This week, I thought I would take on the YA-is-super-dark-and-isn’t-this-a-sign-teens-and-YA-authors-today-are-evil/morbid/violent/etc. argument. This issue crops up again and again in the media, like here and here. It came up in my FastCompany interview. And yes, there is a lot of heavy stuff in YA literature today. But is this a sign of change, or are YA authors simply returning to the roots of the novel?
There’s an interesting piece in the New Yorker talking about a recently published history of women and reading. It claims that the heyday of the novel was in the 19th century, and that the majority of what was written was of the Fifty Shades of Grey ilk—romances about rich people. But other very popular books of the 19th century were not romances, and these not only contain quite a bit of darkness and violence, but pop up as standard high school English fare.
I recently read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I know, I know—why haven’t I read this classic before? Didn’t everyone read this in middle or high school? Well, I did not. But if I had, I would have been psyched, because it is a gripping romance and political drama and mystery and exceedingly gory tale of the French Revolution. And it’s also one of the bestselling books of all time.
Gory?, you ask. Decidedly no, you say. Certainly not as gory as some of this modern YA garbage.
Well, is this gory?
In the howling universe of passion and contention that seemed to encompass this grim old officer conspicuous in his grey coat and red decoration, there was but one quite steady figure, and that was a woman’s. “See, there is my husband!” she cried, pointing him out. “See Defarge!” She stood immovable close to the grain old officer, and remained immovable close to him; remained immovable close to him through the streets, as Defarge and the rest bore him along; remained immovable close to him when he was got near his destination, and began to be struck at from behind; remained immovable close to him when the long-gathering rain of stabs and blows fell heavy; was so close to him when he dropped dead under it, that, suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife — long ready — hewed off his head.
The hour was come, when Saint Antoine was to execute his horrible idea of hoisting up men for lamps to show what he could be and do. Saint Antoine’s blood was up, and the blood of tyranny and domination by the iron hand was down — down on the steps of the Hotel de Ville where the governor’s body lay — down on the sole of the shoe of Madame Defarge where she had trodden on the body to steady it for mutilation. “Lower the lamp yonder!” cried Saint Antoine, after glaring round for a new means of death; “here is one of his soldiers to be left on guard!” The swinging sentinel was posted, and the sea rushed on.
How about this?
The old man kissed her, and hurried her into his room, and turned the key; then, came hurrying back to the Doctor, and opened the window and partly opened the blind, and put his hand upon the Doctor’s arm, and looked out with him into the courtyard.
Looked out upon a throng of men and women: not enough in number, or near enough, to fill the courtyard: not more than forty or fifty in all. The people in possession of the house had let them in at the gate, and they had rushed in to work at the grindstone; it had evidently been set up there for their purpose, as in a convenient and retired spot.
But, such awful workers, and such awful work!
The grindstone had a double handle, and, turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair Rapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood. Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women’s lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. Hatchets, knives, bayonets, swords, all brought to be sharpened, were all red with it. Some of the hacked swords were tied to the wrists of those who carried them, with strips of linen and fragments of dress: ligatures various in kind, but all deep of the one colour. And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes; — eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun.
I mean, really—this stuff is intense! Hacking a man’s head off while standing on his back? A gore-covered mob wielding blood-stained instruments and wearing trophies torn from their victims: members of the aristocracy held in makeshift jails, including whole families, murdered merely for having been aristocrats? Yet again, standard school fare. Bestselling book of all time.
I also recently read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It’s super long, so I’m not sure many students are assigned it in class, but it is featured on several high school summer reading lists. And why not? A huge bestseller in its time, it’s an awesome adventure story featuring jailbreaks! Revenge! Star-crossed lovers torn apart by cruel fate! A love triangle! Disguises! Murder!
