Book Burning
"Book Burning." CC Copyright by pcorreia

[This is for my cousin Victoria to whom I gave a completely facetious answer to this question and to whom I owe a better one.]

Making the World Safe for Puberty

I’ve seen an article making the Facelink rounds among a few of my friends recently.  Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” bemoans the fact that fiction for young adults is a cesspit filled with all manner of luridly described unpleasantness:

Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

You can go on and read the rest yourself if you want but you really don’t have to.  Because if you have been at all sentient during the last, oh, four centuries, you’ve already read this argument many, many times.  Often it is directed at specific titles or series (“Harry Potter is turning our kids into Satan-worshippers!); more often it is directed against entire genres (slasher films, sci-fi) or even wholesale forms of media (books, films, television, and video games in toto have all at one time or another been accused of corrupting the pure moral heart of our precious youth).

Gurdon’s article is a perfect example of an invidious brand of sanctimony that is virulent in the US.  It may be that it is prevalent in the developed world as a whole; I certainly hope not.  This perspective holds that merely being a parent automatically qualifies you as an expert on all matters related to the welfare and upbringing of children; moreover, your status as a parent itself trumps any conceivable argument that could ever be leveled against any position you might hold.  (I have no idea if Gurdon is a parent herself; but she explicitly sides with them in the article).  Proponents of this position often present themselves as custodians of an age-old wisdom not available to those of us who haven’t spliced gametes with someone else, a wisdom that renders the normal constraints of logic and credibility moot.   Thus Gurdon is able to acknowledge the prior history of debates about the corrupting effects of media on youth while simultaneously maintaining that this entire history is irrelevant:”This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new.  Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn’t, on a personal level, really signify.”  In part, of course, this is a deeply ingrained US belief: history is irrelevant to me personally; my actions are in no-way influenced by anything that has come before.

Ignoring history, however, doesn’t help safeguard the individuality of one’s adolescence as much as it enables writers like Gurdon to continue making unsubstantiated generalizations.  The reason this debate has “raged for eons” is, in point of fact, because parents (and writers like Gurdon) are determined to remain ignorant of what was said and done in those earlier debates.  So for hundreds, if not thousands of years (if we want to go back to Socrates) people have been offering dire prognostications that this, that, or the other will corrupt the souls of youth and damage, in Gurdon’s words, “a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart.”  Despite these Jeremiads, however, civilization has somehow not yet disappeared, most kids grow up happy and reasonably well adjusted to the world in which they are living, and some do not.  But if you think that that long, inglorious history of failed dark warnings about kids’ supposed susceptibility to influence “doesn’t really signify” then of course you are free to produce the same rubbish again and again.  It is all rather sadly ironic: one of the reasons we read literature from previous ages, for example, is to learn from the past.  If you are a parent, however, you don’t need to worry about anything that may or may not have been proven by history and can instead take refuge in your solipsistic sense that because everything about this parenting gig is new for you and yours, your own perceptions and actions must surely be correct.

Gurdon’s target in this piece is not, in fact, primarily the depraved nature of teen literature, but rather those who would defend the availability of such literature and especially those who would impinge on the “right” of parents to attempt to rid the world of this (or any) literary scourge.  Describing the hostility of an editor toward “fucking gatekeepers” (either Gurdon herself or the Wall Street Journal of course ensured that our delicate adult sensibilities were never confronted with that nasty word), Gurdon smugly takes up residence on the parental high ground:

she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

The essay concludes on a note intended to be one of ringing defiance but which  instead sounds both chilling and more than a little sad:

So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. 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.

