A few days ago I was telling my critique partner how I’m glad that the love interests in my novels aren’t set up to fuel desires for unattainable romance. Not that I don’t love reading about angels à la Daughter of Smoke and Bone, or Nephilim in The Infernal Devices. And that’s definitely not to say I didn’t swoon over Forks vampires as an 18-year-old (and the setting. Can we agree that the setting of the Twilight novels is swoon-worthy, or do I just think so because the best of my childhood years belong to Issaquah, WA? Those years were the PB & J between slices of dry Texas toast). Of course, just because my guys are humans rather than angels or vampires or bogarts or death personified doesn’t necessarily make them realistic, but their qualities aren’t impossible, or really even implausible.
My comment prompted my CP (who manages an awesome review blog and finds time to write despite having three vivacious kids) to point me to this post called “Waiting for the Right Monster to Come Along: On Twilight, Abusive Relationships, and YA Saves.”
I hadn’t heard about the YA Saves controversy before then — probably because Twitter and I hadn’t yet become frenemies and were merely eyeing each other across a vast expanse of virtual space. So I apologize now for being two years behind on the whole thing. It’s still relevant, actually, so no apologies.
Two years ago Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote this article criticizing the darkness of YA lit, which sparked a debate over dark YA, parental “gatekeeping” (censorship), and the effect both of these have on teens for better or worse. After reading a few different articles cited in the #YAsaves controversy, I’ve decided that I agree with some of Cox Gurdon’s views on how a YA market completely overrun with dark subject matter can be detrimental. But I also firmly believe that portraying darkness without qualm is essential in literature, that it’s life, that it does save — it saves because all stories show light capable of dispelling darkness. Even if the light never manifests explicitly in the story itself. Even the darkest novel in which the characters are afforded no redemption can bring hopeless readers a sense of community. Or it makes us grateful that the deepest darknesses of our lives are lesser than those we’re reading about. Or it can validate pain, regret, and grief, acting as balm to healing wounds. And if a message is pointlessly dark, tailspinning into utter hopelessness without the paltriest ray of redemption, readers can regard it as untruth and take one step closer to knowing what truth really is. I think writers and parents must trust that readers will find their way through the murky waters, rather than act as lifeguards who won’t let them swim at all.
All that said, I do think that there is room for healthy concern for pervasive darkness in YA lit as a gimmick or selling point. Darkness is necessary, but it shouldn’t be heavy handed or inescapable among products marketed to a sensitive audience. And it’s not the honest darkness I fear, but the darkness masquerading as light, the kind that lends itself to unhelpful or counterintuitive interpretations. This is often sneaky, underplayed, and sometimes in the works we would not consider dark at all. And lest I go down that road, which would constitute an entirely separate post, I’m going to wipe some sweat off my brow, resist the urge to quote Sherman Alexie and other amazing opinionated writers about both sides of this issue, and move on to what I meant to write this post about:
Again, I’ll point to “Waiting for the Right Monster to Come Along,” which I mentioned 80 years ago when I started this post. (You ask: “You’re STILL talking about Twilight?” To which I will offer a Snape-ish “Always.” Like it, hate it, or avoid it entirely, the series helped put YA fiction, especially works written specifically with a young female audience in mind, on the map in a way it hadn’t been previously.) Rachel Stark asserts that while she had her doubts about Cox Gurdon’s statements that dark YA lit normalizes self-destructive behavior, Twilight “normalizes — no, glorifies — unhealthy relationships.” Stark says, “No matter how many times Edward saves Bella’s life over the course of the series, that will never change the fact that, on their first date, he tells Bella he may not be able to stop himself from killing her. It doesn’t change the fact that he follows her, threatens her, makes all of her decisions for her, cuts her off from her friends and family emotionally and physically, instills her with the belief that his murderous impulses are her fault (she “has to be good” and not lose control of her urges when they kiss, so as not to tempt him), and attacks her when she says she’s not afraid of him, just to make sure that she learns to be.”
Stark goes on to say that she would never suggest the banning of these books just because they exhibit a trend she finds scary, and she says some great things about trusting readers to judge for themselves whether or not the relationship represented is healthy.
I respect the conclusion she reaches regarding having faith in the maturity of the audience. But as far as the list of Edward’s offenses, it’s like naming off all the sins a child commits in the course of stealing a pie — trespassing, kicking a dog, breaking a priceless vase — without taking into account that the kid was starving. When you take Edward’s actions out of context…um, yeah, they will sound pretty messed up. Because he is undead, wracked with nearly irresistible evil impulses, and subsists on blood.
YA has definitely bridled the paranormal. Demons, vampires, and reapers that are supposed to be the stuff of nightmares have become doting, protective, and sweet, falling epically in love with ordinary 16-year-olds with names like Whisper Conley and December Reynolds. And sci-fi isn’t exempt. “Dark they Were, and Golden-Eyed” will soon become “Tan they were, and Sculpted.”
But paranormal should be scary. I am a fan of good, old-fashioned Halloween-ish creeptasticness. After reading two YA paranormal romances in a row, I recently reread Dracula and cherished the way the suspense leading up to Jonathan’s introduction to the count made me pull my covers tighter. Poe did not cuddle with the black cat. Lucy Westenra did not open her window and invite a bushy-browed undead creature into her bedroom. Because dem jerks be scary. Heck, even Cathy’s ghost freaked me out a little in the PBS adaptation of Wuthering Heights. When it comes to being an immortal demon, Edward is actually kind of lame. He needs some LeStat lessons.
Maybe after reading Twilight, some unstable fans went off in search of stalker-types willing to watch them sleep. I think this was the same minority of fans who started fistfights at movie premieres. Far from facing dangerous levels of devotion, the majority of young women in unhealthy relationships face the indifference of the young men they are dating, who don’t understand who they are or what they’re capable of. If anything, in the height of its popularity, the series made girls wish “vampires were real” not because they wanted to be treated like helpless fragile dolls unable to make intelligent decisions regarding their own well-beings, but because they just wanted to be genuinely cared about by pretty, strong dudes. I see nothing wrong with that.
So let’s all give Steph Meyer a break. Personally, I would go for a hot-headed Gale Hawthorne or an oft-grumpy and clueless Ron Weasley over a “perfect” paranormal gentleman friend. But we have to look at books like Twilight for what they are: Paranormal. Romance. As far as illustrating a fictional romance between a human and a creature traditionally viewed as lustful, sadistic, and murderous, it’s actually pretty healthy.
In case anyone misinterprets my attitude toward this subject within this particular work of fiction as dismissive, know that I take the impact of fiction on reader’s lives and on culture beyond seriously. “It’s just fiction” is not a phrase that my ears register — because nothing ever contains so little of real truth to be accused of being “just fiction.” Every work mimics life’s chiaroscuro.
As far as action goes, censorship of darkness is not the answer. The answer is to heed the summons to balance any futile and truly damaging darkness with light — not with glossed-over, fearful, faux realities strung together in naiveté, but with hardy hope that knows danger, gloom, futility, pain, and stands unabashed and unconquered. For me, it’s a personal summons to portray realistic evil and True Good as its conqueror.
“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien