|The Reader by Fragonard|
In June of this year, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article “Darkness Too Visible” was published in the Wall Street Journal. The following quote gives a taste of the tenor of the article:
“Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail [...] If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”
Parents are urged to be vigilant in protecting children from “book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent “and publishers who “try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.”
Naturally the article provoked uproar among supporters of contemporary YA fiction, provoking more than 15,000 responses.A few of the more common objections flooding the blogosphere and twittererverse (at the hashtag #YASaves) are briefly stated here:
1. The author is ill-informed, demonstrating a lack of understanding of early and contemporary YA fiction. Not all early YA fiction deals with “safe” topics in the same way that not all contemporary YA deals with “dark materials”.
2. The article is alarmist, urging parents to shield their adolescent offspring from a conspiracy of depraved publishers and booksellers who are just waiting to strike. Tropes of contagion appear frequently in the article.
3. The article smacks of censorship, though the author prefers the word “taste” to “banning”.
4. The article neglects to address how helpful books dealing with difficult issues can be for adolescents experiencing similar traumas. Rather than concede the need to have these experiences articulated in fictional worlds, Cox Gurdon warns that “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them”.
To be fair, Cox-Gurdon finds many supporters for her views too, particularly among concerned parents. Janice Harayda has published one such defence here.
I’m too much of a fan of YA literature to be overly sympathetic to Cox Gurdon’s perspective on the genre. I also feel that is is important for adolescents to form their own opinions on the books they read, without parental intrusion.
However, I think she has raised an interesting point when she suggests that “entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it”. Reader Response theorists have been arguing this point for years. On the one hand, it suggests a passive reader who merely accepts what is being read indiscriminately. On the other hand, if we discount this point entirely, we may also suggest that books cannot have an effect on readers, whether negative or positive.
The memory of a good book can stay with us for years, sometimes our entire lives. It influences our choices in subsequent reads. It can even change our lives. The same is no doubt true for a bad book.
The question is worth asking I think: to what extent are we shaped by the literature we read?