Chilling, because I fail to understand how anyone who professes to love books can suggest that we “oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship.”  Sad, because I suspect that what Gurdon is giving voice to here is the concern of parents that their own parenting skills are inadequate in the face of an increasingly complex world.  I don’t actually believe that our world is in many ways inherently more complex than at any other time.  Differently complex?  Yes.  We now have to worry about global warming and denial of service attacks.  Most of us do not, however, have to worry about dying from smallpox or being roasted on a spit by some religious Inquisition (well, unless Bachmann or Palin becomes president).  And much of the complexity of childraising in our world is created by parents themselves (more on that shortly).  Unfortunately, so many parents who feel ill-equipped to deal with the world around them don’t take the obvious step of looking to their own house but instead try to establish themselves as the parent in everyone else’s home.  So you don’t like these kinds of books.  Fine.  You don’t want them in the hands of your child.  Fine.  Don’t buy them for him or her.

[Incidentally, it is really strange to read someone who doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of inclusive language.  It is so common nowadays to see even conservative writers using strategies like alternating gender pronouns in their text that it really threw me for a loop to find that Gurdon apparently believes that the only people reading young adult fiction are male.]

Of course Gurdon and many parents would respond that that won’t ensure that their child can’t get those books (and here we might also be talking about porn, drugs, contraceptive advice, Lawrence Welk records, or anything else that parents obsess over) from somewhere else.  That, then, is the real issue: parents’ discomfort with the fact that they don’t have absolute and complete control over their offspring.  I can’t impose a police state on my child 24/7, therefore I will try and turn the world into one.  OK, that last was extreme, but the point remains that many movements to ban books, films, videogames, etc., have at their root a feeling of parental powerlessness and an attempt to compensate for that by controlling the world to which their kids have access.  Odd, isn’t it?  You would think that talking with your kid about their reading/leisure choices, giving them good versions of books and games, or reading/playing through one of the “problematic” ones with them and then discussing it would be a much easier task than organizing an entire local community to ban a book in a school library or to encourage Congress to ban all violent video games.  Given the popularity of moral crusade movements that is not apparently the case.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are certainly any number of things from which we should be protecting our kids:

  • pedophile Santa Clauses
  • clowns
  • parents with strong religious convictions
  • purse dogs
  • parents with any religious convictions
  • the Black-Eyed Peas
  • any pop artist that uses autotune

Clearly the world is a dangerous place for kids.  However, the last thing we need to protect them from is books.  Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at what lies behind this evergreen parental fear that some form of “inappropriate content” will waylay the moral compass of young people.

Because I Say So!
The pernicious idea that that young adults can’t handle linguistically, morally, ethically, or representationally challenging material is based on two fundamental principles.

The first is that parents automatically, by virtue of being parents, know what is best for their children.  At first glance this seems like an entirely reasonable proposition.  You live with your kids, you watch them grow up, you watch their struggles and triumphs, you know their desires and their fears.  Entirely reasonable it may be: it is also demonstrably false.  A large proportion of the world’s therapists are, after all, bankrolling their holiday homes in Aruba thanks to families whose members understand one another hardly at all despite having lived in one another’s pockets for years.  In most other spheres of endeavour human beings seem quite capable of acknowledging that it is possible to lose perspective by being too close to a situation.  The singular exception is parenting.  It rarely seems to occur to anyone, especially parents themselves, that their judgement concerning what is best for their child may be deeply flawed because they are so emotionally involved with them.

In all my years as a university teacher and administrator I have yet to meet a single parent who isn’t convinced that the sun shines out of the arse of their little darling.  I’m guessing that some parents do harbor private reservations about some of their offspring but when it comes to taking actions in public on behalf of their child those doubts are suppressed.  Sometimes I fantasize about how refreshing it would be to meet a parent who says, “Yes, you are right, Johnny is an A-grade fuck-up at the moment.  We’re doing the best we can but he just can’t seem to get his shit together.”  But this never happens.  What I get instead is the parent who alleges that their Golden Child, guilty of plagiarizing an entire paper off the web, is the victim of a vendetta by his or her teacher.  I get the parent who pursues an extended campaign of intimidation all the way up to the college president in order to argue that their child should be given credit for being absent for most of a course.  These are extreme cases, although representative of what the typical college administrator has to deal with.  It is one major reason why I don’t miss my time in the administrative barrel one bit, since the worst side of people–faculty, parents, students–is what you see most often.

