#YAsaves, Ignorance Hurts: The Wall Street Journal's Attack on Books

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal fired a shot heard around the literary world: a so-called book review by Meghan Cox Gurdon condemning the YA genre. Gurdon begins by describing a mother looking at covers in a young adult section and finding nothing she considered appropriate for her daughter, only “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” Of course, many YA readers (myself included) could name titles that are not “dark, dark” at all, but Gurdon uses this dubious anecdote as a launchpad for a deluge of problematic assertions, contradictions and tacit accusations.

I would have to go line-by-line to break down everything misguided about Gurdon’s “review,” but let’s unpack some of its more egregious passages:

Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads.

Got that? People who are okay with their children reading young adult literature do not “care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness” or “think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind.” The accusations are more than implicit and manage to completely ignore the fact that “ugliness” occurs in real life, including to the young.

As for the “Reading about…” bit, keep it in mind: It serves as a disclaimer from Gurdon, a line she or her defenders can point to to say, “See? I/She never blamed YA!” In fact, not only does the article begin with clarification that not blaming YA for readers’ actions is “crude,” and that books can ruin “a child’s happiness” or “moral development;” even the implications of the “homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer” statement will be contradicted to bits by the end of the piece. (For one, Gurdon says books involving cutting will inspire copycats by children who “never have imagined” such an act, because “Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.” In other words, she does blame YA.)

Much of the text focuses on comparisons between cherry-picked YA novels from the 1970s and 2010s, and this portion is offensive well before it reaches its nominal point:

A purported diary published anonymously in 1971, “Go Ask Alice,” recounts a girl’s spiral into drug addiction, rape, prostitution and a fatal overdose. […] Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what’s on shelves now.

Hold the phone. It may be a throwaway line about a much-scorned work of fiction, but the notion that people “spiral into” being rape victims gives me mental hives. Gurdon’s list indicates that being victimized is a questionable choice on par (according to her) with doing drugs or sex work. The “spiral” image also suggests that rape is just what happens when someone’s life is already going badly. In short: victim-blame.

To make the point that lit in the 1970s was “tamer,” Gurdon encourages us to compare Judy Blume’s work to Lauren Myracle’s, name-dropping three Blume titles (Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Then Again, Maybe I Won’t; and Forever…) and only one by Myracle (Shine). Gurdon perfunctorily describes Blume’s books as “then-daring,” adding, “Objectionable the material may be for some parents, but it’s not grotesque.”

Then-daring, huh? That might come as a surprise to Blume, considering that Forever… was the second-most challenged book in 2005, thirty years after its first printing, and still repeatedly shows up on lists of frequently challenged books, as do Margaret, Blubber and Deenie, all also published in, yes, the 1970s. Similarly, Gurdon does not cite the controversies over Lauren Myracle’s Luv Ya Bunches, which has a character with two moms; Kissing Kate, in which the protagonist realizes she is a lesbian; or ttyl, in which a student’s friends thwart her teacher’s sexual advances on her. Gurdon only opts to bring up Shine, which has a protagonist who is a rape victim and involves a brutal hate crime. In other words, Gurdon called in the novel that she could make sound as “extreme” as possible.

Gurdon rounds out the piece by deriding publishers, mixing metaphors in a declaration that they want to “bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives” and retorting that “[t]he industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks ‘censorship!’” (Petticoats? Wait, publishing vulgarity is modern, but defending it is old-fashioned? I’m confused!)

And then there’s the sidebar: “Books We can Recommend for Young Adult Readers,” condescendingly (and sexistly, and binarily…) separated into “YOUNG MEN” and “YOUNG WOMEN.” “YOUNG MEN” are prioritized with a longer list that moves across genres and includes only male authors; “YOUNG WOMEN” get a romance-heavy list by both men and women that emphasizes that they might not understand everything going on. True Grit’s mini-description ends with “Girls will love this one, too.” Gee, thanks.

Also listed as one of WSJ’s rare YA books deemed acceptable for “YOUNG MEN”: Fahrenheit 451. Yes, they are that unaware of their own hypocrisy.

All of which makes me wonder, not for the first time, what anti-feminist Suzanne Venker was thinking when she declared that the Wall Street Journal’s “pages attract feminists like bees to honey.” This is the fourth time this year this feminist has been livid over WSJ’s douchery. As with many theories posed by Phyllis Schlafly’s family members, I am likely never to understand.

