VS Naipaul and Meghan Cox Gurdon Should Get Together for Coffee (because tea would be too sentimental, and beer too pathological)

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.

11 Replies to “VS Naipaul and Meghan Cox Gurdon Should Get Together for Coffee (because tea would be too sentimental, and beer too pathological)”

  1. Kelly, your defense of literature (not just YA) is as eloquent and on-target as anything I’ve read. Send that fourth paragraph in to the WSJ.

    As for Naipual, two can play that game—we can dismiss his comments as the ramblings of an old, old writer, well past his prime and now SENTIMENTAL for the days in which his utterances mattered.

    But Gurdon is another strain of disease. Take her obviously close-minded and woefully inadequate education and upbringing, multiply it by WSJ (alias News Corp, alias Rupert Murdoch, alias Fox News), and superimpose the result on the doctrine of freedom of speech (for those with money, that is), and you get what appears to be a stand for old-fashioned values, but is in reality just another variant of groundless hate speech. Those people never go away, they just look for new ways to make their diatribes politically correct.

  2. Thanks, Joe! I think you’re dead-on when you say this is basically hate speech, dressed up as moral concern. What perplexes me so much is that this writer doesn’t suggest that parents be informed what their kids read and help them find work appropriate to their individual maturity (that would make a lot of sense!), but that she instead suggests that writers are creating work that is somehow inherently wrong, and that censorship is an underutilized tool. One wonders if she’d draw a line at holding a degenerate art show for books!

  3. Hi Kelly,

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here (only for Gurdon…I got absolutely nothing for Naipual). A lot of what I say retreads the defense Janice Harayda posted over at “One Minute Book Reviews,” (agree or not, worth reading just to get different perspectives) but I think they are worth mentioning in this forum as well.

    First off, I have a hard time swallowing the allegation that this article is “hate speech.” This isn’t Westboro Baptist Church we’re talking about…but I’m open to hearing thoughts on how/why you consider it so. And for the record, I don’t think Gurdon suffers from a “woefully inadequate education or upbringing.” What does that even add to the dialogue?

    Gurdon begins the article with a parent, ends it with family, and sprinkles it with enough references to parents and the “parenting trade” that I felt it was a parent-perspective, one that (subtle as it may be) did ask for more responsibility and parental involvement (she even mentions the parental failure in reference to images on the internet). Your bulldoze quote from her is directly related to family/parenting.

    The article did feel like a critique of some YA authors, sure, but more a critique on the publishers and their trend toward bleak subject matter done with more sensational and fetishistic descriptions than anything else. And in the same way adults flock to movies like “Saw” and “Hostel,” I am sure publishers out there are hoping kids flock to certain books with the same morbid zeal. Not the subject matter per se, but the delivery is the issue. Jon Vowell over at “Into the Calm” talks about it in terms of “dark” versus “depraved,” an interesting distinction.

    I think the big question Gurdon brought up in so many words was why are publishers and authors pandering to this trend toward ultra-violence, a trend they are aiming at minors? She wasn’t trying to “discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.” I think she mainly wanted to say we should be wary of making a fetish of sex/violence in the same way certain movies do, or TV shows do, or certain websites do, etc. Her argument seems to be asking more from our YA literature, not less, not to censor, but to elevate. There is violence, and then there’s snuff. Just because snuff involves “real” issues like rape, incest, hate crimes, doesn’t make it good literature for minors.

    In other words, I think she’s asking that question many of those in the MFA hear, “Is this line earned?” Or specifically, is this line earned for a YA audience? And honestly, some of those lines would need an author like Fitzgerald or Toole to manage. There are plenty of great YA novels that are gritty and real without crossing a line into the grotesque (of course, that line is forever going to shift back and forth according to the zeitgeist of our time). Gurdon isn’t discounting those, just the ones that are the torture-porn of the YA world. And by questioning where that line is in our current climate I feel she is unfairly called stupid, ignorant, etc.

    Gurdon doesn’t live in a fantasy world. She knows all the awful things that happen. Her question is should we expose minors to it in a sensational way. Could it have a negative impact?

    I’d love to hear a response as I’m a fan of your blog, and the work all of you guys do over at LA Review. I hope you know I write this with plenty of admiration and respect for your own words, thoughts, and opinions (even if I don’t always share them).

    All the best,

  4. Hi, Anonymous! Thanks for joining the conversation. (And you don’t have to be anonymous, either! I welcome such well-considered disagreement as yours–I won’t throw tiny rocks at you…)

    Fair enough that she begins and ends with the parent/family relationship, but I would say that her jabs at librarians, editors, and writers throughout read as an attempt to make a parent’s concern an industry’s concern. (I doubt anyone would gain as much traction trying to get singers, songwriters, or music conglomerates to get someone like Katy Perry to tone down the booty-shaking hustle she sells to tween girls…it’s the parent’s job to filter, no the industry’s. Why should books be the one area of our culture open to such attacks?)

    I have to question your equating films like Saw and Hostel to the YA Cox Gurdon criticizes. I’ve seen the former of those movies, and that was plenty for me. And I’m an avowed fan of smart horror movies! Saw is pretty much a mindless gore fest with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. You’d be better off dunking your head into a bucket of viscera and calling it a day. But books like Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for example, are something totally different. Yes, they show violence–real violence that, in many cases, Alexie himself lived through. And that the reader may also have lived through. His book shows a young man who survives that violence and goes on to live his life in spite of abuse. What’s compelling to the reader isn’t the the dark material–it’s the story.

    And what, I wonder, makes dark YA today unacceptable, and dark YA from other time periods completely okay? Classic, even? Let’s take a book I’m having my 7th grade class read right now: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. In this novel, a young man in a privileged, white, East-Coast boarding school essentially kills his best friend (though a variety of mishaps that he himself has caused because of his abiding envy and desire to become, and inhabit the body of, his best friend). There’s also The Catcher in the Rye, in which another privileged, white young man can’t handle the pressures of his life, so he runs away, hires prostitutes, clobbers his pedophiliac teacher, and eventually loses his mind. Or there’s Lord of the Flies. Again, white boys, this time going cro-magnon on one another until they’ve murdered several of their number, tortured others, and destroyed an entire island in a conflagration. If it’s true that there is some material that’s too dark for a YA audience, I think we might find it in some of the above titles!

    If Cox Gurdon is correct, and reading this kind of material damages the reader, all of us who came across the above books in high school should be cautionary tales of YA novels wreaking havoc on impressionable minds.

    Then let’s take the YA that’s considered too dark to handle. There’s Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars, in which a young woman harms herself to handle and eventually rise above the abuse she’s suffered. Or Alexie’s novel, in which a young Indian boy struggles to straddle two worlds. Or Ellen Hopkins’s Crank, in which a young girl gets addicted to drugs, is raped, and becomes pregnant. This young girl needs to get clean in order to have a healthy baby and a healthy life, and she catalogues her struggle for the reader. In each of these cases, I see redeeming value–I see characters surviving and going on to productive lives (what kind of hope is there for the boys at the end of Lord of the Flies? Far less, I’d say).

    I wouldn’t say the difference between the former group of books and the latter is the quality of writing (we do know that Mr. Alexie is the youngest living writer to have been anthologized in the Norton! And Mr. Golding could use a good editorial eye for clean-up…) To my mind, in each of these contemporary titles, there’s one constant: the protagonist is someone other. Someone not a rich, white boy. Someone whose problems many parents, I fear, may associate with “those people.” That’s not to say every “classic” of YA involves a rich, white boy, but I’d venture that many–maybe even most–do. And dismissing the stories of other populations as too dark–when we assign Lord of the Flies in high school classes, no less!–is an act of silencing them.

    What do you think, Anonymous? I’d be curious to hear what you think about the “classics” versus the contemporary. Am I off-base in smelling a potentially racist or sexist rat here in books that are routinely called out as too dark? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  5. Hi Kelly,

    Love the response. Intelligent and well-thought out, as I expected. Will think on it and respond after giving it careful consideration.

    All the best,
    Anon (will explain the anon status later)

  6. Hi Kelly! Don’t mind my anonymous status–for one, my name/bio adds little to the conversation. Second, I find it easier to argue honestly from a mask of anonymity rather than subject myself to unfounded claims. When egos collide, conversations distort, exaggerate, and get off track.

