The power of pop literature: Why we need diverse YA books more than ever – Salon
Books are dangerous things. But not reading enough of them can be fatal to civil society.
Given the high political stakes, itâ€™s amazing that being called â€œbookishâ€ has devolved into a sneer. Too often, kids who love to read are called dorks or nerds or some combination thereof, but definitely not high-school-hero athletes, as ifÂ mens sana in corpore sano â€” a sound mind in a sound body â€” has become an impossible contradiction in terms. To subvert negative stereotypes of bookishness was one of the genius maneuvers of J.K. Rowlingâ€™sÂ Harry Potter series, which saw Harry pushing up his mild-mannered glasses and Hermione raiding the library in order to fight evil by reading spells aloud. That epic battle against Voldemort and the death-eaters began 20 years ago.Â Today, young people are the â€œmost literateâ€ demographic, with successful Young Adult titles now being routinely optioned for television series and films.
What makes a book â€œYoung Adultâ€ as opposed to, say, a novel for adults? Turns out, as YA author Emily Ross concedes after making a valiant stab at defining it,Â nobody quite knows. Typically, a â€œYoung Adultâ€ book features a teenage protagonist and a correspondingly angst-ridden worldview. But since more thanÂ half of the readers of YA are adults, the genre is arguably better understood as â€œpop literatureâ€ â€” or rather, booksÂ people will read even though they donâ€™t have to.
Therein lies the source of its power, and the reason why it generates profound anxiety and territorialism. If this past decade has seen Young Adult literature becoming ground zero for the iCulture Wars, those furious Twitter fights and digital media think pieces calling out systematic marginalization, institutional racism, and cultural appropriation in the YA world are more accurately understood as the latest iteration of an age-old power struggle over who has the right to control the narrative regarding the way we see ourselves, and how the world sees us.
Suddenly, books are dangerous again.
Split second confusion at the post office.
Post woman: â€œDo any of your articles contain anything liquid, perishable, fragile, or potentially dangerous.â€
Me (thinking about my â€œarticlesâ€ i.e.â€“writingâ€“and then realizing I was shipping two of my books): â€œummmmâ€
In my head:Â wow: perishable, fragile, dangerousâ€¦ I â€¦ummmm
Post woman: Just press yes or no
Even asÂ far-right populismÂ continues its global rise, the written word has become vibrant with danger precisely because it has the potential to challenge the mono-think tendencies of hyper-partisanship and authoritarianism.Â Historically, wars and religious conflicts have led to censorship, confiscations andÂ book burnings, the politics of which have driven dystopian plot lines from Ray Bradburyâ€™s sci-fi classic â€œFahrenheit 451â€³ to Sabaa Tahirâ€™s bestselling 2015 YA novel â€œAn Ember in the Ashes.â€ These and many other stories hope to remind usÂ that the freedom to choose ourÂ own reading is a form of resistance against the looming threat of a totalitarian state, whether extreme Left (as in George Orwellâ€™s â€œ1984â€), or extreme Right (as in Markus Zusakâ€™s 2012 novel â€œThe Book Thiefâ€).
Seen in this light, the bookish are not dweebs but the baddest of badasses.
But there is a classed component to reading, which has not only contributed to elitist disdain for popular literature but also to the political blindness misreading populist anger in this country. In â€œThe Seven Curses of Londonâ€ (1869), journalist James Greenwood went to visit the boysâ€™ section of a London penitentiary. His guide was the prison governor, whoÂ askedÂ a repeat offender in solitary confinement:
Governor: â€¦Can you read, lad?
LadÂ (with a penitential wriggle). â€œYes sir. I wish as I couldnâ€™t, sir.â€
Governor. â€œAh! Why so?â€
LadÂ (with a doleful wag of his bullet-head). â€œCos then I shouldnâ€™t have read none of them highwaymenâ€™s books, sir; it was them as was the beginning of it.â€
â€œItâ€ was a life of crime leading him straight to the gallows, to be hung as an incorrigible thief, for â€œthem highwaymenâ€™s booksâ€ were also known as penny dreadfuls. This was cheap, popular literature deemed to be corrupting the youth of the day, and its bad influence was commonly blamed for the very existence of urban criminality.
Today, weâ€™d call this line of reasoning â€œvictim blaming.â€ It follows that the strongest children would rebel against theÂ horrifying conditionsÂ imposed on them by the capitalist exploitation of labor, and turn impulsively to crime for lack of a better understanding of the socio-economic reasons keeping them in poverty. The hardened lad in question was estimated to be no more than 13Â years old. Insofar as compulsory schooling laws would not be passed until 1876, the young recidivist was not obligated to be in school and, in any case, the working poor were only educated onlyÂ up to the age of ten. Hence the appeal of the penny dreadful for these children, and for the adults they would eventually become. They could read up to a fifth-grade level, but were not educated in any meaningful sense.
