questions for a time of unreason

I am not really going to blog about the kerfuffle surrounding Meghan Cox Gurdon’s book review of YA dystopian fiction (“Darkness too Visible,” The Wall Street Journal, 6/4/2011). You have probably already read it, formed your own opinions, and posted them at your own blog. Although if you’ve not been following the weeks of fracas, the Guardian offers a well-balanced summary with enough links to ruin anyone’s dinner. And my own thoughts may soon appear, albeit elsewhere.

But without offering my opinion, I want to provide a point to consider: Ms. Cox Gurdon has done her job supremely well. She wrote a carefully crafted review which simultaneously appealed to the subscriber base of the Murdoch empire and also which garnered a tremendous amount of attention and discussion elsewhere.

People were talking about the newspaper. About the book review column. Quoting and discussing quotations ad nauseam. Flooding the WSJ network sites with comments and hits. At the present time of writing, the review is the third result on Google for “YA fiction.” The review has drawn attention, and that means traffic, and that means money. I don’t think this was entirely the culture war it was painted; I think it was a shrewd business move. We cannot say that the results have been anything but successful.

And that’s all I’ll say for now.

What I am going to blog about are three questions which have burbled through my mind as I’ve followed the melee. They’re about writing, and writing about writing, and what we write. They’re also below the jump.

1. Why do we assume a pragmatic ethic for art? The argument of both defenders and attackers of dystopian YA fiction has revolved mainly around its effect, or results. Are young people helped or hindered? What valuable life lessons are they learning? Is this a message we want them to hear? And so on. The assumption, implicit and never directly stated, is that YA literature serves primarily a didactic and pedagogical purpose. Its use is the formation of young minds; its quality can be determined by seeing how those minds are formed.

I can’t shake the suspicion that if, say, this discussion were happening about Literary Fiction, the emphasis would be on the need for art to be art. The need of the artist ‘to not look away’. The need to create. The integrity of art. The need for art. Full stop. It’s the argument once surrounding (as I understand it) Joyce and Ginsberg and Nabokov. And I have a very hard time imagining Joyce insisting that his books must be good since its readers of Ulysses become such very nice people.

It’s true we must write children’s literature with a sense of responsibility for our child readers. But why does that seem to necessitate we assume a didactic, authoritative role? Why this seeming double standard of ars gratia artis and ars gratia doctrina?

2. Where is the place for reasoned discourse? The ever sagacious John McIntyre recently offered this outstanding critique of modern argument, specifically in relation to the Honfest controversy (no, I don’t know either). And he’s absolutely right. The WSJ book review was an emotional appeal, and as such well done—a raconteur piece designed to raise hue and cry. Which it did. The hue and cry included many direct personal insults on the reviewer’s intelligence, competence, and morality. Which proves nothing.

I care deeply about writing and about fiction. I care deeply about children’s literature and about YA fiction. But it seems impossible—silly, even—to try to actually discuss the issues surrounding it in the current cultural climate. We’re all Covenanters guarding our golden calves with stern-eyed zeal, each ready to put the other to the stake, the quarter, the rack. The sense of humantias which had not left Kant even in death seems to have waltzed completely out the window.

Nor do we assume that to ‘shoot or not shoot’ simply ‘doesn’t matter’, and hope the crowd welcomes us with jeers; we speak with the sense of the religious zealot, and not of the man confronting the absurd. The search for knowledge, what Parker Palmer calls ‘clearsight’, seems neglected as we foist our opinions on everyone. Always. Ever.

So what happens if you want off the merry-go-round?*

3. What do they teach them in these schools? The blog posts and articles I’ve read surrounding the controversy were personal, impassioned, chock full of deep emotion and gut-wrenching anecdote. The banner was raised and defended for hope, for light, for freedom, for youth. It was hung, almost invariably, over a heap of sophistry and disjointed logic, non sequiturs and straw men. Heavily and openly biased, even bigoted articles were heralded as impartial and honest. Rant pieces and polemics posed as well-reasoned opinions. Everyone ran about affirming people who agreed with them.

