So, Megan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal is concerned about the darkness in YA literature. It seems that such stories (written, as they are, for teenagers) might introduce unnecessary dreariness and misery into the otherwise sunny time of adolescence.

It raises the obvious question: At what age does an adult undergo a mandatory brain wipe and forget about what it’s like to be a teenager? Even teenagers with nothing evil happening in their lives directly know friends who have awful things going on. More than that, teenagers are coming to grips with mortality and sex in two important respects: in both cases, they are confronting both the knowledge that they can make decisions that will give them power over the death and over the sexuality of other people, and with the equally uncomfortable realization that other people can have that kind of power over them (and that, at least with death, there will eventually be nothing they can do to stop it). This is to say nothing about their own desire both for sexual gratification and for some (safe) experience of violence and danger. Sex and death, folks. It don’t get more real, or dark, than that.

Now, I know the author of the article didn’t espouse the “all children’s entertainment must be sanitized” view, but nonetheless her basic argument rests on the assumption that children are somehow innocent (and that teenagers are somehow children). It’s a pernicious lie sitting close to the heart of one of the major culture wars, and frankly it offends my intelligence. It should offend yours, too.

Ask yourself: Is it a coincidence that YA books have been hotbeds of incest, taboo, tragic death, drug abuse, murder, domestic violence, mindfuckery, rape, evisceration, perversion, and demonic possession since the genre has existed? I doubt it. Anyone that ever sat around a campfire has told those tales themselves at that age, sometimes to the great dismay of adults listening in. Adults who have somehow forgotten that it’s natural, proper, and vital that teenagers call up the spirits that dwell on mortal thoughts. After all, would you want to live in a world where thought experiments were impossible? You may as well prohibit toddlers from walking, for fear that falling down might frighten or discourage them.

But there’s another part to this reality check: Teenagers aren’t “innocent,” except perhaps when they’ve been criminally sheltered. Most gradeschoolers aren’t innocent. Innocence doesn’t survive contact with the hypocrisy of adults, with the dominance games on the playground, or with those first rushes of power at age three when a clever child discovers the ease with which even the most clever of adults are manipulated.

Innocence also doesn’t survive contact with the neighborhood. Even a “good” neighborhood. For example, with the exception of two years in a very rough neighborhood (during which I was so young I didn’t realize I was playing baseball in the middle of gang warfare, literally), I grew up in a good neighborhood with very little crime and respectable middle class family values. I attended church in an even wealthier neighborhood, and spent the majority of my time among educated, mild mannered conservative Christians who were, by and large, not hypocrites. And in THAT environment, here’s a few of the things I encountered either first or second hand by the age of ten:

Embezzlement, blackmail, suicide, rape, murder, pedophilia, socially sanctioned and approved ostracism and scapegoating, gang violence (both formal and informal), degenerative disease, mind control games (not administered by any church), professional malfeasance, institutional corruption both in academia and in religious circles, brainwashing, pathological dishonesty, alcoholism, wanton sadism directed at people and animals of all ages and persuasions, petty gossip, delusions, insanity (clinical, diagnosed insanity), burglary, domestic violence, incest, and appallingly bad dress codes.

That’s an abbreviated list. There are a lot of things that could be on it that don’t fit into a two or three word sound bite, and a lot more things that should be on it that I frankly don’t wish to discuss in public. Now, read that list over again and bear this in mind: With the exception of getting beaten up on by other kids in school, I was not abused as a child; I walked through my darkest places later. This is not a litany of my private miseries, just a partial list of what a privileged white kid runs into growing up in a good neighborhood before the age of ten. Call it a reality check.

Children are not stupid, nor will adults ever succeed in keeping them ignorant without moving into the wilderness and isolating them (I’ve got a friend who grew up this way. I don’t recommend it). And teenagers, for all their wild emotional swings and poor judgment, are not children. They’ve got a full decade of sophistication in the ways of the world on a preschooler, and a good proportion of preschoolers already have a good (if limited and unnuanced) idea about the darker or more scandalous things in the world. It is only adults, who have learned how to be frightened of knowing dark things (because they remind us of dark experiences), who think children can, or should, be protected from knowledge of dark things. It is only adults, who admonish their children to honesty, who could view the world so dishonestly that they could construe lying to children (by omission) a virtue. And it is only adults who have successfully forgotten the difficulty of growing up who can possibly imagine that teenagers aren’t already thinking, talking about, and experimenting (in fantasies) with things far darker than they’ll find in any book…

…assuming, of course, that those teenagers are the fortunate few who haven’t been on the receiving end of a rape, or privy to a murder, or the victim of a cover up, or affected by a death, or the target of institutional or domestic or peer abuse. Because, by the numbers, most “kids” are, at one time or another. And if their books too must be bowdlerized and Disneyfied, how exactly do you think that’s going to help them learn to live in a universe painted in shades both of light and dark?