Basic schooling, then, was being used as a tool of social control, not individual betterment. For the ruling classes, made up of royals, aristocrats, and industrialists, the existence of a popular and populist literature was worrying, for it was getting the poorly educated to stick their noses in books and maybe start liking to read. And if they started toÂ understand? The very possibility posed a dire threat to a geopolitical social order invested in the hierarchy of the races, the strict observation of class boundaries, and a gendered social sphere where a womanâ€™s place was in the home.
A half-century earlier, the anxieties swirling around the power of pop literature had been brilliantly distilled by Mary Shelleyâ€™s â€œFrankenstein.â€ Her nameless Creature did not terrify (upper- and middle-class) readers because he murdered in the name of revenge, but because he was literally made up of the body parts of the underclasses: the criminalized poor, sick, and indigent. Instead of knowing his (subordinate) place, the Creature ran away and effectively taught himself how to read. He had three books: â€œPlutarchâ€™s Lives,â€ Miltonâ€™s â€œParadise Lostâ€ and Goetheâ€™s â€œThe Sorrows of Young Werther.â€ This last was a bestseller in the modern sense, meaning it was an instant hit that set fashion trends, and moralists worried it was a bad influence on the young people.
Shelleyâ€™s Creature embodied the greatest of existential threats to the British Empire, raising the unsettling possibility that if the great unwashed truly learned how to read, theyâ€™d figure out exactly how they were being exploited and, with their greater physical strength and numbers, band together and handily overthrow their social betters.
Add an explicit racial component to that fear, and welcome to the 20thÂ century. In â€œThe Turner Diaries,â€ a fictional 1970 American diary written by a young white male protagonist, Jews and African-Americans haveÂ risen upÂ and committed themselves to the genocide of Whites. A violent resistance movement springs up and, predictably, wins, re-establishing White Supremacy in the end. Hmm. Written by a neo-Nazi, this self-published bestseller inspired the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. But was the book really to blame for what remains this countryâ€™s deadliest act of domestic terrorism, or is it just an easy scapegoat, used to shift blame andÂ avoid examining the deeper social problems embedded in the structures of everyday life?
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr.â€™sÂ now-infamous memeÂ likening refugees to poisoned Skittles, prompted The Intercept toÂ point outÂ that this analogy is rooted in Nazi childrenâ€™s literature. The book is 1938â€™s â€œDer Giftpilzâ€Â (The Toadstool), in whichÂ a boy named Franz learns about Jews from his mother:
â€œHowever they disguise themselves, or however friendly they try to be, affirming a thousand times their good intentions to us, one must not believe them. Jews they are and Jews they remain. For our Volk [people] they are poison.â€
â€œLike the poisonous mushroom!â€ says Franz.
â€œYes, my child! Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk [people].
The bookâ€™s Nazi author, Julius Streicher, also ran a virulently anti-Semitic newspaper,Â Der StÃ¼rmer, which he used to direct attacks against specific individuals while relentlessly promoting dehumanizing imagery of Jews. He was hung at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Not for writing â€œThe Toadstoolâ€ but for publishing,Â under the spurious guise of journalism and with the backing of the Third Reich, words so poisonous that millions died as a result. It wasnâ€™t one Jew that destroyed the German Volk, in other words, but his 600,000 subscribers, along with all those who conspiredÂ in the Holocaust with their silence.
Admittedly, â€œThe Turner Diariesâ€ and â€œThe Toadstoolâ€ arenâ€™t household titles in this country, but the same canâ€™t be said of â€œLittle House on the Prairie.â€ As Christine Woodside noted in herÂ startlingÂ essay for Politico, â€œLittle House on the Prairieâ€ deliberately, and often didactically, advanced a Libertarian agenda while blasting away at the heavy hand of government.
The story of how â€œLittle Houseâ€ â€” one of the most beloved series of books in American history â€” entwined itself with the growth of free-market conservatism is one of the most dramatic, and little-appreciated, examples of the way literature can shape national politics. It might not be quite true that the â€œLittle Houseâ€ stories built the conservatism we know today, but it surely wouldnâ€™t be the same without them.
In real life, Woodside explains, â€œLittle House on the Prairieâ€ was the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Koch Brothers, and Ronald Reagan, who were directly connected in various ways.