The discussion, in other words, sounded like one great big political rally, where everyone celebrates the deprecation of others and obfuscation of truth and logic. I don’t know if this is a fault of the educational system—it wouldn’t surprise me—but it seems hardly anyone knows how to construct a careful argument, or how to recognise whether one is or isn’t.

The goal of this elaborate verbal tig seems to be to whack someone before someone whacks you. And whack them again once they’ve whacked you. Repeat. Each player can judge the success of their own whacks. Which means that if you’ve made the whack then it was a good one, like unto laws of the Medes and Persians which not even the king can recover from.

See how easy it is?

This ties back to Question 2, but the question remains. How is it possible, where is it possible, and why isn’t it generally possible to have courteous, rational discussion, in particular about YA literature, dystopian or otherwise? Why must this be sullied and soured with emotion and pettiness? And what do we need to do to change it?

I can only hope that my writing and specifically this blog, like some others I know of, offers some small oasis in a mad, mad world.


*Despite my closing sentence, I realise that this blog post, and probably blogging in general, is Not the Answer. The clamorous voices of unreason are generally too loud for yet another op-ed to make a difference. Nor do I think I will save the world by listening to myself talk. But that’s partly why I’m asking questions—as if questions, perhaps, will show us the Exit.

3 thoughts on “questions for a time of unreason

  1. Questions two and three I’m in pretty much full agreement – I’ve often wondered why no one bothers to teach logic to high schoolers (spending the last year in a public school offered some solutions to this).

    Question one, though, interests me quite a lot. I don’t think art should be primarily didactic – i.e., that it should rigidly conform to some moralistic logic (showing, for example, that if teens have sex they will have a baby). That’s not true to reality. People have sex all the time without babies, ruined lives, etc. However, I do think art has serious moral responsibilities if for no other reason then that readers (viewers etc.) will treat stories, songs and movies as personal experience. If the intelligence is wrong, there’s Iraq, in other words. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction puts it much more eloquently than I do though…

  2. What an excellent post, Mr. Pond. Well structured, great questions and I like that your post’s direction veers off the beaten path of the subject.

    In your first section – I’m not really sure that the responsibility of YA literature is to better the formation of the young adult mind. I think that responsibility rests with the parents and the teachers of the young adult. Young Adults read for a variety of reasons and ideally one would like to learn something while being entertained – but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a Young Adult just wants to laugh at silly, potty-mouthed comics. So Didactism doesn’t always fit neatly into the box of YA lit. And I don’t think it always has to. The question as to why some people feel it has to teach is interesting.

    As a part-time teacher at one time – I was amazed at how little free time children actually had compared to when I was a student. Helicopter parents do exist – I’ve met them. And they schedule everything for the child, all day, everyday after school and then in school nothing is left to choice. I’ve no science to back this up but it seems young adults have very little choices and I wonder if some of the more dystopian fiction is a sort of outlet for them.

    With regards to parts two and three of your post – I think what we have here on both sides of the coin is a herd mentality. It is a fear based mentality. That one does not want to be left behind. No longer is there a shot across the bow – but full-blown mob mentality where it quickly turns into a free for all. Discourse and Debate sadly is no longer taught in high schools. Even in higher education only the Ivy League schools are offering Debate classes and clubs. That was a good observation, Mr. Pond and I agree that dysfunctional communication (online or otherwise) can be traced to a faulty educational system.

    This is getting to be a long comment – so I’ll sign off. But I will be reading the responses for sure! And thank you Mr. P, for a voice of reason and a piercing curiosity. That was fun.

  3. I don’t think I was as deeply offended by the article as most YA writers. For one thing, some (and I stress the word, some) of what you read on the Internet, because of it’s format, is shallow. It’s meant to be and then people have these so-called discussions which are often attacks and so forth. And btw, I love the word, kerfuffle. I am going to start using it all the time. ;>

    Loved your post.

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