Downer overload

The recent Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon about the bleak character of much Young Adult fiction, “Darkness Too Visible,” has spurred a lot of reaction (you can see a useful round-up of these at the PWxyz blog). I’m pretty much in favor of publishers publishing whatever writers want to write and readers want to read, but the phenomenon that Gurdon addresses in her essay hit home the past few years as my son made his way through middle school. At 14, he is an occasionally articulate critic of curricula in general and cultural topics in particular. His issue with the books he’s been assigned over the past three years is less with the extreme problem/pathology titles Gurdon covers, which few school systems would make required reading, and more with what he sees as the uniformly bleak cast of the books, many considered contemporary classics, that he’s had to read. As he sees it, his reading assignments have been one downer after another, to an extent that became depressingly predictable over the past three years.

I don’t doubt that for many YA readers, the opportunity to see their own personal experiences, however difficult, reflected in the books they read is very important. My own love of fiction burgeoned when I discovered that it could help me understand, and eventually deepen, my own feelings about the world and how it worked, while at the same time it deepened my sense of language and its possibilities. But I was a gloomy teenager, and my son, I hope, is less gloomy than I was; I’m now able to see how the kinds of books that I enjoyed when I was his age, and a little older, could look unappealingly dark to those of less-dark temperament. And it’s very easy to see how a steady diet of problem books, dystopic books, and just garden-variety “serious” books–which, when looked at as a group, might surprise an impartial observer with their unremittingly downer-ish cast–could turn off average young adult readers, in the same way that an absence of those kinds of books could strand those young adult readers desperate to see their experiences reflected in literature. There should be a middle ground here between the sweetness and light and the sturm und drang. But based on my son’s experience at his middle school, it looks like the vast majority of that ground has been taken up by the dark and dystopic.

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