June 20, 2011
Down with literacy
As certainly as the Earth circles the Sun, adults must wring their hands over the ways teenagers choose to entertain themselves. Now some behavior--pretty much anything the average teenage boy thinks is "daring" and "original" and "cool" (in other words, dumb, prosaic, and done because everybody else is doing it)--is worth some wringing of the hands.
Reading definitely ain't one of them.
But Meghan Cox Gurdon, the latest in a long line of hand wringers, worried recently in the Wall Street Journal that YA fiction is "too dark." And, of course, this time it's so bad it's different. Which is another way of saying how special we all are. All those overpraised kids grew up to be adults equally convinced that their problems as parents are superduperspecial too.
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.
The careless young reader? I can't help thinking of the old joke about how losing one parents is a tragedy, and losing two is just careless. A decade ago, in one of the better treatments of the same subject, Moira Redmond called the genre "Dreadlit," which consists of
utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons-actual and moral-in the most punishing way possible. What these books resemble most are Victorian tracts: moral tales where every action had to be met with an equal and opposite reaction.
Frankly, I don't care for it either. And frankly, there was nothing new about it then. Even when I was in high school (many, many decades ago), "dark" was treated as a synonym for "literary." Simply consider that Lois Lowry won the Newbery (twice!), not for her much better (upbeat and optimistic) Anastasia and Sam books, but for her "serious" and dystopian stuff.
And so what? Look, if teenagers want to read, let 'em read. A single sentence sums up the well-intentioned but wrong-headed thinking that Gurdon represents: "Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it."
Maybe in the world of moralizing blank-slaters and bottom-line Hollywood producers (a very odd couple). I'm a living experiment, having grown up in a large, conservative family with no television but a love for reading (starting with the Bible), and fairly little supervision of what we checked out of the library (we checked out too many books for our parents to check).
As a result, the entertainment tastes of my siblings have ended up all over the freaking map. No, you cannot dictate taste. And when parents and authority figures stop trying and leave readers to their own devices, they will discover those "created" tastes doing cartwheels and one-eighties all by themselves.
More than anything else, by hating what kids read at their own initiative, this top-down approach (especially in English classes) makes kids hate reading. G.K. Chesterton saw this coming a century ago (in what also turned out to be a prescient description of intellectual attractions of HBO):
It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room tables . . . . [And so] with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German Professors) whether morality is valid at all.
This attitude is almost nonexistent in Japan (the stuff that raises hackles there gets people arrested here). For going on half a century, manga and anime writers have been pandering shamelessly to every lowest common denominator that sells to teen males, including the nihilistic existential angst teenagers mistake for profundity. You know, the same way Shakespeare did.
(And that--I'm being perfectly serious--is a big reason why the literacy rate in Japan is so high, despite written Japanese having the world's most complicated orthography.)
The message of Romeo and Juliet, after all, is that hormone-addled teenagers will kill each other and themselves for the dumbest and most arbitrary of reasons. Teenagers think that's cool. They did four hundred years ago. They will four hundred years from now. But here's the thing about teenagers: THEY GROW UP.
At least they do when adults stop creating rebels without a cause by making transitory teenage tastes a world-ending CAUSE. Which, come to think about it, is also the message of Romeo and Juliet.