Sunday, June 12, 2011

In Defense of Dark Fiction for Teens

Last week, a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Darkness Too Visible” criticized contemporary young adult fiction for being so dark and explicit that some parents feared its effect on young readers’ “happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart.”

After lamenting the popularity of such books, the article ended by encouraging parents to protect their teens: “The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.”

The YA community quickly rallied, and soon readers, authors, teens, librarians, and parents were posting their own perspectives and tweeting about the importance of authentic YA fiction with the hashtag #YASaves. (Bookshelves of Doom compiled a handy list.). Their counter-arguments brought up many good points: it’s unfair to compare contemporary YA literature against the classics (after all, who knows which of today’s YA blockbusters will still be around in fifty years?); teens going through tough times need to know that they’re not alone and that there’s hope; teens have always had access to edgy fiction, usually intended for adults (for example, at the age of eleven or twelve, many of my friends were devouring V.C. Andrews books, which are full of explicit sex with a bit of incest thrown in); and of course, the fact that horrible things do happen—and ironically enough, teens learn about such things from the news, where human suffering is often sensationalized and provided without further context.

At Annick Press, we don’t publish dark, realistic teen fiction for the sake of sensationalism or to “bulldoze coarseness or misery” into any teen’s life. We publish it because it speaks to teen readers about things that are important to them, and it does so without speaking down to them or lecturing them. In books such as Leslie’s Journal (dating violence), Double or Nothing (gambling addiction), and In Ecstasy (drug use), teens figure out how to deal with complex problems on their own—an important step in becoming an adult. And yet these books aren’t meant to be “lessons”—they are, first and foremost, compelling stories that draw teens in for the same reason as adults: they want to know what happens next.

Now more than ever, when there are so many forms of entertainment competing with the joy of losing oneself in a good book, it is vital to encourage a reading culture. And that starts with well-written stories that reflect the world we live in, and also allow us to imagine ourselves in other worlds.


Kristin Butcher said...

Generally, I'm not a fan of dark fiction. But that's my choice -- just as it is -- and should be -- a choice for others to decide for themselves. The one thing you've added to this drawn-out vendetta that to me is the bottom line on the issue is that regardless of the book's topic and tone, it should be about STORY! If a writer's primary reason for writing is to impart a message, the story is doomed. Young readers don't want to be preached at.

Christy Jordan-Fenton said...

My favourite response was by Sherman Alexie. "I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed." It is well worth reading here:

A very strong argument!