09 June 2011

Where's Papa Going With That Ax?

It’s been five days since The Wall Street Journal ran Meghan Cox Gurdon’s ridiculous takedown of “dark” YA fiction. Since then, the little corner of the blogosphere where the YA writers, critiques, fans and readers hang out (it’s between the AV annex and the theater building mostly, but sometimes behind the bleachers if we’re smoking) has exploded. #YAsaves has been pulling in lots of testimonials of people helped by YA books. And some amazing YA writers have done book by book takedowns of Cox Gurdon’s complaint.

And those are just two of the ways to respond. There are those who cautiously sort of agree, but draw the line at censorship. There are those who speak movingly of their own YA reading experiences (both as adult and teen readers). There are those who are outraged and those who saddened that we’re doing this yet again. My first impulse was to respond with a blog post about all the weird stuff I read as a kid and point out that classic YA books don’t go out of print, so any kid who wants can still read Anne of Green Gables or Sign of the Beaver or whatever ‘wholesome’ book they want.

And then I realized that my response was like everybody’s response and I could add more to the dialogue. I considered writing a post about the cultural conception of childhood and teenager-hood, the physical, mental, educational and sociological interactions that create the Western idea of adolescence. I would filter that through books and stories ancient, old and modern to show that Cox Gurdon’s argument (and all arguments like it) are patently ridiculous. I’d have included information about how, since the publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories, there has always been an under 25 demographic, and that really YA’s age group goes up that far. So I re-read her article, started gathering sources, and realized something.

The whole thing was a hatchet job.

Several blog posts had already pointed out that Cox Gurdon’s piece reads like editorial, but appears as a regular old book column. Which should have been the first clue that something fishy was going on. And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that Cox Gurdon actually finds the books she slanders just as distasteful as she says. She has every right to fuss in print that there should be more books about teddy bears because sex is icky and there is no violence in the clean shiny happy world she lives in. That’s fine and I believe she thinks that. She also has every right to pretend like publishers only publish dark horrid novels filled with bad language then directly mail every teenager in America every book they publish, then call them up and demand they read them. Because a world in which teenagers actually, y’know drive to the mall and buy their own damn books that they picked out themselves or go to the library and check out books that they picked out themselves wouldn’t be a world where she can stand on a soapbox and scream ‘Murther!’ until the guards come.

But that’s not what this is really about.

But let’s back up a moment and talk about newspapers. (Just stay with me – I promise I’m going somewhere.) It used to be, in the city of New York, that there were nearly as many newspapers as there were people: The Sun, The Post, The World, The Standard, The Times and on and on. I could probably list fifty in English alone. Like blogs, these came in assorted political flavors. By the mid-twentieth century you found The Wall Street Journal on your right, The New York Times basically center and The New York Post to your left. (And yes, other papers like The Financial Times or The Village Voice making noise on the edges.) There are still plenty of movies and books from the time period that use the character short hand of referring to a reporter who works for The Post – you are to know immediately that this is a pie-in-the-sky idealist and he (always he) is about to be ground down to cynicism or he’s about to force some dirty politician or slumlord into the light.

But in 1976, The New York Post was bought by Rupert Murdoch. It became justifiably famous for its bizarre headlines and quite a bit more like the tabloid-esque papers so popular in Britain. Though the American version always has less nudity. But The Post slid to the right, and farther to the right, until the centrist New York Times became the leftist edge of NYC’s papers. (Yes, we’re still talking about YA novels.)

Some 30 years later Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. The WSJ was one of those fiscally conservative pieces of print media that could create a warm fuzzy buzz, even in a hardened liberal, that let you know that everything was going to be okay just as long as those wheels of industry kept on turning. (I read The Economist when I travel, not just because people tend to leave me alone, but because its love of money and the status quo is as soothing as a mother’s lullaby.) The WSJ has, on occasion been liberal about social issues or human rights or any number of things, but mostly they want people who have money to keep making money. In America that’s about as uncontroversial as you can get. (Banking bailouts notwithstanding.)

But uncontroversial doesn’t generate page views.

If it did, nobody would be writing “dark and gritty” YA novels.

Cox Gurdon’s article, coming five months off of Amy Chua’s psychotic, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother article, is designed to hit all the buttons. Shall we take a closer look? Like BHotTM it starts with motherhood. It starts with the question of good, qualified motherhood. Then presents the modern horrors of how the free-for-all of what we call parenting in the United States. Luckily for Chua, the idea of helicopter parenting vs. hippie parenting is pretty well ingrained as part of the ‘mommy wars.’ Cox Gurdon has more heavy lifting to do to stir the pot.