    Gurdon does make a parental concern an industry one; it’s a parent-perspective she’s advocating and speaking from. It’s a parent’s job first and foremost to filter incoming stimulus whatever the form. However, if a publisher is marketing specifically to YAs, I think the publisher should take some responsibility in how, what, and why they’re marketing to youth, to consider all sides. It takes a village to raise (and ruin) a child.

    You say there probably wouldn’t be much traction in the music industry. To use Gurdon’s logic, one mistake doesn’t justify another. Arguments against other industries should get as much. A constant conversation about the value of art would hardly be a bad thing. We shouldn’t be threatened by those some deem “close-minded” (oh how quickly we resort to saying “close-minded” when we really mean “you don’t think like I do”). We should welcome divergent thoughts and be willing to engage them (a big compliment to you). Maybe we won’t always convince the other person/group, but I’ve found being questioned only strengthens my own logic/ideas (and, at times, I’ve been forced to eat humble pie, and I’m better for it).

    Dark subject matter and themes are absolutely necessary in YA fiction. I’m positive Gurdon understands the importance of adult content in a young adult world. She questions the trend towards the macabre, the imbalance between dark/graphic versus light/subtle. She doesn’t state there’s a problem with books that deal with tough topics, but the fact they’ve become commonplace, the methods in which they speak about it. YA fiction can be literature of witness, but can also be literature of rubber-necking.

    I think what separates old standards versus contemporary work is the amount and level of envelope pushing, as Gurdon states in so many words. Again, the debate is not about whether something is “too dark” (subject/theme) for YA fiction, but whether it’s gratuitous (which goes into the realm of diction, language use). To speak in movie terms, I don’t think it’s always necessary to write R-rated scripts when speaking about R-rated topics.

    As for the YA classics you mention, most likely they weren’t written with YAs in mind (but I’m not Golding or Salinger, maybe they did). I do think a healthy majority of teens can read them and not get warped. The whole thing reminds me of prolife protesters waving picket signs of aborted fetuses. Is that a needed part of the prolife/choice debate? I lean towards no. I think true communication and change is stifled by that kind of shock and awe treatment of an issue.

    Not too long ago divorce was taboo, being adopted was as well, (or being disabled, etc.) and look how far we’ve come in normalizing these things, due in part to books geared towards children. That’s truly fantastic. Do I think it would benefit some children to read about dark/taboo things in life (suicide, self-mutilation, abuse, etc)? Absolutely. There are issues that need to be addressed. Do I think it would benefit some children to read graphic, detailed descriptions of self-mutilation or sexual abuse? For the life of me I can’t imagine how anyone could benefit from that. The cutter knows what a sliced up arm/leg/stomach looks like. Does it help him/her to read gory descriptions of it? It sounds like the literary form of immersion therapy. Those graphic details seem in part used to titillate a voyeuristic reader, an outsider looking in. Most readers would probably benefit most from an accurate and detailed inner life of a character (the story, as you say). To paraphrase you a little, when does it become dipping our head in literary viscera? Not Gurdon’s job to determine that line for society, nor is it the YA publisher’s job to draw the line either. It has to be a democratic process.

    You state “what’s compelling to the reader isn’t the dark material-it’s the story.” If dark material isn’t what compels the reader then on a strictly editorial level it sounds superfluous to include. If unearned, best case scenario it adds nothing to the book except an “ew” factor (a lit theory term coined by Eliot I believe). Worst case scenario it weakens the story, the impact, and the importance of the redeeming message (and Gurdon goes so far as to say it may even do certain readers harm). Would a book about a self-injurious young woman be made weaker by lessening a few raw details? If so, let’s flip the logic of that equation. As a fun experiment, let’s add graphic descriptions of wounds (not of violence, but of actual wounds, a vital clarification I think Gurdon should have tackled) into books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders” where it would be appropriate. Get into the muck of the knife wound, a burn, a gunshot. Are the books strengthened, more powerful in their emotional/social impact?
    If you think Gurdon implies even earned violence can be too much, I’d say her thinking is more like stating teens should watch a made-for-TV movie about Matthew Shepard rather than watch the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.” Both important in exposing a hatred/evil that runs in the heart of certain people, but one more suitable for a younger audience until they reach a certain level of maturity and understanding (determining that level is primarily a parent’s job).

