them get through the horrors of adolescence. According to the Guardian, more than 30,000 responses have been logged.

Now I’m certainly not going to argue with a boy, bullied by small-town homophobes, who first learned he wasn’t alone by reading a YA book, or a girl who found the courage to stop cutting and seek help in the pages of a novel.

But drawing a straight line between dark subject matter and sunny outcomes reduces literature to something less than it can and should be.

As Meg Cabot tweets, “Everyone should read what they like w/o being judged.” And writers should write what they like without being judged, too — at least on choice of subject matter.

That’s because the real value of literature — and art in general — is in the magic that sometimes happens when a story well-told induces a transcendent experience that, by itself, lends meaning and hope to life.

It’s one of the great mysteries that it’s often the bleakest and most brutal stories that best work this magic. Remember from your freshman English class how it was the Greek tragedies that inspired Aristotle to work out his theory on catharthis?

At the end of Antigone, everybody’s dead but Creon. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, our lovers are dead in a suicide pact (sort of). At the end of Hamlet, everyone’s dead. These works, though not YA novels, are taught to teenagers.

I’m pretty sure teens — most of whom have probably seen Saw or Hostel on television, their torture porn  horrors only slightly redacted — can handle a book like Laurie Halse Anderson’s rape drama, Speak.

I know this is an “art for art’s sake” argument, and I make no apologies. I cast my lot with two great thinkers of earlier times: Writer and all-around aesthete Oscar Wilde, who said, “All art is useless,” and movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, who said, “If you want to send a message call Western Union.”

And the anonymous 1960s federal government copywriter who came up with the tagline for the literacy promotion program of my childhood: “RIF — Reading is fun.”

That’s all the justification any book needs.






7 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 7, 2011 2:11 pm

    I agree with you, Chauncey, and sometimes disdain books (or poems, or short stories or music or films) with a message. Didacticism has a place, I suppose, but can sometimes be tiresome.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2011 2:31 pm

      I think a didactic novel can never, by its nature, be much good. And sometimes a good book can go bad. The Women’s Room is perfectly fine so long as it’s telling its heroine’s story. But once she discovers the feminist movement and everyone mounts their soapboxes, bit becomes just another piece of propaganda.

      Also, I generally avoid “Issues” fiction, whether YA or adult, and for different reasons.

  2. June 7, 2011 8:56 pm

    I generally don’t read YA, Chauncey, but I’m reading THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak and so far I’m finding it brilliant. The story deals with Germans and Jews in WWII and doesn’t pull any punches. My 14-year-old niece gave it to me. She loved it. Best I can say about it is I wish I had written it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2011 10:08 pm

      Glad to hear you’ve taken the plunge, Duff. There’s all kinds of good YA stuff, some of it better than most adult literary fiction.

  3. June 8, 2011 12:37 pm

    My children and their friends love sharing their favorite books with us. Perhaps that is why someone usually has their nose in a book at our home instead of being lost in television dreck. If my college age daughter had not picked up the first “Harry Potter’ our lives would have been less connected. My youngest’s band mates urged me to read “Ender’s Game” last year and though not a favorite, it proved to be a decent read and yet one more connection. I despise labels. Read and read and read some more. Thanks Chauncey.

  4. June 16, 2011 12:39 pm

    Great article, Chauncey. We’re showing our age…I remember RIF, as well!

  5. Kira permalink
    July 16, 2012 11:03 pm

    So our lazy consumerist society has come to a final and (un)surprising conclusion: books should be fluff, because learning is dumb.

    This article is thinly-veiled pro-censorship drivel. Maybe you should save yourself the walk to the bookstore or library and just frequent the movie theater instead. There’s always a nice bland chick-flick to be eaten up, and no thinking is required.

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