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Sunday, 5 June 2011

RESPONDING TO THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE

I can't remember what I was going to post about on my normal Monday slot tomorrow. Anger may have wiped my memory clean in much the same way that prejudice, ignorance and narrow-mindedness appear to have wiped the writer of this article's mind clean. Sorry, dear readers. You'll just have to put up with this rant instead.

When I woke up this morning to find my Twitter feed being eaten alive by references to an article in the Wall Street Journal about YA literature, my first reaction was confusion, because that article came out ages ago. Didn't it? Oh, no - this was a NEW article from the WSJ, ANOTHER article belittling my genre and chosen medium as an artist. Did a YA author kick the editor of the WSJ in the ankle on the train recently or something? These guys certainly don't seem to like us much. But then, thinking about it, no one really seems to like us much, do they?

It seems every other day YA writers have to put up with another condescending article in which the entire field of young adult and children's writing is compressed down to the sparkly vampire elements so that the journalist can smirk. Or a comment from some lauded adult literary writer who thinks anyone who bothers writing for people under the age of eighteen is mentally defective. Or an article like this one, that bemoans the debauched, depraved tone of YA literature and compares it unfavourably to the books of the writer's own childhood.

The first thing most of these articles do is to point out how new YA is. And they're right. Young Adult only got its own shelf in the library or bookshop sometime in the late eighties or early nineties. Before that, there was just children's and adult's. And not long before that, there was adult, all on its own, and children read the Bible and classics and that was it. A lot of people seem to wish for a return to this state of affairs - or, at least, that's how it seems to those of us who keep finding ourselves under attack for daring to see young adults as a worthy audience with high intelligence, enquiring minds, and their own particular experiences and concerns, which deserve books specifically written for them.

In the minds of these article-writers, 'new' = bad. Just as, apparently, truthful, intense, dark books which explore the real world young adults share with the rest of us = bad. The YA haters, whatever their stated concerns, always seem to be looking back, longing for some past Golden Age of Innocence, when books for younger readers were bright and cheerful and happy and uncomplicated. A hazy, non-specific 1950's lite period, when kids were respectful to their elders, no one had to lock their doors, child abuse was unheard of. When children never cried alone, or hurt themselves or others. When, presumably, young people themselves were bright, cheerful, happy and uncomplicated.

Here's a little newsflash for you. That time never actually existed.

It is a product of the adult imagination. Nothing more than convenient fantasy. Weak and feeble nostalgia. And kids know it.

The world has never been bright, cheery and happy and uncomplicated. Kids have always been abused. They have always suffered in silence, hurt themselves and others. Children have always, always, always partaken of the pain and agony of humanity. They have always had to live with the same darkness, the same wars, the same nightmares as adults do. In fact, they've normally caught the worst of it. Take a look at childhood and infant mortality rates in any third world country if you don't believe me. Actually, take a look at child poverty statistics for the U.S. right now. Still feeling nice and cozy there on your moral high ground?

One of the most heart-breaking parts of Meghan Cox Gurdon's article is the way that she dismisses Scars, a novel by Cheryl Rainfield. Ms Cox Gurdon thinks the subject of the book - a girl who cuts to help herself cope with years of systematic abuse by her father - 'normalises' self-harm. That the topics it covers are 'lurid'. She criticises the cover with it's photograph of a 'horribly scarred forearm'. Apparently all this stuff is just too 'depraved' for teens.

Does Ms Cox Gurdon realise that Cheryl Rainfield herself was ritually and sytematically tortured by her parents as a child? That the forearm she dismisses as horrible actually belongs to Cheryl? Here, the author uses her own experiences to write a book that reaches back to her childhood self, reaches out to the thousands of other children who are going through what she went through, and tells them 'You can survive this. Don't lose hope.'. Scars is an artistic act of the highest courage possible and one I admire more than I can say.

But Ms Cox Gurdon, like others of her kind, does not care about the children whose lives might be saved by this book. Or the thousands of other children who, through reading such a book, will gain understanding, empathy and compassion for the survivors of abuse and become better, more rounded individuals. She wants to pretend that bad things don't happen to anyone real - especially kids - that 'normal' people don't find this stuff relevent, that no one she knows or cares about could be damaged and hurting like the character in Scars.

