I belong to a book club. I refer to it as the “mommy book club” because all the other members are mothers like me. It is a nice monthly escape for an evening, a chance to get together and talk about books and life. There is copious wine, beer and sweet treats involved. It gives me an opportunity to read books outside of my normal interest areas.
Now, to be completely honest, as a writer (secretly, if you will, since most people in the group don’t know about my writing) it is a little difficult to be a book club member. I read books differently than the rest of the group. I notice technical issues in a novel, quibble about plot or character points that don’t register on their radar. There have been a few books that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish or even pick up. (I’ve heard the character sparkle, so um no). One of the reasons I like the book club is the sense of how real people read. I interact with a lot of writers, online and face-to-face, and the types of book discussions with writers is wildly different than the “mommy book club” conversations. In a way, it gives me a glimpse into the minds of the people who really drive the marketplace. Buyers. Readers.
That is why the Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible” on June 4th by Meghan Cox Gurdon is so interesting to me. “Mommy book club” met last week to discuss The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. There was a lively discussion about the novel, and I was surprised by some of the feedback I heard. Most people I’ve interacted with who’ve read the novel (writers for the most part) loved it. It is really well written and engaging. A book with buzz.
But not all the mommies were impressed. They conceded that is was well written and the story itself interesting, but they didn’t like the violence. They understood the larger thematic ideas and social commentary on both war and reality television. Many took issue with the idea of the main characters in the book being teenagers and that the book is marketed to teenagers. This interpretation of YA books had not really occurred to me. I don’t read the genre exclusively, or even really widely, but I am familiar with it and dip in from time to time. I could understand how they had concerns, particularly given the context of their teenage children reading the book. I argued during the discussion that teenagers who read are a good thing, and they will always read the dark, scary stuff no matter what you label it. I remember stealing my mother’s Stephen King books and reading them despite the nightmares I would sometime have. The discussion evolved: what is YA literature? Why is so much of it being published? Is it really kids or adults reading it? I literally had to clamp my mouth shut and just listen because I was in danger of giving myself away to the mommies. My secret writing life could have easily been exposed.
I’ve read industry analysis of YA literature being read by many adults. Adults are one of the target audiences. The mommies took a more hardline definition of who would be reading YA and felt adults reading it were the anomaly not the norm. This is an issue about perception, not necessarily about facts.
The backlash I’ve witnessed on twitter and blogland about the WSJ article gives me pause. I’ve seen lots of rants about the issue and those who are aggressively arguing against all the points in the article and claiming “#yasaves” on twitter. But the fact is that YA literature is more mature than it was a decade or two ago. Is that a reflection of our current society and values or something that is actively shaping it? I’m not qualified to answer that. But I think you are being very closed minded and silly to discount a whole group’s opinion on the issue. YA may in fact save those who feel marginalized, but it may also jump start the imagination of some younger readers in a negative way.
The mommies in the book club were split down the middle about Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games. When pressed, some admitted that independent of who the book is marketed to, they found the content distasteful and couldn’t get past the gore and the age of the narrator. Before publishing dismisses their opinion as belonging to old people who don’t understand current trends, they should take a long look at who holds the pocketbook that funds the purchase of much of YA literature. A discussion is more valuable if you give credit to the other side’s opinion and try to see what perspective they bring to the issue at hand.
So that’s my report from the front lines of reading, where important book matters are discussed over tepid Chardonnay and between conversations of toilet training and teething. Make of it what you will. But make it a conversation and dialogue and not just a rant. Because good literature gets us talking, thinking and sharing. It isn’t just about the words on the page, it is how those words reflect back on the lives we are living.