Nihilism in YA Fiction

After the “nihilism in fantasy” discussion a few months ago, we now seem to be having the “nihilism in YA” discussion, kicked off by this article in the Wall Street Journal in which the paper’s YA reviewer complains about YA novels filled with “pederasty, profanity, moral depravity and pathologies outlined in stomach clenching detail.” They should use that as a cover blurb for YA novels – it’s sure to appeal to a certain kind of reluctant readers.

The article is full of the usual handwringing by right-tending Americans that wholesome, morally improving and inspirational entertainment has died out, that their precious offspring are being exposed to new ideas that – gasp – things like drugs, sex and abuse exist and that some people are gay and that’s perfectly okay, and that it’s all the fault of the evil leftwingers in publishing and probably part of a Communist-Muslim-Nazi plot engineered by Barack Obama himself. Okay, so I made that last bit up, but the rest is pretty accurate. Predictably, the author, one Meghan Cox Gurdon, defends the right of the parents to censor and control their kids’ reading – which is fine, except that those parents want to censor the reading of everybody else’s kids, too.

There also is a list of “recommended” and presumably morally wholesome books, neatly divided into boys’ and girls’ books, because heaven beware kids of both genders read the same books, they might turn gay or something. Recommended books for boys include Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, which is not only full of factual errors but also depressing as hell*, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury which the Wall Street Journal erroneously believes is about political correctness (and why is this one only for boys?), True Grit (okay, so I’ve only seen the John Wayne film adaption, which I hated with a passion, but nothing I know about this strikes me as a suitable book for the kids of queasy parents) and a WWII novel which going by the brief description is about American GIs killing an escaped German soldier. Because using the F-word and writing about abuse and violence that many teens experience is wrong, but killing a human being is okay, especially since it’s “only” a German. The girls’ list is less offensive, though if they don’t darkness and depression, why is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on the list? Because it contains some soppy stuff about overcoming hardship?

The books recommended by the commenters are even more absurd. I mean, A Tale of Two Cities? Sexual violence, bloodshed and a downer ending where one of the main characters is guillotined. Now I have always liked A Tale of Two Cities, but it’s not a book I would recommend to people complaining about dark and depressing YA fiction. Or how about Where the Red Fern Grows? Which I’ve never read, but which is apparently loathed by half the American population for its nasty killing of a beloved pet. Ayn Rand? Whose books are not only badly written, but also full of rape, violence, problematic ideology (which is probably the appeal for the rightwing Wall Street Journal readers) and indigestible blobs of political ranting. Now that’s sure to put a kid off reading for life. Someone even recommends the Heinlein juveniles – there’s always someone who recommends those. Never mind that they were already ludicrously dated and full of transparent political ideology that even my SF-loving teenaged self was put off by the one or two I tried to read. I would never recommend those to a modern day SF reading teen, especially since there is so much better and less dated YA SF available.

To be fair to the Wall Street Journal, they did pick up on the debate caused by the original article and also published a much more reasoned response in their Speakeasy blog section. They also link to this Twitter response by Libba Bray.

Here is a lovely response by YA writer Stephanie Kuehnert who explains how important both reading and writing books with tougher and darker themes has been for her.

Harry Connolly responds here. Link found via Sherwood Smith who also has a good discussion going on in her own journal.

Now I was one of those kids who loathed the dreaded problem novel and would never willingly read one, unless I was seriously low on reading material. I even unloaded unwanted problem novels given to me by well-meaning relatives on those kids in my class who liked to read that sort of thing (“This book is about drug addiction and totally depressing. You’ll love it.”) while swapping them for the kind of books I liked to read.

I actually did read and enjoy books with serious themes as a kid and teenager, but mostly because those books snuck up on me and grabbed me before I realized what they were about. And once a book had grabbed me, I would happily read about young girls forcibly married in India, Jewish girls hiding from the Nazis, best friends dying of meningitis and fathers dying of tuberculosis, the plight of kids in children’s homes waiting to be adopted, the racism and prejudice experienced by a Roma girl and about the poor girl who lived in an abandoned car in a junkyard in Portugal with her crippled brother and alcoholic father and who begged on the streets of Lisbon hoping to raise enough money to take her crippled brother to Fatima so he could be cured**. I obviously enjoyed those books, because I remember them vividly after twenty-five years or so.

