Sherman Alexie misses the point

Sherman Alexie
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There are many among the #yasaves crowd who are cheering on Sherman Alexie’s response to the Meghan Cox Gurdon brouhaha. And for good reason: 1) he is a popular author in the genre/age group and 2) he shares their world view.

There is only one small problem. He, like so many, miss the perspective and larger point of the original piece. Authors, readers and booksellers have jumped to the defense of dark YA works on largely two grounds 1) dark material is a sort of therapy for abused, neglected, abandoned or otherwise struggling teens (teens going through the very ugly things portrayed in the books) 2) any kind of attempt to keep teens – even “healthy” or “normal” ones – from reading whatever they want is bound to fail and is bad for them.

In many ways I completely understand the reaction to much of this. If you write, read or sell these type of books you likely enjoy the prominence they have achieved and you very much want the genre/age to be taken seriously as important and as literature. Any attempt to criticize or undercut the popularity is seen as a threat. I get that.

But Gurdon was not trying to attack young adult literature or even call for an end to dark subjects. She has reviewed positively many books in this category.  She was rather bemoaning what seemed to her the dominance of dark subjects and the escalating nature of the content. There is an important different between saying we don’t need dark or adult subjects and saying the content has gone too far in that direction at the expense of other perspectives.

But the most important thing about the article is that it was written about the perspective of parents and their concern for their kids.  This is a very different perspective than that of the author, reader, or bookseller. Parents have a very different job and role.

More below.

Alexie ignores this aspect/perspective and focuses almost exclusively on his perspective as a young person and as an author. It should also be pointed out that almost the entire article is anecdotal. He swears a gazillion people talk him every day about how he saved their life and he can relate because he had a very difficult childhood.

Snark aside, I don’t mean to offer anything but sympathy for anyone who has lived with and through the tramaus being discussed. Although my life has been touched by drug and alcohol abuse, by any fair standard I have lived a charmed life.

And that is one of the points. Does Alexie really think that anything close to a majority of readers of these books are the desperate teens he describes? As if the real point of teen books is therapy and self-help for damaged kids. Surly, middle and upper class kids and their parents buy a lot more books than the folks being trotted out as the people most damaged by Gurdon’s careless article.

And again, if we are thinking as parents (I happen to be one although my kids are not teens) the focus is not necessarily on therapy but on a healthy and well rounded child. And further, you can be comfortable with an element of dark and troubling subjects without wishing for a wall full of such books. It is about balance.

Gurdon argued that the balance was tilted toward darkness in the name of therapy and free speech when it might not be in the best interest of young people. She wanted to say that as a parent it was alright to worry about this and critiqued the publishing world for having no sympathy because they saw every challenge of complaint as censorship.

Speaking of that loaded term, Alexie is not just about helping kids, but about ideology as well. This paragraph gives it away:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

This is not only a naked political rant it is a pretty unfounded one as well. Would Alexie like to speak with Christian missionaries across the world who minister to the most desperate among us? I bet some of them have different ideas about what is appropriate to read and at what age that has nothing to do with “priveledges notions of literature” and everything to do with what is good for their kids. There are plenty of people who care about their community and about the less fortunate who don’t share the mindset or worldview of Alexie.

But see in Alexie’s world the liberal view of literature and culture and everything else is the caring and moral view while the rich white man – or women in this case – is trying to stick it to the underclass every chance he gets.”Literature is for my class not the plebeians focused on the ugliness of their squalid lives.” Come on, really?

And this is what in the end gets me about this whole episode. The complete inability for so many folks to see things from a different perspective. To disagree maybe but have a sense of where the other side is coming from. I thought this was an aspect of liberalism? Where is the tolerance and understanding? Where is the appeal to common values?

I see little evidence of it. Almost everything I read is an attack on Gurdon as wrong, ignorant, uncaring and dangerous – and bad at her job too.

And the funny thing is that most of it is only convincing if you already agree with it. This is not surprising given the nature of humans and the tendency of the internet but it is a little disappointing I admit.

Alexie fans gush at his essay but it is not particularly powerful unless you already believe that kids have to have access to this literature to survive. All he does is offer himself and his readers as an example (and throws in the little political jab too).

As I have said before, the plural of anecdote is not data. Everyone and their brother can swear up and down these books help kids but it doesn’t make it true or universally true across time, place or individuals; nor does it attempt to balance those it helps with those it might hurt. It simply declares that #yasaves and that any attempt to disagree is to harm teens.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. You can think that there is a danger of YA books – or any other aspect of culture – becoming the domain of darkness, violence and perversity – in the name of therapy or art or simply entertainment – without hating the genre or wishing harm on kids.

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. Thank you for this perspective! I was surprised by how many adults on the WSJ web version of the article commented as you’ve described, apparently missing the point of Gurdon’s article. The one sane comment I read was actually (if it is to be believed) from a 16 year old girl. She agreed with Alexie that there’s bad stuff out there, but she recognized that this doesn’t mean she has to wallow in it in what she reads, as well, and wondered why all the commenters didn’t seem to believe that they had a responsibility as protectors.

    Your point is well made, and I hope someone listens. Thanks for the post!

  2. It’s just typical, narcissistic Alexie drivel. It’s the Sherman Alexie story part 50, same as part 1 and all the parts in between. You see, life hasn’t been perfectly fair to Sherman or something like that. YAWN. It’s been going on for twenty years now. He’s a dull, one-trick pony of a writer and don’t you dare call him anything less than a genius or you’re a bigot! Also, how does Alexie miss the conundrum he put himself in the middle of? Communities where this kind of YA depravity is rare are (surprise!) the communities that are putting in some effort to monitor how their children are raised and what they are exposed to, therefore putting the brakes on this uber-darkness trend in YA lit. Gurdon is only suggesting that it be tempered, as you said but Alexie jumps straight ahead into his victim stance that he is soooo proud of. Stay tuned for Sherman Alexie part 51. My guess is that it will have something to do with hokey, alcoholic characters on the Rez, a ton of opportunities for white people to be ashamed of themselves, basketball, cliches that Alexie will expose while simultaneously relying on them for material and what else? A whole lot of Sherman, Sherman, Sherman! The guy who had a few struggles in life unlike anyone else.

  3. You make some interesting points. What I would like to point out, however, is that Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is not relegated to the “domain of darkness, violence, and perversity.” Yes, these things touch the book (as they touch everyone, from any social class – that is life), but the book is about overcoming them to be a “healthy and well rounded child.” So, setting aside your issue with Alexie’s response, I would argue that if you want to advocate a balance in YA lit (I wouldn’t disagree with your thoughts here) to include positive stories, Alexie’s novel is a perfect fit. Not only is the book about a child who is trying to attain an education, it is chock full of humor. When I look back on reading that book, I remember a lightness because of how funny it was, not a darkness because of how bleak it was. At any rate, I’m not clear on if you were actually even arguing that Absolutely True Diary was a “dark” book or not, I just wanted to pipe up with another perspective.

    I also would like to point out that Alexie is much more than a YA writer. I recently read his collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World (aimed at adults), and I found this work to be almost as enjoyable as Diary:

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