Tuesday, June 7, 2011

#YASaves -- And You Can, Too!

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Back when I was studying for my first (worthless) Masters Degree I took a class with a guy who was working on his PhD.  His dissertation was on the way the music of each younger generation had been condemned by the older generation of the day.  He had traced this response back over 100 years, from ragtime to big band through rap.

This means the impassioned cries against "demonic rock 'n' roll" were really nothing new.  If anything, from a historical perspective, they should have been expected.

At the time, I was a film and television studies major.  I recognized the truth in his argument in what I'd read in both of those media.  In film, this included concerns that the gangster movies of the 1930s were glorifying criminals (which would lead to an increase in criminal behavior) to the nudity and on-screen violence of the 1960s.  (Which would lead to a further loosening of morals)

For one of my classes I did a historical study of reactions/concerns of the effects of television viewing on children from the time television began to replace radio as the main in-home entertainment media.  I found that every article over a 40-year period said almost exactly the same thing.  If you've read anything about the fears of the effects of television on children, you've read the crux of just about everything ever written on the subject.

This means that the children who first watched television were turning around as adults and parroting back the same concerns for their children that their parents had about them.  And that television had not corrupted them when they were younger to the point that they failed to be concerned about their children.

I flash back to this idea on a regular basis.  Take this past Sunday, for instance, when I looked into Twitter and found the #YASaves hashtags in many of the comments by people who I follow.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon describing her take on the current state of young adult books.  In case you haven't read it, the title, "Darkness Too Visible" sums it all up pretty well.  Finding the YA bookshelves of her local B&N filled with vampires, werewolves, suicide, dystopias and self-mutilation, a mother she interviewed left the store empty handed, but concerned for the welfare of her daughter's reading options.  Gurdon then cites several specific authors and book to highlight the darkness in today's YA literature.

If the small scattering of YA writers I follow are any indication (and I think they are), the Twitterverse of YA fans immediately wrote a great many responses to the contrary, ranging from well-reasoned and insightful [1, 2, 3, 4] to the angrily dismissive [1, 2].  The thing is, these responses all just reminded me of the reactions to music and film and television.

This is not to say that the media is without any societal effects.  Too much television watching can contribute to childhood obesity.  Watching too much television violence can increase violent tendencies in those children with a predisposition for violence.

Television, however, is a very passive medium.  Images and storylines wash over you through the flickering of thousands of colorful pixels whose intent is to keep you watching from commercial break to commercial break. Stories are neatly wrapped up in 22 or 44 minutes, resolving the characters neatly back to the point where each episode started.  Issues are generally black and white, yes or no, right or wrong.  In a world of fast-paced jump cuts and snippets of dialog, there isn't room for (nor, indeed, any interest in) ambiguities.

Reading, however, is a mentally engaging exercise.  A good author brings the reader into a story in a way no television program or movie can.  By activating the imagination, readers can experience new worlds, new situations and feelings and lifetimes much more viscerally.  

As for the potential negative effects of reading such intense books (a concern Ms. Gurdon expresses), I'll quote myself from a comment I left at Kyle Cassidy's LJ entry on this topic:

"fads come and go. dystopian YA is big right now, as are vampires and other creatures of the night. i think of dystopian YA as the Film Noir of its day--it mirrors the sense of insecurity teens have about growing up and fitting into a world they don't understand and aren't happy with. 
why is this such a difficult concept for adults to see/remember?"

Another set of years ago I was talking with our son's guitar teacher.  We were discussing music in general when I told him that, despite how old it made me feel, I just didn't "get" today's music.

"You're not supposed to," he replied.  "It's not being made for you.  It's being made for a different generation."

So while I don't like rap music, I make an effort to appreciate it when a former student puts out a CD.  Otherwise, I tend to avoid it.  It's that easy: it's not for me, I leave it alone.

I also don't think Turkey Vultures are very pretty birds.  However, since our first weekend visiting Conservators Center, they have been somewhere nearby the entrance, greeting us every single time we've arrived.  They have their place in nature, they serve their purpose.  I recognize their right to be there, regardless of what generational/cultural bias I may bring to my perceptions of them.

It is harder to not be reactionary.  It takes time, patience, a willingness to look outside yourself and to value the impressions, needs and visions of others.  And while we shouldn't blindly assume that all things are equally good in the world--because they're not, evil does exist--glimpses of those things presented with the intention of creating a greater understanding of the world, should be investigated and carefully assessed before being condemned.

And if you don't like the book, don't buy it and don't read it.  A simple idea, eh?

-- Tom