In 2013, I wrote a post explaining why I don’t need YA characters to be role models. In January this year, I wrote one discussing why I don’t need every story to have a moral. Yet here I am again, explaining why I don’t think every book needs to be secretly (or openly?) didactic, doesn’t need to have an inspirational ending that mirrors my own morals and beliefs. I’m writing again, first, because this is such a complex topic, and there’s always more to say. Yet I also believe this is an ever-relevant topic because I consistently see tweets and reviews and other complaints that a book (especially a YA book) isn’t doing something “right” and is promoting bad ideals. And, frankly, I’ve come to believe this doesn’t really matter.
Why “Lessons” Do Matter
As a disclaimer, I actually do believe that the content and “messages” of books are important, especially in children’s (and YA) literature. Most people who love books recognize that books are powerful, and the books we read as children often have disproportionate influences on the way we think and act, on the things we believe. In that sense, the books we write for children matter, and the things that we tell them are “good” matter. There are reasons we generally don’t give children extremely violent or sexual books or ones that represent terrible human beings as heroes. We want the books we give children to impart values. Even if we’re not thinking of giving them fairy tale stories that say “And if little Greta had only eaten her vegetables when her mother said so, she wouldn’t have been devoured by a dragon! Eat your vegetables!” the truth is that we often want children’s (and teen) books to be didactic. There are certain values and lessons we want the readers to take away, even if that’s something fairly abstract like “It’s worth being brave to help those you love.”
And Why “Lessons” Don’t Matter
However, even while I see the value of giving supposedly wholesome literature to young readers, I still do not believe every book should promote the things I value. When I wrote my previous posts, some of the replies were, “I totally agree! I don’t mind if a character is a bad person, as long as they change by the end.” But that’s not what I’m saying. I love a good character arc and a character who changes their ways as much as anyone–but that’s not the only type of story we can or should have. When I say a character doesn’t need to be a role model or a book doesn’t need to have a moral, I mean the character can still be “bad” or still believe things I think are wrong by the end of the novel.
Variety and Artistic License
In the first place, it would be really boring to read so many books that promote the same values. And for the sake of this post I’m assuming we’re talking about books that YOU would think have good values. Whatever that looks like, imagine that EVERY book you read did the “right” thing and showcased your personal values. (In reality, of course, what you think is the right thing to do or believe is not always what other people think.)
So imagine that every book had, say, a kickass heroine like Katniss because “showing girls they can break the patriarchy and be active” is the correct thing to do. Or imagine that every book where a character disliked his or her appearance ended on an uplifting note of body self-love. Or that every book had no sex because the characters were waiting for marriage and that’s the right thing to do. While these are all perfectly valid opinions, reading would be so dull if they were the only options represented in literature. Reading would be flat and predictable.
YA fans have argued for a long time that YA books count as literature, that they’re as much art as adult books and shouldn’t be considered of less quality. If that’s the case, we cannot put too many constraints on what YA represents, cannot expect it to be didactic and formulaic. If we demand that every character has a character arc where they learn their lesson and every ending is happy and promotes a good value, we are limiting what YA can be.
“Diversity” is becoming something of a loaded term, but to me the most fundamental form of diversity in literature is just the idea that everyone’s experiences deserve representation. Generally people think of racial diversity or LGBT representation, and Krysta explored the idea of religious representation, but it also means there’s room for a variety of personal beliefs and experiences.
In the past several months, I have seen the book blogosphere explode over books they thought represented detrimental experiences–books about people they didn’t think should be falling in love, or books about teens who were uncomfortable with their weights or appearances. The basic idea was that such books are disrespectful and possibly damaging. (How could an author dare to write about a teen who thought she weighed too much?! That’s body shaming!) However, the reality is that some teens do not like their bodies. Some readers thought this book was fine, as long as the protagonist came to love her body by the end. And, again, I love such an inspirational character arc as much as anyone, and I think loving yourself the way you are is a pretty good message. However, in reality, this is not always what teens experience. Some teens graduate high school still uncomfortable with the way they look. Some people are far into adulthood before they come to terms with their appearance. And I think representing this is okay, too. It’s not body shaming the character or the reader. It’s telling readers that if they’re struggling with this issue, it’s okay because other people are, too. And if they’re still struggling with it when senior year of high school ends, they haven’t failed; there’s always the future to change.
Gray Areas of Interpretation
At any rate, discussions of whether a book is “wrong” because it promotes bad values always make me a little anxious because it borders so closely on trying to figure out authorial intention. To me, there is a stark difference between representing something I see as negative and promoting that thing. The first is neutral, while the second is what’s possibly damaging to readers. Yet it’s not always straightforward which is going on in a book, and I say that as someone completing graduate coursework in literature.
If a character says something sexist, or even if the main character is continuously sexist, that does not immediately mean the book is sexist or that the author is promoting sexism. Sometimes, authors are just representing what’s real in the world. Some people are sexist. And while some of these people will learn the error of their ways and change, some will not. Some will never even experience negative consequences due to their sexism. Life is not always a fairy tale. The bad characters are not always punished, and the good ones are not always rewarded. Some people will cheat their entire way through life and…just have really successful careers. They may never get a comeuppance. It’s okay for literature to represent this, and it’s okay for it do so neutrally. The author doesn’t have to add a paragraph gently reminding readers that cheating really is bad, even if Character X is never punished for it.
Books are powerful. It makes sense that people harbor a desire to see them promoting what they think is right. However, there’s also a place for books that represent other things, that challenge our worldviews and make us ask ourselves “Why would someone do that?” Why would someone be a bully? Or commit adultery? Or hate their body? Reading should challenge us and bring us outside our comfort zones. I don’t need every book to reflect my own worldview back at me.