    You ask why books should be the one area of culture open to attacks. Of course, it isn’t only books. You may remember Ofili’s collage, Virgin Mary with elephant dung (I forget the exact title). Then-mayor Guiliani threatened to cut funding to the Brooklyn Art Museum if they exhibited the piece, siting it as “sick.” Or the movie “Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the novel of the same name (beautiful novel, btw). Upon opening, there were several protestors/picketers outside movie houses. Let’s not forget musical acts like Marilyn Manson (oh you Anti-Christ Superstar you), any number of rap artists past and present (NWA to Eminem, Foxy Brown to Nicky Minaj), etc., that were/are under attack by varying groups for one reason or another (the music is too violent/misogynist/sex-crazed, that art is too sacrilegious, etc). Art should get people excited, angry, jubilant. It’s important, and important things need to be under scrutiny. It depresses me that some people pay more serious attention to the NFL draft picks than what’s being marketed to our kids, what’s being read in general. What artists create matters, it has consequences. Children should see adults engage in healthy, respectful debate on the nature of art. To take art seriously, each other seriously. I think it’s a terrible example when literary role-models can’t even discuss issues without getting heated in a way that does nothing but justify name-calling and swift, harsh judgments. A passionate response is great, but it needs to be passion coupled with compassion, intelligence and reason.

    So again, why open up literature (and art) to attacks? It’s part of discourse, due diligence, it keeps artists accountable for their work, to make us stand up for what we do and why. It keeps us from being complacent. Also, to continue Joe’s metaphor, sometimes it’s necessary for art to get attacked in order for it to reveal a sickness (in thought, in society). The most frightening diseases are the ones that display either no symptoms or misleading ones (and if we attack back, the resounding silence doesn’t mean we cured the disease). Art, I will always believe, is illuminating and healing.

    Gurdon finds some YA distasteful. A little Victorian of her perhaps, and it shows subjectivity, but that doesn’t make her a close-minded villain. The point remains we should take opinions/thoughts into serious and careful consideration. And I say “careful” with all its layers intact. After all, there are people behind those opinions and aren’t the ad hominem attacks against Gurdon cyber-bullying? Immature and disheartening to say the least. (There are flaws in her arguments and reasoning, to be sure, but it’s a review, it’s not the entirety of her thoughts and her opinions, or who she is. Wouldn’t you hate to be judged by just one of your blog entries?)

    Gurdon states “self-destructive behavior is observably infectious and have periods of vogue.” In a time where you can read about group suicides, group pregnancy pacts, and bulimia clubs in schools, I’d say it’s a valid point. Behavior, whether masochistic or sadistic, can definitely be infectious. And sure, many of us have read those books you site and come out alive and healthy. The people that haven’t aren’t in this conversation so it’s a rather hard claim to dispute. Can you say with 100% certainty it doesn’t harm anyone to read dark material? I can’t, nor can I say with 100% certainty it’s beneficial (though my gut says it is). I think the truth is somewhere in the gray zone. Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, is known to have been a fan of “Catcher in the Rye,” (of course, anything could have probably set him off). Any number of hate groups, people young and old, use religious texts to justify their hatred (though did the text create the hate or was the hate already there – the chicken or the egg right?) I think words are very powerful and yes, can sway opinion, thoughts, etc. Any good speech writer will tell you that. As a writer and editor (as you and Joe both are…and perhaps you’ll agree here), I think words are some of the most powerful medium of all, and need to be handled as carefully as nitroglycerin. Not saying let’s ban nitroglycerin, not advocating for warning stickers, but I think it’s safe to say let’s watch what we’re making (medicine versus bombs, metaphorically speaking) and who we’re giving it to. Gurdon would agree; let’s use caution.

    As for Mr. Alexie’s work, Gurdon states, “It is no comment on Mr. Alexie’s work to say that one depravity does not justify another.” No comment on his work. It sounds like the problem is with his logic, not his book. She simply calls it prize-winning (not clunky, not grotesque like others). In a book full of negative critiques, I’d say that’s pretty much a win for Mr. Alexie.

