How violent is too violent in teen fiction?


The cover of "The Marbury Lens," a young adult novel by Andrew Smith.

(Image Courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has started a heated debate over teen fiction.

Meghan Cox Gurdon argues that over the years, young adult (YA) fiction has become increasingly dark:

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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.

Cox Gurdon goes on to cite some examples of modern YA depravity, including Andrew Smith's 2010 novel, "The Marbury Lens," in which the main character is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor.

Yesterday on Midmorning, Andrew Smith discussed the accusation

When anybody says "there's too much of [something] going on" then it means there's some kind of definite quantifiable threshold where you can say "this is enough." And who's going to make that call, ultimately?

Smith says he isn't comfortable with the label of "teen fiction" or YA books, because they set up expectations in parents akin to the label of a "Happy Meal" - predictable contents, predictably packaged.

Instead he thinks of himself as a novelist, who happens to be read by teens.

Smith says his most recent novel "The Marbury Lens," while dark, is a particularly personal piece.

As far as The Marbury Lens is concerned, there's really no way that you can criticize the book and not criticize me, because they are one and the same. It's a very personal book, about things that actually did happen to me. And the effect of the book has been that in a lot of cases I'm either approached personally by kids, young men, or boys, or I get letters and e-mails from these kids who say things like "wow, this is exactly how I felt when this happened to me." And in that case, despite the fact that there are some dark themes that are present in Young Adult literature, when you can make that connection, when there are kids out there who suddenly realize that they're not alone, that their experience hasn't been confined to only them, that they're not damned - I think that it can be a really powerful thing.

Cox Gurdon says her concern is that these books not only to tell teens that they're not alone, but to popularize such violent behavior:

...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.

Smith disagrees. He says the books Cox Gurdon singled out in her article are in the vast minority:

There are so many thousands and thousands of books that are published every year - to say that teens are being inundated or bulldozed with miserable dark subject matter is absurd. These are kids who learned how to read in a post-9/11 world, where our country has constantly been at war with multiple enemies and they're told that we have all of these enemies outside our borders. They're certainly getting inundated with dark subject matter, but it's not just coming from the fiction that they read.

What do you think? Are some novels too dark? How do you figure out what's appropriate for a teen reader?