Friday, June 10, 2011

Writing in Blood - A Response to Sherman Alexie

     I was planning on finishing up my Sasquatch series today with a final post about the two days we spent in Seattle on the way home, but that will have to wait until next week, because I just read something I need to respond to.

    Yesterday, young adult author Sherman Alexie had an article in the Wall Street Journal called "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written In Blood". It was a response to an article, written last week, called "Darkness Too Visible" about how young adult literature has too much 'bad stuff' in it, basically. This is my response to both articles.

Note: I have not read Alexie's novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian but I have it sitting on my table at home, checked out from the library, and I was planning on reading it in the next couple of weeks. Now I am looking forward to it even more.
Firstly, read Meghan Cox Gurdon's article here.

If you don't feel like reading it, here are some choice quotations to help you get a feel for the article.

"...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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care."

(talking about an editor forced to censor the language in a YA book to get it into schools)
 " "I don't, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books," the editor grumbled, "I don't want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don't want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers."
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In the parenting trade, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." "

" "It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power," Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet."
Oh, well, that's all right then. Except that it isn't. It is no comment on Mr. Alexie's work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that's a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing."

Now, read Alexie's article here.

Here are some quotations from that.

"Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?
“Wow, you are way, way too late.” "

" When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
  No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged."

"Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them."

"And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed."

My response:
   To Meghan Cox Gurdon, I say: You are delusional if you think that reading about something bad will make it happen. I hate when people don't give young people any credit about this sort of thing. It's true that art has great power and can influence people, but a perfectly happy person with no dark thoughts in them at all (if there is such a person in this world) would never read a book about self-harm and start harming themself. That person probably wouldn't even finish the book, really. What a book about self-harm can do, is help somebody, the way Cox Gurdon suggested herself in the article.
    One of the purposes of art is to reflect the world. Bad things happen in books because bad things happen in real life and if we don't talk about them they won't just go away, we will just be even more unequipped to deal with them.
     And for those parents (and teachers, for that matter) who think that censorship = "judgement and taste", you are doing your children and your students a great disservice by trying to 'protect' them. It is your job as an adult influencing a young person to provide a safe place for them to talk about the bad things that happen in this world, and if you can use art to do it, maybe you can find some beauty or comfort in a way that would be impossible without books like Sherman Alexie's.

     To Sherman Alexie, I say, thank you. To you and other writers like you. We need people like you to keep writing beautiful, true, and painful stories, to keep creating art that influences and impacts young people and people of all ages in real important ways. Thank you.


  1. My goodness, I have so much to say about this article - this tiny box can't possibly hold all my words. But I'll try to bundle it up as concisely as I can.

    First, this: "As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not." This is news to me, a collector of early- and mid-20th-century children's and young-adult books, mainly British titles. And there's a lot of it. So right off the bat, this journalist obviously has no idea what she's talking about. I don't need to argue about it - I've got the evidence that there's been a thriving YA industry for decades on my very own bookshelves.

    Second, this journalist must have led a very sad, very sheltered life if she thinks teenagers will otherwise be surrounded by flowers and butterflies if they stay away from dark, twisted YA fiction. What about high school - can it possibly be described without using the word angst? I had a pretty good high-school experience, I think, and yet it included some grim experiences. My first boyfriend was a cutter. I was 15 when I had to deal with that. It was a shock, a learning experience. It was life. My parents' marriage started to splinter, in a very ugly manner. More life. A classmate was killed in a car accident. Another was murdered. Life continued, punctuated by dark periods. And this journalist is concerned that fiction is too grim, too dark. Living in a world without pain or loss or grief or horror isn't living. It just isn't possible to go through life without experiencing those things. And if my personal experiences can't outdo fiction, then all I have to do is read the news and learn about Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard and Natascha Kampusch, and suddenly, fiction pales in comparison.

    Third, if you stop young people reading what interests them, then you stop them reading - period. I would claim that no one would argue that that's a good idea, but then again, I couldn't have predicted that someone would have written this article, been paid for it, and had it published in the Wall Street Journal. So I won't go there.

  2. As a teacher who teaches many YA novels, I do think that we need to be very careful with some of the books that we bring in our classrooms. I teach Alexie's book. I also teach Laurie Halse Anderson's book Speak. The kids ask me, "can we please read something that is a little more happy next time?" I agree. Not all kids grow up with all this crap. I live in Maine. Many of my kids live great lives with intact families. Yes, I also know that some of my students also live in poverty stricken homes with abuse and addiction. We need to be careful that even though we are building awareness, we are also asking students to read novels that will be impressionable on them. I think that a strong balance of both classic literature and contemporary is the way to go. Not to criticize Alexie, but the half page that goes from talking about geometry into masturbation was really not needed. I thought it was a cop out and for shock value. I thought it cheapened him as an author and, to me, his editor also lost credibility. Our English department in the district has had conversations about it. We all agree. There was no purpose for that to be inserted in the book. Just my "two cents"... :)