I wasn’t going to read the New York Times reviews of Bitter End by Jennifer Brown and Stay by Deb Caletti, Novels About Abusive Relationships, because — confession time — if I plan to read a book, I don’t like to read reviews of it. Instead, I’ll bookmark, read the book, write my review, and then go read the reviews.
Then I saw Sarah Ockler’s post, Brown & Caletti: NYT Book Review Misses the Point (Again). And I had to read the New York Times article myself.
And, yes, according to the Times, “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.” Just in case you missed it: “the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message.”
Ockler’s response says it all here: “This broad categorization of YA as Establisher of Morals and Teacher of Wayward Youth (there should totally be a cape and a catchphrase, right?) is as outmoded as my Sony Walkman.” And: “Like I tell my students in our YA novel workshop, the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters. Of course authors should care about their subject matter, and should always write with something important to say. Call that an underlying message of you’d like, but much as the “do as I say, not as I do” lectures from parents, the moment a novel is crafted with the specific intent to send messages or teach lessons, the audience tunes out.”
Can I just repeat — once the book becomes message driven, the audience tunes out. This is true for adults; and it’s true for teens. And let’s not even get into the issue of who decides what “the message” should be; in this particular review, the authors don’t deliver the message the reviewer believes should be delivered.
Meanwhile, if you want to read something about adults reading and enjoying young adult books as good books, check out Shannon Ford from Blogcritics, This ‘Old’ Adult Prefers Young Adult Literature (reposted at Seattle PI).
Edited to add: After I wrote this up, I read Bennett Madison’s One Man’s Opinion: Young Adult Fiction and found myself nodding and agreeing with much of what he said. Why? Because he turns his attention to those within the YA community (he says authors, but I’d include us all, including readers and bloggers): “One thing I’ve been consistently surprised by since I started writing fiction for teenagers is how many other YA writers I’ve talked to DO still seem to think that our books should be somehow prescriptive— that YA fiction is different from other fiction because of the kinds stories we should be telling and the morals we need to impart (or not impart). . . . Even among writers who would never say such preposterous things in unequivocal terms, there seems to be a general attitude that YA literature, at its best at least, should enrich our readers. Young people should be able to read our books and walk away with raised social awareness, more positive body images, ways of dealing with abusive relationships, tools for feminist action, better coping skills when it comes to bullies at school, and of course a shuddering aversion to the word “fag.”” Go read Madison’s entire post; and the link in the quote is from his post.
Madison is right; I’ve read and heard these types of comments, and I cringe at it, in all honesty. Partly because my sense of fairness is, “we cannot say it’s OK to be messsagey about a book when it’s a message we like.” That doesn’t say there are no messages, rather, it says there is litmus test of whether or not it’s the “right” message. Or, it can be how some want to use the books. I love books, I love story, that’s no surprise to readers of this blog. But I don’t think books are going to raise social awareness, to use Madison’s language. Books are a part of the overall culture that the reader absorbs.
To wrap this up, I’ll end with two people who remind us that theme is different from message, and that difference matters in these conversations, in how we write and how we read, how we talk about what we read, and what we want out of what we read, for ourselves and others.
At Ockler’s blog by SusanG: “in his wonderful memoir, “On Writing,” states unequivocally that the Story trumps everything else. When and if a “theme” occurs, King says that it is found. He describes the theme as something that happens after a first draft is written. When the author spots it, it is the authors job to “carefully tease the threads out of the fabric of the story“. King’s On Writing is one of my favorite books, and what King should be true of any book, adult or young adult.
And message versus theme is a point Gail Gauthier made on a previous post: “I think messages should be reserved for sermons. . . . Many people think they’re the same thing, but theme is more of a world view that writers deal with in a particular piece of fiction rather than a lesson they are trying to teach. Do I have to conform, to change to get along in life? is my idea of a theme. And an author would then create a world and storyline about characters dealing with that open-ended issue. When an author creates a world and storyline to instruct readers to be themselves and not to conform, that would be a message. The message story is dumped on us. The thematic story we become part of because we’re trying to make out a resolution for ourselves, which may or may not happen. But just making the effort may make a change in us.”