The Moral of the Story

Over the weekend the YA community was slapped in the face yet again by a major mainstream news source, when the Wall Street Journal published a review essay in its Books section titled "Darkness Too Visible" by Meghan Cox Gurdon. The teaser stated: "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?" That teaser pretty much sums up the attitude of the essay: derisive and judgmental. This isn't surprising — YA is bashed all over the place. (In fact, just a few weeks earlier, it was a review essay in the New York Times doing the bashing.) What did surprise me was the massive outpouring of YA-positive support on Twitter, which resulted in a #YAsaves hashtag that became one of the top trending tweets worldwide several times over the weekend.

On the #YAsaves twitter stream, readers and writers of YA shared their own stories about how YA novels that have dealt with difficult subject matter like rape, drug use, and homophobia have helped them as human beings. It's an inspiring stream to read.

But I'm not interested, today, in blogging about how YA saves lives, or even in defending young adult fiction. ((I don't think YA needs defending. It's one of the only segments of the publishing industry that is successful these days. Readers love YA. And like every other category of fiction, some YA books are wonderful and others are not.)) What interests me are the assumptions that repeatedly emerge from the discourse about young adult fiction.

There is an underlying assumption that YA literature exists to serve a purpose, and that purpose is to give moral guidance to teens. The New York Times essay goes so far as to lay it all out in the first sentence:

"The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson."

Though Gurdon's essay in the Wall Street Journal doesn't state it quite so bluntly, the attitude underlying her entire piece is the belief that some subjects are just too awful for teens to read about, because teens are simply too young and impressionable, and they may be influenced by these horrible stories. Gurdon writes:

"It is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures."

The subtext of Gurdon's essay is that YA literature has a responsibility to teens to show them a moral world. The problem is: Whose morals? Gurdon wants her morals to be illustrated in YA, but I'm pretty sure hers are not mine. ((Especially since she divides up her YA recommendations into gendered lists: "Books For Young Men" and "Books For Young Women." Ugh.))

Even the #YAsaves stream is buoyed to some extent by this belief. It is a river of testimonials about how YA has shown a reader the truth, has given them succor in a time of pain, has handed them a compass with which to guide themselves. It's an inspiring stream of tweets, yes, but it also underscores the idea that YA has a purpose: to save.

I have such mixed feelings about this. I think that all art — even mass-marketed, overhyped Hollywood blockbuster "art" — has the ability to save. Art is about making connections between individuals. It's about breaking down the barriers between one person's skin and another's. And when it succeeds in doing that, it does save. It saves people from loneliness; it saves people from boredom; it saves people from harming themselves because they'd rather watch another few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ((Most brilliant TV show ever!))

But as a writer, the idea that YA is about saving people makes me cringe.

Practically every other interview I do about my books involves someone asking me what message I want readers to get from my novels. I've come up with a variety of ways to circumvent answering the question, but it's crystal clear to me that readers — even bloggers within the YA blogosphere (I'm talking about everyone from book bloggers to professional journalists) — believe that YA novels have lessons in them. There seems to be an unshakeable belief that there must always be a moral to the story in children's literature. Even though YA strains at the border between literature for children and adults (or perhaps because it does), it is not exempt from the mandate to deliver a moral.

Let me tell you, this is not the reason I am writing young adult fiction. If I really wanted to teach teens about how to be good human beings, I would become a teacher or a religious leader or, hell, a parent. I am none of the above.

The idea that morals are required is the thing I hate the most about YA. It's the thing that makes writers of "adult fiction" look down on YA: the idea that YA's only purpose is to teach a lesson, not to tell a damn good story. I think this idea is pretty much the most harmful idea out there about YA — not that it's too dark or too full of "aesthetic coarseness" (Gurdon's words). Because the idea that YA is primarily about lessons strips it of the possibility of being art, and therefore of being taken seriously. It turns it into moral pablum.

Many people have written to me to say that reading Ash or Huntress helped them feel better about being gay, and I'm moved by every one of these emails. Yes, it's totally OK to be gay, but I didn't write the books to teach that lesson. I wrote them coming from a place where, damn straight, it's OK to be gay, so why the hell don't I write a story about lesbians? That's the difference.

Like everything worth discussing, YA fiction is full of shades of grey. I know that some writers do in fact believe they're writing books to save teens. But I'm not.

I'm writing books to explore my place in the world. To ask questions about life and to understand what it means to love another person. And most importantly: I'm writing to tell damn good stories to people who want to read them. YA or not.