Dark Lit

Why I care about the issue of Dark Lit( Some of my history with books)

When I was a child, my sister used to take me to the library twice a week. She used to babysit me (and my brother) while my parents worked seemingly all the time. I did enjoy reading, but I enjoyed being a town boy just as much. However, we were forced upon my sister. She didn’t have the option of choosing to watch after us. She was just told to. So what was her babysitting method for me? Read a book.  I was a content child. Never complained.  She would tow me around and I would drag a book or two and stayed quiet and read while my sister tried to steal moments of freedom visiting her friends. By the end of summer, I was having a hard time finding a book to read. I read almost every book in the children’s section.

My love of books  does come and go in phases.  Just my personality I guess. I binge read for weeks, months, then take a sabbatical and end up not reading for months on end.  The same goes for other hobbies and passions. But, unlike my other outlets, I always, always, end up back to my sweet books.

I’m a bit of a book hoarder. While I may stop reading from time to time, I never stop buying books, or planning to buy books. I have hard copies of every single book I’ve ever read. I have over a hundred books I have yet to read. I’ll pass buy a stand on the street selling 50 cent books and I have to stop and buy one.  Any extra cash? Buying a book. Okay, I did donate over a hundred of the older books last summer to my local library. But, the majority of my collection is intact.

I read a little bit of everything, but my heart lies within Young Adult fictional fantasy series. Vampires, werewolves, witches, banshees, grim reapers, faeries , angels, ghosts, Gods and Goddesses…you get the drift.

Paranormal and fantasy aside, it is the realism aspect of YA literature that appeals to me. The comparison to real life situations, emotions and relationships. The core of any YA story is a young person struggling to figure out who they are and who they are meant to be and what it is they believe in. YA is  about finding ways of doing the right thing regardless of others judgment or infliction and weeding ties of loyalty and friendship to bind it all together.  YA literature is so much more than just presenting a story, it’s presenting an alternative world for our emotions to writhe and fight and hopefully when we turn the last page arise a little bit smarter and a little bit surer of ourselves.

Sure, I read adult literature and classic literature. But, with YA there is just a way with words and an ease that makes reading free and easy. With adult novels sometimes as you’re reading you feel the writing is forced. I’m not saying every single YA book is the best book every written- far from it.

I stay with YA because the stories always catch my heart and inspire my soul. It’s like the author is writing TO me, for me… not AT me. While reading YA I feel as if I’m part of the story, not a looker from the outside.

 
The Debate
The past couple of years, this debate has resurfaced again and again within the book community. This war is being waged across the board. Has YA become too dark for teenagers?  With themes of abuse, sex, self-harm, death, drugs and dystopian wars being the forth runners in today’s YA literature, has the shelves been stocked with morbid negativity inducing themes? Are these themes conducive to a young mind?

The debate with YA literature is probably the same debate that dates back to the first book ever written. We have our history of banned books, controversial books.  As we struggled as society to overcome taboos and expand our minds, authors from the beginning of time wrote alongside the struggle to banish the silence that ignorance and intolerance fosters.  The controversy is, should teens read this?

Sick Lit”

The appalled are calling these dark themes “sick lit”.  I read an article in January 2013 by Tanith Carey. She opens her article by saying “As plots go, it’s mawkish at best, exploitative at worst”. Throughout her article she addresses numerous books with that contain topics like kids with terminal illness (cancer), suicide, and self-harming issues.  The core of her article she believes publishing companies and authors are writing these stories glamorizing death and issues like cutting, simply writing about taboos for shock value and to move products off the shelves. She quotes some publishers and others, about how they feel these books are trigger setting and introducing topics to teens in a way to present them as an option for teens to indulge in(cutting, eating disorders). But, above all, she believes “sick lit” is just a way to generate revenue.

Another article I read, by Megan Cox Gurdon she writes similarly like Carey, addressing specific books mostly including books about self-harm, abuse or rape. She is arguing these books are presenting negativity to teenagers and teenagers are simply eating them up.

“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

She then argues these sick lit themes are shaping the mind of a young person’s mind.
“Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it. If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads”

Similarly to Carey,  Gurdon feels these dark themes are presenting an alternative option to teenagers they may have otherwise never resorted to and giving them a hopeless outlook on life.

“Yet 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.”

