Wall Street Journal attacks young adult literature; book burnings to follow

Well, not really. But if you are at all plugged into the literary side of twitter, and the young adult community in particular, you would have thought that was the case.

The culprit was Meghan Cox Gurdon’s posing of this question:

Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

The result was a flood of vitriol, hash tags and quite a bit of rather ridiculous posturing in my humble opinion.

I read the article a number of times and I just don’t see it as the all out attack on young adult literature many make it out to be. To me it instead read as a complaint that yet another area of our lives seems to be becoming dominated by the dark side of life; and that maybe we should rethink this direction. There are caveats and acknowledgments that the issue is complex throughout but it is clearly written from the point of view of parents not an art critic.

To me the fundamental issue at the heart of this little internet controversy lies instead in the inability of many fans of contemporary young adult fiction to understand that there is a whole world out there that does not share their ideology or worldview when it comes to art, literature or raising children.

Sure, I think many in the YA community (reviews and authors) are overly sensitive and thus over reacted to what was really a rather standard response to popular culture. To be fair, I read YA fiction and can be sensitive about it myself but I don’t come from that world nor do I indentify with it strongly. There is a feeling that the genre or label has come of age in a sense and attacks on it in any form are attempts to snuff it out just when it has achieved something good.

But this article was not an attack on young adult literature or fiction for teens as a whole. Articles of this length are by nature made up of large generalities and Gurdon was simply asking whether it was a good thing that the hottest books for teens seem to be getting darker and darker; full of violence, language and sexuality that would have shocked previous generations.

Surely, this is not a shocking thing or a new complaint.  Are people unaware that this sort of thing disturbs parents; always has and always will?  It can’t possibly shock you that some parents are doubtful of the value of their kids reading about rape, incest and murder on a regular basis. Put aside whether you agree with it or not, why the anger and vitriol at what is a rather common belief and argument?

I think it is because it goes to the heart of the liberal view of art. More below.Here is the key section from the article:

But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. “I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,” the editor grumbled, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.”

By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

It is of course understood to be an act of literary heroism to stand against any constraints, no matter the age of one’s readers; Ms. Myracle’s editor told Publishers Weekly that the author “has been on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression.”

This is at the heart of the disagreement. There is a viewpoint that any attempts to stifle or disapprove of books by subject matter is de facto censorship and one step from book burning. That art is sacred somehow and that any criticisms are a giant step towards a very slippery slope.

One blog reaction highlights this in her reaction [emphasis in original]:

Articles like the WSJ one don’t just attack YA literature: they also attack the intelligence of young adults and YA readers, the act of reading, and the very institution of education and learning itself. The article is an attack on progress above all.

Get that? If you suggest that contemporary literature for young adults is too dark and violent to the point of desensitization it is an attack on reading, education and progress itself.

Um, no, it is not. The irony is the post bemoans the lack of discourse and the insistence on a black and white world – only to draw very black and white lines about the author she disagrees with. The world is apparently full of gray except for this article which is an attack on all that is decent and human.

The liberal view of art is that you can’t criticize art that pushes the boundaries because that is what art does. It is a trope that has become conventional wisdom: all art is attacked as dangerous and bad and then eventually becomes accepted as worthwhile or even great. Oh and any attempts to avoid focusing of the most brutal aspects of reality is prudish repression that is stupid and unhealthy.

This is the same thing. If you want to complain about dark ya fiction you are undermining all young adult fiction. Another author offered a profanity laden post to this effect. He refuses to justify his art. Fine, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree it is art or agree that it is age appropriate art, etc. (And by the way, if you want to counter the argument that contemporary literature is unduly coarsening our culture perhaps the angry F bombs are not the way to go. That author might write great books but that post made me think he was angry, vulgar and rather egotistical. )

Heck, I even read tweets to the effect that kids should be allowed to read whatever they want – that nothing should be off limits. Many seem unable to see that lots of people just don’t share this perspective. There are lots and lots of parents who are sensitive to the emotional and intellectual development of their children and would prefer to guide their reading and steer them away from things they think are unhelpful or potentially harmful.

And to counter this the twitterverse comes up with #yasaves – testimonials to the fact that dark and subversive ya fiction sustains and saves adolescents across the land. Forgetting for a moment that the plural of anecdote is not data, this does not take away the point of the article: that parents have every right to be worried about what their kids are reading and to make decisions about what they think is best for them. This is not censorship nor a threat to free expression but what good parents do. Dark books are not inherently moral nor are taboo subjects naturally part of maturity. There are good and bad, useful and detrimental, fine for some ages and not necessarily good for others.

Sure, lots of parents draw the lines very differently based on the way they see the world and on their child’s emotional and intellectual development (one would hope). But to say that there should be no lines is silly and flies in the face of reality (and of the nature of parenthood).

If you don’t believe me, suggest a nakedly racist book and see how the free expression folks react.

What I found interesting about this whole scandal was the seeming inability of some people to disagree without engaging in hyperbole and near hyperventilation. Take a deep breath, take a step back and gain some perspective. Whether you agree with the author or not, this is not an existential threat to the publication of young adult books dark or not. Bookstores are not going to start pulling books because of one article in the Wall Street Journal.

Many love to talk about tolerance and discussion but someone writes an article they disagree with on a subject near and dear to their heart and they react as if civilization itself is at risk (social media over-reaction, weird I know).

Gurdon’s critics complain that she is unaware of the reality teens face today, but I think it is just as likely that they are unwilling or in capable of understanding that large swaths of the population see the world differently that they do.