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  1. Personally, I think the slip of YA into more adult themes stems from today’s adults putting into stories topics *They* themselves wish they were allowed access to when they were kids. The same is happening in music and television. It’s a classic case of “Slippery Slope”.

    At the risk of sounding old fashioned. Scratch that. I want to sound old fashioned. When did that become a negative thing? I’m glad I was given a chance to be a kid and enjoy kid things. Sex wasn’t a topic or interest because it was totally unknown. Girls had cooties and boys were gross and so simple a set of thoughts as those kept the two far enough apart that no one explored possibilities. Kids were teased, there existed bullies, not everyone got a Valentine’s card and life was an ABC afterschool special.

    The excuse that it’s ok to be part of the “exposure” because kids are seeing already anyway misses the point that they are seeing it anyway in part because others before decided to expose them.

    A real life example happened to me yesterday while treating my girls (5,7) to lunch at Friendly’s. Over at a nearby table an adult couple and some kids were eating when she dropped an F bomb. My head shot up and over to them. He apologized while she seemed lost as to why he apologized. To her it was just another word kids hear all the time anyway (her words, not mine).

    So by the argument does this mean it’s suddenly ok, acceptable, if I start swearing or now let them read books, and watch movies containing the same?

    My answer is no but what’s yours?

  2. Kilroy —
    Thanks! Fixed the link 🙂

    I think you’re wrong about the slippery slope issue. Any kid near a library has always had access to dark, disturbing, and salacious material–Piers Anthony and Stephen King were huge among Jr. Highers when I was growing up, for example, as was V.C. Andrews and other more disturbing fare. Even heading back to the days of the Heinlein Juveniles, you’ll find a lot of very dark stuff (hidden under a light-hearted veneer as was the custom of the time, but nonetheless). This is to say nothing of the fact that librarians have always treated it as a rite of passage for kids to graduate to the adult section of the book store.

    So, no, I don’t think adults are writing the kind of stories they wish they’d been allowed to read. The appeal of YA literature isn’t (and never has been) the roughness–or tameness–of the content. It’s the age and perspective of the POV character. As a young teen, I loved reading about Frodo and the Ring, or about Thomas Covenant, or Screwtape, or Douglas Quail in the novelization of Total Recall (a movie I wasn’t allowed to watch, and couldn’t have handled at the time), or any of a dozen other heroes or heroines who got caught up in the midst of terrible, dark, or (as a later teen) erotic adventures.

    But the adult literature I read at that age was never quite as special to me as the stuff that had a POV character whose perspective I could share. Bink’s adventures in Xanth in A Spell for Chameleon, the decisions he had to make in order to grow up, hooked me like no book I’d read before, when I was twelve (even though I had to hide behind the couch to read it, because I blushed every time he kissed a girl). I enjoyed the coming-of-age stories because I was coming of age. Heinlein’s juveniles were (and still are) special to me for the same reason.

    So, that’s problem one I have with your premise.

    Problem two is a lot simpler: YA literature is aimed at teenagers. These are people who have gone through puberty. These aren’t people who are at the “cooties” stage. Children are a whole different animal than pubescent young adults. They’re different psychologically, physiologically, neurologically, sexually, and emotionally–and the failure of adults to come to grips with this (and to insist on pretending that post-pubescent minors are “children”) is a destructive, foolish thing. Teenagers are adults with training wheels on–all the power and drives of an adult body, but not enough of the judgment yet (because the judgment comes through experience).

    — — —
    For the rest of it, I’m the wrong person to ask about language. I’ve studied too much about how language works to care much about taboos. I tend to see “foul” language as more an issue of context-sensitive manners than an issue of right and wrong.