Throughout her article, she fishes how can these stories can possibly resonate with a teenager in a positive way when there is no happy ending.

In essence, those who oppose dark themes within YA feel teenagers are too impressionable to read about such topics. These themes are simply sick. It is only having a negative affect by normalizing issues like eating disorders, self-harm, death and suicide. Basically, they believe by reading these stories a teenager now has these ideas and impulses planted inside them.

New Adult

The other side of the debate? They believe in these stories, in addressing these themes. In an article responding to Gurdon’s article( above), Mary Elizabeth Williams writes from a mother’s point of view. She feels these dark themes are just that- dark and gritty. The way they were intended to be. In the following quote Williams quotes Gurdon’s article about publishers trying to force these dark themes full of coarseness and misery into children and these are unsuitable subject matters. Williams challenges that whole viewpoint.
“And when she clumsily insists, “publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children’s lives,” she fails to acknowledge the coarseness and misery already inherent in adolescence. She assumes that coarseness and misery — and profanity, and violence, and sex — are in and of themselves unsuitable subject matter, regardless of the quality of the writing. That’s where she goofs up big time.”

Those on this side of the debate, believe these dark themes are needed.  Williams quotes a teen blogger responding to the debate and adds to it simply saying these dark themes are an outlet.

“‘Good literature rips open all the private parts of us — the parts people like you have deemed too dark, inappropriate, grotesque or abnormal for teens to be feeling — and then they stitch it all back together again before we even realize they’re not talking about us.” That’s why it matters; why, in the name of protecting teens, we can’t shut them off from the outlet of experiencing difficult events and feelings in the relative safety and profound comfort of literature. Darkness isn’t the enemy. But ignorance always is.”

Some on this side of the debate wish to start a new genre, New Adult. In which these dark themes can safely be approachable to both older teenager readers and up to age 25 reading base. Publishing companies cannot deny the popularity and demand for these themes. It is almost labeled a hybrid genre.  Those on this side of the dark lit debate feel we should grow and embrace it and have a proper place for it.

 

What I think

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? “Parent’s just don’t understand” “Grown ups don’t get it!” are universal sayings we said as teenagers and teenagers today are probably saying that about their parents just like OUR parents said about THEIR parents. As a teenager they are SO turbulent and ripe with raw energy and emotions.  Do you remember what it was like to experience your first crush? Being so absolutely and positivity “in love” and how earth shattering and halting it was to experience that first break up  that you thought you would never live and be happy again? We felt everything SO much more. The emotions were there and true to ourselves. We are developed enough in mind to know we have feelings but not yet mature enough ( oh but we thought and said we were mature, fought restlessly on the maturity point)  to really understand whatever the situation was, whatever breakup or BFF betrayal , that life goes on. We grow up. We dont yet know we probably never stay friends with half of the friends we had from high school.  But that’s part of growing up, learning how to take life obstacles in stride. But, as a teen ( and you all known as a teenager we practically think we have life figured out already and “we aren’t kids anymore!”) it’s not so easy. No matter how mature we think we are, we still haven’t learned life lessons.

With that said, it’s important to also note the generation gap. I’m 24 now. When I was in high school the starting age for experimentation was 15. At 15 we tried to sneak into a night at a club, hooky parties, or anywhere on the route home from school. 16 was the going age for losing your v-card.  But, 17 and 18 were the preferable age for it. It was still a good thing during my teenage years to wait to have sex.

You know what the going age is now? 13. For everything!  I’m not saying every 13 year is hitting the bottle and popping their cherry. But where I’m from in NY, it’s not a surprise to see 13 years dry humping each other making out on the train.  I actually had a 16 year old come up to me and ask me for a cigarette. He said “hey can I bum a cig?” I gave him the craziest look and asked him “how old are you?” He then responded “I’m 16” with the expression all matter of fact and as if I was stupid and 16 was an acceptable age to ask to bum a ciggy.  Of course I didn’t give him one.

Also, things are less taboo then they used to be. In fact, taboo is a word hardly used anymore. But most importantly, things certainly are not as easy as they were when we were growing up.  Kids are growing up and maturing faster than our time.  It’s so important to know that our time is different. The world is different. It is darker now. Times have changed. A lot more bad and crime happens now. Morales aren’t innate anymore.  When was the last time you seen a stand with the honor system? ( A table of goods where you take the product you want and leave the money in the basket? We don’t even leave the candy out on Halloween anymore because the little kids up end the basket into their bag) Life just isn’t all sunshine and bubbles all the time.

