Unintended Consequence—Loss of the “Safe” Genre

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.

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23 Responses to Unintended Consequence—Loss of the “Safe” Genre

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    I don’t even remember “YA” being in existence as a genre when I was a teenager (80s), and I don’t read it now (with random rare exceptions), so the whole thing completely baffles me.

  2. Grant says:

    Perhaps it should be taken in a new direction, making a “Safe” category to stand by itself, and then have sub-divisions inside of that. Or would this be too divisive a split?

  3. Angela H. says:

    Moriah, I read a fair amount of YA stuff during my 80s adolescence, and I beg to differ with the Wall Street Journal’s depiction of a genre that used to be “safe.” I read mostly realistic YA fiction with a little speculative stuff sprinkled in: my favorites were Judy Blume (some swearing, violence, and frank talk about sex — I can’t imagine you escaped the 80s with out a little Judy Blume, Moriah), Lois Duncan (also some swearing, violence, and frank talk about sex, coupled with slightly out-there spiritual topics like ESP and astral projection), and books where the protagonist is slowly dying from a dreadful, incurable disease. I wish I could remember the title of one book in particular — I googled the plot, but no dice — about a bunch of “problem” kids whose parents send them to a special summer camp where the counselors are supposed to kill them, but they escape into the woods and must outwit the counselors who’ve been paid by their parents to get rid of them. Robert Cormier books are dark and difficult, and I read those as a teenager too. Then there were always the not-really-YA books that so many girls read anyway, with VC Andrews’ incestuous Flowers in the Attic at the top of the list. Never mind all the Stephen King I devoured.

    I think that the author of the original piece has a point: overall, YA is probably darker, more “adult,” than it was when I was young. But it’s interesting to me that the books I was drawn to — me, a generally well-behaved Mormon girl — were the darker ones, even with all the cleaner options available. (That said, I was a little embarrassed when I gave my son a Robert Cormier novel when he was about 12 — one I remember really liking — and him returning it to me and saying, “Um, Mom, do you have any idea what’s in this book?” Whoops. I suppose it’s one thing when you find the book yourself, but another thing entirely when your mom gives it to you.)

    As to Scott’s question, I think that relatively clean YA titles are still being produced and marketed, but I agree that it takes some work to find them. Parents can find out a great deal about certain titles through the internet, though; parents back in my day had no such googling option. I’m leery of assigning a “rating” to YA novels, simply because so much of our really great YA literature deals with difficult themes. What rating would Lord of the Flies receive, I wonder? As a former high school English teacher in a Utah school district, I can imagine such a rating system would quickly become nightmarish and unduly limit the choices in class.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      This hits on some of the challenge for me. YA accidentally functioned as an aesthetic category in its efforts to be a moral one. By my concepts most of classic literature would fall under that rubric because it’s not about the subject matter so much as the ways the details are presented.

      For example, both Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo deal with fairly ugly realities about human nature and man’s capacities for violence. The facts and the situations are there in the text, but the details are not. Lord of the Flies was considered classic YA when I was in fifth grade in 1974; so was Red Badge of Courage and others—both fine examples of detail rather than subject as the differentiator.

      Motivated readers are smart enough to find what they want; I read White Fang one day and Roots the next when I was eleven years old because I sought each title for specific reasons and didn’t care how either was slotted at the bookstore or library. Market categories are for the less motivated reader or for the gift buyer who doesn’t know what they want and are looking for help.

      It’s not a question of whether “safe” books are being written—I think more effort is made now to honor aesthetic preferences than in the past, and that more such titles are produced now than ever before—they’re just so even distributed through the other categories that finding them is increasingly difficult.

      I don’t think it’s a market-shaking problem, but I do feel like we lost something simply and pragmatically useful. Or maybe I’m just getting old and romanticizing about something that never really existed.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      “I can’t imagine you escaped the 80s with out a little Judy Blume, Moriah”

      Ohhhhhhhhh Judy Blume. Ahem. Ah, well, I only know her name because my mother forbade me her books and made sure the library didn’t loan any to me.

      I wasn’t interested enough to disobey her since I had such other more interesting reading material…

      • Th. says:

        .

        Everything I know about girls I learned from Judy Blume.

        Of course, not all her books were Are you there GodSuperfudge was harmless. Unless you include learning about Santa Clause. To me, that was way more shocking content than menstruation and that was the only book in my collection that I hid from my siblings.

        • Angela H. says:

          Th., Are You There God is nothin compared to Forever.

        • FoxyJ says:

          Angela,

          My reading habits as a teen were surpisingly similar to yours; I read many of the same books, plus I was really into historical fiction about WW2 and the Holocaust. Another very 80s author I loved was Cynthia Voight, and all her books are quite mature/dark.