I firmly believe that while parents should encourage children to get an education and support them in that endeavour, parents should be minimally involved, if at all, in the specifics of that education.  Most faculty members at an American college are familiar with the phenomenon of helicopter parents: parents who choose their kids’ courses for them, parents who ring their children up to make sure that they get out of bed and go to class.  At my college many students routinely go home for the weekend (even if home is several hundred miles away) because they can afford to do so.  In the cloyingly sentimental view of family life that saturates US culture this looks like filial closeness.  But it also looks like co-dependency, and a failure to develop independent thought and character that used to be one of the goals of a college education.  A cheerful, outgoing “familialism” can be encountered all over the US, masking the limited intellectual and emotional development that occurs when one fails to develop as an independent person and instead functions only as an extension of the desires, beliefs, and practices of one’s family.

Furthermore, in the US in particular, while the family may be shrouded in gauzy romantic veils of cliche and wishful thinking, the reality is that the family functions more like a miniature corporate entity.  Setting aside all the parental blather about nurturing individuality and the like, many middle- and upper-middle-class US parents treat their children like a widget whose potential needs to be optimized.  There are any number of commentators who have pointed out how massively overscheduled are the lives of teens today.  In addition to schoolwork and homework Golden Jane is shuttled from soccer practice to flute lessons to self-defense courses to SAT-prep classes to a stint down at a local homeless shelter.  Is this creating a generation of kids who are accomplished and actively engaged with the world?  Possibly.  It is also creates kids who are already exhausted and burnt out by the time they reach college.  Which is unfortunate on a couple of counts.  First, because the whole point of maximizing the potential of Golden Jane, this frenetic developmental whirl, is often explicitly to gain admission to a good college.  Or any college.  (Because if everyone is going all out to maximize the potential of their widget. . .sorry, child. . .in a way that is visible to others, then everyone ends up similarly excellent.  And Stanford only has so many places for the similarly excellent).  Volunteering at the local homeless shelter may be a great way of teaching kids to help others less fortunate than themselves, cultivate a spirit of volunteerism, yadda yadda yadda, but it will hopefully look really good on a college admission application.  The second downside of this frenzy of activity is that it cultivates in kids the idea that “potential” is one more performance index to be measured, optimized, publicized, and never, ever, wasted.  It joins a lengthening list of activities that can be refined and performed efficiently–communication, game-playing, vacationing, reading, sex–in order to leave us more time for. . .what was it that I wanted to do, again?

The irony here is that it is precisely those parents who wring their hands and witter about books (or films, or videogames, or. . .) stealing their children’s childhoods who are guilty of scheduling their students into a premature adulthood.  Most kids are not the ones signing themselves up for endless rounds of skill-building and character development activities.  It is their parents.  While writers like Gurdon and parents love to talk about the importance of nurturing the individuality of their children and will hide behind the claim that “I just want him/her to be happy,” this is hypocritical cant.  In my experience parents generally can’t and/or won’t separate their own desires for their children from the gradually emerging individual desires of the child themselves.  There is a massive difference between treating a child as a person to whom you can offer guidance, and a widget turned on a lathe.

The Golden Age of Adulthood
Of course, the biggest factor explaining why adults think kids need to be protected from violent videogames and literature with “dark” themes is because most adults seem convinced that in its natural state (without all these nasty companies trying to push their junk on the powerless masses) childhood is a time of innocence and purity and children themselves are naturally what Gurdon referred to as “tenderhearted.”


With an extra set of bollocks.