Let me now address the YA haters directly - for my own satisfaction, but also in hopes of getting through some seriously thick skulls:

The reason you feel free to attack YA this way is because you think it's a soft target. You think it's valueless. You think no one takes it seriously. You think the YA field is a fleeting flash in the pan, getting undeserved attention and success. You think if you sit in judgement in your safe little corner, it'll all go away and proper literature (that's the stuff you like) will eventually take its place.

But unfortunately for you, this betrays your feelings about young adults, the very people for whom you profess to have such concerns.

You think young adults are valueless. You don't take them seriously. You dismiss their feelings and experiences as fleeting and shallow. You think if you just din your own personal values and beliefs into young adult heads hard enough, you'll be able to drown out their questions, their inconvenient new ideas, their worrying complexity, and produce a Mini-You, an adult in teenage clothing.

Never gonna happen.

YA is too dark for you? Too bleak? Too sad, and challenging and REAL? You think we should all collude in some kind of mass hallucination in which we pretend bad things never happen, and kids exist in a perpetual state of rosy-cheeked glee and laughter? Well, I'll tell you what. You build yourself a nice spaceship, find a new planet and create that ideal, shiny world. Invite your family and friends. I'm sure it'll be just swell. But the rest of us are stuck HERE. Including those of humanity who are too young and vulnerable to have voices of their own. They look to the writers of YA fiction to speak to them. Speak for them. To write books that are brave enough to touch them in their isolation and loneliness.

We're not going to stop. We're not going to abandon those kids like you want us to, and sweep their experiences under the carpet.

In spite of you, and everything you do to tell young adults that they don't get a say, that their experiences are lesser, that if they just ignore the pain it will go away, that none of it matters and in years to come they will look back and laugh? They will grow into the people they should be. They will grow into new writers and artists, trail-blazers, kicking the status quo in the teeth and telling things like they are.

Young adult literature is new. It's raw and brash and brazen. It's trashy, silly, funny and beautiful. It's stomach-churing, harrowing and dark. It's subtle, complex, transformative and brave.

It's ART, for God's sake. What do you expect?

And when young adults dive into it, they will find all these horrors and wonders - and they will find themselves.

If you don't like it? Your spaceship awaits. Bon voyage!

43 comments:

kirsty at the overflowing library said...

these people clearly do not know what they are talking about. All I read is YA because generally the books aren't as weighty as adult books but have the same depth and cleverness that I want to read as well (as well as featuring the odd sparkly vampire / gorgeous boy)

Zoë Marriott said...

You're right. It's sickeningly clear that the ppl writing these articles DON'T know what they're talking about. But why do they keep getting published in PW and WSJ? No one's asking the folks that DO know for their opinion.

Cicely said...

LOVE this post! Even I, being a small minded idiot teenager *rolls eyes* can understand the the WSJ post is just ridiculous. I hate being looked down on for being a teen, for reading teen, for supporting teen. And I hate being looked down on by people who clearly have no idea what they're talking about. Why don't WE ever get asked for our opinions on things? What gives these people the right to trash books that have helped people, saved people? Especially people who can't even be bothered to read the darn books. And they says it's the teens that are ignorant. *sighs*

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Cicely. I feel privleged to write for teens. I think they're the best audience in the world. I just wish that these people would give their kids some credit and realise that the people they're so 'concerned' for are probably cleverer than they are.

Emma Book Angel said...

Taking the stand point of a School Librarian I am so glad that we have such an amazing selection of YA books - they really do help teens cope with some very difficult situations. I remember reading an article last year about how Wintergirls actually saved a girls life when she admitted she had an eating disorder and sought the help she so desperately needed.
These amazing books werent about so much when I was a teen (the 80's) so I actually read the trashy awfully written things I could lay my hands on - so glad I ONLY read YA now :D

Zoë Marriott said...

I ran out of YA books by the age of twelve and read awful 80's romances for the rest of my teens. Let me tell you, I'd rather a teenager read Twilight and Shiver and Hunger Games and Harry Potter than rape-romances by Joanna Lindsay and Ann Coulter ANY DAY. It's a wonder I wasn't warped for life.

scattered_laura said...