I’m also hardly the first to note the likeness between this piece and Wesley Scroggins’ “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education” article in September for the News-Leader (who have since taken it off their site). Scroggins called for the removal of several titles from school libraries, including Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a tremendous story of beginning to heal from post-rape trauma. Scroggins declared Speak and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer to be soft porn due to the former’s references to rape and the latter’s inclusion of characters who “use their condoms to have sex.” Yes, I know: It’s funny until you realize people were reading, believing and actively supporting his sentiments. In a heartening response, outraged readers took to Twitter under #speakloudly and sent the News-Leader myriads of letters. Anderson and Ockler participated and wrote movingly about the challenge against their work.

It was, in short, a Big Deal, and rightly so… and the News-Leader is a local paper in Springfield, Missouri with fewer than 100,000 readers. The Wall Street Journal has a daily circulation of over two million.

Fortunately, YA authors and fans are speaking out again, with a telling (and, for many, undeniable) statement suggested by Maureen Johnson: #YAsaves. Others who have already participated include E. Lockhart, Ellen Hopkins, Scarleteen founder Heather Corinna and our recent interviewee, Megan McCafferty. Libba Bray, author of A Great and Terrible Beauty, composed an epic series of tweets that someone at the WSJ itself saw fit to compile and republish. I’m inclined to view WSJ’s move cynically under the circumstances but am happy Bray’s words have another way for people to find them.

The list of proactive tweeters is sure to grow, as is the number of thoughtful public blog entries. Here are a few to start you off:

If this issue speaks to you, feel free to share your thoughts (or favorite posts by others) below… and be sure to tweet #YAsaves.

by Deb Jannerson
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

I don't know what to think

I don't know what to think about it. The kids are reading books, and that's good enough for me.
But, consider the source: it is the Wall Street Journal. They aren't as savvy in hiding their agendas.
Talk about "darkness too visible".

I blogged about this column

I blogged about this column from a bookseller's/reviewer's point of view here: <a href="http://danialexis.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/dear-my-hypothetical-children... My Hypothetical Children: #YAsaves</a>. I didn't mention the books for boys/books for girls lists, but they outraged me nonetheless, and for many of the same reasons.

I was especially bothered that Mrs. Gurdon seemed to think booksellers and librarians should be pre-censoring what kids read by not offering certain books at all. On the contrary - my job is to provide a wide-enough selection of books that nearly any reader who comes into my shop can find a book that works for hir. I'm more than willing to discuss the contents of certain books with parents or young adults in order to help them find something that deals with or avoids whatever topics. I am not, however, going to unilaterally decide that [insert book here] is bad for every single reader of YA books. Somehow, I suspect Mrs. Gurdon and her ilk would be just as upset if I pre-selected their teens' books* than if I gave their teens the chance to choose among many titles.

*for one thing, I'd pre-select in both <i>Go Ask Alice</i> and <i>Speak</i>, books that have meant a great deal to me and many other readers I know. But I digress.

Thanks so much for this

Thanks so much for this response, and for linking to my earlier post on censorship and book banning zealots. This issue rears it's fire-breathing head every few months -- more so lately -- and it's just so frustrating. Pick up a newspaper or visit any news site and the truth is obvious: there IS an age group that categorically needs some guidance and moral policing, and... hint hint hint.... it's not teens.

After arguing similar points against adults who don't get YA when the NYT review of Caletti's STAY and Brown's BITTER END came out, I could add nothing more meaningful to the current discussion than a parody.

Here's my take on the latest WSJ fucknuttery:

All This Darkness! What to Buy The Grownup Reader? (A Parody) - http://wp.me/p8gnj-MB


Sarah Ockler
Author of Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and other books the WSJ would totally hate.

You're welcome, Ms. Ockler, and thank YOU!

Terrific parody! (As it happens, I have an affection for ironic use of the word "effing" as well.) I love the "other books the <i>WSJ</i> would totally hate" phrase, too. It almost makes me want to start a club, but they'd probably object to most every author in the end.

I'm totally late, but I'm

I'm totally late, but I'm surprised you guys didn't link to Sherman Alexie's response to this snafu on the WSJ blogs: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-wr...

It's brilliant and wonderful, especially considering his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was one of the books challenged in the original article.

I love it too!

Alexie's piece went up later in the week. I agree; it's brilliant!

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