Darkness Too Visible (in Contemporary YA Fiction)

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Halatia's avatar
An intriguing article from the WSJ: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?


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LadyofGaerdon's avatar
Personally I think society has long underestimated how much young adults can take and already understand. So I'm quite pleased with this trend. I do think there is value in just letting a child be a child, but 13 years olds are not children. They are young adults and there is a major, major difference. I quite enjoy YA urban fantasy, like Holly Black's Tithe series, because having teenagers speak and behave as actual teenagers do, makes the fantasy aspects far more believable.
Halatia's avatar
I'm not against raising the idea of dark themes and difficult issues. Actually, I'm 100% for it. What worries me is that some of them may just be dark for dark's sake without having a) literary value or b) an actual purpose to character/moral development for both character and reader.

That sounds really snooty. I just want dark themes to be used well. :D
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
SO. Here is a link to my response to the aforementioned article. Feel free to continue my list. [link]
The article also includes links to some beautifully articulated rebuttals by Laurie Halse Anderson, Cheryl Rainfield (whose novel SCARS is lambasted by the journalist), and one of my favorite teen readers:
See also, this rebuttal from the brilliant Sherman Alexie: [link]
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
There are books on the market for anyone. This article paints a wholly inaccurate depiction of what's out there. There are LOTS of options, from light and fluffy to dark and scary.

And before any of you say "oh no, that's too dark for kids!" remember that a) teens are not kids -- and even so, kids aren't dumb and b) life is dark, and ignoring darkness only encourages us not to speak up about it. Books about suicide don't promote suicide, they open up a door for a conversation. They make someone a better friend. They make someone feel less alone.

I highly recommend y'all run a Google search for #YASaves and see some of the brilliant responses by everyone from authors to readers to librarians to parents. And, if you're going to discuss this, if you're going to throw your opinion on YA fiction into the fray, I highly recommend you actually READ some of what's out there now and NOT jump to conclusions about what these books portray or encourage based on quotes from articles like this and others like it.
Halatia's avatar
Yeah, there is definitely a lot out there. I can confirm that as I read a lot of YA and had absolutely no clue that such dark topics were ever covered in the age group--so I suppose it's a matter of what one seeks out.

I've really liked the responses that I've gotten here on this thread because it does seem, for the most part at least, that people really agree with what you said. It's not about taking on dark themes; I've always believed that covering difficult topics in literature is one of the best ways to open a dialogue on stuff that may otherwise remain pushed the the side and unspoken of.

Do you personally think that any topics are taken too far to be found in YA-labeled books?
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
I don't think any topics CAN be taken too far in YA. In a book, everything that happens HAS to be relevant to the story, and for a book to be published, it has to make it past so many gatekeepers that a book that throws around tough topics for shock value isn't going to make it to the shelves. Plus, teens are so smart that they can smell that a mile away -- I'd say the adult market has way more shock for shock's sake than teen books.
Halatia's avatar
I definitely haven't read enough of either modern adult or modern YA to be able to say anything to shock for shock's sake! I would just like to see it disappear as a whole; I'm all for shocking as long as it directly relates and is relevant to the narrative.
jonathoncomfortreed's avatar
I once found a list of banned books – included stuff like Go Ask Alice and Lord of the Flies – and took pride in all of the ones I had read. :nod:

I'm hoping the vampire/death/rape phase will end though. :paranoid: I'm not really into that sort of literature.
I read history/geography non-fiction more than fiction anyway, to be honest.
Halatia's avatar
I just...don't read those types of YA. There's so much more out there.

Well, except vampire things. I flove me some vampires. Just not the fluffy sparkly kind.
jonathoncomfortreed's avatar
Yeah, there sure is. I don't think YA is going to shit like all the fear-mongers would have us believe. But yeah, more interested in adult books anyway. :giggle:
JZLobo's avatar
I really don't think teenagers should be reading content like that; young people are just as impressionable at those ages as they were as toddlers. What you imbibe will influence who you become and while it's not good to bury your head in the sand, it's not good to dwell on such violence either, and risk desensitizing oneself to horror. However it's the parents' job to determine what their kids are ready for and what they aren't.

This does give me motivation to finish my own book; I think it could offer something that is sorely lacking in the young adult section. It has violence, yeah, because the main characters wind up taking jobs as mercenaries. But there are ramifications to violence and it does not glorify it. And I am writing characters who are emotionally centered and psychologically healthy, if not a little eccentric in some cases. I want to write characters that my readers can admire and maybe even look up to.
a-fiery-boom's avatar
This. This is why I rarely find a decent book in my favorite area outside classic literature!

Most books I see on the popular racks now are basically Twiblight clones, and nothing more. It's tiring. Yes, rape, suicide, drugs, self-harm, etc. is horrible... But do authors seriously need to gang up on the rest of YA literature so that readers know?

It seems to me that the use of rape, suicide, cutting, and drug abuse is becoming cliche now. That's not to say they aren't serious problems in real life, of course. But when most of the rack is filled with the same conflicts and personal problems, it's both cliche and concerning. It's a fad to write and read these sorts of dark novels.