    As far as exposing kids (real pre-pubescent children) to rough content, that’s a thornier issue. I actually think it’s a thornier issue than most people acknowledge. A four-year-old, for example, won’t blink at things that will give a seven-year-old nightmares for months, because the seven-year-old has enough savvy to project himself into, for example, a kidnapping scenario. The film “Cloak And Dagger” (a spy film with a kid as the main character) is one of the best kid’s films I’ve ever seen. It’s also the most frightening thing I ever saw as a child. At five, it was a great adventure. When I rented the video at 10 years old, it sent me scurrying under the couch and looking over my shoulder for weeks.

    I also think films are a bit different than books, because with books, the upsetting parts are things you can skim past. People (including kids and teenagers) are very good at self-regulating their content based on interest, when they’re consuming in in a format that allows that. I mentioned A Spell for Chameleon earlier–it was the first book I ever read that presented sex in an eroticized context. Looking at the copy on my shelf now, the scene is three paragraphs long and not explicit in the least, but at twelve it was far too much for me to handle…so I turned the page. People self-censor their content with books, almost automatically.

    But particularly for violence, and somewhat for sex, I think that film is more of a blunt-force medium. Things happen too fast, and there are some things you can’t un-see. I have a very strong stomach, but there were some violent films I simply couldn’t watch until I’d worked on films and could throw the “filmmaker” switch on in the back of my head.

    Most people don’t have that switch, but they do have the “it’s only a movie” switch. Neurologically, kids don’t develop the ability to distance themselves in that fashion until between five and eight years old, and even then, it’s a fragile ability that takes practice. So, no, I don’t think turning your kids loose on netflix at their age is a particularly good idea–though I would be first in line to cheer if you were to deliberately show them a film slightly beyond their ken and then talk to them about it at length, encouraging them to critically evaluate the themes, messages, moral puzzles, and cultural issues that the film raises. I had a Dad who could do that even with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark–socratic dialogue is a glorious way to train a child in moral reasoning.

    So, for what it’s worth, that’s my take. You can’t protect kids–let alone teenagers–from knowledge of dark or adult things. You can try to control how they encounter those things, but your ability to do so will diminish with every passing day as they get older and spend less time in your direct presence. For my money, it’s a waste of energy.

    But helping your children learn to engage things thoughtfully, fostering an environment where they can discuss forbidden things, and are encouraged to reason through moral complexity, or death, or loss, or cruelty–that’s something parents (and mentors) can do very well. And that will give your kids tools to deal with the world that they’ll use when you’re not around to try to protect them, and long after you’re dead.

    I suppose the ball’s back in your court–what do you think?

    Thanks much for the discussion 🙂

  3. You give a man tons to ponder. And as a side note – man, you are a Word Factory to repond so quickly and with such depth.

    I’ll touch on a few points.

    There’s no question that a kid has easy access to works with a more adult audience in mind when at places like a library or bookstore. In some cases they don’t even have to venture outside the YA to find them as I learned firsthand when I discovered my oldest girl looking at a book of sexual positions someone else had neatly left amongst the Babar, Curious George and Thomas the Train books at out B&N store.

    I may be mistaken but I don’t think you are saying your author list of King, Andrews and all are examples of YA. My concern is the thought of YA material that includes some of the topics mentioned in your initial blog post as campfire talk.

    About this campfire exchange yours differed greatly from mine. Though nothing could be as scary as rape or insest

    Oh, and while you may be denied a job because of overqualification please don’t deny the teat of us your insights gained through personal experience and structured education. I for one would love hearing it. If you don’t feel your blog the place to do so consider this an open invitation to email me (you have the address). But I know how busy a person you are. 🙂

  4. Sorry, I failed to notice my phone battery was dying and my reply went out mid-sentence.

    What I was saying…

    … About this campfire exchange your experience differs greatly from mine. Though nothing could be as scary as rape or incest ours stuck to scary stories of things impossible or ironic. Things like the kid on a dare visits a graveyard and to prove they were there sticks a knife into the ground and suddenly can’t get up. Kid thinks it’s the mean old man buried below holding him down, dies of fright and discovered the next morning slumped over the grave with the knife pinning his coat to the ground. Simple, innocent scary story neatly explained in the end.

    As for the rest of your response we’re pretty much on the same team.

    Again, sorry for the back to back comments. I’ll consider composing any future response in a separate editor and paste it over instead.

