Monday, August 9, 2010

The Edge

Did J.D. Salinger know what he was doing when he created Holden Caulfield? Did he know that high school students sixty years later would claim that The Catcher in the Rye was the best thing they read in high school? That it was “not so bad?” That it was one of the only novels they “read all the way through?” Most likely he did not. But he should have. If he knew anything about teens, he would have. So often students enter the study of a novel with every intention to read it, but life gets in the way, boredom sets in, and they find themselves drawn to the next best thing to actually reading—Spark Notes.

So what keeps them hooked? Sex, alcohol, date rape, cursing, and all around “perverty things,” that’s what. The edginess, that’s what hooks them in. Salinger probably also didn’t realize that sixty years later, his brand of edginess would be relatively mild and a new age of edgy, trendsetting novels would be provoking parents with graphic sex, homosexuality, murder, rape, incest, drugs, and pretty much anything you could imagine happening to a teen. And all of this marketed directly to the YA audience. Along with this new, edgy YA fiction comes new controversy. How much is too much for a teen? Where do we draw the line? Where does edgy go over the edge?

The simple answer is, anything goes. If you haven’t gone too far, you probably haven’t gone far enough for today’s teen reader. Some would argue this attitude is simply a cheap way to drum up sales, an attempt at grasping attention with simple shock. I believe that couldn’t be further from the truth. All writing is an attempt to get at some universal truth. The best writing finds that truth, exposes it, and helps us deal with the dark side of the world and ourselves. I have found that, for most teens, shocking, edgy fiction is far closer to the truth than the bright pink bubble gum some teachers and parents try to sell to them as teen truth.

In my relatively short life, I have had the pleasure to know teens that have suffered through the deaths of loved ones, eating disorders, rape, incest, verbal and physical abuse, drug addictions, self-injuring, kidnappings, and even murder. It astonishes me the lengths adults will go to in order to inflict pain on children. The truth for more kids than not is that life is painful, suffering is reality, and having a good life is based on your ability to recover, to be resilient. Ironically, the same adults forcing these kids to run a virtual gauntlet of painful experiences are telling them they shouldn’t be reading about fictitious kids living through the same gauntlet. This is doing them a great injustice. Perhaps the most universal feelings for these teens are shame and loneliness. They wrongfully go through life believing that the rest of their peers are living perfect lives in perfect families. I know, I thought the same thing about my classmates. The teen condition is, at its essence, alone. I am gross. I am sick. I am disgusting.

The truth is, reading these “shocking” stories are psychologically good for them. They learn they are not alone. They learn how to overcome. They learn others may even have it worse. I once heard a story of the parents of a rape victim forbidding their kid from reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak for fear of further traumatizing them. I, however, believe there is no better book for that young adult to read. I don’t advocate for teens to read edgy young adult fiction simply because it gets them reading something that interests them. Though it does. I don’t advocate for teens to read edgy young adult fiction simply because “they hear worse from their friends already.” Though they may. I advocate for teens to read edgy young adult fiction so they don’t have to feel ashamed. So they don’t have to feel alone. So they don’t have to feel different, like an “other.” Reading edgy young adult fiction is good for them.

I’ve decided to dedicate my writing career, including this blog, to these kids and their stories. To help them through their trying times. To help them realize that someone out there does care about them and is willing to tell their stories. In the months that follow, I will be posting a series of book reviews, essays, and basic rants while hopefully serving as a watchdog over schools and libraries banning edgy young adult books, or any book for that matter. I hope this becomes a forum for intelligent discussion of the issues surrounding publishing, reading, and teaching such material. While I welcome those who disagree to post mature rebukes of my ideals, I hope this becomes a community of brave readers and writers who understand how important it is to take teen and adult readers alike to The Edge.


  1. Nice intro to your blog Bill. The Catcher in the Rye was an awesome book. Question for you...According to popular lore, many serial killers have been found to not only own the book, but have an obsession with it. I've read that the guy who shot Raegan had a copy of it (I forgot his name) as well as Lee Harvey Oswald. I've also heard that the book attracts insane people. What is your take on this? Looking forward to reading your blog on the edge...

  2. I think the fear of a book causing someone to do something terrible--or a song or television or video game for that matter--is a case of flawed reasoning. Correlation does not mean causation.

    I think it's actually reversed. It's not that reading the book causes insanity or violent behavior. The case is much more likely that one struggling with one's life and one's sanity has sought out a character who is likewise struggling.

    Therefore, it's not surprising a book like Catcher would end up in the hands of someone dangerous like that, but if you were to take the book out of the equation, I'm positive the results would have been the same.

    Thanks for the compliments. By the way, Mark David Chapman, Lennon's shooter, had a copy of Catcher as well. There's a vague allusion to that connection in my novel.

  3. Excellent start. Looking forward to more...

  4. Nice web site and great blog...I'm impressed!

  5. This topic is deep and endless, and not limited to young adult literature. Picture book author/illustrator Maurice Sendak is often called upon to defend his work which includes the shattering darkness of concentration camps, death, and parental neglect. . . and some of the biggest controversy emerged in response to full frontal nudity in "In the Night Kitchen." As a child of Holocaust survivors, he fights the suggestion that books can destroy a child's innocence, saying, "The children know. They have always known." So, is the struggle to "protect" kids an attempt to hide aspects of life from them? As you said so eloquently, high school kids have seen it all.

  6. Part of it, I think, is basic denial by parents. They think everyone else's kids are out doing terrible things--not theirs. "The other kid is the bad influence, not mine. Other kids might do the things described in that racy book, but mine don't even know those things exist."

    In my experience, it usually comes down to sex. You can get morbidly grisly and violent, as long as you don't describe a sex act too accurately. Of course the average teenager loses his or her virginity at what, 16? 17? They're doing it. They've done it. Parents need to realize that denial and plastic-bubble parenting aren't going to keep their kids safe. What they really need is knowledge, open lines of communciation, and to know they are loved and cared about.