We can’t skirt around things that aren’t all perfect. Sometimes things don’t have a happy ending.

And that’s okay.

Reading about dark themes, in my opinion, is an outlet. Maybe a teenager can pour their angst and heartache out into the world within the book. Maybe they can relate and learn something. Maybe they can just escape their own mind and emotions and reality for a few hours. It’s an outlet, plain and simple.  Like I said before, teenagers experience life with that raw energy and emotions and feel everything ten folds more than an adult.  Sometimes they need to read through pages of another teenager going through simpler less than perfect situations. How can one read about being happy when they are not happy. For those that do experience situations like abuse, eating disorders and self-harm, how can they read about perfect relationships and perfect happiness when they are swimming in darkness? They need to jump into the darkness of the pages and together with the characters of the story find a light. It may not be a happy ending, but it’s a light, a start, a reason to fight.  A spark of hope. A comforting message that these issues are real and they are not alone. THAT is what is most important for teenagers.  They need to learn to fight. To struggle. To overcome.  To make decisions for themselves and understand those decisions have repercussions.  Reading dark themes is a way for their mind and emotions to start that journey and then hopefully, just hopefully, in real life they can inspire to fight, struggle and overcome as well.

So, yes I support dark themes in YA literature. I don’t believe authors are spitting out these themes to make a profit (though like with anything, of course there probably is a few who are in it for the money).  I don’t believe it’s being written about for shock. I just believe these authors are smart enough and kind enough to know this is a new generation with new issues and they need a new outlet.

The beauty of the world we live in? We have options.  If you are a parent it is your job to steer your child throughout life and life’s ups and downs.  Just because as a parent you may not be ready for your child to experience or be introduced to a dark theme topic, doesn’t mean you should deprive them of the chance. It’s probably already going on around them in the world. It is a parental choice however.  If you don’t want you child exposed simply move along the shelf.  There is no short supply of books. You have options. But, I wholeheartedly agree with authors writing about these topics and teenagers reading them.  Books raised me. They were there to comfort me. They provided escape for me. They cheered me up and even gave me a reality check. Books shaped my life.

Who are you to deprive that from anyone?
 

Issues Are Real

I just want to leave with you a few statistics. Some people may be asking well how often does a child cut, or develop a ED that they need to read this stuff? You may be thinking none of your children’s friends do any of this stuff. The truth is? They do. These issues are very real and very common in today’s youth. And you’ll probably never know it’s happening.

Eating Disorders
“Eating disorders are very common among teens. Statistics show that 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25, 50 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as fat, and 80 percent of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight. Some other startling statistics on teens and eating disorders are:

•    Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness in adolescent females
•    Eating disorders in schools are almost as prevalent as alcohol and drug abuse: 9.8 percent of female students had problems with alcohol, 8 percent had problems with drugs, and 7.8 percent had problems with eating disorders
•    86 percent of people report their eating disorder started before the age of 20, 10 percent report it started at 10 years old and younger, 33 percent report it started between the ages of 11 and 15, and 43 percent report it started between the ages of 16 and 20”
-http://casapalmera.com/teens-and-eating-disorders-get-the-facts/
Suicide
“One of the leading causes of death amongst teenagers is suicide. The Centers for Disease control report that it is the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicide, of people aged 15 to 24. Even more disturbing is the fact that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14.”
http://www.teensuicidestatistics.com/

 

Cutting
“It is estimated that 1 in 200 girls have cut themselves.

13% of 15 to 16-year-olds have deliberately harmed themselves..

For 3 million Americans cutting is a serious problem.

Cutting has become the new anorexia among today’s teens.

Most parents don’t have a clue that their teenager is cutting.

Cutting usually starts when the cutter is between 10 and 16 years old.