  5. Orion —

    Well, V.C. Andrews and some of Anthony is YA, but for the most part, yes, I was meaning to use them as examples of adult lit that appealed to the YA audience during the time the current crop of authors were coming up (and, thus, pointing out that your image of a slippery slope due to what we authors were forbidden as children is probably not accurate).

    Ah, campfire stories! Good memories–and I love that story about the kid in the graveyard! I’ll have to work that one up for my next campfire circle 🙂

    For us, there were the requisite ghost stories (which were usually peppered with the bawdy and scandalous, told in tame terms that left plenty to the imagination–one of the local ones here is of The White Lady, a ghost said to walk one of the local rural roads seducing motorists and causing accidents. A sort of latter-day siren for teenage drivers). There were also the tales of serial killers, of (though we didn’t know the term then) succubi, of cheating and/or sexually prodigious girlfriends or boyfriends (at a time when we were all, girls and boys alike, very dorky virgins), of beheadings and decomposition, the list goes on.

    But you mention rape and incest as being the far more scary things, and they seem to be the elements of YA literature that you’re most concerned about. For what it’s worth, here’s the reasoning between why I might be sounding cavalier about such things:

    Humans are sexual creatures from the moment of conception. In the uterus, the plumbing all works (boys have erections, girls have lubrications). At puberty, the hormones kick in and create appetites where there once existed a kind of disinterested curiosity.

    Sexual curiosity starts very young for the majority of people–most (but not all) kids play doctor and try to figure out why their private parts are different from each other, and from their perspective it’s the same kind of investigation as dropping a glass off a building to see if it’ll shatter. It’s not eroticized yet, because puberty hasn’t kicked in (adults, being post puberty, tend to freak out at such games because they project adult mindset back onto childish investigation).

    But at puberty, that starts to change. Biologically, assuming puberty kicks in at the average age of 10, a 12 year old is nearly a fully functional adult (emotional maturity takes a while to catch up, which is why falling in love and having your heart broken over the course of a week in 8th grade can still sting some people when they’re 80). Since everyone ever born has an identity and neurology shaped by their sexual biochemistry, you have less chance of protecting your progeny from knowledge of sex than you do protecting them from knowledge of chocolate.

    In addiction to sex, we are creatures given to social dominance games, we learn the ways of power and manipulation by the time we learn to speak–whether that’s through violence, or through subtlety, or through playing up innocence or vulnerability. And we use those skills to attain and maintain position, and to hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally–and sooner or later we all encounter people who use their sexuality as a weapon.

    Trouble is, many parents want their children to remain children, and they try desperately to protect their children–even from things they can’t protect them from. This impulse, followed blindly, is very, very destructive. For example:

    I had one family I worked with when I was studying clinical psych, for example, who “didn’t talk about things like that.” The parents were very kind, decent people, and the kids liked them very much. However, in the interests of keeping their children “innocent” the parents had created a culture of silence and shame around sexual things–and when one of their children became the plaything of a neighborhood pedophile, the other children closed ranks to keep the secret, because they all feared the shame and disappointment of their parents. Once the abuse was discovered, things got worse, as the parents did freak out, treated the abused kid as damaged, and sent the kid into a tailspin that, more than a decade later, is still going on last I heard (without extenuating circumstances like this, recovery from the worst effects of sexual trauma normally takes two to eight years).

    Silence and shame are dangerous things around sex and violence–as a culture we are very good at setting people up to be victimized and then blaming them for being attacked, protecting the attacker, and treating the victim thereafter as if they are damaged and broken forever. Rape, incest, bullying, gang violence–I hope none of these ever happen to your children, but strictly going by the numbers, it’s certain that they will know someone in their school or church who has had to live through one or more of these things (even if those people never speak up). I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

    I’m not saying that “because bad things happen in life, it doesn’t matter if we see more of it in fiction.” I’m saying that “fiction is one of the ways we learn to cope with the bad things that happen in life, so it’s important that we sometimes encounter those bad things in the safe context of the imagination–so we can get practice.”

    Sure, most of the time fiction is mind candy. But some of it is vegetables. And the reading we do in the formative years–between early puberty and late college–is the place where readers really DO get their vegetables. Fiction at this time of life is sort of like training on the holodeck for a secret away mission–we learn through mental rehearsal to face things we might encounter in real life.