          For some reason I decided to read everything by Judy Blume (I guess because she was famous and because my local library was quite small). The only time I ever remember my mom attempting to control my reading was when she realized that I had read Forever when I was about 12, and we had a very awkward conversation that mostly consisted of her saying “I don’t think you should read books like that”

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    There’s a subtlety here that I’m having difficulty expressing.

    Moriah—I clearly remember YA as a literary category that I intentionally skipped over as a young person because I wanted to get to “real” fiction, and that was back in the early 1970s so I know the category existed. They sometimes called them Juveniles rather than YA, but the distinct category did exist.

    Grant—I don’t doubt that a new category could be created, but I don’t see publishers moving toward that. Yes, communities like ours can make recommendations after the fact but that doesn’t help book buyers at the store itself, because general bookstores don’t shelve titles expect by publishers’ categories.

    That was a (I suspect unintended) benefit of YA as a marketing category—because it intended to protect young readers it aggressively policed the arbitrary lines for level of detail or context, and essentially slotted general market stories into that category on the basis of aesthetic detail. Because the shelf space was based on age group rather than subject matter, it aggregated multiple types of stories under a single rubric.

    So while the YA category may have been intended as a moral protection, it also functioned as an aesthetic one. I never particularly agreed with the moral aspect of it, but I find myself appreciating that aesthetic pre-categorization more and more as I get older, and I miss the fact that YA is becoming less reliable as aesthetic line, because I see no other convenient (existing) market category that can perform that (probably accidental) function.

    The challenge is that “safe” as a new category is likely to inherit DB disease and be moralistic rather than aesthetic, which I consider to be a less useful (and less consistent) rubric for first-level categorization.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Like Scott, I skipped YA as a teen, although the category technically falls as low as 5th grade readers. But this older teen stuff? Nope. Went write to classics and other “real fictions. I thought my peers should be embarrassed to be reading things like “My Darling, My Hamburger.”

    This discussion makes me wonder if teen fashion mags, like Seventeen, have influenced the shift in category. Heaven knows, they left “safe” behind long before the book publishers. Either way, I don’t think this worries kids nearly as much as it worries parents. They deal with tough issues everyday and watch TV in the same room we do.

  6. C. M. Malm says:

    I would agree that YA has gotten a lot grittier, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the world is a grittier place (or at least the media as a whole *admits* to it being a grittier place) than it used to be. Another is that the market for YA is targeting older teens than was previously the case. I read a lot of YA, and it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve noticed YA books that seem specifically targeted at the 15 to 18 demographic.

    As for what (if anything) can be “done about” this issue…. I guess I’m just not that interested in universally “safe” labels. For example, I don’t read YA because it’s “safe”; I read it because I’ve found that the stories I like most (SF&F) have become more innovative (and less Humongously-Long-Series dependent) than in the adult market. I suppose one could seek out books specifically targeted at *children* (rather than teens or even pre-teens) if one wanted a guaranteed “safe” story. Or one could stick with older YA titles.

    But my own personal approach to ALL books (and movies) is to gather as much information as possible to evaluate them before I decide whether I want to read (or watch) them. And that goes beyond some “safe” label placed there by people I don’t even know. There are PG-13 (and even PG) movies that I wouldn’t want to subject myself to; conversely, there are R movies that I’ve felt were well worth watching. When it comes to YA books, I can tell a LOT just from the packaging about how gritty the story is likely to be. The only YA that has “fooled” me recently was the 100 Cupboards trilogy by N. D. Wilson. It’s targeted at preteens, written by a noticeably Christian author, and was recommended to me by a fellow LDS mom who usually shares my tastes in reading. It’s also grim in ways that I found chilling even as an adult, and I’m not entirely glad that I read it. So I guess you can’t always win. Even with lots of “safe” barriers in the way.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      C. M., your comment about 100 Cupboards reminds me of Robert Cormier’s last novel, “The Rag and Bone Shop.” It’s not explicit. I don’t recall any swearing in the recording I listened to (though I often filter that out), no violence except descriptive and psychological, so anything that filters for language and sex and violence would pass the book through, and I would certainly not stop anyone from reading it, but I knew before I put the tape in that it was going to be a difficult–I just find stories about miscarriages of justice difficult to hear. Lovely novel though. A classical tragedy about a man whose overweening pride (why do we never hear about underweaning pride, and what does suckling have to do with all this?) leads him to believe that making a false accusation and extracting what he knows is a false confession is in the better interests of justice.

      On the other hand, “Other Bells for Us to Ring” was a sweet novel about the homefront during WWII, and a boy who asks his saint for a miracle and gets it. Anyone who applied the traditional Cormier filter would filter this out and miss a beautiful gentle story.