As any child who has the misfortune to be going through childhood now can probably tell you, for most kids it is a domain of casual thuggery and sophisticated psychological terrorism, leavened by moments of largely self-inflicted near-death experiences.  Moreover, a casual meander through the annals of literature (children’s and adult) demonstrates quite convincingly that not much has changed in that regard over at least the last couple of centuries.  (I’m always surprised that those who claim to love books even as they try to keep them out of the hands of others seem to have learned so little about human nature from their reading).  While I’m loathe to generalize over vast swaths of history I strongly suspect that in ancient Egypt bigger boys were terrorizing smaller boys with atomic wedgies and gangs of mean girls were spreading the gossip that Isis was a big fat slut.  A formal schooling system naturally provides the perfect venue for all the worst aspects of the childish disposition to find their full expression.  I’m not talking about what goes on in those schools where kids are busy attempting to shoot and knife one another.  I’m talking about the ordinary everyday experience even in the “good” schools.

I frankly don’t understand how any adult can not be aware of the real nature of childhood unless they were home-schooled under solitary confinement in a convent or monastery.  Of course, I also have a sneaking suspicion that many of the adults who seem convinced that childhood is a place of blissful innocence were those who spent their own happy childhoods making life miserable for the rest of us.  Probably that was great fun for them.  The popular ones.  The beautiful ones.  The star athletes.

Maybe there is another explanation.  Women often talk of “pregnancy brain,” a state where the hormones and the radical denial necessary to avoid understanding what you’ve gotten yourself into collude and produce irrational thinking, forgetfulness and the like.  Maybe there is also something called “parent brain.”  You have kids and then instantly forget what it was like to be a kid yourself.  Instead you become convinced the kids in their natural state are all little angels just waiting to bestow gifts of sweetness and light on one another and the world at large.

Remember, we are talking about kids who grow up considered by the world at large to be relatively normal and well-adjusted.  I haven’t yet mentioned the kids who grow up broken and damaged as a result of various forms of abuse or who have the misfortune to be born to parents with not an ounce of common sense (a surprisingly large group, actually).  If we are actually honest about what childhood is and what even the most angelic tykes and tykettes inflict on their fellows, then we have to wonder if kids need protecting from the world or the world needs protecting from kids.  Certainly I find it hard to believe that even the most lurid examples that Gurdon mentions measure up to the horror of what happens on the average school playground during the average recess.  Kids are also pretty damn smart about being able to tell fantasy from reality (much smarter in this area than their parents give them credit for).  Tales of murder and mayhem?  Fantasy.  Being given a swirly or having your BFF tell all the boys in your class that you pad your bra?  That, my friends, is the all too painful reality.

Maybe the obvious explanation for why adults (and parents in particular) seem compelled to embrace such a delusional view of childhood is the right one.  As an adult, your life steadily erodes into the product of a seemingly endless series of compromises and, well, let’s face it, betrayals (others betray you, you betray other people, you betray what once seemed to you ironclad principles).  The world becomes a thorny tangle of ambiguous moral choices and ethical dilemmas with no clear path and often no resolution.  Your pleasures are fleeting when they can be had, often expensive, and somehow vaguely unsatisfying.  In order to shuffle through your days in a cubicle it can be enormously helpful to believe that this isn’t all there is to life, that there was more to it once, when you were young, carefree, and irresponsible (seriously, does anyone believing that even remember adolescence?  Carefree?).  You look at your kids and like to think that that is the world the inhabit now.  Maybe they will be able to hold on to that.  Maybe their life will not be your life.

In my day there was no “in my day”
It may well be, however, that part of the problem here is the category “young adult” itself.  It is a rather strange category when you think about it.  In some respects it is a throwback to an earlier time when there was no childhood as we now understand the term.  (Of course, if you believe that history doesn’t actually signify, you couldn’t be expected to know this).  What we now refer to as childhood (and even more so the extension of that into the teenage years) is a relatively recent invention.  In Western cultures at least, kids were usually thought of as miniature adults from a very early age.  At an age when many of today’s kids are agonizing over college choices (or their parents are agonizing for them), their ancestors of 300 years ago would have either been in some form of employment for several years or cranking out babies by the score.  Of course, they would also be dead by 30.

