Since when did young adult fiction become the cure for cancer?

Posted by John Brown on June 13th, 2011

Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Stree Journal called “Darkness Too Visible” in which she complained that it was hard to find young adult fiction these days that isn’t filled with coarse, dark material–profanity, pederasty, mutilation, etc. She claims that “contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity” and wonders “why is this considered a good idea?” She concludes by saying:

So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.

This, of course, sent hordes of folks into a frenzy of posts sneering at Gurdon’s so-called prissy sensibilities, decrying censorship, and extolling the virtues of young adult literature and dark material in particular. For example, Mary Elizabeth Williams in a Salon piece called “Has young adult fiction become too dark?” rolls her eyes, then deigns to wade into what’s she thinks is an obviously juvenile argument to apparently show Gourdon how “stupid” she really is. Williams concludes:

One of the terrific side effects of an obviously click-baiting piece of editorial twaddle like Gurdon’s is that it reminds people how many fellow passionate readers there are in the world. That incendiary WSJ piece promptly sparked a tear-jerkingly beautiful twitter #YA saves trend full of heartfelt reactions and links to outstandingly reasoned, article responses from well-read adults and teens on the value within so much of YA literature and its downright lifesaving effects.

Williams suggests fiction doesn’t have the power to lead people into bad behaviors. After all, she assures us, “an entire generation of women managed to devour the ‘Flowers in the Attic’ series without having sex with their brothers.” No, according to Williams (and all the #YAsaves folks), YA fiction only saves lives. And she provides a link to prove it.

But Williams misses the mark. Completely. This isn’t about whether fiction has power to influence us in good and bad ways. There’s a huge body of research on media effects which clearly proves fiction’s power for both. Nor is it about the theraputic uses of dark material.

The heart of the matter revolves around a rather mundane thing–customer service and marketing.

Gurdon and those parents she describes in her article want a certain type of entertainment. For years, YA fiction has provided that type of entertainment. But things have changed, and the YA label isn’t reliable to them any more. It’s like someone who has purchased steel cut oatmeal for years is now suddenly bringing the bags home to find them filled with sardines or, horrors, Twinkies.

We can argue the merits of sardines and Twinkies. And a hundred other foods. We can argue the merits of certain types of stories for certain types of readers. And my metaphor above–maybe you think using Twinkies is unfair; maybe you would have wanted me to use something like Triscuts or Wheat Thins. But that’s all beside the point.

The real problem here is that the publishers have ignored a significant segment of the market who want to buy books but can’t find the types they’re interested in. Either the covers and blurb material don’t help them find what they’re looking for, sometimes misleading them, or the publishers have simply made the mistake of not thinking about this segment of the reading market.

The fix is easy. (1) Produce more books for these folks. (2) Label your books in a way that makes it easy for the consumer to find what they want. They’re not asking for censorship. They’re asking for a nutrition label that lets them know what they’re getting. Publishers can do what the movie and gaming industries have done with rating systems that prominently display on the cover. Or use some other method. This isn’t a moral issue, it’s simply a matter of helping the right customers find your good or service. It’s a matter of good marketing and branding.

And I would think, with the upheavals in the book industry today, that publishers and booksellers would want to do whatever they could to boost sales. Surely it doesn’t help to turn customers away because your package is confusing them.

In the meantime, the battle will rage and this simple practical core of the issue will be lost in the fires and clouds of smoke produced by the arguments extolling and excoriating the virtues and vices of fiction.

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7 Responses to “Since when did young adult fiction become the cure for cancer?”

  1. rehcra Says:

    Perfect point and solution. Although I agree with the sentiments behind the other points of view and even feel less control over “Young Adults” reading material is best; You’re still completely correct Nice post

    -Rehcra

  2. Guy Stewart Says:

    Yours is a REFRESHING viewpoint — I’d like to add one more comment: teens/YA will read whatever they WANT to read. This argument appears to be between adults, editors, writers, librarians. While all of them are certainly important, in the end, it’s the KIDS who choose. I’ve seen librarians throw things in their path, noting, “This is GOOD!”

    And if it’s not what a kid is looking for, then it doesn’t matter how much the publisher dumped into the ad campaign or the sincerity of the author or the authority of columnists and commentators.

  3. Gray Rinehart Says:

    Absolutely excellent, John. Bravo!

    All the best,
    G

  4. Anthony B. Says:

    I also agree with your post. I think the closest thing I ever read to YA was the Hardy Boys books. I was reading Jurassic Park in 6th grade and others by Chrichton. It was ultimately my mom who would “allow” me to read certain books after she’d deemed them ok for me to read after looking through them to see if there were lots of swears or sex. The thing is you can censor stuff but kids will read whatever they can get their hands on and you have to hope they know what is still acceptable. I mean I read some truly disgusting and offensive horror books but i’m not gonna turn into a mass murderer, and it’s only a small part of what I read. I never read Harry Potter and HATE the Twilight books but if thats what it takes to get kids interested in books, great!

  5. Jared A Says:

    This begs the question: What do you do as an author to appropriately market your book?

    Do you give each book/story a numerical rating on sex/violence/language on your website? Do you make sure to mention what people might find offensive when you pitch your book?

  6. John Brown Says:

    As an author, you can’t control much of what a publisher does. Cover, cover copy, and blurbs are often out of your control, and these are the things that give the first signals.

    You can do any number of things on your site, depending on what you’re comfortable with. And whether you’re really worried about this. Some authors are, some aren’t. I WOULDN’T make it the headline. Notice when Hollywood releases a film, it’s on the poster, but it’s not the biggest element. But even an asteriks can be helpful if you think it will be important to your audience and the publishers package and your website might cause confusion.

    I’ve been at author signings with a buddy of mine whose books have a lot of profanity. Parents will ask, is this appropriate for children? And he’ll say, it does have a lot of profanity. Or he’ll head them off and let them know it up front when they tell them they’re looking for a book for their kids. He’ll say, a lot of teens like it, but it does have profanity if that’s an issue for you.

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