Cutting can become addictive.”

http://www.teenbreaks.com/cutting/cuttingfacts.cfm

 

Rape
“44% of victims are under age 18
80% are under age 30
Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted
1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).1”
http://www.rainn.org/statistics
Depression
“About 20 percent of teens will experience teen depression before they reach adulthood.
Between 10 to 15 percent of teenagers have some symptoms of teen depression at any one time.”
http://www.teendepression.org/stats/teenage-depression-statistics/

 

* This post was inspired by Cheri over on CheriSpeak. It is for her writing challenge . Her challenge is a 3 part challenge, this is part one. Or it was. Part one was called the Scoop and to write a news report 300-500 words about a topic that is currently trending. I’m up to 3,000 words. But still, my contribution to the challenge is this post.

Comments
  1. It’s reality isn’t it. And people will gravitate towards these things (self-harm / anorexia) whether or not they read books about them. You can’t hide these issues from people. The more they are talked about, brought into the open and understood, I think that can only be a good thing. Great post.

    Like

    • Thanks love! From being part of book forums I’ve interacted with alot of teens who had issues with their self confidence and self harm and all that. For them, reading these books helped them. I know it wont help everyone. But it’s like the adults are being the immature ones plugging their ears and screaming “la la la la I don’t want to hear this”.

      Like

  2. C. R. says:

    Excellent essay, post, and entry Tasha. You put a lot into this and I am proud of you. I too am a book hoarder BTW 🙂

    I would like to point out that people need to remember we had our own version of “sick lit” as teens…remember “The Outsiders”, “That Was Then, This Is Now”, and my personal favorite “Are You There God? It’s me Margaret” … also I had to study Sylvia Plath in high school. They may not have been about things like cutting, but they were about violence, sex, and drugs for sure.

    **for some reason (even though you did do it), the ping didn’t work so I am dropping the challenge link here to see if that will ping back to you from there.

    Speaker’s Ball Blog Challenge: http://cherispeak.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/speakers-ball-bloggers-challenge/

    Like

    • I loved my highschool because i had liberal teachers that encouraged reading dark themes and we had whole classes reading dystopian novels. So i grew up thinking it was natural to read about anything.

      Sorry the ping is being fussy. I think its something with my blog. For Tilda’s challenges i would send a trackback and ping for every challenge and sometimes it would show up and sometimes it would not. Far beyond my tech skills of figuring out lol. When i do the other part of the challenge i’ll also include the hard link ( copy and pasted url ) in the intro so its easily accessible to readers.

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  3. tfaswift says:

    Hi Tasha, this was a great post. I’m certainly no expert on YA fiction, but as 1. a person from an older generation, 2. someone who was also an avid bookworm (don’t know if people still use that term), and 3. someone who studied both English and American Literature, I can definitely say that the dark theme has been around for a very long time. Some of the issues may be different (e.g. self-harm) but tragedy, misery and suffering are a big part of many (if not most) of the “required reading” for many students. Everybody had to read The Diary of Anne Frank. The Catcher in the Rye is definitely not all sweetness and light. Thomas Hardy seldom ever had a happy ending. Murder is a theme in plenty of Shakespeare’s work. Maybe the issues are different, but “dark” has always been there in books, (well, for a very long time anyway). And I remember pinching my brother’s copy of Death’s Master by Tanith Lee (award-winning fantasy fiction writer), and I totally loved it. It’s quite raunchy in places and was certainly an eye-opener for me, being the young naivette that I was, but it didn’t have any influence over me except to reinforce my already strong passion for the fantasy realm. So, I guess I don’t think “dark” is new. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of today’s YA fiction, but the books I had to read (and also loved!) as a young adult were full of macabre twists and turns. I survived! LOL. Great post! 🙂

    Like

    • Thank you love! Yes yes we are still called bookworms 🙂 You make very great points. I was trying to express how “dark” themes have always been around but today’s dark themes are just different from when we were growing up. Now, illness, death, self harm are the dominant happenings in the world around us, so that is what captured in today’s writing. Like with anything controversial, this causes a stir but from those that aren’t actually invested or affected by it. The teens have professed their love and appreciation for these books, librarians and school teachers are approachable to these books. But it is critics and parents who are appalled .

      Like

      • tfaswift says:

        I thought you did an excellent job of bringing a very balanced perspective to the topic and then supported your opinions in an articulate and persuasive manner. Even if people don’t agree, I don’t think they could find fault with your argument (if they are honest!) 🙂

        Like

  4. Interesting thought! Thank you for sharing!

    http://www.cuttingdepression.net/

    Like

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