One of the books I rescued during the recent depredations at Mondoville’s library was John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Gardner was arguing that literary fiction had become lost in a morass of style and technique for their own sakes, abandoning the storyteller’s duty to
attempt[…] to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.
I was reminded of this recently by the kerfuffle over Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ piece on what she sees as disturbing trends in young adult (YA) fiction. In one telling section of the essay, she describes several of these books as hopeless and pathological, morbid in subject matter and, potentially, in prurience, and writes:
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
Yet 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.
This has drawn the usual shouts of censoriousness from writers, librarians, and others, and the caucus race has begun once more. Meanwhile, as the Spawn is a voracious reader, we try to steer a middle course, letting her read what she wants and discuss it with us if/when she wishes to, and reading some of her books ourselves from time to time.
Over at Image, Sara Zarr enters the discussion, noting that literary fiction for adults seems to suffer from the conditions Gurdon describes as well. She observes:
Nothing magically happens at eighteen to make us immune to the power of what we see, hear, or read to affect our thoughts and eventually, perhaps, our behavior. Readers twelve to eighteen are not the only humans whose hearts and minds are being influenced by culture. We don’t stop needing stories of hope and redemption and reconciliation and joy and beauty as adults. Which somehow seems to be the flip-side implication of the alarm expressed over the content in teen books, as well as a conclusion one could draw based on what kinds of stories tend to get the attention and applause in the adult literary world.
Her larger point is that all sorts of readers may benefit from art that offers fulfillment as well as pathology, hope in contrast to nihilism, light as well as darkness, and that these are all parts of the world as well. (In a way this is a larger version of a point I argued myself, not long ago.)
I think she’s made a point worth your reading, and I think John Gardner would get it.