June 10, 2012

Slice of PIE: Wimpy Excuses for Dark Teen Lit -- "Life is so grim in the 21st Century!"

Popular opinion on the “book circuit” – ie public & school libraries and Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, as well as among The Big & Small Publishers Of Both Paper Books And Ebooks – appears to be that teenagers love to read the following because teenagers are responding to the grimness of “life”:

The TWILIGHT series
The GONE series
The HIDDEN series
The HUNGRY CITY chronicles

Lisa Belkin, a New York Times online writer, is quick to say, “Why are all these book so dark? Then again, isn’t dark what teens do best?” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/what-your-teens-are-reading/

Of course, the instant assumption is that teenagers in the early part of the 21st Century have much more horrible lives than any teens in any other time in history.

I beg to differ and postulate that what teenagers face today is different in specifics but not in substance. In order to give some brackets to my defense, I will limit my timeline to the era with identifiable “teen literature”, beginning with the early 1800s.

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (1812): US declares war on England; Napoleonic wars in full swing; US invades Canada; bubonic plague in Egypt, Istanbul, Bucharest, and Malta; Felling mine disaster

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott (1814): War of 1812 continues; Napoleonic wars continues; Britain burns down Washington, D.C.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838): Rioting in Mexico; Cherokee Indians begin Trail of Tears; Central American Civil War begins; Boors slaughter Zulus in South Africa; women allowed to vote somewhere in the world for the first time; major smallpox typhus plagues in the US; (Dickens depicts deplorable conditions in central London, in particular child labor, death and poverty)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844): USS Princeton explodes; Jews allowed to return to Jerusalem for the first time in hundreds of years; massive flooding of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers; French invasion of Algeria continues in bloodshed; Paraguayan dictator ascends to his office; yellow fever has ravaged the South

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes(1857): Major US earthquake; Second Opium War breaks out in China; largest slave auction in US history and slaves declared not people in the US; Tokyo earthquake kills 100,000; the India Rebellion; Panic of 1857 causes financial tremors all around the world; Mountain Meadows Massacre (120 Arkansas settlers passing through Utah are slaughtered by Mormons); SS Central America sinks with all hands (425); Reform Wars of Mexico begin; the end of the Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic; yellow fever in Portugal, smallpox in Australia, influenza in Europe, North America, South America

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860): assassination of Venezuelan leader; massive strike of 20,000 in New England; settlers massacre 60 native people in California; First Taranaki War in New Zealand, Maori revolt; Qing army of 180,000 destroyed in China; record-breaking storm sinks 100s of boats, kills people on east coast of England; wars of formation in Italy; PS Elgin rammed and sunk in Lake Michigan, 100s die; Ecuadoran and Peruvian wars; Christians and Druzs kill each other in Damascus; there are 4 million slaves in the American South; influenza in S, N America, Europe

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865): US Civil War breaks out; Abraham Lincoln assassinated; steamboat Sultana explodes on Mississippi, 1700 dead; Brazilian and Paraguayan navies clash; cholera epidemics in Egypt and the Middle East; rebel uprising in Jamaica, British execute 600;

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876): defacto slavery; poverty; Batak, Bulgaria massacre of some 5000; war in Turkey; Indian Wars; Serbia and Montenegro declare war on Ottoman Empire; tornado in India kills 200,000; samurai banned from carrying swords in Japan

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884): defacto slavery; poverty; siege of Khatoum, Sudan begins; Colchester earthquake, UK’s worst; Germany takes possession of Togoland and Cameroon; earthquake shakes US from central Virginia to southern Maine inward to Cleveland; Sino-French War continues; terroristic Texan cowboys attempt to murder deputy sheriff for arresting one of their pals; Korea succumbs to rebellion bankrolled by China and Japan; economic depression in US; Japan established police training schools in every prefecture; India, Germany cholera pandemic

Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson (1886): country of Myanmar (Burma) presented to Queen Victoria as a birthday present; German parliament objects strenuously to deportation of Prussian Poles and Jews; anti-Chinese riots in Seattle; 20 blacks murdered in Carrollton, Miss; Haymarket Riots in US; fire burns Vancouver, BC to the ground; hurricane destroys Indianola, TX; earthquake levels Charleston, SC; Montreal, Canada smallpox epidemic

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894): first significant protest of unemployed Americans, Coxey’s Army; May Day Riots in Cleveland; president of France assassinated; Japan and China go to war; women allowed to vote in Australia; Korean Donghak Peasant Rebellion ends with Japan and Chinese “assistance” fighting each other; Osage Indians become the richest people on Earth; Bubonic plague in Hong Kong; Russian flu winding down around the world

Moon Fleet by J. Meade Falkner (1898): Spanish-American War begins with the explosion of the USS Maine; Massacre of protesters in Milan, Italy; Philippines declare independence from Spain; Turks slaughter 700 Greeks and Brits in Heraklos, Greece; Brits take over Sudan; Empress of Austro-Hungary assassinated; Chinese Empress overthrows government; British conquer and burn Benin City in Africa; tripanosomiasis epidemic in the Congo

I would observe that while SOME of these books are indeed grim reflections of their times; not ALL of them are. I'm fairly certain that the balance of "dark" to "light" books is skewed to dark in the 21st Century where the 19th Century skewed to hopeful.

