There’s been a fun kerfuffle around shifting lines of acceptance for aggressive or explicit content in YA fiction. Certainly the discussion in not new (Rachel Nunes, for example, commented to in a post back in January 2010), but this latest round helped me articulate an unintended consequence of that shift.
The (specific) recent rehash started with an article in the Wall Street Journal on June 4, 2011 by Meghan Cox Gurdon called “Darkess Too Visible” where she questions the trend toward what she describes as “explicit abuse, violence, and depravity” in YA. In the article, Ms. Gurdon bemoans that shift, describing it near the beginning of the article:
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
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.
Not surprisingly, the article generated some fairly strong responses about censorship and prudishness and oppressive editorial dictatorships. I actually came to the original article from this response by LDS author Robison Wells where he defended the literary value of addressing dark subjects in YA, and the idea that context makes the difference.
In the comments section of that post I mentioned an unintended side effect of expanding explicitness in YA—that where YA had once been a “safe” category with famously arbitrary (and strongly defended) lines drawn about subject matters, use of profanity, and levels of explicit detail, the general shift has been to rub out those lines and blend YA more directly toward broad market conventions.
In other words, YA as an understood market category has moved from being a methodological approach on how content is handled to being a simple descriptor of age of intended reader with fewer proscriptions on approach or detail. Without arguing whether those lines should have shifted, the fact of that shift has left national market book buyers with no well-defined “safe” category that aggregates slice-of-life, historical, mystery, sf, horror, and other traditional genres (I’d like to avoid the regional argument for DB as safe publisher for now; that’s a different discussion).
LDS author John Brown addressed that idea in a post on his own blog a few days later where he differentiates the question of literary value from the pragmatics of marketing.
Brown came much closer to my own question—given the editorial shift in YA, are there any “safe” national market categories left where readers can access titles pre-selected specifically for less aggressive presentation? I believe such a category remains useful and that the overall market suffers from this accidental loss. What (if anything) will replace YA as the aggregate category of safe story?
This is a pragmatic question, not an artistic one. I am not advocating for restricting what is (or ought) to be written; I’m merely asking how (or if) we categorize whatever has been written in such a way as to enable readers to more easily identify titles of interest to their own reading regimen.
Since YA is becoming increasingly less “safe,” what replaces it for those readers who consider aesthetic safety as their first filter for book selection? As simplistic as an age line was, it was easy to understand and allowed for the broadest collection of subjects, conventions, and genres.