An enormous Twitterstorm has arisen over a Wall Street Journal reviewer’s expose of the increasingly gruesome and sensationalistic books being targeted at teenagers–and their ready availability in school libraries.
On June 4, the WSJ’s children’s book reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, published an article in the Journal, noting the shift in teen fiction over the past few decades–a shift that she described as “so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things.”
“Why is this considered a good idea?” she wondered, before detailing many of the current novels’ obsessions with rape, self-mutilation, meth addictions and murder:
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it. 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.
As soon as the article was published, librarians and teen fiction people immediately cried ‘censorship’, and the debate over the material in Gurdon’s article rocketed to the number 2 topic on Twitter. FrumForum talked to Gurdon about her article and the ensuing pandemonium.
“I did not expect this degree of hysteria,” Gurdon said. “And I really, really did not expect that people who work in the book industry would be so seemingly incapable of understanding a simple argument. As a critic, I am describing what is in the literature, and the fact that it is different now than it was, say, 30 years ago. These are cultural developments that are worth acknowledging and worth noticing.”
The most critical review so far appeared in the School Library Journal, in which critics went so far as to slam Gurdon for being “against the very act of reading itself,” and “sensationalistic.” Even the dame of edgy adolescent books–Judy Blume–took umbrage with Gurdon:
Judy Blume, one of the most banned children’s authors in the United States, says we all need to remember that reading is a good thing and that kids read what interests them. ‘If it makes them uncomfortable, if they’re not ready for it, they’ll put it down.’
But, Blume cautions, there is a danger in Gurdon’s article. ‘It will fuel the fire, encouraging even more adults to challenge books kids want to read,’ she adds. ‘They will wave it around claiming she knows what she’s talking about because she’s a professional book reviewer.’
“I come out ‘anti-reading’ because I have the temerity to criticize what is in some of the books that are being sold to teenagers,” Gurdon retorted. Indeed she believes that one of the roots of the problem in the book industry lies in incomplete and uninformative reviews: “One of the things that I think is missing from a lot of these reviews is that they very, very seldom address some of the more disturbing content that is in books.”
So this begs the question, if one of the fundamental problems is a lack of revealing information about teen novels, why not institute a rating system for books similar to the ones used by other forms of entertainment?
Jewell Stoddard, who works at Politics & Prose, a popular independent Washington, D.C. bookstore, established her own rating system when she created a PG-15 section of the store for those novels that might be too shocking for younger readers.
Movies have been rated since 1966, albums since 1985 and video games since 1994. It seems only natural that with increasingly graphic novels being marketed to teenagers that a book rating system should be established as well.