But she does it in such a sad and formulaic way. It’s almost like she’s trying to be stupid. The first two books on her hit list are fantasy / science-fiction (Marbury Lens and Rage). Okay then. The literary establishment has already determined that speculative fiction is crap so she feels she’s on solid ground. So she gets sloppy. When she takes on her next book (and the argument that teens have bad stuff happen to them and then will feel better reading about similar struggles) she shows her hand.

The next book in the crosshairs is Scars. And then Cox Gurdon begins what the article is really about. First she describes a girl cutting herself and mopping up the blood with a towel , ostensibly because that is what the book is about. But it is a faceless characterless girl, it is contextless and hollow, which makes what could be important or valid merely gruesome, which is what Cox Gurdon wants the reader to think of Scars. Then she dismisses a positive School Library Journal review for the book as “inexplicable.” Next she finds a “library patron” who worried the book might cause cutter’s to relapse. (A thoughtful response to this argument, though with regards to anorexia, can be found by Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Wintergirls, in this blog post: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/the-troubling-allure-of-eating-disorhttp). And then she puts a librarian on the stand.

In the world of YA novels, librarians are the closest thing we have to saints and shock troops. No matter what anybody in the publishing world does in New York, if a librarian doesn’t put a book into the hand of a kid, the kid is probably not going to read it. So Cox Gurdon does the smart thing. She doesn’t condemn the librarian, but she paints them as callous. As people who really don’t care about children. She never actually criticizes the librarian she quotes, but as part of this article condemning dark books, she manages to obliquely condemn the librarian as well. But here, I’ll let you read it:
“That the protagonist's father has been raping her since she was a toddler and is trying to engineer her suicide was not the issue for the team of librarians re-evaluating the book.
‘Books like 'Scars,' or with questionable material, those provide teachable moments for the family,’ says Amanda Hopper, the library's youth-services coordinator, adding: ‘We like to have the adult perspective, but we do try to target the teens because that's who's reading it.’ The book stayed on the shelves.”

The Book STAYED On The Shelves! What horror! What distress! Get the lady a divan and a glass of water! And loosen her corset while you’re at it.

But Cox Gurdon doesn’t stop there. She goes on to talk about bad language, and manages to implicate The Horn Book as an offender. The Horn Book had excerpted a letter from an editor that used the word “fucking” (and because the WSJ doesn’t use such language Cox Gurdon makes sure you know that the word was spelled out in the letter). I don’t get the Horn Book, but as the book the editor was talking about was made clear, it seems unlikely that the letter was published anonymously. And even if it was, most children’s book imprints have less than a dozen editors on staff, and it would be pretty easy to make a an educated guess who said it, send them an email and confirm it was them. But instead of placing the onus on the writer, Cox Gurdon slams The Horn Book, a venerable magazine that has been around since 1924. Curious don’t you think?

And then she hits the YA community where it really hurts. If Christians have Lent and Jews have Yom Kippur and Muslims have Ramadan, the most solemn week of children’s literature is Banned Books Week. And she mocks it. “Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books.” Delights? Really?
Now I could make a bunch of arguments here. About how Banned Book Week is the week that YA and Children’s books communities remind ourselves that we do have various responsibilities. Responsibilities to underrepresented groups, to freedom of speech and the press. That we, in fact and unlike all other writers working in America, are writing for a group who do not get to make their own decisions, who do not decide what will happen to them, who are in essence trapped (in both good and bad situations). And that books and stories are about freedom. They are about escape. And we have a duty to remember that and do it well. But too much of that would actually be off topic.

Because Cox Gurdon’s argument continues in the next sentence. “A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins's hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy and Sherman Alexie's prize-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” She then goes on to insult Alexie, in a condescending way (much like I’ve been doing to her for a while now) and if this was a barroom I would have thrown the first punch after she said that. Because Alexie is brilliant. But this is a blog and I’m going to continue explaining just what this Cox Gurdon is doing and then tell you why.
She then goes on to quote a Washington DC bookseller that “editors and writers… ‘are used to videogames and TV and really violent movies and they love that stuff. So they think that every 12-year-old is going to love that stuff and not be affected by it.”