And it’s pretty darn violent. Here’s a scene where the characters are watching a public execution in Rome:
The command was needless. Franz was fascinated by the horribly spectacle. The two assistants had borne Andrea to the scaffold, and there, in spite of his struggles, his bites, and his cries, had forced him to his knees. During this time the executioner had raised his mace, and signed to them to get out of the way; the criminal strove to rise, but, ere he had time, the mace fell on his left temple. A dull and heavy sound was heard, and the man dropped like an ox on his face, and then turned over on his back. The executioner let fall his mace, drew his knife, and with one stroke opened his throat, and mounting on his stomach, stamped violently on it with his feet. At every stroke a jet of blood sprang from the wound.
The reader is meant to really get into this murder thing—this is relatively early in the novel’s introduction of the Count and he lays out the whole point of the book in a scene just before the execution:
…Ah,” added the count, in a contemptuous tone, “do not tell me of European punishments, they are in the infancy, or rather the old age, of cruelty.”
“Really, count,” replied Franz, “one would think that you had studied the different tortures of all the nations of the world.”
“There are, at least, few that I have not seen,” said the count coldly.
“And you took pleasure in beholding these dreadful spectacles?”
“My first sentiment was horror, the second indifference, the third curiosity.”
“Curiosity – that is a terrible word.”
“Why so? In life, our greatest preoccupation is death; is it not then, curious to study the different ways by which the soul and body can part; and how, according to their different characters, temperaments, and even the different customs of their countries, different persons bear the transition from life to death, from existence to annihilation? As for myself, I can assure you of one thing, – the more men you see die, the easier it becomes to die yourself; and in my opinion, death may be a torture, but it is not an expiation.”
“I do not quite understand you,” replied Franz; “pray explain your meaning, for you excite my curiosity to the highest pitch.”
“Listen,” said the count, and deep hatred mounted to his face, as the blood would to the face of any other. “If a man had by unheard-of and excruciating tortures destroyed your father, your mother, your betrothed, – a being who, when torn from you, left a desolation, a wound that never closes, in your breast, – do you think the reparation that society gives you is sufficient when it interposes the knife of the guillotine between the base of the occiput and the trapezal muscles of the murderer, and allows him who has caused us years of moral sufferings to escape with a few moments of physical pain?”
“Yes, I know,” said Franz, “that human justice is insufficient to console us; she can give blood in return for blood, that is all; but you must demand from her only what it is in her power to grant.”
“I will put another case to you,” continued the count; “that where society, attacked by the death of a person, avenges death by death. But are there not a thousand tortures by which a man may be made to suffer without society taking the least cognizance of them, or offering him even the insufficient means of vengeance, of which we have just spoken? Are there not crimes for which the impalement of the Turks, the augers of the Persians, the stake and the brand of the Iroquois Indians, are inadequate tortures, and which are unpunished by society? Answer me, do not these crimes exist?”
“Yes,” answered Franz; “and it is to punish them that duelling is tolerated.”
“Ah, duelling,” cried the count; “a pleasant manner, upon my soul, of arriving at your end when that end is vengeance! A man has carried off your mistress, a man has seduced your wife, a man has dishonored your daughter; he has rendered the whole life of one who had the right to expect from heaven that portion of happiness God his promised to every one of his creatures, an existence of misery and infamy; and you think you are avenged because you send a ball through the head, or pass a sword through the breast, of that man who has planted madness in your brain, and despair in your heart. And remember, moreover, that it is often he who comes off victorious from the strife, absolved of all crime in the eyes of the world. No, no,” continued the count, “had I to avenge myself, it is not thus I would take revenge.”
How about Treasure Island? Originally published serially in a children’s magazine, this one became a genre-defining bestseller when published in book form. I also recently read this novel—I wanted to go on a pirate adventure! I went into it with the misconception that this was a fun, silly pirate book for kids. (There’s a freaking Muppet movie version of the story, for crying out loud!) Let me tell you, it is far from a silly book. It’s a very exciting survival story and high-seas adventure full of murderous pirates and gun battles and death. And there’s a talking parrot.
But it’s violent! Here’s young Jim as he watches Long John Silver murder a crew member who won’t go along with Silver’s plan to mutiny and murder Jim and the other non-pirates:
And with that, this brave fellow turned his back directly on the cook and set off walking for the beach. But he was not destined to go far. With a cry John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back. His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.
