Sunday, June 5, 2011

surprised by the WSJ: in which I do what the politicians do and speak outta both sides

I'm still not done reading the WSJ's article that has managed to get the book-blogging community buzzing. It's always something, isn't it? A few months ago it was that stuff in Missouri, now it's this...I've been used to newspapers (the NY Times and USA Today are the worst) spinning their own agendas so I don't usually take articles very seriously, but this one surprised me. I assure you, my mental pendulum will swing both ways, so all I ask is that you reserve judgment till you get through the entire post/treatise/diatribe/whathaveyou...

In this blog post, I'm going to do a little something different (although I seriously doubt anyone wants to hear anything that's not 100% ' OMG WSJ IS WRONG!') and talk about where the WSJ gets it right and where it gets it completely wrong. That's what they teach you in debate: that rarely is there ever a totally-right or totally-wrong issue. Same applies here.

On one hand, I do feel very relieved that this article has been written. It's what the literary community so often forgets: consumers (whether they be parents, teens, or interested adult readers) have absolutely no way of knowing what is in a book before they read it. And while there is this attitude of "so what? anything goes in books," that is not the only attitude out there. Real parents, real teachers, real teens, and real adult readers may care a great deal. For us, it's not "anything goes." For us, it's not "reality for some is reality for all," and for goodness sake, it certainly isn't "any book is better than no book!" That is so flipping ignorant. And it can't be both ways. If authors have the right to write whatever they want, with no moral boundary that says 'this is too far,' then consumers have the right to symbolically say, "What the...?! Are you for real?!"

The part that I think is the most insightful is:
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. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

So yes, I do share the WSJ's "puzzlement" over why in the world this genre can be so explicit and in-your-face with quite a lot of disturbing themes, situations, and content. Yeah, it freaketh me out. And yeah, there is little-to-no way to know before diving in. And that's where my issue is: some people want to know, and there is no way for them to know. And my issue is with the idea that teenagers - with developing brains and personalities - are ready for anything. That they can handle anything. That just because reality is sometimes horrible and ugly is an open invitation to demonstrate, explicitly, just how ugly it can get. I need to say, though, that the #1 reason why I am sympathetic to this article is because it appeared in the Wall Street Journal, one of America's most important newspapers. If this was the work of some blogger, I would have shrugged and said, "She's got some points, but geez...dramatic much?"

I already shared my favorite part of the article. Now I'll share my least favorite: That part in the beginning where the poor sweet mama couldn't find a book in the whole YA section. I don't buy that for one second! Geez, the last time I went to a bookstore (NYC's Books of Wonder), I left with 10 books. And I'm one of those 'stay away from dark stuff' types. If I can find an armful of books, anyone can! Did she not see Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver? Or Michael Scott's Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel? What about Neal Shusterman's books, or Cassandra Clare's shiny, flashy, can't-miss-em books? Did she see The Dark Divine or The Maze Runner or Paranormalcy or Prophecy of the Sisters or FOR CRYING OUT LOUD anything with the name "Rick Riordan" on it? What about Matched or Divergent or the freaking BOOK THIEF? And boy, nothing says "dark and disturbing" like that Artemis Fowl! For goodness sake. Yes, I'm the type of reader who will agree with the WSJ that there is some weird, crazy...stuff in YA, but the majority of books are thrilling, enjoyable, uplifting, and written by some of the most gifted, capable, and endearing authors in the industry. If some editors and publicists are impervious to shock or sensibility, I'd reckon there are twice as many who actually do give a wang (at least, maybe a little wang) about what they're releasing into the market.

What do I wish the WSJ had done differently? First of all, part of me is glad that they actually named names and to an extent, held books and authors accountable for the written word. Like I said, it can't be both ways. It can't be acceptance and validation without some reservation. But I wished that they would have ended their article by praising, or even just acknowledging, the authors and books that represent the brighter parts of the genre. Not everything is drugs, sex, cutting, despair, and other unspeakable things. The image they painted is a truth, not the whole truth. It does not come close to describing Veronica Roth and her Divergent, or Kelly Creagh and her Nevermore, or Kersten Hamilton and her Tyger Tyger, or Neal Shusterman and his Unwind, or Bree Despain and her Dark Divine or Patrick Ness and his Chaos Walking...I could go on and on and on and on.

So if I had to draw a line in the sand, would I side with them, or with the pro-#YAsaves trend? Both, actually. Because this isn't an either-or issue. I said I was glad that this article was written. Yes, I am, because I do believe that sometimes 'dark' is 'too dark.' And I do believe that people should be made aware of the fact that some subgenres of YA are pretty... disturbing. And I think something needs to be done to better inform consumers. I think that if people weren't so often surprised or caught off guard, they'd be less hostile to books that they'd just as soon skip.

With most issues, I think that the most truthful realization lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, I can't completely jump of the "WSJ is utterly wrong" bandwagon because, as someone who is often disillusioned by not just the openness but also the seeming permissiveness of literature aimed at Young Adults, I do think that information is a good thing. I do think that consumers need to be made aware of the direction that some books are taking, and how the envelope sure is being pushed far by some books and some authors. But in the very next sentence, I will defend those whose work does not apply at all to this article. As someone who reads YA almost exclusively, I'll be the first to say that no, not every book is for everybody (and it is my complete personal opinion that an even smaller number of books aren't for anybody), but I'll also be the first to say that this is the most diverse, inventive, creative, and lively genre out there.

PS - authors have been sharing their thoughts all day, but the one that really speaks out above the rest is Veronica Roth's post. What she has to say is not only insightful and eloquent, it's also extremely reasonable. Without trying to sound over the top, she keeps demonstrating over and over what a class-act author she is.

Sorry for being complicated,

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