But anything that even remotely smelled of a wagging finger intended to teach me that drugs, Nazis and war were bad, that disabled people and poor people in developing countries were human and that dares and shoplifting were a very bad idea went right back onto the shelf and was only read, if required for class. Because I already knew that drugs, Nazis, wars, shoplifting and dares were bad, that disabled people were human and that poor people in developing countries lived in bad conditions. And a book pulling out the moral sledgehammer to teach me those things I already knew felt incredibly insulting, because what did those authors think I was? Stupid?

In fact, my teenaged self believed that the only reason other kids read those books and pretended to like them was because they wanted to suck up to the teacher. Only much later did I realize that some people honestly enjoyed problem novels, either because they helped them to realize that they were not alone with the traumatic events in their own life or because they helped them to forget their own problems by delving into those of people who were even worse of. Besides, as an adult and teacher, I also find that many YA novels with tougher themes, both contemporary ones and some of the books that appalled me as a kid, are actually very well written and deal with those subjects in a sensitive way. As a teacher myself, I have seen some of the problem novels I hated as a teen read by my own students, who are so far removed in time and context from the book that the wagging finger of old has faded and what is left is apparently a pretty thrilling read about a very different world.

But what really bothers me about the article, aside from the fact that there isn’t much difference IMO between the books criticized and the books recommended, is the whole stance of “My children are precious and perfect flowers who must be sheltered from all that’s bad in the world, whether it’s TV news or books I disapprove of”. It sometimes seems that stand is particularly epidemic in the US – e.g. I remember a woman on a romance site stating that she would not let her 12-year-old daughter read a particular novel by Mary Balogh, because it dealt with prostitution and she did not want her daughter learning about such things. Which made me laugh, because at twelve I not only knew what prostitution was, I had also seen prostitutes sitting in windows in Antwerp (and gotten a lecture from my Mom that I shouldn’t stare at those woman, because they were doing a very hard and very important job) and could have told you the way to the local brothel. And I bet that 12-year-old daughter of that woman knows more about prostitution than her mother would believe.

There’s one thing you quickly learn as a teacher and that is that children and teenagers aren’t the fragile flowers their parents believe they are. They know rude words, they know about sex, they watch violent films and the news, most of them have glimpsed at internet porn and a few scrawl penises on every available surface. And it’s better to frankly discuss whatever subjects come up, whether it’s nuclear power or terrorism or the violent films they shouldn’t watch, why it’s not okay to use “gay” as a slur or the inevitable questions about sex. I’m actually stunned how often I get sex-related questions, considering I’m not a biology teacher. I suspect it’s because I don’t act all shocked when a kid tries to provoke me by saying bad words, singing rude songs (which are often so old that I knew them as a teenager twenty years ago) or drawing penises on a worksheet, so I’m suddenly designated as the adult person it’s okay to ask about such things, because she won’t get shocked and will give you an honest answer.

Honestly, kids are smarter and savvier than many parents think. They know the world isn’t perfect and can be a damn dark place, even if their parents try to hide that knowledge from them. And they’re usually able to determine for themselves what books and films they will and won’t expose themselves to.

*I know that the SFF community is completely in love with Ship Breaker, probably because the eco-apocalypse topic is trendy. It doesn’t make it any more accurate, though, and I say this as someone who knows quite a bit about ships and oil and first learned about the practice of ship breaking in harrowing detail more than twenty-five years ago, when I was younger than the intended target audience for the book.

**I really wish I knew the title and author of that book, because I remember it so vividly. The German title included the word “Escudos”, that’s all I remember.

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2 Responses to Nihilism in YA Fiction

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    “…morally wholesome books, neatly divided into boys’ and girls’ books, because heaven beware kids of both genders read the same books, they might turn gay or something.”


  2. Pingback: More on the avalanche, science fictional childhood, dark YA and unfair e-book pricing | Cora Buhlert

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