A truly excellent and valuable post! In a world where there is plenty of adult fiction which asks whether or not "my bum looks big in this", YA literature (and yes, I consider a lot of it literature), focuses on how to make the right choices, how to cope with sometimes harsh reality, and sometimes even the bigger stuff, like battles between good and evil!

When did these questions ever become valueless?

Zoë Marriott said...

You put your finger right on it there! Adults make 'Shopaholic' and 'The Da Vinci Code' bestsellers - and then turn around and condemn YA? Bleugh.

Megha Z said...

I can't believe adults actually AGREE with that article! YA is special because it's for EVERYONE - from kids to adults. YA is one of the only type of books/genres that manage to support kids/teenagers as they actually truly start to grow up. It's an awesome genre - the best, in my opinion. That article is so horrible! YA readers should be the ones asked what their opinion is on the genre, not some random journalist!

Curse you Cox Gurdon.

Zoë Marriott said...

"Curse you Cox Gurdon". Best comment of the day!

borky_qk said...

Cox Gurdon is probably a failed writer of YA. I have nothing else to say.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well said, Borko!

Linda said...

I am so glad it's possible to share awful articles like the one in WSJ so quickly through the internet! I am an adult, with teenagers at home, and I read a lot. Both adult fiction and non-ficiton, and YA. I love to read books that I think my 16-year old daughter might like as well, it brings us closed, helps to discuss subjects that would be difficult to bring up any different way, and also sometimes bring great entertainment to both of us!
So I am just happy that most people I've seen writing about this cursed article are against it, and that it has actually showed a lot of support for both the YA genre, and for writers.

Isabel said...

Wow, AMAZING post. Thank you so much for addressing this, Zoe, or I would still have no idea that people even FELT this way! I was so taken aback by that article and I still can't believe that people agree with what Ms. Gurdon is saying... well, she can go piss off for all I care. YA is a wonderful, valuable genre that has helped shape ME and thousands of other young adults and teenagers out there. Without it I would still horribly ignorant and idiotic, plus I wouldn't be anywhere near the writer I am today! The fact that somebody actually has it in them to put down such a beautiful, wonderful thing is deeply disturbing and offensive to me.

Thank you so much for the post, Zoe. Everything you said was completely spot-on and is sure to make some people stop and think a little more!

Zoë Marriott said...

Linda: I think the fact there's only 20 positive comments on the original article (all the negative ones having been deleted) shows that this piece has no real support. Even the people that OK'ed it probably didn't agree with it. They just wanted to be agitators. I bet they didn't count on such a huge negative reaction, though! Reader power at its best. And parents like you are the reason why we have readers. Keep doing what you're doing!

Isabel: Thanks, honey. You're the kind of reader that makes it all worth while.

Isabel said...

Zoe: Oh my gosh... The comments were DELETED? *gags* That's awful! Well, at least people aren't afraid to disagree! It's a wonder the writer of that article hasn't already felt the urge to curl up in a corner with embarrassment or apologize. *scoffs*

bfree15 said...

Zoe you deserve a round of applause.
Like Isabel I didn’t know people felt this way. It is frankly shocking, I feel as though she is demoralising the very real issues that children / teenagers across the globe face every day. I didn’t become a lover of books until I was about 11 when I first started reading YA books. They changed my life and 10 years on I continue to only read YA books and I do so proudly. I'm all fired up now.

(Can't sign in for some reason)

Rebecca said...

Like Isabel and bfree15 I had no idea people felt this way and it is so stupid. What do they expect, that as soon as we've read all the children's books we're supposed to jump to adult books? YA books allows people to improve their reading skill from reading children's books to reading adult's if they want, while enjoying brilliant storylines. Has the journalist not noticed that a lot of YA books have actually been made into films, so if that doesn't prove that YA books have good storylines, meaningful messages and are enjoyed by adults and young adults, then I don't know what will!

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you Isabel, bfree and Rebecca. I can only agree with all of you. Let's hope the WSJ gets their act together soon and either apologises or posts a rebuttal from someone who knows what they're on about.