      Right now I’ve been listening to George Guidall narrating Elie Wiesel’s Night as I plant corn and beans and tomatoes and peppers and lay out my drip hoses between about 8 and 9 PM, so that night envelopes me as I listen. I read Dawn in high school (which may be a sequel?) but I avoided Night, though I have a copy. I find the world of Auschwitz shattering now. I don’t know how it would have shattered me 35 or 40 years ago, but I wouldn’t try to stop someone from reading it–though I would be there for comfort. The scene where he describes marching toward the blazing fires and watching children being tossed in reminds me of one of the more shattering incidents in The Book of Mormon.

      I’m going to have to read Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” soon. I need to stand as a witness, and because I need that I tend to think safety is an overrated concept, especially in literature, because literature is already vicarious. No matter how shattering Wiesel’s description of the blazing crematoria, I am not marching toward them, 5 steps, 4 steps, 3 steps, 2. The vicarious nature of art gives it a built-in safety, even at its most horrific.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        You raise an interesting question, which is that certain things may actually get harder for us to read as we get older. In some of those cases, I think it may be better to go ahead and read it while you’re young and can still stomach it, counterintuitive though that may seem.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    There are a good many blogs out there that focus on YA fiction. Many of them include a pretty detailed breakdown re: elements like violence, language, sex, etc. It seems to me that any parent who’s keyed into that community won’t have any trouble finding out which books are and aren’t safe, and in which ways, though admittedly that’s quite a different thing than a category that’s safe from the get-go, from a marketing perspective.

  8. Roger Layton says:

    Beyond blogs there are books that help interested readers find what they need. Rachel Wadham has a book on realistic fiction for teens, http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781591589426, but that assumes that a reader will invest time to plan ahead. Furthermore, only a library is likely to own such a comprehensive title.

    Speaking of libraries, many people look for books in a familiar section of their library or bookstore. Colocation has a strong influence on book selection which is why having YA as a reliable indicator of book content was useful. Obviously with the move to online book buying and e-books physical colocation disappears and there is no pressure from librarians or book sellers to protect the traditional safe haven of YA.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    Okay, so I lied. I think my bad remembery is because I didn’t then differentiate genres other than “kid section” and “grownup section,” where the kid section was for children. Otherwise, if a book summary looked good, I picked it up and that was about that.

    Read Lois Duncan.

    Read Flowers in the Attic. Apparently that’s STILL a tween rite of passage, but, as noted above, it’s not actually YA.

    I wish I could remember the title of one book in particular — I googled the plot, but no dice — about a bunch of “problem” kids whose parents send them to a special summer camp where the counselors are supposed to kill them, but they escape into the woods and must outwit the counselors who’ve been paid by their parents to get rid of them.

    I wanna read that.

    Okay, y’all have made me think about this now, which caused me to remember things I’d rather not admit, but here you go:

    [treacle]

    The Sunfire series

    Silhouette First Love

    Bantam Sweet Dreams (the first one just broke my heart *sniffle*)

    [/treacle]

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    I put a bunch of links in my last post and it ended up in moderation. Can somebody fish it out for me, please?

  11. When I was a teenager (the 70s), “juvenile” was the “safe” genre, not YA. In any case, this is one of those issues that becomes an issue every decade or so (it takes that long for people to forget about the last time the issue became an issue). As I point out here, G.K. Chesterton addressed the same subject a century ago.

  12. But isn’t Scott talking about aesthetics and not morality? Has YA been a place to find truly well-written work more often than the more adult genres? It seems to me that it has been. And I’m not entirely certain that has changed. Of course, there has always been the silly little books series, but even they have relatively high quality writing in them. It has to be relatively high quality to keep kids reading, doesn’t it?

  13. Scott Parkin says:

    Exactly, Kathleen. This kind of conversation nearly always reverts to a discussion of what’s appropriate for young readers as a matter of moral concern or emotional maturity, which is not the idea I’m trying to explore here. I make no comments, suggestions, or judgments at all about “appropriateness” to any reader of any age on those bases—only on aesthetic grounds.

    In fact, I’m primarily thinking about adult readers looking for books that deal with subject appealing to mature readers, but that choose not to demonstrate “adultness” through increasingly explicit aesthetic choices. I understand that the line between saying something is aesthetically unappealing to me and that it’s morally reprehensible is thin (or non-existent) for many readers, but I think those are two entirely different concepts that deserve to be discussed separately.

    So when I raise the idea of “safe” I mean only that the text refrains from some levels of detail, not that it refrains from some subject matters—which is where I diverge entirely from the WSJ articles, and found John Brown’s blog entry far more interesting.

