Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Do you have to have read a book to say anything about it at all? More on the Montgomery County "censorship" case

Well, to say that I have stirred up a hornet's nest would be an understatement. My last post on the so-called Montgomery County, Kentucky "censorship" case has received more hits than any post featured on this blog since its inception. It has also garnered quite a few comments. Rather than answer the hornets in the comments section of the earlier post (the buzzing there has gotten to be deafening), I'm going to answer them here, in separate posts, since I think the points are important enough to be featured on the main page.

I don't know, but it seems that the comments are of two main types: First, from First Amendment Fundamentalists (I'm detecting the presence of librarians who mistakenly think the First Amendment quite literally protects any form of expression), and secondly from public school English teachers with rather low standards of what constitutes good literature. I don't doubt the sincerity of either group, but, as I will indicate below, the arguments for their positions are lacking in a number of respects.

Let me take the first of these arguments today, and I'll address the other arguments as the week progresses:

"Excuse me, sir, but I fail to see how you can reasonably comment about books you've never read." (From Ellen Hopkins). That would depend on what my purpose was. Certainly I cannot offer any kind of exhaustive evaluation of the books if I haven't read them, and if I were actually reviewing the books, I would be obligated to do just that. But I'm not reviewing the books, I'm simply commenting on whether or not an action by a school district constitutes censorship, whether there is a valid line that can be drawn between books that deserve to be in an accelerated college preparatory curriculum, and whether parents who have read the books are in a position to take part in that judgment.

I said very clearly I had not read the books, indicating that I was giving only a tentative assessment of them--a skepticism, nothing more, about their worth. I based that skepticism on publishers comments and reviews of the books--as well as actual passages from the books. The argument that one is not allowed to have and express a tentative judgment of creative works is a rather strange position to try to defend. If one cannot glean a tentative opinion of a book from publishers' blurbs and reviews, then maybe Hopkins could tell me why they have such blurbs and reviews in the first place.

Are we really allowed no qualitative judgments about things that we have not actually experienced ourselves? If someone wanted to show "Debbie Does Dallas" in a high school classroom, would we really be required to view it ourselves in order to be justified in saying it was not appropriate? Are we supposed to refrain from warning our children not to take crack or meth because we haven't tried them ourselves? No one is arguing that these books are in the same class as these things, but the logic is the same.

We make tentative judgments like this all the time. In fact, a tentative judgment is required in order to decide whether to read a book (rather than do something else) in the first place. In fact, I wonder how many of the people criticizing me for expressing doubts over the merit if their paeans to teen angst have read the older and better works that the parents in Montgomery County would rather have in this accelerated curriculum.

In any case, unless you are a parent making a formal complaint, one isn't required to have read a book in order to express a vagrant opinion on a blog of whether or not parents who have read the books have the right to make the complaint. In this case the parents opposed including them in the curriculum because a) they did read the books and found them wanting and b) they did not consider them to contribute to the express purpose of the class, which is to prepare them for college at an advanced level.

Nor is one even required to know the specific literary qualities of a book to have an informed opinion of whether it belongs in a curriculum. For that, all that is necessary is to know what kind of book it is. And that's what, in spite of Hopkins opinion, makes my judgment so easy: Popular teen fiction doesn't belong in the curriculum of an accelerated high school college prep course.


Let me underscore this aspect of the Montgomery County case once again so we are very clear about it (Where's my megaphone?): THIS IS AN ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. Did we hear that?

A class like this is meant to challenge good students intellectually. If your students are challenged intellectually by these kinds of books, then they don't belong in this kind of class. There seems to be this assumption that students in an accelerated high school class are not capable of handling serious literature. If that's the case, then why are they in an accelerated high school class? And if you say that even kids in an accelerated college prep class can't handle classic books, then you have unwittingly acquiesced to the low appraisal that some of us regularly give to public schools.

And another thing. If you are going to make the argument that these kinds of books belong in that kind of class, then you are not an intellectually serious person. Sorry. That's not a moral judgment, just a statement of fact. If you don't like that judgment, then I'm afraid we're operating upon two completely different academic planets: mine, which is actually academic, and yours, which is not.

I fear that the real problem here is one I have drawn attention to on this blog over and over again: many of the people running our elementary and secondary educational institutions are not well-educated people. Well-educated people don't think that valuable academic time should be spent on popular teen books in advanced academic classes, the vast majority of which (the books I mean) will likely be forgotten in 20 years, if they last that long.