Ems said...

I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that people are STILL calling for censorship. It's 2011, for crying out loud. We've evolved quite a lot in the critical thinking department. We're quite capable of making our own reading decisions without gatekeepers keeping us safe and sound and stuck in a past that never existed. Denying these kids a relatable genre (for some of them, it's the ONLY thing they can turn to) is criminal in its negligence. For Ms. Cox Gurdon to promote that kind of thinking is irresponsible at best and depraved at worst. So glad that her life is full of rainbows and butterflies and glitter, but for the rest of humanity, well, it's nice to have books we can turn to when life has failed us.

Raimy-rawr said...

Thank you Zoe. I love that you feel so strongly about these things I knew when I saw the article that I could expect an opinion from you. Thank you for standing up for your career and standing up for us readers who love what YA writers do for us! I was actively swearing at the article as I was reading it, I couldn't believe how narrow-minded the woman was being!
I really hope that the woman sees all the posts which have been written in retaliation to herr stupid-ass article!

Zoë Marriott said...

You're welcome, Raimy. I doubt that the response will shake the writer's confidence, as she seems like a thoroughly horrible person. But maybe WSJ will stop publishing articles like this and give us all a break!

Zoë Marriott said...

Ems: Having done a little research into this woman, I believe this article was inevitable, because her idea of how to raise a child is to 'break the poppet's spirit'. That's a direct quote, by the way. I imagine that if her child was suffering and in pain, was in danger of being 'not normal', she would punish it into silence and consider it a job well done. The idea of openly talking about and dealing with problems, embracing diversity, admitting that everyone is weird in their own way? That would be anethema to her. I pity her children.

Ashley said...

You go Zoe!! Awesome post! I'm still super angry about that article. Maybe I should call them and apply for a position talking about YA and childrens books, because, you know... I actually read them. *Angry face*

Zoë Marriott said...

I have no hesitation in saying that you would be 100% more qualified for the role than anyone they currently have on staff, Ashley.

JayJay said...

I have read so many great articles telling us how much YA saves and yours goes straight to the point. People who don't believe that YA is good literature live in ignorance or in false realities where it is okay to spend money on clothes (Shopalholic) or read books that increase self loathing such as He's Just Not That Into You. At least YA fiction has strong role models who face their own demons be they real or not. Like many of the others have said, I'd rather read The Hunger Games over much of the top fiction now a days. And I am now running late for work so must dash. Thanks for this great article.

sarahtales said...

V. good post! *claps*

Zoë Marriott said...

JayJay: Thanks! I'm so glad that the overwhelming majority of people seem to see this article for that it is, a blatant strawman argument laid down by a woman with a very twisted idea of parenthood.

Sarah: Thank you! *Blushes*

Clover said...

I love this post. Well done to you. I actually cried at the part where you defended Scars and Cheryl Rainfield because that section of the WSJ article pissed me off the most (possibly. There were several points where I felt overly angry). If there were YA books around when I was a teenager that dealt with self harm in a compassionate and understanding way (which I assume Scars would be, it being written from some such a personal perspective! I haven't read it but it's been on my wishlist since I heard it was being published) than it would have done so much for me.

I'm very glad that they appear in YA sections now and that teens are able to feel less isolated and alone knowing that their experiences and feelings and behaviours are shared and that there is hope and possibility beyond it. I needed that then and I need it now.

Zoë Marriott said...

That's what it's all about, Clover. These books are for KIDS, not their parents. I mean, the whole article just started out from the wrong perspective. The writer is angry that PARENTS don't find the books in the YA section assessible and to their taste. Who cares about that? That mum should just have sucked it up and given her daughter a book token. I guarantee that the girl would have found something to interest her in that book shop - YA is more diverse, exciting and more relevant to kids now than it ever has been before.

Isabel said...

OMG I just got Divergent, The Broken Kingdoms and Starcrossed in the mail!!!!! Divergent and Starcrossed are even more droolworthy in real life. :P (Castle in the Air arrived on Saturday and I started it today. Also counts for my summer reading. ;)) Since I'm getting Starcrossed signed I'm going to send it out all the way to California and then receive it back again, which is very exciting, but I'm also so impatient to read it!!! Argh!!! :D

Rebecca said...