    Now let’s talk rich, white boys and dead white males. Gurdon questions/dismisses a certain style, in this case graphic story-telling (I still believe Gurdon’s arguing against the details, not the big picture) that happens to feature “the other” in the form of its protagonists and perhaps even authors (I don’t know the bio of each author sited). You see the one constant as the protagonist is “someone other.” Gurdon would probably say the constant in these contemporaries is the descriptive gore factor. Marianne Moore wrote, “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint.” Gurdon would probably say the examples she gave show little restraint while the stories from the past show more restraint. Is it a coincidence the protagonists aren’t rich, white boys, or that the authors aren’t old, dead males (as far as I know)? Do you think she’d read the books favorably if they were? I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say no. The furthest I’m willing to say against her is that she may be out of touch with some of today’s youth.

    Do you smell a potentially sexist/racist rat in our midst? Sure, you probably do. Some people have a heightened sense of smell (a good thing). But it might just be a trace of one, not the beast itself. If an adult doesn’t like to read YA fiction, are they ageist? If one doesn’t like Eric Jerome Dickey’s novels, are they a racist? If you can tell me where the line between aesthetics and sexism/racism is drawn, I can more accurately tell you if there really is a rat. If you can tell me if Gurdon’s previous and numerous reviews show prominent favor to rich, white protagonists and dead (or living) white males, then I’d say you have a strong case.

    (Hypothetical: if books that are deemed “too dark” are often times authored/feature people that don’t fall under the category of “rich, white boys,” is the industry creating a negative stereotype, a two-dimensional literary portrait where not being rich, white, heterosexual, and male equates into a miserable childhood?)

    If you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal Kelly. I truly appreciate your time. You continue to earn my respect and admiration.

    All the best,

  7. Fair enough, Anonymous! Feel free to remain anon–I just wanted to make sure you–and any readers, really– felt safe to present yourself however you wish here. Thanks for your continued thoughts; you’ve given me much to think about today.

    I’m in absolute agreement with you that a constant conversation about art is a good thing. The mere fact that we and many others are arguing about books makes me giddy! We should be so lucky as to have books be at the forefront of our cultural conversation.

    The more I think about it, the more I think we’re also in agreement about gratuitous, gory detail. Most of the YA novels I’ve read are, in fact, very tasteful in how they handle mature themes. Sex is all about what happens from the neck up, and violence happens in a fade-to-black scene cut. I haven’t seen a single book that gives crude, ragged detail of a knife wound, nor have I seen graphic, bone-crunching violence. A book features gratuitous jet streams of arterial blood…well, I’d have to agree that it’s in poor taste. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to ban a book because it’s in poor taste. I’d simply not read it (as I apparently have done so far!) and I wouldn’t give it to the young people around me.

    I also think I didn’t consider my previous statement properly–books should be open to attack. Attacks from readers, certainly. From other writers? Maybe. Attack, yes. But censorship, no.

    Your mention of Marilyn Manson stirs some interesting memories for me. I think we saw some convenient, reactionary thinking back in the spring of 1999, in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. I was in high school then (yes, I am dating myself here!), and I remember the barrage of charges teachers, pastors, and parents against Marilyn Manson for supposedly inciting violence. We were encouraged to destroy our Manson CDs (I didn’t have any) and rally our friends to do the same. We were told to stay out of Hot Topic stores at the mall. My church organized a protest in front of a concert venue where Manson was slated to perform. Manson was an easy target–he was on the radio. He was a household name. Parents suddenly had a context for something they thought was dark and disturbing. (But Manson was/is pretty darned tame. I mean, have we heard Swedish Death Metal, folks? Singing Annie Lennox covers in a grumbly tone of voice hardly a massacre mastermind makes.)

    But in the years that followed Columbine, we learned that Eric Harris displayed behavioral patterns consistent with a psychopath. A psychopath with easy access to guns. And Dylan Klebold was manic-depressive. With equally free access to guns.