    I owe a lot to the people who wrote my vegetables. 🙂 I suppose I wish parents who cared about their children understood that dark stories are vegetables, not poisoned pills.


  6. As I mentioned to Dan on Twitter, I had two thoughts in regards to this post.

    One, if the young adult target range is 12-18, some parents concerns might be the difference in the maturity of the child at the lower end of this spectrum. Rather than try to sanitize it however, or ban certain authors, I would suggest that it is more appropriate for a parent to encourage their children to read certain authors or stories.

    In a nutshell, I do believe I have a vested interest in what my children view, read and listen to. However, I also don’t believe that everyone should believe as I do.

    Two: We’ve been demanding HS kids read Shakespeare and epics like Beowulf for many years. Which of the aforementioned “dark and depressing themes” are not mentioned in these and many other works in our classrooms? Anybody remember Piggy?

  7. Odin —

    Your perspective makes a lot of sense–and yes, I do remember Piggy! Wonderful book, Lord of the Flies. And yeah, Shakespeare did it all–I don’t think there’s a perversion or affliction we’ve mentioned here so far that isn’t in his most popular plays, and there are plenty of things in his plays there that we haven’t mentioned.

    Because parents have been with their children from the beginning, they do, as you point out, feel that they have a vested interest in controlling their progeny’s access to books. I can’t help but think, though, that precisely because of this relationship, they’re uniquely unqualified to judge what the kid is ready to handle (especially in the teenage years). Humans simply grow too fast in their first twenty years for adults to keep up with. Think of how common it is to hear “it seems like only yesterday that she was taking her first steps” from fathers at their daughters’ weddings. Parents, for understandable reasons, tend to infantilize even their adult children.

    I’ve seen this even in myself (much to my chagrin) with my younger brothers and my nieces–when I interact with them, I do so on the basis of who I remember them being when the relationship was last very close, not on the basis of who they are now.

    Really, I think that (imperfect though their judgment may be), the only people who really have business determining what young adults read is the young adults themselves. They know what they can handle–and if they over-reach, they learn from it.

    Then again, I am very confident that nymphomaniacs/satyriacs, serial rapists, serial killers, con artists, and pedophiles are not made by exposure to books (or movies or music)–those conditions, and the other ones like them that parents fear their children developing, are rooted much deeper. Genetics and biochemistry have to conspire together and come crashing headlong into a social environment that encourages these kinds of behavior. Psychopathy, arrested cognitive development, and borderline personality (the conditions from which the earlier habitual bad behaviors most commonly arise) are all brain malfunctions, and there’s not a lot even the best parent can do to prevent those things.

    More garden-variety destructive behavior is another matter–giving people the opportunity to vicariously live such behaviors and their consequences is one of the wonderful things about fiction.

    For these reasons and others, I can’t help but think that managing teenager’s reading is misguided. I suspect this is true for younger children as well–a suspicion I’m not alone in. Tolkien was on to something when he wrote (in his essay “On Faerie Stories”) that children’s “books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it”.”


  8. You know, I agree. Let me restate. While I don’t think it is necessary to read everything they’ve read, I do take it upon myself to occasionally read one of the books my eldest is interested in. Not so to force a choice in his reading, but to be able to conduct an intelligent conversation. When the day comes, as it surely will, when I find something in one of them that causes me a raised eyebrow, I can at least sagely (cowardly?) choose to ignore it or open up an informed discussion on it with him.

    Just a though.

  9. There is a deviousness to the way your mind works that I quite admire!

    I suppose that means I shall have to wear a flak jacket next time my number comes up on View From Valhalla! 😉

  10. I want to bring up something I found in that article that hasn’t been addressed here so far. Ms. Gouldon is complaining about the selection of books in her local bookstore and condemning publishers for printing the books. I will give my opinion on parents restricting their own children’s reading in a moment, but my biggest gripe with this article is that Ms. Gouldon is trying to restrict the reading choices of all children, not just her own. She, like many of the other culture warriors Dan mentioned, projects her strict morality onto the choices of other parents. There are of course limits on what parents can do to their kids. One of the great and continuing cultural changes in recent decades has been the effort to protect children from their parent’s neglect and abuse. But equally, freedom of speech and thought is nothing unless we can pass those ideas on to our children.