Whether he were injured much or little, none could ever tell. Like enough, to judge from the sound, his back was broken on the spot. But he had no time given him to recover. Silver, agile as a monkey even without leg or crutch, was on the top of him next moment and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body. From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.
And finally, what about The Odyssey? That’s something everyone reads in high school. Except me. For some reason, I read The Voyage of Ulysses, which is a cheesy novelization of The Odyssey. But I have since read (okay, listened to Ian McKellan read) it and can say that it is another awesome adventure story. And it is also pretty violent and gory.
Here, Odysseus revels in blinding the Cyclops, who recently dashed the brains out of Odysseus’s comrades and ate them whole…then puked them up in a drunken stupor:
When the wood, green though it was, was about to blaze, I drew it out of the fire glowing with heat, and my men gathered round me, for heaven had filled their hearts with courage. We drove the sharp end of the beam into the monster’s eye, and bearing upon it with all my weight I kept turning it round and round as though I were boring a hole in a ship’s plank with an auger, which two men with a wheel and strap can keep on turning as long as they choose. Even thus did we bore the red hot beam into his eye, till the boiling blood bubbled all over it as we worked it round and round, so that the steam from the burning eyeball scalded his eyelids and eyebrows, and the roots of the eye sputtered in the fire. As a blacksmith plunges an axe or hatchet into cold water to temper it- for it is this that gives strength to the iron- and it makes a great hiss as he does so, even thus did the Cyclops’ eye hiss round the beam of olive wood, and his hideous yells made the cave ring again. We ran away in a fright, but he plucked the beam all besmirched with gore from his eye, and hurled it from him in a frenzy of rage and pain, shouting as he did so to the other Cyclopes who lived on the bleak headlands near him; so they gathered from all quarters round his cave when they heard him crying, and asked what was the matter with him.
Now, I point these things out not as a reason to ban these books or anything, but merely to say that great, classic works of literature, stuff no one would question giving a teenager, are full of the kind of violence that YA authors today are demonized for including in their stories. Maybe the fact is not that YA authors are evil or depraved, but that we recognize the dramatic potential of violence. There is a reason the above mentioned books were bestsellers—they are great stories, in part because they are gritty and violent. These authors dragged their characters to the very extremes of existence, and that makes for great reading.
But more than that, violence is a part of life, even young people’s lives. To deny this is to simply deny reality. You can’t watch the news without hearing about someone being shot or murdered or killed in a car accident. And so of course YA authors include this stuff in their stories.
However, I don’t think that this is merely because it is a way of fitting a fictional story into their readership’s reality. Rather, I think including violence in a story gives the author an opportunity to provide context for violence, and to show how a character, or several, deal with that violence, for better or for worse. The author can play out for her reader the consequences of choosing one response to violence or another.
In this way, writing about violence gives teens a way to talk and think about violence, perhaps in ways that would not be possible were they discussing or thinking about real-world violence. And I think this is true for other topics beyond violence. As an example, Laurie Halse Anderson notes that readers of Wintergirls say that the book helped them find ways of talking with friends and family members about eating disorders.
The point of this is that perhaps we should all chill about YA literature. It is at worst titillating, but at best, it gives teens a way of talking about difficult things in their lives without having to put themselves out there. It doesn’t have to be, I got beat up by some guys and I’m scared and want to take vengeance on them; instead, a kid could say (taking a scene from No Safety in Numbers), I kind of liked the part where Ryan smashed the face of the guy who beat him up, but then he felt bad about it and isn’t that weird? In the latter scenario, two students or a student and teacher can talk about violence and vengeance and consequences and the kid doesn’t have to feel exposed. Yay, books!
Finally, I want to say, Yay, Readers! I found this awesome book trailer on YouTube made by some readers of No Safety in Numbers.
Thank you for being awesome, YA Readers!
What I’m reading: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (I love this man’s writing. And I cannot wait for the Cloud Atlas movie)
What I’m watching: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (One of my favorite books made into an awesome movie)
What I’m listening to: “Only Love,” by Ben Howard (My new favorite song)