Isabel:I know, Divergent is a really good book! I might have a look at the other books you said there because you and me must like the same books :)

Isabel said...

Rebecca: Yeah, if you're gonna read The Broken Kingdoms you should read the first book before that: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It's an adult book but if you're a kid like me you can still enjoy it. :) I'd be happy to give any book recommendations if you'd like, those are always fun. ;)

Rebecca said...

Isabel: I've read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but I didn't realise The Broken Kingdoms was the second one! I'll definately have to check out the second one :) Yeh, I'd like some book recommendations and if there are any of the same style that I like but you haven't mentioned I can let you know so you can enjoy them too :)

Isabel said...

Rebecca: do you have a Goodreads account? That's the easiest way to share and recommend books online. ;)

Yeah, I'm so glad you enjoyed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms! The Broken Kingdoms looks very good too (not to mention the gorgeous cover) so you should definitely check it out. :P

Rebecca said...

No I don't have a Goodreads account but I might make one :) I'll let you know when I do :)

Isabel said...

Yeah, thanks for adding me! :D I got a new book today at Barnes & Noble (The Goddess Test). I had to narrow it down to one even though there were tons of books I wanted to get. :( Anyway, it's based off of the Greek Myths, so I'm excited about it.

Looking forward to talking more about books with you! =D

Cam said...

I'm a teenager, so I was prejudiced against the article before I even read it. But now I think they made some good points. Please listen to what I have to say before you call me narrow minded.
A lot of the books I've read have pages long description of rape, cutting, etc. Horrible stuff like this happen all the time, everywhere. But what I've read is so gruesome it's sadistic. I think this disrespects someone's real pain as much as pretending it doesn't exist.
I think writing these kind of books is a balance between being flippant over serious issues and describing them so graphically they're almost inaccessible. I've read only a handful of books like this. The best example is probably Hush by Eishes Chayil. It's about how a nine-year-old is raped and commits suicide when no one in her family or community believes her. The actual rape scene is only shown once (although it's refrenced throughout the book)seen from the point of view of the victim's best friend. In one paragraph, the author was able to hit me harder then pages of descriptions ever have.

Zoë Marriott said...

I don't think you're narrow-minded, Cam - I think what you're describing there as 'sadistic' writing is something I call 'torture-porn', where a writer is so keen to prove how hard-hitting and gritty they are that they go over the top. I too find reading descriptions like this upsetting. And yes, it is disrespectful to real victims. And it's not appropriate for young adult novels.

But that's not, unfortunately, what the author of the article was talking about. I know this for a fact, because I've read all the books she lambasted apart from one, and each of them dealt clearly, respectfully and truthfully with the issues they raised, just as the novel you mention, 'Hush' does.

The writer of the WSJ article isn't singling out bad, sadistic YA novels and their authors, and telling them to be more careful about the way in which they write about these issues. She is singling out GOOD YA authors and their excellent books, and telling them that they should stop writing about these issues at all. She is asking that novels like 'Hush' be removed from public libraries and schools, because she does not believe that young adults should know about these issues, or read the stories of people going through these problems. And in doing that, she is effectively saying that she believes she has the right to decide for all teens and all parents, what is 'too dark' or 'too adult', regardless that many teens may be experiencing or have knowledge of dark, adult issues in their own or their friends lives.

If Megan Cox Gurdon read 'Hush', she would most likely call it disgusting, just as she did the books named in her article. I'm sure that's not what you want. Of course there are bad books written within any field of literature, including YA, but attacking the entire field and tarring all the books within with the same brush is unfair and unhelpful. It's also ignorant, because within the field that MCG condemns there are probably three or four light, funny, sweet, romantic, happy books to every gritty, hard-hitting one.

Do you agree with me?

Cam said...

Thanks. This helped me put it in perspective, especially since I hate censoring.

Zoë Marriott said...

You're welcome, Cam :)

schudnac w miesiac said...

A great and a touching post....you really know how to write.

Cherie Rosemin said...

I agree with you completely on this.
But one good thing did come out of that article.
I now have more books for my to-read list.

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