    On what is appropriate for children, I come at the argument from a different perspective than the previous commenters. I am only a few years removed from the YA demographic myself. I was 18 when I started listening to Dan’s Down from Ten. As I told him when I met him a few months later, the situations in it, (minus the science-fiction aspects) were reminiscent of the lives of my friends and I. And, for the most part, that is a good thing. Like Dan, I grew up in a very nice area. In my experience all that meant was that the drugs were more available, the sex was more adventurous, and you knew less about what went on behind your neighbor’s closed doors.

    I cannot emphasize enough the importance of rehearsal that YA offers. I had, I think, not much more of a difficult adolescence than most people, but for various reasons, if my parents and the adults around me had known a little more, I would likely have been institutionalized. There was a place with a good reputation right down the road from my highschool (oh, the inherent irony) and I would have gone there. I knew, from friends who had already had stays there, that that was the last thing I should do. Nothing was ever proven, but I would have been in more danger there than I ever was to myself. Instead of professional “help”, I had books. YA gave me examples of people my age going through what I was going through. The protagonists made various choices, and then they experienced the consequences of those choices. I could use that borrowed experience to navigate both my own internal difficulties and the minefield set up by well-meaning adults. If my parents had in any way restricted my reading, the outcome would likely have been very different.

  11. I understand the frustration felt by parents out there that strongly desire to shield or otherwise protect their kids from certain content. I’m not arguing for or against it. They’ll never be able keep it out of their community even if they are in the majority because that smacks in the face of censorship and denial of free speech. Freedom of speech has the downside that there’s no way to work in some standard of decency. Any line in the sand is subject to the perils of tides and storm surges. And the only place it’s ever redrawn for however short a time is further inland. Remember the days of I Love Lucy when married couples slept in separate beds on TV? Were they fooling anyone? Did the world believe married couples didn’t share a bed? I don’t think so. But I could be wrong.

    I’m very appreciative of the positions and rationale expressed on this topic here and elsewhere. Millions enjoy shows, books and movies covering “harsh” topics and “tough” issues. Network and cable news is full of stories spotlighting the very worst of humanity. This stuff sells. I’m sure if stories of valedictorians without a troubled upbringing, rescued puppies, and married couples adopting children, were popular there’d be a nightly news program. But it’s not what the people truly crave no matter what they might claim publicly.

    I know bad things really do happen to people young and old but do I need to flip the channels and see some preteen stumble into a convenience store, blood running down a leg, clothes in tatters, in yet another “ripped from the headlines” SVU? I know. I know. I don’t have to watch it. And I quickly switched the channel but that took all of five seconds to burn into my brain….forever.

    But that’s TV and how I got there when we were talking about YA books I don’t know. I, like Odin1eye, try reading some of the books that interest my kids just to be ready for any questions that might come up. I too remember enjoying Beowulf, The Odessey and more during junior and high school but let’s not forget that as a school assign reading we had our teachers as guides (YMMV) through the material.

    I’m curious if people envision a time when books will come with some industry standard content rating like we see in movies, television, and video games. Come to think of it I’m a bit surprised there isn’t one already. How did video games get them before books?

  12. Wow, leave the sit for a few days, spend half an hour reading comments and thinking about them.

    Speaking as a 16 year old, and listening to (and hoping to read) predestination and all the assorted dirty joking, tomfoolery, and valuable discussion that goes on in the feedback shows, I can say that my life would in no way be the same if I hadn’t done so. My life wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t read Ender’s Game, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Atlas Shrugged, Nicomachean Ethics, Calvin and Hobbes, or The Shining. Now obviously thats a Greatest and Most Notable Hits list, but many people would say that those are books that arent

  13. sorry! had to leave off in the middle there…

    appropriate for children, for various reasons. It’s always been an issue of mine, actually, not because my parents are extremely strict about what I read, watch, and listen to, but because some are. How much latitude can we give to our children as a society. At what point should they be allowed to drink? smoke? have sex? vote?
    In short, when can a child be given license to make decisions, good or bad, as he wishes?
    The problem with this question is that there is no way to say. there are some people that shouldn’t be trusted with a anything more dangerous than a sock, but who are given immense responsibility. Any test administered by the government for any of these cases would be skewed in some way at some point, and would allow the government to effectively force people to comply with their views or be denied rights. With the state the government is in, that’s not a good idea, nor should any government ever have that kind of power. An age limit is somewhat arbitrary. Letting everyone do as they please would result in abuse. The degree of freedom given to a child is also determined in specifics by the parent(s) of the child. As you said, though, Dan, many parents really shouldn’t decide what their kids are exposed to because they can’t view their situation objectively. My parents are fairly willing to let me see, read, and listen to most things. If they weren’t, I probably wouldn’t know you existed.