Trump both inherits and exploits this ideological framing of real Americans who feel besieged by people of color on one side, and betrayed by the government on the other. The â€œLittle House on the Prairieâ€ series also illustrates how itâ€™s possible for racism to remain invisible to so many well-intentioned liberals, because for centuries itâ€™s been condoned by the books that shape theirÂ collective consciousness. The still-popular childrenâ€™s book series, which would become a beloved television show, not only paternalistically disdains African Americans but is â€œbrimming with casual racism about Native Americans,â€Â observesÂ Laura June Topolsky.
They are described as â€œsavagesâ€ and â€œwild,â€ and both Ma and the family dog dislike them openly. â€œWhy donâ€™t you like Indians, Ma?â€ Laura asks on page 46. â€œI just donâ€™t like them, and donâ€™t lick your fingers, Laura,â€ Ma said.
The Ingalls family are Manifest Destiny personified. The Osage Indians they encounter are a brooding pack of inconvenience, and just one Native American even gets the role of the â€œnoble savageâ€ â€” a chief who supports the settlers against his own people to keep peace. Pa implies the worst about them (on page 146) when he tells Laura and her sister that if given the opportunity, the Indians would certainly off the family pooch, Jack, but â€œthatâ€™s not all,â€ he says. â€œYou girls remember this: You do as youâ€™re told, no matter what happens.â€Â
Topolksy doesnâ€™t remember â€œany of thisâ€ from reading these books as a kid. She also recognizes that she didnâ€™t grasp the predominantly white Christian worldview that the series was deliberately advancing.
I can relate. Having grown up in the church, I used to read whatever was on the vestryâ€™s bookshelves â€” bibles, hymnals, Paul Tillich, Emanuel Swedenborg, Edgar Cayce, the Upper Room,Â Corrie ten Boom, what have you â€” and worked my way through entire holdings of tiny-town libraries where most of the books were moldy pulp fictions donated before the Crash of 1929. It wasnâ€™t until I was in college that I realized that these nameless thousands of forgotten books, plus beloved stories such as the â€œLittle Match Girl,â€ â€œThe Little Mermaidâ€ and other stories by Hans Christian Andersen, were alike in that they were Christian morality tales, and that Charles Kingsleyâ€™s â€œThe Water Babiesâ€ and C.S. Lewisâ€™s â€œThe Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobeâ€ were not only terrific reads but skilled exercises in theology.
Itâ€™s not that any of these books areÂ intrinsicallyÂ not worth reading, despite the fact that they wouldÂ now be accused of being politically incorrect inside todayâ€™s supposedly godless liberal New York City publishing world. I support creativity, not censorship, and my fight isnâ€™t against Christian conservatism or even Trump, but against mindless obedience, credulity, and willful ignorance. Where you run into trouble is when there is only one book,Â theÂ book, which turns into a mantra, an oath of loyalty, a talisman, a shield, and, when it all goes to hell, a scapegoat. An episode of classic Star Trek, â€œAÂ Piece of the Action,â€ explored the consequences of a single book when a starship accidentally leaves behind a copy of â€œChicago Mobs of the Twenties,â€ which the Ioatian people simply refer to as â€œThe Book.â€ Following it slavishly, theyâ€™ve turned into gangsters, and things fall apart in the end, but itâ€™s a comedic episode, so â€” ha!
Hereâ€™s the confusing part: InÂ terms of cultural practice, The Book isnâ€™t necessarily singular. Itâ€™s possible to read tens of thousands of books by different authors, in different genres and with various plot-lines, and still be reading the same book because they all share the same assumptions and worldview. (This epiphany happens in dating too, when suddenly you realize that youâ€™re attracted to the same person over and over even though itâ€™s technically not the same individual, and thatâ€™s why your relationships keep failing.)
Whatâ€™s a stake now in Young Adult literature, which is the most popular of popular literature, is the chance to change a cultural status quo where a predominantly white industry still supports The Book being written over and over again. An opportunity for writers to shape political narratives that not only fully vests ordinary people with agency but allows them the (subversive) potentialÂ for humanity. For readers to understand themselves as heroes in the battle for ideas, not merely as consumers inside anÂ ephemeralÂ celebrity culture. For all of us to grasp that to read, now, is to take risks, because a society without educated readers is on a suicide mission.
We need diverse books, then, not as a slogan but as a political reality, lest the Creature turn unwilling into a monster, leaving his former master in a bleak and frozen wilderness, lost in a sea of whiteness.
Write a Reply or Comment:
You must be logged in to post a comment.