09 June 2011

Dipping a toe in the latest YA kerfuffle.

So here's my deal: there was this article, in which Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the proliferation of dark YA fiction, in which sexual assault, violence, and self-mutilation have become de rigueur. And there was a flood of dismissive responses, usually centered on two points: "this stuff really happens" and "reading about it may help a survivor." Well, of course it does, and of course it may. But I can also understand Gurdon's point of view, and echo some of her concerns.

For me it's larger than YA, though (e.g., here's Ryan Britt's terrific blog post wondering why the sci-fi books that become literary classics are all so darned depressing). We are in a fiction moment right now wherein two fallacies hold sway: 1. that literature must be realistic in order to be serious or worthwhile, and 2. that realism largely consists of trauma and despair. I am as cynical as the next unemployed manic-depressive with a busted rib and no air-conditioning, but even I am aware that this is simply not true, that there is room for happiness in books as in life, and that said happiness can be realistic...or if it isn't, well, it doesn't have to be. Because it's fiction, and even a child can tell the difference.

But happy endings, right now, are not the way to either critical darlinghood or bestselling status. Witness Stieg Larsson's blockbuster Millenium Trilogy, the plots of which are rife with the torture, sexual assault, and murder of women. Conversely, Emma Donoghue's Room, narrated by a five-year-old boy whose only experience of the world is the shed he and his mother has been confined to by her kidnapper and rapist. The first is wildly popular, the second shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And I am not interested in reading either one, thank you. As my astute friend Molly says, "I don't enjoy experiencing any more than the amount of pain or fear that my regular life entails." I don't think you're depraved or evil or sick for enjoying either of these books, or the sea of current YA fiction Gurdon finds so alarming, and I'm fine with them being published. But I don't feel in the least shallow or escapist for avoiding them. (N.B. How do I reconcile this with my taste for dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction? Uhm. I don't. Large, contain multitudes, etc.)

It's not just book criticism that suffers from this happiness-isn't-serious misconception, either. Here's the last sentence of an AV Club review of Beautiful Boy: "[The film]
offers the antithesis of escapism: a claustrophobic, punishingly intense, beautifully measured exploration of the depths of human despair." Honestly, who reads that and thinks, "Sign me up!!"

Again, I understand bristling at the idea that protecting your children from evil means pretending it doesn't exist (although I don't see Gurdon advocating for this anywhere. Guidance is not the same as constraint, and not buying a book is not the same as banning it). But I believe most parents' dearest wish is that they could protect their children from evil, and their deepest sadness that they cannot. We should not scoff at this, nor should we cast concern as bigotry, ignorance, or oppression.

Also, we should generate a list of awesome YA books with happy endings! Here are my contributions:

1 comment:

  1. Amen, Anna. I think there's always been a disconnect between what professional critics and the public (even the educated, art-loving public) enjoy as entertainment. You have only to look at Rotten Tomatoes vs. box-office results to see this in the movie world.

    As for what's on the NYT best-seller list? Yeah, this week, Julia Quinn's latest light historical romance hit #2. Not to mention two of the most popular MG/YA franchises ever, Harry Potter and Twilight, in which bad things happen, but ultimately the main characters find love and the inner strength to triumph over evil. Not sure what critics thought of those, but it's clear what readers enjoy.

    When a happy ending movie actually captures the critics' notice, that's when it wins a Best Picture Oscar (King's Speech, congratulations). But I don't think the man on the street has a clue about the Booker Prize, or even the Nobel Prize for Literature. And there are a lot more men (and woman) on the street buying books than there are critics. To each his or her own, yeah, but I'm really glad the genre fiction that most people like to read (hello, romance, sci fi, mystery) is getting more attention lately. SB Sarah's got a romance column in Kirkus reviews. Now that's a critical move I can support.

    Awesome YA books with happy endings--dang, I really haven't read a lot of YA lately, and I suck at coming up with titles off the top of my head. Sachar's Holes gets there eventually, doesn't it? Also, Mrs. Frisby, the Anne books by Montgomery...hey, these be regarded as classics. Hmmmm.


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