When I was a teenager – and even, if I’m going to be honest, into my early 20’s – I was an angsty little dude. It usually had to do with girls and my inability to date them, and I cloaked myself in self-righteous misery. Imbued with the solipsism of the young, I knew no one else at my high school – those backwards, cow-town knuckle-draggers, as I viewed them at the time – understood my pain, and so I’d lose myself in music. Morrissey knew what I was going through. My awkwardness and self-loathing felt right at home on Joy Division’s icy tundra or in the sonic architecture of The Cure’s Disintegration. I felt harmonic convergence with Elvis Costello’s bile in “I Want You” and Paul Westerberg’s raw anguish in the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.” It was comforting, reassuring, to feel like I wasn’t alone. When I needed an escape, all I had to do was put on my headphones and let my friends sing to me.
But of course I wasn’t alone. What I was feeling wasn’t singular to me. It wasn’t even special or unusual. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and looking in the rearview mirror it’s plain that I was suffering from nothing more serious than adolescence. But at the time it was weighty, momentous – the fate of the world was held in the answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the movies with me this weekend?” And to ease this suffering, we want to know that someone out there understands us.
I found comfort in music. Increasingly, today’s teenagers find it in the pages of Young Adult Literature (YAL), which is in the middle of something resembling a golden age. I keep up with it as well as I can as part of my professional responsibility, and the quality has never been higher. Sure, there’s purely escapist nonsense like the Twilight series (and just about anything else categorized under the giggle-inducing “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of your local Barnes & Noble), but man, the best of the best holds its own with – and sometimes even exceeds – the quality of so-called “adult” fiction. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just three recent favorites) tackle serious issues (cancer, mental illness, and racial bias, respectively) with sensitivity and sophistication that can be appreciated by readers who haven’t seen adolescence in quite a while. Like, ahem, yours truly.
I bring up the issue of content – and these three books in particular – for a couple reasons. One is, as I described at the beginning, the importance of seeing yourself in art. Just as it was infinitely reassuring to hear Morrissey sing, “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” I think I would have immediately been drawn to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (had it been written in 1988) and its thoughtful depiction of a teen dealing with depression and anxiety. Similarly, for teens dealing with physical illness, The Fault in Our Stars treats its cancer-afflicted main characters with dignity, respect, and humor, and Alexie’s Part-Time Indian is a powerful (and powerfully funny) account of growing up as the Other, torn between two cultures who seek to hold you back in different ways. This is what the best of YAL does: It holds up a mirror to the reader, letting him know he’s not alone and giving him the tools to survive.
But the mirror can also be flipped around to reflect the outside world to someone unfamiliar with it. Growing up in small-town Ohio, at a school whose demographics skewed nearly 100% white, Alexie’s book would have been just as much a revelation to me then as it is to the small-town Georgia teens who populate the schools around me now. With its accessible language and relatable characters, YAL can do immense good in helping younger readers broaden their horizons and deepen their empathy.
But of course some people just don’t get it. What prompted me to write this post was discovering this article from England’s Daily Mail, which completely mischaracterizes YAL as “sick lit” that morbidly traffics in human misery, apparently for the purpose of exploitation and book sales. Or, as the author herself states, “Since the vampire book bubble burst, publishers have been looking to find the next big thing in the lucrative world of young adult fiction.” That’s right, folks: cancer sells, dont’cha know.
I’ve had a problem with this kind of reporting from critics before. It’s the same kind of blinkered, short-sighted ignorance that led many respected movie critics (including my beloved Roger Ebert) to heap praises on the film Waiting for Superman, despite the fact that it’s a thinly-veiled propaganda piece (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) attacking public schools in favor of private charters. The critics reviewed it as a movie without fully (or even partially) understanding how it plays into the current debate about education reform. So they bought the movie’s bogus thesis that there’s an education crisis and promoted the movie in their reviews as a solution to the fabricated problem.
The same thing happens in Carey’s article about YAL. Instead of exploring the mountain of research that discusses the benefits of YAL for readers of all kinds, Carey instead calls on “children’s book expert” Amanda Craig, who says authors have “a moral and social responsibility” when they write for children, and books about illness, suicide, depression, etc., shirk that responsibility. The implication is that the books are exploitative (she specifically singles out Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), using serious issues like depression, illness, and suicide as cheap plot devices to sell books.
Which is absolute nonsense.
Roger Ebert (if I can mention him again for just a moment) wrote something that has often guided my response to both books and movies, and I’m paraphrasing: “A movie isn’t what it’s about. It’s how it is about it.” Of course a book about teen cancer can be exploitative. But to say all books about teen cancer are exploitative is to completely ignore just how nimbly, sensitively, and respectfully Green writes about it. Vizzini doesn’t cheapen teen depression by writing about it, nor does Alexie sensationalize racial prejudice. In talking to other people who have read these books (and other YAL like them) the reaction isn’t, “Cool cancer book, yo.” It’s more like, “This really helped me to understand what people endure when they suffer from cancer [depression/prejudice] as a teen.” The books have an impact not because they titillate, but because the best of them have important things to say about life with all its challenges.
It’s tempting, I think, for adults to want teens only to read sugar-coated tales where the most serious adversity is forgotten lunch money. But teens face ever more serious challenges, and YAL is just one way of helping them negotiate this minefield. To ignore the way literature can be a place of solace seems to me to be an even bigger avoidance of moral and social responsibility than to write a book that helps teens find comfort in their – and our – imperfect lives.
Low – The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)