    It was easy and convenient for the media to say that music, sung by a spooky-looking, androgynous guy in too much eyeliner, was the instigator. Remove the music, and remove the problem. Your kids are fine–normal!–and art is the problem. But the real problem, as we know now, was psychological and social. Could getting sick kids into treatment and limiting easy access to weapons have saved lives that day in 1999? Probably. But it’s so much easier to blame art than to change how we relate to young people and how we govern our societies.

    During the time when everyone was worrying about Marilyn Manson, one of my friends was being molested by her mom’s boyfriend. Another was starting an underaged drinking habit. Another was slowly starving herself to death. But we didn’t talk about that. We didn’t have narratives through which we could process those issues. We didn’t have access to books or stories that helped us cope with that. And we were all too worries about how Marilyn Mason was trying to corrupt us.

    So yes, I worry when we look at problems among young people and assume they come from the music they’re listening to or the books they’re reading. Cutter? Must’ve read about it in a book. Taking drugs? That verse novel must be to blame. It’s easy to point the finger to art, especially if it seems spooky, rather than to take a hard look at the social mores that exist out in the suburbs, or in our own families.

    When people like Gurdon begin to wave around the threat of censorship and attempt to silence writers and their stories supposedly to save the children, I recoil. We’re not saving kids from violence by acting as thought it doesn’t exist. And we’re not saving kids from manic depression by hiding the fact that it is real. If we’re not giving access to legitimate discussions of social problems, but are instead doing the equivalent of smashing their records and burning their books, we’re just deafening ourselves to a social problem, not preventing it.

  8. What a fascinating conversation, Kelly and Anon. I do admit my initial comment was made (as many of mine are) with an eye towards being more clever than right, and Anon’s points regarding my leaps of judgment about Ms. Gurdon are well taken.

    Having re-read her article, and considered the comments here, I feel the debate is best summed up as who must bear responsibility for the education of our children and young adults? In almost every case I see the abrogation of that responsibility. Parents believe it is the schools’. Publishers believe it is the parents’. Few seem to believe that the education of our children, turning them into responsible, productive members of adult society, is a task to be shared even by those who do not have children (just look at the demographic results of school bond elections). And in each instance I can’t help seeing the tinge of self-interest—the writer who makes the scene a little more gory because he knows it will help sell the book; the publisher who looks only at the bottom line when deciding whether to edit; the parent who is happy his child is reading something and it doesn’t matter what it is because it’s keeping her out of trouble and means he can relax with a sitcom rather than engage his offspring.

    Kids are impressionable, yes, but they don’t need censorship. They do need literature, in all its forms, even, occasionally, the objectionable. (How can we know what’s good if we don’t know what’s bad?) Writing about issues of abuse, violence, dependency, sexual orientation, etc. is important and should not be censored, but those writings cannot stand alone—they need to be interpreted by responsible adults who are able to place such material within the perspective of intelligent adult society. Unfortunately finding such adults seems to be getting more and more difficult.

  9. Hi Kelly,

    To your credit, you’ve done your part to create a safe environment. And Joe, in your defense, you know Kelly personally and it’s her blog; you’re going to be more casual and clever with your comments than in a random public forum I’d imagine. I’m more an eavesdropper than invited guest (but I still feel welcome). I do understand much of your outrage and passion from the first comment–it’s difficult not to get angry if you feel something important is being attacked. I’ll take clever/passionate over indifference any day. All that said, I greatly appreciate your added comment; it’s level-headed, smart, and you make several good points.

    I’m giddy as well for this much discussion on books and youth. Thanks for the forum Kelly (and if you feel the need to know who I am, I’d be happy to email you in private – same goes to you Joe).

    You’re right; we aren’t saving anyone from acting like bad things don’t happen. We do indeed need to give access to “legitimate discussions of social problems” and the narratives to process them. Eloquently put; I agree completely. I think Gurdon would agree, too, since I don’t think she’s pushing for censorship/banning so much as considering limitations.

    The word censorship has become so charged in the publishing world, invoking it basically gets a person an automatic win (it’s not true, but it’s easy to believe so if not careful). I think the more accurate (and less loaded) term for what she advocates for is restricted/limited access. If you think she’s flat out calling for banning/censorship, please let me know where I’m missing the point (like stated earlier, some people have heightened senses and we need people like that to keep a nose on things). Far as I can tell, your logic of not giving young people around you something in “poor taste” is nearly the same as Gurdon’s logic (just on a different scale–is scale what separates “judgment” from “censorship”?) And, naturally, you both have different definitions of “poor taste.” We won’t even try to measure out what “poor taste” is (imagine that can of worms).