It’s my considered opinion that we need more positive literature for teenagers to read. The supply of that literature is CONTROLLED lock, stock and barrel by the adults who write, publish, market, buy, suggest, check out and assign books to young people.

Perhaps it is time to wake up and smell the coffee and quit excusing our adult angst by telling ourselves that “isn’t dark what teens do best?”

I’d counter that ridiculous assertion (after 32 years of teaching 3rd graders through 12th graders who were special education, gifted-and-talented, English Learners; and average kids in a first ring suburban high school that is ½ non-white and 75% free-and-reduced-lunch) with this: “HOPE is what teens do best!”

It’s about time for adults to stop pandering to their own sense of failure at bringing the utopic vision they were sure they’d been gifted with and start giving young people the tools to create THEIR OWN vision of the future. That includes SF, F and Contemporary fiction that offers solutions and hope instead of the angsty attitude of "accept that things are crap and do the best you can".


SamRogers said...

Well I think we can all agree that teens today don't have it worse than they did 100 or 200 years ago.

With that said, I think that the "dark and edgy" book genre can act as a form of teen angst or rebellion. It's not "cool" to read books that are optimistic about the future. A lot of teenagers are so jaded from the news and pop culture that optimism in SF&F looks horribly idealistic.

I mean, I know plenty of people who never read for fun, except for The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

GuyStewart said...

So -- you don't want to read anything that even hints that there might be something hopeful in the future because it's unrealistic and has nothing to do with the future you see yourself in?

Becky said...

I know from my experience that a lot of my generation were frustrated by the end to HP with the 'happily ever after' epilogue of the last book. I also know a few who are likewise frustrated by the Hunger Games ending (Mockingjay not the first book). Personally, I know I like the darker books, but also know that I cried my eyes out at the end of the Pendragon series which, while dark throughout, ended so beautifully and happy I was a mess. I think that there needs to be a balance. The more crap they go through the more you want them to be able to be happy in the end. LOTR sort of thing, where they dream of home and better times while in the dark of their journey and fighting, then when they get back they are changed and they are either like Frodo and can't really ever go back, or like Sam and find a new happiness and strength through the trials they went through.
As another note, while those series you listed are considered 'dark' some of them are more 'shadowed' in that they aren't dark the way Schindler's List is emotionally decimating to watch or as disturbingly violent as Battle Royal with elementary kids really killing each other as their school was picked at random. It could be I'm becoming cynical in my older age, but I'd always chuckle inside when people talk about how shocking it is to have kids killing each other. I usually say 'Read Battle Royal then tell me how shocking Colllin's writing is. I did appreciate that she kept the trauma in the novels as that usually never happens, or only briefly.
I think that authors need to look to stories like LOTR and even the Pendragon series to get an idea of how to keep the 'dark' but use it to show how very bright the 'light' is at the end. Our protagonists are still succeeding, we should be grateful for that still holding, but I think, like you said, you can tell a happy story with darkness in it, it simply serves to allow for the reader to see that yeah life has a lot of crap in it, but there is so much beauty too.

SamRogers said...

You misunderstand me, I (personally) enjoy both the bleak and the hopeful future perspectives. It really all boils down to (as it does with most novels I read) whether the story is there, and whether or not it's good, etc etc.

What I mean is, it's become a trend among teenagers, in my opinion, to view someone who looks at the worlds future optimistically as, how to put this, "not looking at it realistically". A lot of teenagers I know (I see myself as not among them, but who knows) will view you with a fair amount of contempt for talking optimistically about humanity's future.

For example, try saying something like this to a fan of the Hunger Games or really any of the "grimdark" YA books: "I really think that humanity can band together as a species and we'll be able to get along."

That was a bit of ramble, but I DO agree that having fiction set in a non-post apocalyptic world is good.

GuyStewart said...

Sam and Becky: So -- if I were to set a reasonably positive future, lace it with some possible dark sideroads/futures and have the characters sacrifice a hero (not like on an altar or anything)to reach the possibility of hope, then you think YA/teens would be willing to give it a chance?

PS -- this isn't a rhetorical question. I have an editor who has been looking at a novel I wrote for some time now. If I could offer such a framework in a rewrite, who knows what would happen?

PPS (Sam) -- Are you to be taking Serious Writers this summer? I can't remember if you told me you were/weren't.

SamRogers said...

To answer the PPS, yes, I am taking Serious Writers.

To answer the first question, I really think that if the book is a good one, then teens/YAs will read it. It seems to me that the dark future idea is extremely popular right now, but if the book really 'connects' with YAs, I think they will read it regardless of whether or not it's dark.