    All of the “maturity” issues are important, but in terms of censorship, I firmly believe that us pubescents should be allowed to read what we want and listen to what we want, because those are things that are much easier to cope with. But in terms of realistic multimedia, I really can’t tell. There are some things we just shouldn’t see.

  14. Addendum: When I say “easier to cope with” I don’t mean that all literature is appropriate for us. But everything should be at least accessible to us, and (hopefully) we have parents like mine that we can talk to about it. Movies, however, are another story. If we’re not ready for them, they can have an extreme and terrible impact. I actually haven’t been traumatized by anything I’ve seen, but I know some kids that have. Some of my classmates from grade school were allowed to watch things they shouldn’t have, and I vividly remember one in particular who would burst into tears for the rest of the year. As adolescents, we have more hardened hearts, and we are able to stand much more than we could. I lost my mother to cancer when I was 7, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know she was going to die. That’s probably helped me more than its hurt me, because my family and friends were extremely supportive, but its still made me much less vulnerable to pain than others my age. So, even though they scare me, books like The Shining and movies like Saw (which I saw at 14, if memory serves), frightened me but didn’t leave me mentally broken. That threshold is delicate and dangerous, and more so the younger you are. In some ways, you’re not an adult unless you’ve seen death. You don’t have the same visceral connection to your own mortality. A major aspect of more “mature” and “dark” literature is that it puts readers in touch with that. One of the great problems with movies, however, is that they desensitize a person to death, both because they show people dying who are seen a week later in newspapers. Or in ads. Or in magazines. It gives the subconscious impression that death is like a sickness. One thing that I’m very grateful my parents never did was hide the truth from me. I was never told that my mommy “had a cold,” and my father came into my room the night she died and told me what had happened. If he hadn’t, I doubt I would be able to forgive him. In a book or a story, Dead means Dead. If the character comes back to life, then at least it’s explained (unless it’s a horrible book). Conversely, in a movie, Dead also means Dead, but the actor goes on to get arrested for cocaine possession the day after you see them die. It’s never explained. That is one part of why death, as depicted in movies, is damaging. The other part is that the kind of death depicted in movies is often sensational, gory, and grotesque. The graphicness of a gory scene in a book is limited by what the reader is capable of imagining. It’s another form of self-censorship.
    I don’t mean to say that excessive violence doesn’t appear in books, especially those whose goal is to convey emotion rather than ideas, as is the case with horror stories, romances, ect. These are still good books (although I’ve read very few really good romances), but their goal is to convey feeling, not content. These are usually the intensely graphic books that some people are concerned about. Even within this category, there are some stories (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann comes to mind) which masterfully convey a sense of horror through the presence of the sinister, the evil, and the alien. There ARE a few books which are “shock” pieces: a jumble of graphic and violent imagery meant to convey horror through the events the book presents. These, I agree are wrong for adolescents to read. In fact, I deem those who do enjoy them lacking in any taste, with a genetic structure much closer to a chimpanzee’s than the average human, to say nothing about the legality of their parentage. But that’s my opinion.

  15. Orion —

    I doubt we’ll see a content rating for books–the government can’t enforce one in the U.S. at least (1st amendment), and the publishing industry is much further flung than anything in the other entertainment spheres.

    As for the rest–though I suspect we’ll continue to disagree over what could be considered “age appropriate” in a lot of circumstances. I’d love to leave you with another thought, though:

    “The rising tide lifts all boats”

    More books (and more films and TV) means more Dr. Seuss and Pixar as much as it does more Dexter or Thomas Harris novels. Good quality material all around, and the option to choose whether you want to deliberately expose yourself to that which makes you uncomfortable (something that some people value) or to select material that you find more companionable. Either can provide growth and enrichment, or simple entertainment.

    I guess, in the end, I don’t see a danger of the dark, edgy, and eroticized driving the lighter, the funnier, the touching, or the affirming out of the market–I think there will always be people that want, or need, both.

    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments–I very much enjoy the back and forth 🙂


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