I'm going to try to be objective about the Wall Street Journal's Darkness Too Visible article, in which editorialist Meghan Cox Gurdon asserts that modern fiction aimed at the teenage market (Young Adult, or YA fiction) is far more brutal and graphically sexual than it should be. This claim has angered many YA authors. Jay Asher responds here.
The book industry has undergone major changes in the last decade, including the creation of a humongous teenage market. YA did not exist when I was growing up in the 1980s-90s. Now it is a multi-million dollar industry (perhaps multi-billion). Household name authors such as J.K. Rowling, Jim Butcher, and Stephanie Meyers dominate the YA section of each bookstore. Booksellers and publishers have finally learned that a voracious teenage reader will buy as many books as any adult bibliophile--and they advertise accordingly.
This new market is having some side effects on the book industry. For one thing, writers are flocking to YA because it's a hot market. Many books that would have been unquestionably adult ten years ago are now considered crossover, or YA. If Anne Rice or Stephen King were new authors breaking in this year, I suspect they would send query letters to the YA market. That's how hot it is. Contemporary adult-level science fiction/fantasy/horror is a little stagnant right now, so if you happen to be a genre novelist, you will consider YA.
On top of that, publishers are under a lot of pressure to produce best-sellers. Many publishers are hit hard by the recession, and their business model relies entirely on their few best-selling authors. They're going to push the envelope. Teenagers like shock value. The more adult a book seems, the more likely it will garner controversy, and therefore buyers.
So I think Meghan Cox Gurdon makes some valid points. The YA market is swimming with adult books, and perhaps these books should not be marketed towards teens and pre-teens.
I picked up my first Stephen King book when I was 11 years old. I picked up an Anne Rice book the year after. And I was not the only child reading adult novels in the 1990s. True, I didn't understand the sex scenes or the adult themes, but I enjoyed those books all the same, and it was fun to reread them as an adult and "get" the things I'd missed the first time around. Back then, the books marketed to kids my age were Babysitter's Club titles and R.L. Stine's Fear Street. When I outgrew those books, I turned to the adult section because I was ready for something more challenging.
I would have been thrilled if there was a special teenage section in the bookstore tailored to my reading level. That way, I could read the books I wanted to read while still seeming "cool." And I could discuss those books with more kids my age. Thanks to the YA section, more kids are reading ... and most importantly, they're actually enjoying the experience.
Meghan Cox Gurdon moans: "Whatever happened to fostering a child's happiness, moral development, and tenderness of heart?" She apparently feels that teenagers should restrict themselves to Judy Blume ("objectionable for some parents, but not grotesque") and other tame or outdated authors. She doesn't mind 1970s books that explore puberty, but she's disturbed by modern YA books that deal with drugs, cutting, rape, incest, and other very unfortunate situations. According to her, Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games is "hyper-violent."
Well, those darned kids, readin' stuff they shouldn't. Next thing you know, they'll be turnin' to violent video games and murdering each other in the streets.
Meghan Cox Gurdon writes, "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." I would have to agree. This is probably at least partly true, and it's at least partly working. I applaud them for it.
Then Cox Gurdon writes, "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."
Misery? Really? How does enjoying a good book, relevant to your own situation, equate with misery? I don't think the kids who read The Hunger Games or Shine are sitting there with tears streaming down their faces, asking mommy and daddy, "Why, oh why, did you make me read this? I want to stop!" On the contrary, I think they're eating it up like popcorn.
And that's a good thing. A dark, challenging, twisted, thought-provoking book that deals with real life situations isn't going to transform a good kid into a morally depraved high school drop-out. Instead, it will challenge that kid's inner beliefs. Perhaps that kid will look at the world and the people around him/her in a new way. That's the whole point of reading. And generally, when a book makes a big impact on a kid, he/she will pick up another.