The argument is not whether these books are good books or not. I have expressed my skepticism that they are--no more than a literary hypothesis to be confirmed or not. The argument is over whether books that have proved themselves to have merit by standing the test of time, many of which are well within the grasp of moderately intelligent high school students, should be displaced by books that, whatever their worth, are unproven.

We are talking about students many of whom have not read Huckleberry Finn, the Grapes of Wrath, the Great Gatsby, and Crime and Punishment--and we're going to spend class time in a supposedly advanced high school class parsing the deepest darkest emotions of "Sophie" as she gets ready for her date with "smoky, sexy Dylan"?

Is this really what we've come to in our schools?


SafeLibraries said...

What we have come to in our schools, you say. Here's a hint:

The subject matter of a YA book is different depending on whether the book is intended for a thirteen-year-old or a seventeen-year-old. Despite intended age determinations for these books, liberals and conservatives continue to battle over the age appropriateness of subjects such as relationships, sex, drugs, and death. Judy Blume, an author of books for young readers, caused a scandal in 1975 with Forever (1975), which is commonly considered the first YA book to deal with teen love and teen pregnancy. Although Bradbury Press infuriated Blume by advertising the book as Blume's first adult book, Forever is a Young Adult novel; it soon made its way into the teen audience (Foerstal 107). Sharyn November, senior editor at Puffin and Viking Children's Books, said "Gatekeepers often underestimate what teens can handle. [Teens] know a lot. They self-censor when they read--they skip over what they don't understand and focus on what makes sense to them at that point in their lives" (qtd. in Maughan, "Making").

Young Adult publishers are journeying into new and potentially dangerous subjects. One YA editor notes, "As more and more edgy fiction is being published, the books are dealing with issues that hadn't been dealt with before: oral sex, male rape, incest. There seem to be no boundaries any more" (qtd. in Milliot et al. 39). In 2004, bookstores were filled with YA books that addressed edgy subjects: Cynthia Voigt's When She Hollers (1994) and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (rape) (1999); Sarah Dessen's Dreamland (2000) and Alex Flinn's Breathing Underwater (2001) (emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive relationships); Patricia McCormick's Cut (2001), Shelley Stoehr's Crosses (1991), and Alice Hoffman's Green Angel (2003) (self-mutilation); Margaret Bechard's Hanging on to Max (2002) and Angela Johnson's The First Part Last (2003) (teen fatherhood); and Linda Glovach's Beauty Queen (1998) (most of the aforementioned issues as well as teenage exotic dancing, threesomes, and heroin addiction). Amazon.com enables teens to find particular issue books by clicking on "Teen Books," then "Social Issues," which provides headings such as "Dating and Intimacy," "Drug Use and Abuse," "Pregnancy," "Suicide," and "Violence." A search box allows users to enter one's own issue. Young Adult Literature has broken nearly every boundary of acceptable subject matter in trying to address real-life problems and intrigue teen readers.

Source: Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature, by Cat Yampbell, The Lion and the Unicorn; Sep 2005; 29:3; Children's Module, The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp348-372, at p350-351.

Also, see "Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things," by Naomi Wolf, The New York Time, 12 March 2006.

"Page Burners: Sex and the Teenage Girl; What Goes On Between the Covers Is Now What Goes On Between the Covers of New Fiction Aimed at Young Adults," by Tania Padgett, Newsday, 4 April 2006.

SafeLibraries said...

"Teachers love them," the local librarian explains as Feinberg scans a shelf of such titles. "They win all the awards."

Most of the books chosen by the English committee at Alex's school are problem novels, and the curriculum proves inflexible. "We can't ever say we don't like the books," Alex tells his mother, because, according to his teacher, "if you're not liking the books, you're not reading them closely enough." The books are so depressing -- "'Everybody dies in them,' he told me wearily" -- Alex insists on reading with his bedroom door open. ....

[Feinberg] sees the memoirlike problem novels as symptoms of "the drastic fall from grace that the imagination has suffered in popular understanding" and her generation's insistence on "making our children wake from the dream of their childhoods." Adults, she suspects, secretly resent the sheltered, enchanted world children inhabit and under the pretext of preparing them for life's inevitable difficulties, want to rub their noses in traumas they may never actually experience and often aren't yet able to comprehend. All the better to turn them into miniature grown-ups, little troupers girded to face a world where they have no one to count on but themselves. ....