What I have yet to fathom is how these cliches remain so popular. They are hollow and boring because of the overuse. And, I'm very confident that these are not the only problems that can be tackled by dark novels. I actually find 1984 to be much more tragic than most of Shakespeare's tragedies. A fair number of Shakespearean characters die because life isn't worth living anymore. That's tragic, yes. But even more tragic is having to continue to live despite the worthlessness of life, as Winston does by the end of Orwell's novel. We need more literature that reaches around the corners instead of stopping at them.

I definitely think that some things should be bordered off from YA books, like explicitly detailed scenes involving sex or a killing. But it's not like the publishing companies will stop it. It's like television; no matter how little you want to see two people screwing each other(and most of the time out of lust rather than love, another annoying cliche), that tv's not going to change it for you. There's too many people obsessed with sex, and the companies don't want to miss out on a single profit.

This junk sells, and it's definitely overused. But despite how badly it's used and how it's everywhere, it's up to the readers to ignore the overrated junk and dig for the good books. :shrug:
Halatia's avatar
I actually read mostly from YA. There are some really and truly wonderful popular series out there, especially if you like fantasy and historical fiction.

And I'm unsure if a situation can be considered cliche. Suicide, , drug ues, etc haveand will always be a plot device in literature. It's a matter of how the author executes the situation that lifts it above the level of cliche. At least in my opinion! :D
a-fiery-boom's avatar
:highfive: Agreed! YA is wonderful! Do you have any fantasy recommendations? Now that I've reread Harry Potter for the summer, I need a new book...

Well, here I mean cliche as in most of the dark novels that apply to the article use them in the same or similar ways. It's quite fine to have a particular plot device used over and over, but the same use in multiple novels (in the same category) just gets tiring. ^^;
Halatia's avatar
I really enjoy the Percy Jackson series (as well as Riordan's other series, The Kane Chronicles). I've recently started The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima which is traditional high-fansty-esque and am truly enjoying that. I also really like Artemis Fowl, even though that is aimed a younger audience (the reading level is like the first couple Harry Potters). Uuuuummm then there is always Robin McKinley's YA stuff along with Tamora Pierce and Phillip Pullman.
a-fiery-boom's avatar
Oh, that's right! I forgot Riordan's new series! :nuu: Very nice list of books, thank you! Now hopefully my inner book snob will let me read them all the way through! =D
kakashiplushie's avatar
I originally got wind of this article through Twitter. I follow a lot of YA authors and most of them reacted really violently--for example, Laurie Halse Anderson's passionate blog post: [link] and Libba Bray's response on Twitter [link] . At first, I was inclined to side with them because they are, after all, some of the people I look up to the most. So I read the article and my first reaction was: YES FINALLY SOMEONE'S NOTICED APART FROM ME.

On the one hand, I don't think it's fair to generalize all YA fiction into that clump of 'visible darkness.' As a lot of people have pointed out, there are still lots of great YA books out there; people just have to look beyond the display windows of bloodsuckers and wrist cutters. I also agree with the writers who say books are vessels to reach out and sympathize and give voices to the voiceless and all that. Of course they are, they always have been. I think what's alarming is the sheer amount of them. It's good to bring such issues to light but not everyone wants to read about anorexic/suicidal/werewolf-zombie-hybrid teens.

I think it's sad that people read because it's 'in.' I'm not ashamed to admit it: I got into reading via the Harry Potter books and I am still a big fan until now. It's just that I used those books as a stepping stone to other areas of literature. They cultivated in me a love for words and I looked for more, first in that genre then I started to branch out. What's happening now is that people don't need to look around. The publishers and bookstores are just shelling out the same thing.

On the issue of appropriateness: In the immortal words of Margot and the Nuclear So and So's: Times, they gotta change, and so do we. I'm not a parent. I'm just a book-loving older sister who blocked fanfiction.net from all the computers in the house because my sister is ten and she's more willing to read smutty fan stuff than the original books. People won't stop cursing or getting naked on TV or wearing meat dresses any time soon. I think appropriateness will always be subjective and it's an issue better sorted out at home or between parents and their children.

tl; dr: Books are wonderful, eye-opening things. I think there should be more variety on the shelves. Appropriateness is subjective. Also, don't read fanfiction without reading the original series. That's just degrading.
Halatia's avatar
Great response. I feel that way about books, too. THey are a great way to open a dialogue, especially about difficult things. But...there's lines that maybe shouldn't be crossed until the Adult section of a book store.
kakashiplushie's avatar
I agree. Personally, I think there should be at least some sort of age boundaries like they have for movies, but I suppose not as strict, or at least, self-imposed ones set up by the family.

I don't think it's right to censor what's really happening, but I don't want, say my ten-year-old sister to read about things like rape or suicide in incredible detail. There are some things that are better known if they get introduced to us gradually. Granted, it's always a shock to hear that these things are happening but I don't see the need to articulate as much as the books that were mentioned in the article did.
Lit-Twitter's avatar
Chirp, it's been twittered. [link] :)
CailinLiath's avatar
The Guardian's article in response: [link]
Halatia's avatar
Oooo thanks!
CailinLiath's avatar
also came across [link] (this) today. quite the essay!
Halatia's avatar
Yes! Someone else linked to that this morning, too. I must read it!
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