Reality is a two way street after all.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. These are the books that the 14-year-olds in my neighborhood like the most. You will notice that none of the books listed have these dark themes. Who is deciding what is appropriate for kids? Adults or kids? When kids chose themselves, they are not necessarily wanting to read those dark, violent books. You will notice a lot of Middle Grade books on their list. YA is really skewing older and the growth in this genre is due to adults not 12-14 year old kids. There is something wrong with this categorization of books as it does not reflect the actual readership as defined by YALSA.


  2. Dear Kevin and all readers,

    I quite agree with what Kevin argued above.
    I would like to share my own reasons about it. I also post these reasons as well as my assigment as student at Master of Writing and Literature (Unit Text For young Adult).
    Any comments, agree or disagree, are very welcome toward my email at lenimarlina.11@gmail.com. I’ll be glad to hearing from you soon.

    Why the Darkness and Blood Theme Might be written
    in Texts for Young Adults:
    A Respond to Mrs Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” Article
    By Leni Marlina

    I am interested to respond the article entitled “Darkness Too Visible” which was posted on June 14, 2011 by Mrs Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal.

    The darkness in young adult literature can be a reflection of childhood and also can be an inspiration for teenagers’ life.

    First, as a reflection of childhood, reading the darkness will help teenagers realize that that they are not the only one who faced or became a victim of dark life such as life which were full of anxiety, sadness, criminal or even full of blood. By reading the characters in the book, at least the teenagers know that there is a friend in other world who struggling to come out of darkness in his life.

    Second, as inspiration for teenagers’ life, reading the darkness can be harmful just like what have written by Mrs Gurdon. However, we don’t have to ban the teenagers to read the darkness and blood theme because it will give more something useful than something harmful.

    It is all right that young adults may offers books with darkness themes because by reading the themes they will learn how to anticipate the real darkness in their life as well as how to overcome a real darkness which might be someday come into their life or in their society.

    In addition, the darkness as one of various themes in texts for young adult provides the knowledge and mental imaginary for them so they realize that this world is not only involves the kindness process and happiness ending. But, they will realize that in order to achieve what they want, there might be big spectacles, anxiety and darkness life to be conquered, not to be followed.

    If our teenagers just are offered with monotonous themes such as kindness and happiness, they will not be ready to face sadness and darkness which might come to their world someday.

    It is not fair if the teenagers are only offers by light themes only meanwhile in their life they witness the darkness phenomena (may be in their society or through mass media).

    The authors show the teenagers the life phenomena full of fantasy as well as anxiety which are captured through fiction, this will help the teenagers to be smart in order to find them moral values and make their choice in their life. They will not be dictated to do a list rule of good things in life, but they are challenged through their reading to find the meaning of life they might want.

    The teenagers are sometimes bored to be dictated about the good things to be done and the bad things to be avoided. They are more interested in more challenging way to find meaning of life.

    In this case, by reading various themes included darkness theme, the teenagers will understand that this life is not always as light as they imagine. But they can achieve what they want even though they are trapped in dark life by struggling hard even harder than the characters in their reading books did.

    It is a challenging thing for teenagers to write the book which has blood themes. Ideally, people tend to keep away from the blood theme because it gives anxiety to us or might be it can influence us to criminal. But, who can guarantee that this life is always as beautiful as we think or as happy as we imagine.

    We shouldn’t hide truth from teenagers just because they are young, rather should prepare them to be able to face their own truths and life meaning. If our kids are not allowed to know about this trough their reading, can parents guarantee that they can always care to talk about this darkness to their kids?

    In fact, it is much easier to kids to understand that in this world there is the life which full of blood. And this will help them to understand how lucky they are because their life is still in peace and happiness.

    Besides, this will help the young adults understand about the other people’s view about the meaning life which can enrich their mental experience to live in adult world someday. Furthermore, the darkest experiences very often help someone to find his brightest moments in the living process.

    We understand that parents have to protect their kids included from the bad effect of reading the darkness themes. But the effort of asking the kids not to read the books or banning the darkness themes will just become enemy someday for their kids’ life.

    A popular proverb from Minangkabau people (a clan in Indonesia) says that: “ If you are afraid of tiger, don’t run away.”

    Just come inside the tiger’s place! Learn its life and you will get smart way to survive. If you run away from the tiger, it will run after you and directly caught you. If you have something or someone of protect you from the tiger, it is only for temporary.

    Someday it will find you and you will find it. What can you do if you have no idea about the tiger itself? This proverb is a meaning symbol that we have to face what we are afraid of as long as we realize our aims in order not to be trapped in our fear.

    So, I think the darkness themes are still acceptable for kids as long as there is essential life meaning in them. The teenagers will not merely copy the things the characters do in books. They can distinguish between reality and fiction because reading fiction makes them thinking critically.

    In conclusion the darkness and blood themes do not fully offer protection to teenagers from the dangers which might happen someday. But, at least the teenagers who have already read the themes has already got weapon if they have to face the similar things happen to them or in their surroundings.

    According to me, it is not wide to wise to ban the teenagers from reading the themes. But it will be much wiser, if there are explanation about the life values found it the themes.

    I will be glad to receive other comments from other friends.

    Leni Marlina is an English lecturer at State University of Padang – Indonesia.
    Now she is taking Master of Writing and Literature at Deakin University – Australia.
    This writing has also posted recently as her assignments in unit of Text for Young Adult
    (Unit Chair: Elizabet Bullen – Tutor: Cecilia Rogers). Friday, 15 July 2011.

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