The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece that criticized contemporary young-adult fiction for what the author sees as its overly grim portrayal of teenage life. “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens?” writes Meghan Cox Gurdon. “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”
The article sparked outrage in the YA community, with Sherman Alexie and even (very briefly) Judy Blume weighing in. Since we recently profiled one of the YA scene’s most prominent authors, Thirteen Reasons Why author Jay Asher (you can read that story here), we called him up to see what he thought of the article. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t pleased. Here are his thoughts on the whole controversy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It seems like everyone in the YA community is talking about this article. It doesn’t mention you by name, but…
JAY ASHER: They mention suicide. When I saw that word I was like, ‘Okay, I can take offense officially now.’
What went through your mind as you were reading it?
When I first heard about it I just rolled my eyes. I was like, ‘Here we go again.’ It seems like whenever a big newspaper or TV show talks about teen literature they focus dark books or vampire books. It’s kind of this cliché. It seems like the only time adults pay attention is with that angle. So it’s just frustrating. But then when I read it, yeah, I got very upset, just because I know what she was describing is not teen literature in its entirety at all, and yet it makes it sound like that. The frustrating thing is that you know that many parents don’t have the time to really see what’s out there. They read this Wall Street Journal article and why would they know to investigate whether this report is accurate or not? They’re just going to take it as the truth: that’s all there is. If they’re saying it’s a bad thing then I’m going to be more cautious about letting my child read it.
How do you feel about the word “dark”?
I always have a hard time finding the right word to describe the mood of the book. It basically deals with this uncomfortable subject matter. It’s hard for anyone to bring up, even outside of fiction. But that’s why it needs to be talked about. I think that’s why teens read a lot of these things: because it isn’t talked about openly. Or if it is, it’s talked about in clichéd ways, like that article. You have to talk about these things openly and honestly and not just the clichés and the knee-jerk reaction. Just a couple of days after that Wall Street Journal article came out, I got this email from a mom that was amazing. It kind of connects to the woman at the beginning of the article who says she went to a bookstore and walked out without any books, because all she saw were dark books. This mom said that a teacher of her daughter had recommended [Thirteen Reasons Why] and she started reading it because she wanted to see what her daughter was reading. After the second chapter she was so enraged. She was going to go to the school and talk to the principal about how this book was pushed on her daughter. She was so upset. And then her daughter told her to finish reading the book first, before she goes and makes a scene. So the mother reluctantly read the rest, and now she says she recommends it to her coworkers and her daughter’s friends. I think as an adult, our initial reaction when we find out that teens are reading a book about suicide or one dealing with drugs or eating disorders — you get that initial concern. But these books are written for teens, from the teen perspective. That’s what a lot of these articles are missing. Here’s kind of a knee-jerk, instinctive reaction to these books, and then they write a whole article about it.
In the article, Cox Gurdon writes, “Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.” How do you respond?
Yeah, that’s the one that really stands out. It is kind of this scary hypothetical that’s out there, and yet she throws it out there as a fact. That’s the thing that bothers me: it’s in the Wall Street Journal, and not only does she say, here’s this idea, she says, it’s “likely.” And yet she doesn’t support it [with any facts]. She doesn’t talk to anybody. She just runs with this. It’s scary to know that parents who don’t know about this literature are reading that. When me and my author friends who write about other difficult subject matter…when you hear from teens daily saying, Your book helped me or made me understand a friend better, what somebody else is going through, you see the positive things. And when you know that there are adults pushing this idea that these things are likely dangerous, it’s really hard for us to read. That’s why so many authors were upset, because we know what the readers are getting out of it.
If you ran into Cox Gurdon, what would you say to her?
Wow. [Laughs] I understand where she was coming from. [But] the tone in her article was very confrontational, saying that anytime people raise these issues automatically words like censorship get thrown around. But for writers, it’s not that. It’s that we see the positive things that come about because of these books. That’s what a lot of adults don’t understand. They don’t understand the power of books dealing with these subjects. To them it’s just scary. It’s scary to know that teens are being drawn to these books. But the whole idea of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes is a good thing. It doesn’t mean that your teen is going to be facing these things just because they’re reading about them.
What do you think? Are dark YA books dangerous, or just realistic? Should parents be concerned about the state of teen literature?
Follow me on twitter: @RobBrunnerEW
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