All Commentary
Friday, September 5, 2014

Making Hamburger from Sacred Cows

A Guardian writer frets about anti-statism in young adult fiction

The leaves are getting ready to change, and apparently it’s time to line up and kick young adult fiction again. At the beginning of the summer, Slate chastised adults who like to read young adult fiction, telling us we should be embarrassed for ourselves and our jejune tastes. That criticism was fairly easy for me to ignore, because I was so busy reading The Mysterious Benedict Society.

But now over at The Guardian, Ewan Morrison is complaining that the current rage for young adult dystopian fiction is nothing but right-wing free-market propaganda that teaches children that “the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place.”

Regular readers of this column might well be inclined to jump up and down, cheer, and say “That’s why we like it!” but I think Morrison’s assertion deserves a good kicking of its own.

Let’s leave aside the issue that Morrison doesn’t seem particularly respectful of young people and their literature. He claims that stories like The Hunger Games and The Giver are versions of “our neoliberal society dreaming its last nightmares about the threat from communism, socialism and the planned society” that have been simplified into stories we can tell for children. The unvoiced assumption here—that these stories are simple because they are for children, who are also simple—should probably annoy anyone who is, has been, or has met a child. I’ll also leave aside Morrison’s clear and unsurprising contempt for the voice of people in the market. While he notes that “the quantity of books consumed here is staggering,” he doesn’t take that sign of approval and demand seriously. It’s just evidence that lots of people are “impressionable” and think the wrong things.

I am even going to leave aside Morrison’s plea for adults to “exercise some of that oppressive parental control” and prevent their children from reading such dangerous, anti-government literature. Parents are certainly entitled to make their own decisions about how much or how little to interfere with their children’s literary choices.

What I cannot leave alone, however, is Morrison’s apparent misunderstanding of what YA literature is for. He writes, “Yes there is a critique of statism at the heart of these books, but you might say, big deal: every teenager is a rampant individualist, a libertarian. However, the right wing root runs quite a bit deeper into the narrative structures.” He then criticizes today’s crop of dystopian fiction for attacking “the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality.” In other words, the problem with today’s dystopian fiction is that it attacks the pieties of Morrison and his generation rather than the pieties of his parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

This, to put it bluntly, is what children’s fiction—especially young adult fiction—is for. That’s why kids, and iconoclastic adults, like it. It pokes holes—with humor, or horror, or magic, or dystopian visions of violence and war—in the pieties of the most important authority figures in the lives of young people. No parental ideal is safe.

This is why Roald Dahl famously said, “The first thing you have to do when you're writing a kids' book is kill off the parents.” Or, this is why, as Bruno Bettelheim much less succinctly notes, fairy tales require the death of parents or the casting out of children as the first step toward developing the child’s sense of autonomy. Every kid can tell you that nothing interesting happens when parents are around. And as Bettelheim observes, the child in a story like that not only “survives the parents but surpasses them.”

The dystopian story doesn’t require that parents be eaten by an escaped rhinoceros (as are the parents in the delightfully efficient second paragraph of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach). Parents are allowed to linger in the background, as does Katniss’ clinically depressed mother in The Hunger Games. Or their power can be defanged by the social structures of the new society, as Shannon Chamberlain recently pointed out in The Atlantic. But the young adult appetite for rebellion and independence and autonomy still needs satisfying.

And so the sacred cows of the previous generation must be turned into hamburger.

This is what Lewis Carroll did when he parodied the didactic children’s literature of the Victorians in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is the raison d’être of Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book. This is why children’s books get banned and taken off of school reading lists and purged from library shelves. Adults don’t like it when children point out that they might be wrong. We have a tendency to say, as does one of Dahl’s great villains, “I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

If Morrison is unhappy to see young adult literature exploding the pieties of his generation and pointing to the flaws in their plans, he is supposed to be. He’s not the audience. He’s the guy at the head of the classroom lecturing about what’s good for you, and young adult literature is the wisecracking kid who just stole his audience. Perhaps if Morrison were not so unthinkingly certain that he is right and young adult fiction is wrong, that he is big and they are small, there might be something he could learn from these novels. Maybe there are some lessons in these books about the fears and the hopes of the generation that is growing up while we watch. Maybe there are even some things we can do to help.

Morrison won’t find any of that out if he spends his time huffing and puffing in outrage at the way those damn kids are playing on his pristinely planned lawn.