Whenever a controversial YA novel comes under scrutiny, youth advocates always call the book community to arms. Novels, they explain over and over again, are good for young people—period. The right kind of fiction may even be the salvation of a struggling teen soul. No matter how depressing or graphic the content, novels can 1) help teens find themselves by offering characters they can identify with, 2) comfort them in a desperate situation by letting them know they are not alone, or 3) offer a “safe space” to explore other ways of looking at things. Fiction is too powerful to keep from the young, they say. But the defenders seem blind to the possibility that that very power can be negative as well as positive.
In the online journal Aeon, Tara Isabella Burton makes the case that reading fiction is not necessarily an unalloyed good. Nor should it be. Might the power of fiction be used for evil? Or as she puts it, “in treating novels as the ultimate nutrition for the brain, do we risk neutralizing their potency?”
A story “works” by taking the elements of human life and character and emotion, cutting them to pattern, and shaping them to fit not only a compelling plotline but also a moral vision. Every novelist works from a sense of what’s good and bad, even if he’s convinced that nothing is ultimately good or bad. Every novelist spins an imaginary world within the text, whether realistic or fantastic, then sits back and invites the reader into that fictional parlor. The pleasure of reading a novel depends to some degree on surrender–a true reader wants to be swept away. Call it suspension of disbelief or unput-down-ableness, the novels you love are the ones that capture you. “Captivating” signals charming, enchanting, magical—but those very words, in themselves, imply that someone has been overcome by something outside. It’s what book reviewers mean when they say they were “shattered” or “shaken to the core,” and it’s not always a good thing.
Burton quotes warnings from a past that saw reading novels as a “kind of possession: an encroachment of the ‘other’ upon the self.” She cites 19th century minister Jonathan Townley Crane who worried about consumers of fiction (mostly women) reading themselves into “clumsy little romances” and identifying themselves with the heroine to such an extent they lost track of themselves. That was a theme as late as the 1980s, when a boom in steamy romance novels made pastors wonder if too many housewives were comparing their potbellied husbands with Fabio.
It wasn’t just a religious concern. Burton takes a fictional character as an example of unhealthy reading, namely Dorian Gray, Portrait of (the novella by Oscar Wilde). The title character is poisoned” by a little volume identified only as “The Yellow Book.” Literary historians say this was an actual experimental novel, Against Nature, which affected Wilde himself in a negative way. It could be that in the act of reading this particular book both the author and the character surrendered too much: in vampire terms, the poison book sucked Oscar/Dorian’s life force into itself and left him defenseless.
Active readers are co-creators, in a continual dialogue with the story (Why did he do that? Yess! Don’t go there! I don’t get it—). When a reader closes the book, it’s hers—her version, that is. What she remembers is the book she read, and a book has as many versions as it has readers. But some stories latch on to the reader, working so powerfully that she suspends the inner dialogue for pages or chapters at a time. She’s becoming the story, rather than the other way around.
I read Raintree County in my early twenties, and it inhabited me for weeks afterward with its fervid romanticism. Today I find it mainly pretentious and overwritten–but I make that judgment from the self that was, at one time, permanently altered by that same book. We’re designed to be shaped by our culture even as we shape our culture. So the issue isn’t whether you’re every going to be influenced by a “shattering” book, but what that influence might be. That’s where the disclaimer for good or ill comes in.
Toward the end of the essay Burton tips her hand. To her, it seems, the “dangerous” books are those that shaped the backward values of an earlier day. “A rich tradition of political response—literature from the post-colonial and feminist traditions, has emerged in recent decades, in which literary classics are challenged or rewritten in rebellion against their purported textual authority.” In other words: we know better now. A case in point is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a “postcolonial” response to Jane Eyre showing how Rochester’s mad wife was driven insane by patriarchal and colonial oppression.
So that’s where she’s coming from. Okay, fair enough—everybody is coming from somewhere, but to my mind Ms. Burton undercuts the whole premise of her essay in the last paragraph: “Too acknowledge that textual narratives have as much capacity to be truly dangerous as they have to be truly illuminating is to acknowledge that books, like people, are not inherently moral or immoral.” Wait a minute—not inherently moral? But didn’t she write the entire article from a moral perspective? How can we even determine that some books may be “dangerous” unless that’s a bad thing (especially as opposed to “illuminating,” which is a good thing)? .
I think she’s right in essence: some fiction can be damaging to the reader, depending on a host of factors: the content, mood, or tone of the former matched to the disposition, situation, or vulnerability of the other. Young people are especially vulnerable because they are in formation and don’t yet have the perspective to evaluate dark themes–even while many of them are attracted to dark themes. That attraction in itself isn’t abnormal, and one depressing book won’t tip the balance of a reasonably well-adjusted teen. But a deluge of them could create a current of despair, rage, or cynicism. If your diet of fiction (or your kids’) seems tilted toward violence, oppression, suicide, or tragedy, it wouldn’t be amiss to wonder if it’s too much.