The response from young adult writers and their editors to Megan Cox Gurdon’s recent highly critical op-ed has been, to me anyway, extremely disappointing. Everyone seems concerned to throw up an instinctive, reactive, common front rather than give thoughtful replies.

Look, for example, at the comments gathered here. According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s comments are typical in this regard. “Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.” See? Salvific power, no danger. Even penicillin is dangerous for some people, but not YA fiction!

I was excited for a moment when Libba Bray acknowledged that “Books are dangerous.” Yes! But, oh, wait: “Yes, dangerous. Because they challenge us: our prejudices, our blind spots. They open us to new ideas, new ways of seeing. They make us hurt in all the right ways.” And, it seems, never in the wrong ones. So, not really dangerous at all. Not in any way.

(Another interesting theme in these comments is how much more trustworthy YA writers are than parents. Apparently, while books can only be good, parents are often bad.)

Let’s get serious, people. Everything that has power has power for good and ill. Can we just begin by stating what should be obvious to everyone, that some books — whether for children, young adults, adults, whatever — are good and some are bad? And they’re good and bad in different ways and for different reasons. Some are poorly written but morally sound; some are beautifully written but morally corrupt. Some are bad all round; some are perfectly wonderful.

Of course, there’s no universal accounting for reader response. As G. C, Lichtenberg said, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, there’s no use expecting an apostle to look out.” Mark David Chapman even found in The Catcher in the Rye a reason to kill John Lennon. People are variable creatures, in their responses to books as in all other things. But there are general tendencies that we can try to understand.

What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don’t intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.

It is possible to think about these matters. Gurdon, in her attempt to distinguish between books that treat hard, painful, and ugly issues in helpful ways from those that treat them in callous and thoughtless ways, is at least trying to do some serious thinking. I haven’t seen that yet from the writers who are responding to her. If you’ve seen more serious responses than I have, please let me know in the comments.

But you don’t need to tell me that books can and do change lives for the better. I know they do. Books have had major transformative power in my own life. But some of what I’ve read hasn’t been good for me, and more than a few times that happened because the people who wrote it meant me no good. Writers are as fallen and as broken as anyone else, and so, therefore, are their books.

Text Patterns

June 8, 2011


  1. Can you give some examples of books that haven't been good for you, and why they weren't good? It's not that I disagree with your assessment — just that I'm trying to think of a book I've read that I wished I hadn't or that I felt had a negative impact on me, and I'm coming up short. Of course I've read books I didn't like and books I disagreed with (even vehemently), but those things are very different.

  2. The first example that comes to mind is the Ayn Rand novels I read as a teenager that helped me to admire crass selfishness and to have contempt for people that I didn't see as Bold Rebels against Society.

  3. I'm not convinced (yet, anyway). How have books harmed you? I read a fair amount of trash as a kid, but I cannot think of any way in which I was harmed by it. If anything, it helped develop my critical facilities. Ditto for things that were way too old for me (most notably, *Streetcar Named Desire* in second grade and *Fear of Flying* in fourth or fifth); they exposed me to ideas that I ignored because I wasn't ready for them.

    So, I'm curious: How were you damaged by certain books?

  4. Some examples might include the works of T.S. Eliot, especially his criticism, which have had a bad influence on a few would-be writers of my generation. That man meant us no good. Oh, and Tolstoy's What Is Art? which I think meant well enough but only did me harm.

    And then of course there's always Mein Kampf.

  5. Sorry to have repeated John's question — comments crossed in the ether.

    You're convinced that having gone through a Randroid stage as a youth harmed you, and that without exposure to those books you would never have thought the thoughts that you now regret? My experience is just the opposite: I came up with my own native (and naive) Randian model in 8th grade but had rejected it by the time I actually read *The Fountainhead* (P-U).

    I guess basically I think protecting teens from ideas — any ideas — is futile and probably a bad idea. I'd rather spend that protective energy preventing actions.

  6. I guess basically I think protecting teens from ideas — any ideas — is futile and probably a bad idea. I'd rather spend that protective energy preventing actions.

