The Problem With Broad Brushes

A tempest broke out in the kidlitosphere this week because a writer at the Wall Street Journal took a number of authors to task for their “depraved” works. The response was instantaneous and loud, centering most on the horror of “censorship.”

I find that interesting because there are similarities to the waves stirred by author and friend Mike Duran in his recent post about Christian fiction and his idea of two camps of Christians.

In both discussions, I see a liberal application of a broad brush, from all quarters, and it is against the broad brush I stand.

Broad brushes handle a big job in the shortest amount of time (apart from rollers or spray guns 😉 ), but they have an accompanying drawback — they can easily spread paint where it does not belong.

From my point of view, this was the case in Mike’s article. In holding to his “two camp view,” he made this comment about those he characterizes as in the camp where “law is the driving principle” — those writing Christian fiction:

As long as we Christians define our witness primarily in terms of Law — no cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, or sex — and see our fiction as a tool to perpetuate those values, we are destined for tension.

Of course the problem is that a good many novels coming out of Christian publishing houses have no such agenda. They actually have higher goals, aim for and accomplish something greater than propping up incidental cultural mores.

The furor about the WSJ article was similar. The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, made some broad brush claims. Here’s one:

Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what’s on shelves now.

The implication, of course, is that there are no books that are less grim than the ones she named that came out in the ’70s. That statement splatters paint on a good number of novels that are not grim and do not deal with “damage, brutality and losses.”

Those issuing a rebuttal take up the same broad brush. From one comment:

I find it ridiculous that anyone might think it a good idea to censor literature

Or how about this one:

You are supposed to be telling those gatekeepers to DROP DEAD. Because they ARE censoring things and that’s SICK. A journalist who thinks that censoring is OK should NOT be a journalist. [So apparently, the commenter has a right to censor journalists, but journalists haven’t the right to censor anyone else. 😉 ]

Broad brushes. They hurt individuals. Christian novelists who are not driven by law, who are not remotely interested in promoting a set of superficial values are lumped in with those who may believe Christianity is primarily about meeting a prescribed list of do‘s and don’t‘s. In the end, readers will steer clear of Christian bookstores and the aisles where Christian books are shelved because they expect all those books to be the same.

In the same way, YA writers who are not dabbling in depravity (not used here as a theological term) may come away stigmatized and vilified by some, while parents and librarians and teachers who wish to steer children away from morally questionable books end up wearing the censorship tag.

So what does the broad brush earn us? Does the conversation become less entrenched? Are people on different sides of the issues more inclined to listen to one another?

As I see it, publishers will continue to produce books that sell. The writer who is making an effort to buck the trend is the one who gets hurt. All YA books are trash or all Christian fiction is law driven splatters paint on the worthwhile YA books and the Christian fiction that is not law driven. Those books do exist and they should be celebrated, not buried under someone else’s layer of paint.

Reflecting Or Influencing Culture

Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

So said Meghan Cox Gurdon in her Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible.”

Is she right?

Many authors when they discuss fiction appeal to the need for freedom to tell the truth about the world. But whose truth?

Not every teenage girl has anorexia or has been sexually assaulted. Not every guy cuts himself or runs away from home.

But some do.

Are their stories, then, the truthful ones to which all others must be compared? Or are the stories of greedy rich kids or fish-out-of-water newbies just as valid? How about the story of a happy little orphan girl or a Bible-quoting gang member?

I think most people would say that whatever is true to the human experience, across the gamut, should be considered as valid story material.

But when, I wonder, does reflecting culture — telling the stories of those we see in the world — turn into influencing culture?

I’ve said loudly, long, and often that stories, like all other forms of writing, communicate. Certainly entertainment is a big piece of the novel cake, but stories are about something and in the end say something about that event or lifestyle or world.

Could it be that in writing about the fringe behaviors of society, authors normalize those behaviors? Could it be that enough stories about cutting or sexual assault anesthetize our sensibilities so we no longer look with horror on these horrific behaviors? even though the stories do not hold these behaviors up as something to be emulated?

From Ms. Gurdon’s article:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.

We live in a copy-cat society. Two boys walk into their high school and start killing other students, and a spate of school shootings follows. And so with any number of other bad behaviors.

One could argue that kids will see all these things on the news or YouTube or hear about them in the songs they listen to, so books aren’t actually doing anything more than personalizing the pain, putting a face on the victims and those suffering.

In fact, author Veronica Roth (Divergent) makes this comment in her blog article “This WSJ Thing“:

You want to say, I want to protect my children from this kind of content? Then I say, I am happy for your kids, that they have a parent who is that worried about them. But when you say, these books are garbage and they’re damaging the minds of children? I say, the world is damaging the minds of children. Be more shocked by the world than by the books. [emphasis in the original]

Honestly, I suspect that how we view the role of entertainment in culture — as that which reflects or as that which influences — has a great deal to do with what we think should or should not go into that entertainment.

You thoughts?

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