    Maybe it’s a difference of definition? To clarify, when I hear censor I think in terms of people (young, old, male, female) who are criminally punished for owning certain texts, or writing them (Rushdie comes to mind). I don’t think censorship equals inaccessible/unavailable at the library (or possibly moved to the fiction shelves as opposed to “YA fiction” – that tricky issue of labels). What does censorship mean to you (and Joe)?

    I don’t think it’s one small step from “freedom of expression” to “censorship/banning.” I see the issue in gray-tones, not black and white. Again, to bring up film, “Boys Don’t Cry” is restricted to those under 17, but it’s not censorship/banning. The film industry set a standard (we think this is good for 17+) and parents can decide what to do from there (sure, we’ll take our kid to see it b/c it’s important or we won’t b/c it’s too graphic). The movie is available at the library, but I’m guessing a thirteen year old couldn’t borrow it without parental consent. Gurdon’s issue is that the literary equivalent can be borrowed from the library by a teen, is actually marketed to them, and the judgment of some parents is completely ignored (in the name of free expression and anti-censorship). If comparing movies to books is unfair due to actual images as opposed to description, even music at least has warning labels, the equivalent of “Hey parents, be mindful.” Since YA fiction caters to a specific age group, perhaps there should be something to help guide those helpless parents (speaking of, the mother in the article could have found plenty, I mean PLENTY, of fine YA fiction. I recently enjoyed “Mockingbird,” “When You Reach Me,” and loved “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks” if I recall the title correctly. And for the love of customer service, just ask a clerk! Well, the whole thing was just an anecdotal entry into the article anyway, but still…)

    All your points about the reaction against Marilyn Manson (I have several CDs, you can borrow them, ha ha) are right on. Kind of a mob mentality reaction against him because it was convenient. He IS pretty tame compared to Swedish Death Metal (awesome reference) bands and groups like Cannibal Corpse. Heck, parents had issues with Elvis Presley and his swivel. Marilyn Manson was an easy target and people needed something they could throw sticks at to help explain why Columbine happened (the true psychopaths aren’t making music and touring, I’m pretty sure). You mention how it’s easier to point at art than look at social norms/mores. Very true. But art is often a reflection of the social norms/mores of a culture/time. Art can question the norms, agree with them, or subvert them, but all are in communication with society. It puts what’s internal to an external point and so in a way, we’re pointing at societal mores by critiquing art. Art can identify trends (and to a point, also create them), and Gurdon used YA fiction to critique one.

    To side with you a little, however, Gurdon does tend to ask the right questions in the wrong order, if that makes sense. She emphasizes the wrong things, implying at times that yes, talking about abuse is a no-no (I don’t think she feels that way, but it can sure be read like that). She also doesn’t give enough credence to the positive aspects of YA fiction (if words can potentially hurt, they obviously have the potential to heal/soothe and some books about tough things are very tastefully done as you said). But it’s a review and sometimes a review has to compress a loaded and large idea into a small space…or even take a stronger stance than the author may feel in order to make a decent read (as perhaps Joe will be able to attest?) Things get left out, omitted, generalizations are made. If she didn’t predict some of this backlash happening, I’d be a little surprised.

    Speaking of compressing a loaded and large idea into a small space, I think Joe did a perfect job doing so for this debate (nearly flash-fiction in its execution). Kelly, if your students read this, you’ve just taught them to stand up for their beliefs while respecting a diversity of thought. What a wonderful lesson. And Joe, I’m sincerely impressed by your response. Rather than get defensive, you took what I said with much grace, reread the article with a new lens, and were able to filter the whole debate more concisely than I could have done.

    I have a feeling this conversation is winding down, but I truly want to thank you both for giving me so much time, consideration, and stimulating discussion points. If there was ever a knee-jerk reaction to the article, I think we’ve all moved well beyond that into conscious motion.

    In other words, I thank you both for the progress.

    All the best,

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