A Bit about that YA Mishigas

First, I plan on spending very little time on that unfortunate WSJ article about the state of YA.  Mostly because it seems to have really caused things to, errr, hit the fan and every other blog post I’m seeing these days is talking about it (this one was what tipped me off to the original article– love her book “Speak”).  As a result of this I thought I would offer up what is merely my two cents about a far more interesting issue.  Subtlety.  There’s no doubt a lot of previously taboo topics that are no longer taboo being discussed across the board in literature (although, if you want to talk about taboo subjects being dealt with DECADES AGO I would highly recommend Heinlein) these days, but the overwhelming issue seems to be subtlety.  This is true of just about all genres.  There are some works/authors who strive to tell and not show, points illustrated through story and metaphor instead of wielding the sledgehammer of prose to get a point across.  Subtlety and art in literature are very rare things indeed and sensationalism is what is encouraged and marketed the heck out of.

I think it is unfair to mix up issues of unnecessarily graphic exposition with dark topics.  Genres have emerged as this new bastion of marketing and so we can not use something so new as a measure of what used to be.  Watership Down, The Hobbit, Lord of the Flies are all books that are typically looked upon as age appropriate to the YA market – but now they’re considered “classics”.  All of these dealt with important themes and, hell, certainly dealt with their fair share of controversial material (well, at least Flies did).  Were they graphic?  Not in the same way much of literature is now.  Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes even dealt with some serious subject matter with detail that haunted and yet it was not sensationalistic in the least.  Graceling, on the other hand, was one that had an out of place and over the top deflowering scene (sorry, I had to – that phrase always makes me snicker).  Unnecessary.  While I acknowledge my pretentious notions of literature not being things everyone cares for, the truth is I like what Orwell had to say on the subject matter:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

What are your thoughts on the issue of subtlety?  Are the fantastically dark issues addressed in YA too dark?  Is it the sensationalistic and graphic detail that makes them appear this way?  Any older works that fit into the category that blow these notions out of the water?


5 responses to “A Bit about that YA Mishigas

  • Hart

    Thank you for that link to Laurie’s blog–I adored her response.

    I will go solidly on record as saying NO. Not to dark. Many teens WANT dark books, and if they aren’t found among the YA books, they will go to the adult books. That is how I found my way to horror in middle school. Stephen King, Peter Straub. Because there were no books meeting my interest. YA books with dark themes can meet the interest, while at the same time deal with YOUTH level repercussions…

    On the issue of subtlety… I really think it depends. Teen brains aren’t fully developed and I think books that are subtle can sometimes be misunderstood–not that they won’t be LIKED, but the themes won’t have the intended resonance. I look at my Junior year English teacher and two books with difficult (somewhat) subtly done themes: Huckleberry Finn and Streetcar Named Desire. FABULOUS books, both… but without her blatantly TELLING ME “Huck’s dad is hallucinating because he is going through whiskey withdrawal” I never would have had the thump of addiction danger, much of the racism would have been seen through my naive eyes… I wouldn’t have known in Streetcar that Stanley actually RAPES Blanche. My brain just wasn’t ready to NOTICE subtle.

    I read Lord of the Flies with both kids before middle school (because I am a rotten mom who likes to point out things like how far mob behavior can take kids as a warning not to ever back a bully, and to stick up for anyone being picked on) but I had to draw out parts of it–they didn’t GET it just from what was written.

    Now I’m not a fan of anything that isn’t critical to the story, and I really DO like a subtle tale, but on the front of exploring the issues in these books with kids, I think we risk missing the boat if we are too subtle.

  • Carol Kilgore

    When you look at the success of all the dark YA, it’s hard to deny there’s a market. Would the same kids flock in droves to read lighter fare? I doubt it. Teens being teens are rebels at heart. It’s dark. Mom and Dad definitely would prefer, for the most part, they read something deep and subtle. So dark and unsubtle is perfect. The best part is they’re reading!

  • laurelrainsnow

    I tend to stay away from YA books…not because they’re too dark, but because they don’t interest me.

    Intriguing points, though, Kimberly.

  • Arlee Bird

    I don’t really know too much about the YA genre. I prefer subtlety no matter what the genre as I think too much detail about the tawdry can detract from what a story is trying to say. I know when I was a kid I was search out explicit sex scenes in books and focus on those and totally miss the point of the story being told. Hopefully this focus is not what is being marketed to young people.

    The world we live in has much darkness and sadness in it and it should be portrayed realistically, but not sensationally. The ambiguity of moral values doesn’t help much either. I would like to see a continued focus on traditional classics and from the standpoint of any reading, more discussion about what it all means and the repercussions of literary actions when viewed from a current real world perspective.

    Tossing It Out

  • Bethany

    The problem for me is that something selling is taken to mean, “see we’re right”. I think you made quite solid arguments here and I am not ashamed to say I was quite turned off by the Twitter frenzy that seemed to say, “We are above reproach, how dare you question us and anyone who doesn’t like this is in denial about kids”. As a writer and mom and generally a person who doesn’t think kids should be denied kidship, there’s quite a difference between what kids may experience individually and graphically introducing ALL of them to dark stuff with the rationale “if I don’t, they’ll get it somewhere else”. As you say, it’s not so much the reality of what’s taking place but how graphically it is introduced and that is, in my summation, an effort on the part of some writers to sell – NOT to educate or “save”.

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