    You don't think there's any relation between ideas and actions? I may have a higher opinion of the power of ideas than you do.

    Also, don't you mean to say that you're convinced that you came up with your own Randian model as a child? Unless you really mean to say that your memories of your experience are utterly reliable while my memories of my experience are highly dubious. . . . 😉

    As a parent, I don't think in terms of "protection" from the bad so much as encouragement towards the good. For that reason I haven't ever forbidden my son to read a book. But my strategy might not be the best one. After all, protecting their children, in any of several ways, is one of the things that parents are supposed to do.

  7. Yeah, Atlas Shrugged came to my mind immediately too, and I did go through a brief period of nodding along with her. Fortunately, I had a close philosophy-major friend who succinctly broke down Objectivism's many inherent problems for me. (His take on her was "great novelist, shitty philosopher," which I think I agree with, inasmuch as "great novelist" encompasses writers who can produce page-turners that draw a lot of readers. Whatever I thought of her beliefs after a little reflection, she still had me racing to finish the longest book I'd ever read at that point, chain-smoking in my crappy basement apartment.)

    Anyway, I can't say the book did me harm, although not having been taught to read especially critically by the time I was 21 might have (and not having a thoughtful social support circle definitely would have, but that's an entirely separate issue from my reading choices). On the contrary, with all the Rand fans out there now, I'd hate not to have read it. I'd say most Americans ought to be conversant with her work, just because of its influence on our culture, the same way being conversant with the Bible is useful to American atheists and members of other religions.

    Anyway, I was a little older than you when I read her. But do you wish you'd been older, or do you wish you'd never read her at all?

  8. But do you wish you'd been older, or do you wish you'd never read her at all?

    I don't really think in those terms, I guess. what I have read I have read, as someone in the Bible almost said. I think reading Rand was probably a waste of time, but then so was much of what I read at the time. But that's cool, because I was reading for fun rather than enlightenment. And who knows, maybe some of that stuff has helped me in ways I'm not aware of.

  9. What strikes me in many of the comments is a common idea that unless someone can provide some dramatic example of obvious harm, no harm has occurred. School administrators and teachers frequently use this fallacious argument to defend films, novels, and plays against parental challenges.

    Certainly, the harm done by exposure to corrosive ideas and images is less obvious than other forms of harm. And the effects are likely to be cumulative over time. But the fact that one cannot say, "After I read Novel A, I molested my sister," does not mean that a novel that graphically details incest or rape does not plant perverse images and ideas into the minds of children or teens.

    It is the slow accretion of ideas and images that transform beliefs, values, attractions, and world views about which we should be concerned.

    As to Dr. Jacobs comments about the protecting children: Having raised four children (two of whom are recent Wheaton grads), I believe it is our job to protect our children. And protecting their minds is at least as important as protecting them from physical harm. However did we arrive at the cultural point where trying to protect 12-year-olds from images of incest, pederasty, homosexuality, or self-mutilation constitutes evidence of provincialism, maternal neurosis, or aesthetic vacuity?

  10. It's easy for me to think of books that did me harm. In my adolescence in the 70s I read any number of books that instilled attitudes towards sex that I still have to fight every day, for example. It's less the ideas than the longings, the images, the desires affirmed and reinforced. Once things get into the complex imaginary world we carry inside, they cannot easily be cast out.

    The issue is not ideas per se; if the ideas were presented as ideas, one would think about them and decide. But when ideas are artfully presented in fiction, they can strike the reader as simply the way things are, and thus can have a deep impact. That is one way that literature is powerful, for good or ill.

  11. @Anonymous: Well, I'm not sure anyone is saying parents don't have an obligation to protect their children, or that certain reading materials can be inappropriate for certain kids of a certain age. And clearly, harm doesn't have to be overt, direct, or obvious to be harmful.

