In Kentucky the comments sections of one of the state’s largest newspapers have been particularly aflame lately, as have posts at several of my favorite, whip-smart kidlit bloggers weighing in on the stories. The controversies in question? Books that teenagers want to read.
That’s right–once again, concerned citizens have been looking out for the best interests of the children by, you know, preventing them from reading what they want or–in one particular case–from assigning or analyzing several highly regarded, recently published books for teens, using the spurious rationale that such books can’t possibly help prepare students for college.
In one case, some women lost their jobs for way overstepping their bounds and preventing a graphic novel from circulating (among other things), and while this is the valiant and right outcome, the graphic novel section at the public library in question is now being moved away from the teen section. I sympathize with the library, who must be under fire to do something to protect the children, especially given that it did the exact right thing initially. The second, the one where books are being kept out of a high school’s classroom and book club is the more disturbing, as the local superintendent seems to have planted both head and heels in the sand while having no clue what he’s talking about. There are people who are concerned for the teacher who introduced the books into the classroom’s job.
I don’t want to lay all this at the foot of The Canon, certainly not. But, hear me out, I do think that the elitist desire to rank fiction–when the rankers always, always have an agenda, be it a clear-cut one or not–ends up contributing to certain crazy ideas people hold about literature, especially people who don’t get out enough. And by get out enough, I mean who don’t read contemporary fiction, because it hasn’t been stamped by the mighty passage of time. Do I believe that history sorts out good books from the pack? Sometimes. Do I believe excellent fiction gets swallowed up as the years pass? Sure. Do I believe that the only healthy approach to reading involves throwing some newer stuff into the mix? With all my brain.
I had a professor in college, an extremely nice man who prided himself on his identity as a gentle scholar of classic fiction. He didn’t believe in reading anything less than 100 years old, because there’s simply no way–he maintained–to sort through the clutter and volume of books being published to determine what is worth reading. (Which, of itself, implies that you can’t learn from flawed books. And all books are flawed.)
Being the obnoxious undergrad that I was, I needled him into a commitment to read five books for me written in the last century that I felt were contenders for the title of great literature. And, to his credit, he read and reported back on all of them. (I don’t remember the list, actually, but I do recall that Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was the one he came closest to admitting was worthwhile.) Then he immediately went back to rereading Shakespeare and watching baseball on a black-and-white TV. Clearly, this is a guy who would ADORE Cormac McCarthy, if nothing else.
The same view, admittedly an extreme one, is at the root of this spurious idea that teens should only read The Classics. That only The Classics can prepare a child or teen for college. How could we allow the reading of a book in the classroom that is younger than something by Twain? And how could an older book be offensive? This argument tends to ignore anything on the content side that the people making it would squawk about in a more recently published book. For instance, The Canterbury Tales were mentioned specifically in the Montgomery County schools article by a parent on the wrong side of the issue; the Tales just happen to feature a woman literally getting her ass kissed (or possibly something racier, depending on where you come down on the translation of a certain word). We all know Shakespeare was a filthy little genius. To pretend that literature can be literature without ever getting anyone’s mind dirty–well, it’s just stupid. And most of our minds are dirty anyway, right?
What this rubber-stamp with the word Classics on it school of thinking leads to is an inability to engage with modern letters, something we certainly don’t need any help with in this culture. It’s no coincidence that if you examine the arguments involved in either of these cases, you’ll come across things like: graphic novels are all for children; Alan Moore is just a pornographer (and a Wizard! or whatever we’re calling that these days); books for teenagers can’t be literature; teenagers shouldn’t be reading about sex/the consequences of sex/gay people/abuse/foul language (my personal favorite). As if teenagers are some sort of delicate morons. In fact, teenagers are at just the right age to begin grappling with extremely polemic works and with much more nuanced ones. They can take it. Trust me on this. (If you mention The Twilight Saga, you lose. An eye.)
Sure, religion plays a part here, but I believe the lessons people who grow up to be non-readers–usually–absorb about what fiction should be (i.e. OLD!) is the bigger factor. (Not to mention, maybe one of the reasons they’re non-readers.) And that’s why I say that teachers like the one in Montgomery County are to be applauded. Not just because she’s in trouble and we all know she’s right, but because she’s shaking up the way literature is usually presented to these kids. She is showing them that books worth reading and analyzing and discussing aren’t limited to books by dead, mostly white guys. That literature can be about and for them and still do some sophisticated and exciting things. That it can be written by people who are still alive.
I’m not saying don’t read the classics or eschew the Fiction of the Dead, but throw a palate cleanser out there every once in awhile too. (Confession: I read every single “classic” on every high school reading list when I was a freshman, so I could spend the rest of my formative years reading Eduardo Galeano, Jeanette Winterson and, yes even, Kerouac, and basically whatever I wanted.) I know the very idea of The Canon has been controversial for some time, and continues to lose favor.* And yet it haunts us. It’s still alive and well in much of America and even in the ivory spirals. I give you those two small examples as exhibits A and B.
I will end now rather than flog on, but let me also say how ridiculous it is that we’re having these debates right now, during an indisputable golden age of literature for young adults. How crazycakes that most of these parents have no idea.** How much I hope all these books–these challenged books–are creating a new generation of readers who can lay these antiquated ideas in their graves. I’m not optimistic enough to believe it’s that simple, but the future gives me hope on this front.
Assuming there are still books in 20 years.***
*And I don’t even want to argue that we shouldn’t have some way of capturing the best of the best, because clearly we are list-making creatures and the aliens will pry our lists of great books from our tiny cold hands… but it shouldn’t be so centralized and inarguable or stuffy as what we’ve had in the past. The ripple effects are too severe. It should be a starting place. An idea of what’s of value that doesn’t pretend to be the result of a mathematical equation to yield the verdict X equals BEST/NOT BEST/TRASH. Don’t all us readers and writers know that our own personal canons are the ones that are most important to us? Let teens start rolling their own canons.
**Also increasingly not the case–my mother is in a book club made up of adult women coordinated by the h.s. school librarian that reads pretty much exclusively top-notch YA, based on what the kids are buzzing over.
***That was a JOKE.