    Thus the unintended consequence. What was intended as a code of moral restriction on content to protect young readers *also* functioned as an aesthetic framework that pushed excellent writers to explore deeply within an idea, situation, context, or setting while honoring certain aesthetic boundaries . The result was an excellent body of work intended for young readers, but that happens to aggressively appeal to a large number of adult readers.

    This accident of aesthetics created a category that many adult readers were able to use to find books that were every bit as concept dense and “dangerous” as the best general market stories, but that refrained from some graphic detail they found wearisome in books intended for adult readers.

    By pushing the YA category further toward the aesthetic lines previously reserved to general market books, the publishers have unwittingly eliminated this useful categorization for adult readers looking for a convenient filter.

    (I, for example, am working my way through the Criterion Collection of films; a useful grouping based on quality and industry influence, not moral or even aesthetic considerations. I don’t like all the films, but I do appreciate that they are influential—aka, they have been given good report and praise. I use additional filters to reduce the list, but that top-level grouping is useful to me in creating an initial pick-list because the criteria are clear and consistent. A result is that I am now hooked on Eastern European cinema in general and Russian or Czech films in particular.)

    My own experience tells me that young readers are not bound by marketing categories such as YA or Juvenile, but instead read whatever they darned well wanna. I was ten when my father forbade me to read The Man With the Golden Gun because it was too depressing; two days later I road my bike to the public library to read it anyway. Sadly, it was checked out so I read Thunderball instead, and didn’t read another “young reader” book until I was in my thirties and sought out both Lloyd Alexander and C.S. Lewis.

    Those categories exist primarily to aid book buyers (or library patrons) to find a kind of book, as opposed to a specific title. In my mind, the YA category has become less useful in aiding me to find powerful books that stop short of certain aesthetic lines, which makes it harder to casually browse a section and discover new authors.

    My question is whether there is a convenient category that can replace that lost function of the YA category for adult readers, and to explore how that category might be defined and pitched to publishers looking to help categorize their own books to assist readers in finding titles that address their affinities.

    Not to restrict readers or writers, but to expand the total base of readers who seek based on high quality *and* shorter aesthetic boundaries. As a service to help publishers find the natural readers for the books they publish (with no comment at all on whether the book *ought* to be published).

  14. Laura Craner says:

    Like several of you I discovered YA as an adult and was pleasantly surprised by the nicely paced plots, inventive stories, enthralling characters, etc. I was also pleasantly surprised by the aesthetic boundaries. Having had quite a few bumpy emotional years I came to appreciate the aesthetic of restraint associated with a lot of YA titles. Some of my favorite authors are YA. Jerry Spinelli is the first one that comes to mind.

    I also have a deep love and admiration for E.L. Konigsburg also. And I think she’s a great example of what you are talking about here. Books like _The View from Saturday_ and _The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place_ are thought provoking, fun and well-written. Even _The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World_ (which was a tad more gritty and less fun) is enjoyable. Reading those books reminds me of why I want to write in the first place. Others works by Konigsburg, works like _Silent to the Bone_ (which focuses on a college age female nanny sexually manipulating her male teenage charge and abusing the baby in her care), are well done too, but for me as a reader fall into a different aesthetic category because of the gritty material in it. Same goes for authors like Sarah Dessen. What she does, she does extremely well. But aesthetically speaking, her craft is different because she draws her content boundaries differently.

    One solution is the cover art. I know the old adage, but marketers are smart and they know that the readers (precocious 5th graders, teenagers, or adults) who want grittier material are going to go for something with a lot of glossy black on the cover and some moody, pale-faced teens and visible flesh.

    Another solution is to go younger. When I am feeling like I really want a “safe” book (meaning something that works on an escapist level but also won’t ply my emotions too strenuously) I head for the stuff aimed at 8-12 year olds. The Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians series is a riot that works on a story level and on a meta/cultural analysis level. Same with Rick Riordan.

    This is the longest comment in the world, but I want to add one more thing. I think this shift has also helped fuel publishers in their desire to avoid new authors. If I’m perusing the YA section of my local bookstore, I’m comfortable because I know that I don’t particularly enjoy Sarah Dessen or Meg Cabot. And my comfort is aided on the flip-side also because I know that I DO like Brandon Sanderson and Juliet Marillier. It’s just so much easier to market a book when people already know what to expect–and this is true for the buyers as much as it is for the publishers.

  15. FoxyJ says:

    As far as aesthetics, one area in which authors are trying to fill this void are LDS authors that write clean romance, mystery, and paranormal books that have many elements of these popular genres without the disturbing content. At my local library this has produced a bit of a conundrum because they have been in the habit of applying an “LDS” sticker to the books that are published by Covenant/Cedar Fort/etc, but now they are not sure if they should label these books, because they aren’t really LDS. They do go into the mystery or romance section, but there isn’t a clear way to differentiate them from other titles in the area.

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