So, the YA world has weathered its latest controversy: an article in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that young adult literature is too violent, too bleak and too dark overall. This isn’t a particularly new claim, nor is it aimed solely at YA. Video games, Japanese animation and comic books are all routinely accused of the same crime, even when (whoops) the examples under discussion aren’t actually intended for children. I think this particular article has riled people up so much because of the clear lack of research that went into it (which seems to have amounted to ‘asking a parent at B&N what she thought and running with that’) and because of the sheer ridiculousness of its claims. After laughably suggesting that children’s fiction is darker now than it’s ever been, which would come as a surprise to Rohald Dahl if he was still with us, the writer of the piece goes on to say this:
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.
I know, right? Excuse me while I retire to my fainting couch.
Now, I’m not going to waste time debunking the idea that reading ‘dark’ books will somehow scar a child. It’s such an obviously stupid idea that it doesn’t really deserve the effort. What I would like to debunk, however, is the most common response in the YA community to the whole controversy. That response has boiled down to ‘Yes, YA these days is dark, but so is life!‘…which would be all well and good, except that YA these days isn’t dark. In fact, I’d say it’s becoming less and less dark by the month, much to its detriment.
I’m going to focus on genre YA here, because it’s what I know best, but I will point out that contemporary YA can be pretty dark. That doesn’t mean the WSJ article is right, however, it just means that it severely underestimates what kids are sophisticated enough to handle and what they experience in their everyday lives. The fact that a book talks about self-harm or suicide does not make it ‘depraved’, and I’m amazed that an apparently-respected reviewer of children’s books could be inane enough to think otherwise.
With that out of the way…
Let’s repeat Meghan Cox Gurdon’s thought experiment. Imagine you’re walking into the YA section of a Barnes & Nobles (or a Waterstone’s, if you live in the UK, or whatever your local equivalent to those might be). What’s the predominant color on the shelves? I’m guessing black. What’s the most predominant image? Without a doubt, it’s going to be long-haired girls in floaty dresses. You can take all those books, put them in a pile, and
burn them safely conclude that there won’t be anything very dark in any of them. I can say this after struggling through many, many examples of paranormal stories in which the creatures du jour – vampires, werewolves, ‘fae’ – are about as threatening as a sleepy housecat. Violence will be at an absolute minimum, physical injury will be described in the blandest terms possible, and the fated true lovers will invariably end up fatedly true loving each other for the rest of their lives. With frightening regularity, the main characters are wealthy, upper-middle-class children with, at best, some unrealistically-mild psychological trauma following the convenient death of one or both of their parents. The most disturbing thing about these books tends to be the warped obsession that those fated lovebirds show for each other – and that, judging by author comments, is intended to be romantic rather than unsettling. Let The Right One In, they are not.
So paranormal romance books aren’t, in the vast majority of cases, even approaching being ‘dark’ – not unless you’re the kind of person who thinks Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a bit too edgy for its own good. But what about dystopian fiction? That must be dark, right?
Here’s Beth Revis, talking about Across the Universe:
Well, while my novel has nothing to do with vampires, I can assume, judging from a few specific scenes, that it is in the “dark, dark stuff” category. Pushing aside those specific scenes (because I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone), the genre itself would imply dark stuff: it’s dystopian, a science fiction that takes place in a world that isn’t ideal.
But—and I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating—the point of my novel specifically and dystopian novels in general—is not about the dark, dark stuff. They are all, at their heart,hopeful. Create a dark setting, but populate it with characters that are willing—are fighting—to rise above it.
You could read my book and focus on Eldest, and the mindlessness of the people on the ship, and the drugs and the murder and the dark.
Or you could read her book and focus on the fact that it manages to feel entirely tame despite featuring a suicide, several murders, attempted rape and what should be a nightmarish method of keeping a large population under control. The fact that a book contains scenes where people are killed does not in itself make it ‘dark’, just as depicting an oppressive future society does not in itself make your book as visceral a social critique as 1984.
The WSJ article singles out The Hunger Games as an example of ‘dark’ dystopian fiction, calling it ‘hyper-violent’. Which I suppose it is, if you ignore the fact that it contains surprisingly few examples of actual, you know, violence. When it does finally occur, it is almost always carried out by characters who have already been set up as evil; there is never a scene where the sympathetic main characters are forced to do reprehensible things to survive. (I’m talking about the first book here, by the way. According to what I’ve read, the third tries to compensate for this by going too far in the other direction.) Time after time, dystopian authors shy away from making their characters face up to the supposedly bleak conditions they’ve put them in. I can only assume this is because doing so would get in the way of the all-important cheesy romance.
It hasn’t always been this way. When I was about twelve or so, I went to my local library and borrowed a book called Z For Zachariah, by Robert C. O’Brien. It was shelved in the children’s section, yet turned out to be easily the darkest novel I’d ever encountered. (It was also one of my earliest exposures to science fiction.) It describes the aftermath of a nuclear war, which leaves a sixteen-year old girl living alone on her miraculously radiation-free farm. Her family and friends are all dead, as is the entire population of the nearby town; for all she knows, the entire world might be dead. Eventually she is joined by a man wearing an advanced radiation suit, which let him walk from a distant military base to her farm. They work together until he becomes increasingly antagonistic and eventually tries to rape her, at which point she takes the radiation suit and leaves. She walks off into an extremely uncertain future, leaving the man (who she now justifiably hates) behind even as he begs her to stay with him.
The book ends there.
Can you imagine most dystopian authors today writing something like that? Of course not, and yet we’re still told that modern offerings are on par with the (usually disturbing) classics of the genre.
The online YA community, which is composed largely of adult readers, seems to have completely lost the ability to evaluate or analyse YA books. It’s the only explanation I can think of for how anybody could honestly call Across the Universe or The Hunger Games ‘dark’. (Which isn’t to say that dark genre YA doesn’t exist, of course – look at the Chaos Walking books, or Lauren deStefano’s Wither, or Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels - it just isn’t talked about nearly as often as the fluffier, lighter stuff.) When did this happen? I suspect it started as soon as it became common for people to read only YA and nothing else. Yes, Across the Universe might be dark by the standards of its genre, but it sure as hell isn’t dark compared with a lot of adult fiction. To be truly bleak, even if only as a prelude to a hopeful ending, you need to be willing to really twist the knife: two lovers coming to hate each other over a mistimed phone call can appear more tragic to the reader than all the mass murders you can throw at them.
Honestly, I wish the WSJ was right. YA should be provocative, and challenging, and able to show prudish adults that young people are for more capable than society gives them credit for. Meghan Cox Gurdon isn’t insulting YA when she says that it’s too dark. If anything, she’s giving it a lot more credit than it deserves.