Calling this development period young adulthood seems to imply that we are in some sense taking 12-18 year olds seriously.  Of course, we’re lying.  The tendency in US culture at least is rather to move in the other direction, and to prolong childhood (or, more exactly, a state of childishness) indefinitely.  I first became aware of this during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, when Lewinsky, a woman in her 20s, was consistently referred to by the news media as “young,” immature, inexperienced, barely out of adolescence.  If someone in their 20s is still being treated as a child, I found myself wondering, at what point do they officially become an adult?  25?  30?  40?  Furthermore, if Lewinsky was really all those things (i.e. basically a twit), then a) was she like that because our culture insists on infantilizing people until well into adulthood, and b) did it automatically mean that she wasn’t responsible for her actions, as many people seemed to imply?

It is that issue of responsibility that seems to be the sticking point, and also the key to US culture’s extraordinarily conflicted attitude toward the meeting point of adolescence and adulthood.  On the one hand, people in their twenties are treated, essentially, as irresponsible kids.  On the other hand, it seems quite OK for 18-year-olds to be put in charge of astronomically expensive heavy weaponry in a war zone.  On the third hand, our culture seems to be perfecting a situation where men in particular can remain in a state of perpetual adolescence (or, if you prefer, a state of suspended adulthood) almost until it is time for them to embark on a mid-life crisis.  They can move seamlessly from playing with Playstations and jello shots to playing with women half their age.

The term “young adult” then is, like the period it names, both ambiguous and curiously inconsequential.  It perfectly exemplifies the uneasy attitude culture manifests toward young people: there’s something there, something new, new skills and ideas. . .but the new is, as always, vaguely threatening, so we’ll assign them this temporary category where they aren’t real adults, and where we can tell them we take them seriously but we really don’t have to do anything about it.

Kids are People, Too!
Ultimately I think Gurdon is missing an important point about all the dark and lurid books from which she gleefully quotes.  I haven’t read any of the books that she cites so I can’t speak from a position of authority.  So, instead, I shall speak from a position of uninformed speculation!  From many of the examples that Gurdon cites it doesn’t seem to me that the real concern is that the themes are too dark or the content is too lurid.  Rather the focus should be on whether or not the writing is hackneyed and unimaginative.

There are two ways of talking down to kids.  One is to try and dumb things down for them, to treat them as developmentally simple.  The other is to try and pump up the volume in the belief that the coarse adolescent mind can’t appreciate subtlety.  The problem with writing for kids that is either dumbed down or over-the-top is that it fails to excite the imagination, either by giving it nothing to do or by not leaving any gaps for us to try and inhabit and fill with our own content and speculations.  The best writers have always known that the secret to writing for children is. . .to write for them in exactly the same way as you write for adults.  It is no coincidence that many of the authors enjoyed by kids are also enjoyed by adults (think Rowling, Pullman).   Strong fiction doesn’t eschew dark themes or troubling scenes, but it often approaches them with subtlety, avoiding extravagance or the cheap appeal to sensationalism.  That is a generalization, obviously.  But when I think about some of the authors I was reading as a young adult–Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, John Christopher’s White Mountains trilogy, Anne McAffrey, Roald Dahl, to name just a few–there was a lot of darkness there.  Alan Garner still creeps me out.  But there was a lot of subtlety there as well, even in some of the most horrific scenes.  There is wisdom in the human psychology in their works, something that I enjoy in Rowling’s books as well as the work of M. T. Anderson (Feed).

That, then, is really where we should be focusing our energies.  Adults in general and parents in particular need to face up to the fact that due in no small part to their own efforts, childhood is a dark time.  It needs a dark literature.  (And when I say literature I’m referring not just to printed books, but to the narrative domain that is increasingly eclipsing print for many kids: videogames).  But childhood needs a literature that is original, imaginative and not derivative or tacky.  If we spend all our times counting bodies or how many times people either say or engage in fucking, and obsessing about themes that are too adult, then we’re going to miss what is really important: the originality of the language and the authenticity of the imaginative engagement that it makes possible.