Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Stree Journal called “Darkness Too Visible” in which she complained that it was hard to find young adult fiction these days that isn’t filled with coarse, dark material–profanity, pederasty, mutilation, etc. She claims that “contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity” and wonders “why is this considered a good idea?” She concludes by saying:
So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.
This, of course, sent hordes of folks into a frenzy of posts sneering at Gurdon’s so-called prissy sensibilities, decrying censorship, and extolling the virtues of young adult literature and dark material in particular. For example, Mary Elizabeth Williams in a Salon piece called “Has young adult fiction become too dark?” rolls her eyes, then deigns to wade into what’s she thinks is an obviously juvenile argument to apparently show Gourdon how “stupid” she really is. Williams concludes:
One of the terrific side effects of an obviously click-baiting piece of editorial twaddle like Gurdon’s is that it reminds people how many fellow passionate readers there are in the world. That incendiary WSJ piece promptly sparked a tear-jerkingly beautiful twitter #YA saves trend full of heartfelt reactions and links to outstandingly reasoned, article responses from well-read adults and teens on the value within so much of YA literature and its downright lifesaving effects.
Williams suggests fiction doesn’t have the power to lead people into bad behaviors. After all, she assures us, “an entire generation of women managed to devour the ‘Flowers in the Attic’ series without having sex with their brothers.” No, according to Williams (and all the #YAsaves folks), YA fiction only saves lives. And she provides a link to prove it.
But Williams misses the mark. Completely. This isn’t about whether fiction has power to influence us in good and bad ways. There’s a huge body of research on media effects which clearly proves fiction’s power for both. Nor is it about the theraputic uses of dark material.
The heart of the matter revolves around a rather mundane thing–customer service and marketing.
Gurdon and those parents she describes in her article want a certain type of entertainment. For years, YA fiction has provided that type of entertainment. But things have changed, and the YA label isn’t reliable to them any more. It’s like someone who has purchased steel cut oatmeal for years is now suddenly bringing the bags home to find them filled with sardines or, horrors, Twinkies.
We can argue the merits of sardines and Twinkies. And a hundred other foods. We can argue the merits of certain types of stories for certain types of readers. And my metaphor above–maybe you think using Twinkies is unfair; maybe you would have wanted me to use something like Triscuts or Wheat Thins. But that’s all beside the point.
The real problem here is that the publishers have ignored a significant segment of the market who want to buy books but can’t find the types they’re interested in. Either the covers and blurb material don’t help them find what they’re looking for, sometimes misleading them, or the publishers have simply made the mistake of not thinking about this segment of the reading market.
The fix is easy. (1) Produce more books for these folks. (2) Label your books in a way that makes it easy for the consumer to find what they want. They’re not asking for censorship. They’re asking for a nutrition label that lets them know what they’re getting. Publishers can do what the movie and gaming industries have done with rating systems that prominently display on the cover. Or use some other method. This isn’t a moral issue, it’s simply a matter of helping the right customers find your good or service. It’s a matter of good marketing and branding.
And I would think, with the upheavals in the book industry today, that publishers and booksellers would want to do whatever they could to boost sales. Surely it doesn’t help to turn customers away because your package is confusing them.
In the meantime, the battle will rage and this simple practical core of the issue will be lost in the fires and clouds of smoke produced by the arguments extolling and excoriating the virtues and vices of fiction.