So, what has Cox Gurdon managed to do in just a few column inches of The Wall Street Journal? She has stolen parents’ trust. The fact of the matter is, parents don’t have time to read everything their kids read. My own parents and I were reading the same series of books, and my mother finished the first chapter of one and told my father she wasn’t sure I should read it because of the graphic rape. They decided to talk to me about it, only to discover I had finished the book the night before and was already reading the next one. They literally couldn’t keep up with my one (or two!) book a day habit. So parents have to trust other people when it comes to their kids’ books. They trust librarians. They trust reviews from places like The Horn Book and The School Library Journal. They trust awarding bodies. They trust bestsellers, because other parents have bought those books. They trust the publishers and editors.

Cox Gurdon has explained why you shouldn’t trust any of those people.
But she has been sloppy about. How anyone, in the age of Angry Birds, can take seriously the accusation that ‘video games made them do it’ is beyond me. And haven’t we moved past the idea that fantasy books must be treated like crap until proven classics? And of course, the people who love books so much that they make them their whole lives and professions ‘love movies and TV’ and that those Satanic flickering images rot brains and make children’s librarians think it’s okay for dads to rape their daughters and . . . how did this nonsense get published?

Remember that whole lecture I gave you on the history of newspapers before? And about generating page views? Well, Amy Chua’s BHotTM garnered the WSJ some 8,807 comments. It got Chua on morning news shows. It made her book a NYTimes Bestseller. It got Chua’s daughter published. It turned the feminist blogosphere (a much larger place than the YA one) into a month long slug fest where everyone argued race, class, motherhood, memoir, publishing, parenting, parental division of labor, the flexibility of academic jobs and children’s rights. The high rate of suicide among female Asian teens became every blogger’s favorite number to throw around for a week. It was page view gold. It was tabloid-esque. It was a lot of ladies doing verbal mud wrestling over something ridiculous: who, as long as she stayed within legal bounds, CARES how Amy Chua raised her kids? I don’t. I’ve never met any of them. They have in no way, and will in no way ever, impact my life. But of course I got suckered in too. Everybody loves a good argument, and everybody thinks they know how to raise kids (even those of us who don’t have them).

Now the WSJ couldn’t run another article just like that, and they couldn’t run it too soon.
But five or so months is good. At six months, we’d be in July. In July the publishing industry is in a dither as people prepare for August vacations. In July, parents are trying to figure out what to do to keep their kids from being bored. In July, this article would have been a blip. And it’s not tagged to anything: there’s no particularly gruesome book coming out to inspire this rant, there’s no publishing expo, there’s no nothing. This article could have run anytime in the last or next six months.

And it hits many of the same notes as TBhotTM. Children’s and YA publishing are a woman’s game. As is parenting. Everyone quoted in the article, with the exception of Sherman Alexie, is a woman. (Even the ‘fucking’ editor is a woman.) The article is geographically divided: publishers and editors in New York and the beleaguered mom and struggling bookseller in Maryland and DC (which are basically the same thing geographically). The article takes on the things we always accept to be good (Chua is out to get self-esteem and Cox Gurdon free speech) and really tries to convince us it’s bad. Both articles are just an inch or two on the side of conservative, just enough to cause some righteous indignation on the center and left.

The WSJ didn’t get nearly as many comments on Cox Gurdon’s article (only 113). The feminist blogosphere is too busy freaking out about Anthony Weiner. And really, we all know that kids are going to read what kids read, parents, Cox Gurdon and The Wall Street journal be damned.

But wait five to seven months. If I’m right, The Wall Street Journal will run some cockamamie article about food or movies or paint colors or hiking that has something to do with parenting and something to do with women and is just a little more conservative than a normal person should feel comfortable with, even if it makes some okay specific points and targets some internet savvy sub-group that will want to get up in arms about it and start twitter campaigns.

Because this wasn’t just any hatchet job: it was a hatchet job bought and designed to get us to put our eyes on the page and our words in their comment section.
And we have more important things to do. We have books to write, and edit, and sell, and hand to children. We have banned books to remember. We have responsibilities because we are the adults and they are the children. And our responsibilities are not the responsibilities of teachers or parents or even the responsibilities of the awesome older cousin who has a tattoo and rides a motorcycle and is wise in the ways of the world. We have the responsibilities of writers and editors and booksellers and librarians and our goals and values and duties are different, but important and needed. Which is why we exist. And why people try to get rid of us. And also why they can’t.

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