    I'm just saying that, looking back with the (I hope) more thoughtful and objective perspective of an adult, I can't think of any books I read as a kid or a grown-up that somehow harmed me, either directly or subtly and insidiously. I can think of books with abhorrent or distasteful points of view—but books and readers don't exist in vacuums. If I bought into such a point of view, I'd be hard-pressed to condemn the book alone and not the context of the rest of my life.

    (Also: Horrified by your lumping-in of homosexuality with those other three, but that's not something it would be fruitful to get into here, I suppose.)

  12. OK, Fernando's comment reminds me of some books that did me harm as a young reader (and I should stress that this is not meant as snark): My parents bought me a couple of books that dealt with sex and Christian morality, and those compounded the feelings of guilt and fear and shame I had about sexual desire, which have plagued me to various degrees ever since. But again, this was also even more a result of the attitudes of my parents (for all their relative social liberalism) and the American, and specifically Midwestern, cultural climate I grew up in.

  13. As a 30-something father of pre-literate children, I've already given these questions a lot of thought, at least as they relate to children's literature. One of my main criteria for selecting books for my children is whether I could possibly enjoy reading the book aloud several times in a row. There are many children's books that are not particularly objectionable, but also frankly not worth my children's time and attention, let alone mine. Yes, there are some children's books I find thoroughly objectionable, and some that I find highly meritorious, but between them is a vast middle ground of drivel, twaddle, and vanity (in the biblical sense). There is, I gather, a similar problem in the YA book industry. In browsing the YA section of the library, I can't find much that looks worth reading. And that is a problem that neither the promoters nor the critics of YA fiction seem to be addressing.

    I was a young adult reader not so very long ago, and while I can't remember a book I really regret reading, I do regret spending so much time reading juvenile literature when I might have been reading something better, and something that might have enriched my imagination. For example, I read a lot of juvenile detective fiction. There was hardly anything objectionable about any one of those books, but they had the cumulative effect of stunting my imagination and reducing my sense of what characterization, drama, and narrative conflict could be. I came to prefer flat, action-oriented heroes and unambiguous villains. As a consequence, I think I took longer to appreciate the kind of psychological subtlety in, say, James Joyce or even Jane Austen than I should have. Suffice to say, I was still reading drivel at a time when I could have been reading Dante on my own.

  14. Josh,

    Reading a liberal these days always gives me a chuckle. I mean this is just plain funny: "My parents bought me a couple of books that dealt with sex and Christian morality, and those compounded the feelings of guilt and fear and shame I had about sexual desire, which have plagued me to various degrees ever since."

    You poor dear.

    Riffing a bit off of Fernando, I have no problem identifying de Sade as a harmful book that should be kept under lock and key (from young adults and mature adults).

    A question for Josh — would you let your young adults watch "Birth of a Nation" (I know it is a movie, but I can't think of a good racist novel for comparison)?

  15. @Fake Herzog: Not that I said I was liberal, and not to suggest I'm looking for anyone's sympathy or that there aren't people with much worse problems, but it's lovely that someone else's distress makes you chuckle. Your contempt is noted.

    As for Birth of a Nation — sure (assuming my young adults wanted to sit through a 190-minute silent movie). If nothing else, it's pretty solidly established as a canonical work in a major art form. Should I be worried it would turn them into Klansmen? 😉

  16. I've read things that I strongly wish I hadn't, things that disgusted or scared me and that still give me unpleasant thoughts at unwelcome times.

    I've read things that have influenced my ideas about sexuality that have created significant obstacles in developing a good sexual relationship with my wife.

    Anyone who claims media consumption has no effect on people's behavior has got a lot of explaining to do regarding Nike's sales figures.

    I don't think censorship is the solution to any of these problems. But I'm dismayed at what a lot of authors choose to write and publishers choose to publish and kids choose to read. Really? That's what you wanted to put in my head? That's what you want to put in your head? Get out of my sight, I want nothing to do with you.

  17. Oscar Wilde had a negative effect on me, encouraging a latent streak of shallowness and flippancy. Like Alan, it's about what those books taught me to admire.

  18. The most important damage done by books is the damage of which the reader is unaware!

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