It has been a great few weeks for uniformed statements about the book world. On June 1, The London Evening Standard reported that VS Naipaul declared all women writers unequal to him. He called women writers sentimental, claiming they have a narrow view of the world–a natural result, he says, of the fact that women are not the complete masters of their homes. This, of course, after having called post-colonial nations half-made societies. In many respects, I felt Naipual’s statements were beneath comment; they’re self-serving, self-aggrandizing baloney. How could anyone take such sweeping statements about all literature by women seriously?
But this week, I read another story that’s been sending ripples throughout the literary world: Meghan Cox Gurdon’s piece on Young Adult fiction, printed in the Wall Street Journal. With the garment-rending rhetoric I’d associate more with a temperance campaigner than with a book reviewer, Gurdon slams contemporary young adult fiction, scolds librarians for stocking shelves with books that deal with subjects like sexual abuse and self-harm, holds up to pillory an author who “makes free with language that can’t be reprinted a newspaper,” and, in some of the most overwrought language I think I’ve ever seen in a serious publication like The Wall Street Journal, claims that publishers attempt to “bulldoze coarseness or misery into children’s lives.”
Put off as I was by Naipual’s ridiculous grandstanding, his off-the-cuff misogyny seems relatively tame in comparison Gurdon’s declaration of war on young adult fiction, in which she suggests that we look at the practice of banning books from libraries as not censorship at all, but as “judgement” or “taste,” essentially saying that stories she does not consider normative are not simply provocative or even not to her liking, but tasteless, trashy, low-class. Gurdon and Naipual share a the same problem: dismissiveness of stories and of people that don’t fit their views of the world.
Just as Naipual can disregard all fiction written by those of us who hail from the sentimental sex, Gurdon dismisses the narratives and stories of those on the edges of society, those who’ve been victims of those in power, or those whose lives contradict her morality. She brushes aside the importance of stories of those unlike her by saying that “it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” as though it would be the worst possible outcome of literature would be for readers to understand the reality of others’ lives, and to gain empathy for those whose stories are less than sunny. Perhaps Gurdon lives in a world in which no one is disabled, and no one gets sick or dies. Boys don’t date rape girls. In fact, no one has sex and no one gets pregnant. Teenagers don’t try drugs, so they don’t experience addiction or overdoses. No one questions his sexuality, and no one is bullied. Parents never neglect or abuse their children, and no one is molested. Teenagers aren’t sent off to war. No one harms herself, and no one commits suicide. And no one ever dreams of using words that could result in a fine from the FCC. But that is not the world in which the rest of us live. In our world, social problems exist. We live through pain, and we survive. We survive by telling our stories, not by silencing ourselves because it would disrupt the peace and quiet of critics like Gurdon who seem to prefer a literature of escape to a literature of truth.
I considered writing here about the fact that I was a young adult who was saved by books–a girl whose childhood was troubled in many ways, and who, without the world I found in books, would have thought herself alone, strange, unacceptable. I considered talking about the fact that I have written a young adult novel that could be considered dark and gritty (and that Ms. Gurdon would likely loathe), and about the fact that I wrote it not to be sensational, but to tell the kind of story that I needed as a young reader.
But I realized that people like Naipaul would consider that sentimental. I am a woman, after all. And people like Gurdon wouldn’t think my story was important. We wouldn’t want to normalize anyone’s troubles, after all.
Perhaps the best statement I can make against the dismissive attitude of the Naipuals and Gurdons of the literary world is to go to the bookstore and buy myself an armload of books by women, and contemporary young adult books. The power of my dollar is unlikely to be seen as too sentimental.