Not Thinking About the Children

Two essays — one from Annalee Newitz and one from Lizzie Skurnick — express needless hostility to books that involve the young. The first essay quibbles over YA science fiction with protagonists under 18 being categorized as YA as niche marketing gone horribly awry. As Newitz writes:

When scifi novels with adolescent protagonists are marketed as “just for adolescents,” a curtain of taboo falls between most adults and that novel. In an era where there is so much legal panic around relations between adults and young adults, it’s hard to deny your knee-jerk response that there’s something slightly distasteful and pedophilic about an adult reading stories aimed at people under the age of 18.

Let me try and understand this strange logic. If I, a balding and bearded thirtysomething man, wander into a YA section at a bookstore, I will immediately find my name listed in the Megan’s Law database. I cannot possibly purchase a book and claim it to be “for my son” or “for my niece.” (Not that I would. Because a book purchase is nobody’s goddam business but mine. And besides, I have braved the apparent choppy waters of the kiddie section many times in purchasing several copies of E. Nesbitt and L. Frank Baum for friends to give to their children to read.) To wander into the kiddie section is now apparently equivalent to clumsily divagating through the beads separating the “adult” titles from the regular movies in a video store. Never mind that, when it comes to YA, it is parents who hold the purchasing power.

And, of course, I cannot possibly read a YA book on a subway. Not even if I remove the dust jacket and make the book’s title difficult to identify. Apparently, the minute that I open up a YA book, all eyes will veer to my perverted and demented form. There can be no other judgment. Not even the usual apathy. You may not know this, but every YA book can be easily identified by the government-mandated bleeping yellow light whenever anyone over the age of eighteen starts reading it. The appropriate authorities will be summoned. I will be thrown in jail and sentenced to a chemical castration. For I have transgressed the boundaries.

For what it’s worth, I have read a few YA titles on the subway and have not yet experienced any such problems. Perhaps Ms. Newitz has some legislative evidence with which to support her utterly strange claim. But I seriously doubt this.

Then there is Ms. Skurnick’s essay, which quibbles with Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel. She first casts doubt on a 9-year-old narrator’s ability to recite Emily Dickinson’s poems. (Casual YouTube searches suggest otherwise.) The idea that a 9-year-old would consider More Joy of Sex is likewise impossible. (Never mind that kids are quite curious about anatomy. I should point out that I acquired an illicit copy of The Joy of Sex when I was 6. Puritanical households make children curious quite swiftly.)

Both essays have been dutifully responded to by, respectively, Colleen Mondor and John Fox. Fox suggests that Skurnick failed to read one story correctly and used this to paint a needlessly broad stroke against the capacities of children.

But what is really going on here? I have appreciated both Newitz and Skurnick’s work in the past. However, these essays both represent foolhardy and illogical positions. These two idiotic essays read as if they were written to draw traffic to their respective outlets. Forget reason, ratiocination, or even a modicum of common sense. Newitz and Skurnick both decided that they’d throw all that into the incinerator. And in doing so, they have both settled for pernicious and discriminatory positions that threaten the possibilities of literature. If we cannot accept a 9-year-old who likes Emily Dickinson, then I suppose we should disregard the wisdom of Holden Caulfield or the musings of Huckleberry Finn. After all, all dem kids must be dumb! Likewise, it’s worth pointing out that there was once a time in which anyone reading or writing science fiction was considered a pervert or a loon. (For example, consider this 1954 Time article in which a Cleveland psychiatric social worker declared that science fiction plots betrayed “schizophrenic manifestations” in the minds of their authors.) It is extremely disappointing to see the editor of a sizable science fiction website fall into this same fallacious line of reasoning for YA.

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4 Comments

  1. As a former bookseller,I agree with you,Ed,that finding an adult in the YA section of a bookstore would not immediately set off any alarm bells(I also saw the movie Happiness and if Ms. Newitz can’t see the world of difference between a grown man getting off on Tiger Beat magazine vs. any adult picking up a couple of YA novels for their own personal reading,perhaps she needs some summer school lessons there).

    From my browsing on the blogosphere,I have found many adults who enjoy YA titles,in all genres,and appreciate the writing skill and talent of those authors who seem to be considered the red headed stepchildren of literature these days(no offense meant to red heads or step kids,I swear!)

    Part of the appeal of YA to adults is that in some ways,they get more out of it than the target audience does. After all,most folks have reached the “been there,done that” stage in their maturity and can look back at that period of their lives thru fiction and recognize the reality of the emotional growth(or lack of)of the characters much more quickly.

    Not to mention that the metaphors used in horror and sci-fi YA can be witty to both sets of ages;as a Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan,I reveled in the snappy dialog along with the vampire/demon/witch pathos(and was a full fledged adult at the time)and I’m sure plenty of the fanbase that grew up with BTVS was inspired to increase their knowledge of lit and pop culture just as much as any Gilmore Girls fan(which I am now a Jenny-Come-Lately admirer of)did.

    To wrap this up,I find it amusing that young people have no trouble crossing over the age barriers for books but that some adults seem to feel that their fellow grown-ups either need a kid as a beard or should put their YA books in plain brown wrappers:)

  2. Re Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel

    I always fall back on Marilynne Robinson’s view when issues of implausibility are brought up: it’s not a problem of likelihood but of style. However, since I haven’t read Adrian’s collection, I can’t give an opinion and only offer this as one possible criterion.

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