Sunday, June 5, 2011

Actual Writing! Now With 50% More Exclamation Marks!

Told you I was bad with blogs. I've been meaning to write about various different things for a while but this article in the Wall Street Journal makes my blood boil so much that I seem to have broken out of my blogging stupor. Maybe I'm only good at blogs when I'm angry...

(Also, I really hate the word blog.)

But there's so much to be angry about! As someone who writes & reads young adult literature & studies teenage vampires for a living I think I can safely say that I know a little bit about adolescent fiction. Also I was a teenager myself, not so very long ago. Which I think might be something that the author of the Wall Street Journal article might have forgotten. (That she was once a teenager, I mean, not that I was. I'm sure she's entirely unaware that I was ever a teenager.)

The article, in case you don't want to read it, is about how bad young adult fiction is for teenagers because it's all vampires & suicide & self mutilation, because it deals with dark subjects like drug addiction, rape & murder, & because it can be "like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is."

On the one hand I'd like to point out that actually, some vampire texts for young adults are much more tame & conservative than their black-white-&-red covers suggest, & are mostly interested in lustful tension, romance & not having sex before marriage (*cough*Twilight*cough*) but without being facetious, there are a lot of things that life is for teenagers. Sometimes life is boring & unfulfilling & feels like it hasn't started properly yet, it's all about school & family & not enough happens so teenagers read books about lives where a lot happens, & these books take them outside of their own lives. Sometimes life is exciting & fast-paced & there's so much happening, & a lot of happiness, & kisses & parties & new experiences & teenagers read books that reflect these experiences but also books that reinforce the knowledge they already have that not everybody's life is so lucky. And sometimes, a lot of times when you're a teenager & a lot of times when you're not a teenager too, life is hard. It may not be hard in the same way as it is for certain characters in certain books, but the feelings & thoughts might be the same. Sometimes life is just as hard as it is for characters in books; sometimes it's even harder.

Maybe there's a reason that teenagers are reading grittier fiction; maybe there's a reason writers are writing it. Maybe, before assuming that writing about difficult realities in life can corrupt a young person's innocence, moral development & tenderness of heart, some statistics about the percentage of Western teenagers who experience things like alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual violence, homophobia & self harm should be taken into account.

Picking one of the themes the article found too upsetting for teenagers' delicate sensibilities as an example, if we take into account the fact that one in six American women has been the victim of rape or sexual assault in her lifetime, that 44% of rape victims are under eighteen & 80% under thirty, that young people aged twelve to thirty-four are most at risk of sexual violence & that girls aged sixteen to nineteen are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault (source), that unfortunately means that a pretty high percentage of readers of young adult fiction will have firsthand experience of these themes, & a wider percentage still will know a friend, classmate or family member who has. So how exactly is reading a novel about these kinds of experiences going to corrupt a teenager's innocence?

Another example: although the All-Knowing Internet can't give me exact statistics because of the secretive nature of the problem, it's been estimated that one in fifteen young people deliberately harm themselves. Other studies suggest that up to 33% of teenagers self harm. (Small aside: it's so refreshing to be able to use Wikipedia as a source! It feels kind of naughty! Clearly I need a break from academia... Maybe I'm not just good at blogging when I'm angry. Maybe I need to be procrastinating too.) So saying that books focusing on pathologies help to normalise them only really works when said pathologies aren't already normal. A healthy, happy adolescent will not hurt themselves simply because they read it in a book. This underestimation of teenage readers' intelligence & capacity for critical thinking really enrages me, & unfortunately it comes up a lot. It's really just too easy to cry out "won't somebody please think of the children!" The children can think for themselves!

In fact, the children are thinking for themselves! They're the ones reading these books! They're the ones buying these books, they're the ones influencing the market! If teenagers didn't read these kinds of books, these kinds of books wouldn't be published! That's how the book market works!

ALSO! Putting recommended reading under the headings "books for young men" & "books for young women" is restrictive & insulting. Do young women not enjoy war fiction? Do they not understand or care about censorship, cowboys or autism? Do young men not enjoy Shakespearean retellings? Do they not understand or care about sexual awakenings, family sagas or Frankenstein? Please, oh please, won't somebody think of the children!