Problem novels represent just a fraction of the Y.A. market, but one particularly esteemed by educators and prize committees. (Newbery Medal winners are notoriously glum.) That, Daniel Handler, author of the best-selling Lemony Snicket series, told me recently in an interview, results from a "wrong-headed belief that the more misery there is, the more quality there is, that the most lurid, unvarnished stories are closest to the truth."

Source: "Why Teachers Love Depressing Books," by Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review, 22 August 2004 p12(L) col 01.

"Pam Spencer Holley of the [ALA and leader of YALSA for youth, said] ... [s]he's happy to see teen girls reading. Eventually, girls who are reading Gossip Girls will move on to better books, she says. 'Unless you read stuff that's perhaps not the most literary, you'll never understand what good works are,' says Holley. .... Besides, she says, what's the worst thing that can happen? 'Nobody complains about the adult women who read Harlequin romances.'"

Source: "Racy Reading; Gossip Girl Series is Latest Installment in Provocative Teen Fiction, and It's As Popular As It Is Controversial," by Linda Shrieves, Orlando Sentinel, 6 August 2005.

And see my recent blog post, "It's Not Censorship, It's Parenting! -- Best Explanation Ever for What's Wrong With the American Library Association and its Effect on Public School Libraries."

Lee said...

I accept your distinction about the difference between a review and an impression.

David A. Bedford said...

I have just published a novel, Angela 1: Starting Over. I am so tired of all the "edgy" stuff I decided not to deal with it, but rather write for the future as well as the present. The future of our kids and the future of literature: for a time when people turn pietistic again and refuse to read the kind of matter you describe. If you want to know more, just click on my name and follow the link to my web site. I also invited you to read my blog at www.davidabedford.aegauthorblogs.com

Anonymous said...

"The argument is over whether books that have proved themselves to have merit by standing the test of time, many of which are well within the grasp of moderately intelligent high school students, should be displaced by books that, whatever their worth, are unproven."

Whether books can stand the test of time is indeed the question. And "classics" are not standing the test of this time. The fact that teachers are not even choosing teach "classics" anymore proves that.
When is a book "proven?" When, perhaps, English teachers included it in their curriculum? If a book has been observed to put students to sleep or turn them off reading altogether, can it be proven not to be a classic anymore. There must be some attrition in the world of "classics."

Lee said...

> Whether books can stand the test of time is indeed the question. And "classics" are not standing the test of this time. The fact that teachers are not even choosing teach "classics" anymore proves that.

I think classics did indeed survive the test of time, witness the fact that we still essentially use Aristotle's definitions of logical fallacies and constructions after, what, 2300 years?

It remains to be seen whether Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson will still be around in the year 4300 AD.

Anonymous said...

WOW. What google suggests NOT to do on a blog: "Questioning the motives or integrity of people you have never met just because you disagree with them." Seems like you're a bad boy with your flagrant rule-breaking.

You are hitting teachers pretty hard, calling them uneducated and non-academic. That's pretty slanderous, really. I hesitate to from ask what angle you're coming with this judgment...a doctorate in child development or in reading specialization? You sure talk like you're God's appointed commissioner of education.

Did it ever occur to you that there is research-based (which you'll call "left wing" research; I can hear it now) evidence that supports young adult literature in the classroom? Did it ever occur to you that the very teacher who is being slandered--both explicitly and implicitly by your blog--has achieved National Board Certification? What about the thousands of other teachers in America who are getting results at an age where students are constantly driven away from print media and toward faster, flashier, and more instantly gratifying technology? Do you call them dumb--like you implied--because they don't want to read classics? Are they not good enough for accelerated classes? And your claim that kids who don't like classics shouldn't be in an accelerated class...proves that you seriously have no idea--no down-to-earth, first-hand-experience-- with teaching students in this age. And that fact that you're trash-talking students in your ranting is bullying.

I hate to even stoop to your level by writing, but man, your claims are ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Books you don't approve of? Just burn them. Amirite? I mean, if young adult novels are no good for young adults to be reading, what else can we do with them?

Martin Cothran said...

One thing you can do with them is not to put them in the reading list of a college preparatory class. Or you could just ignore them.

- AP - said...

In a society where we can barely get children to pick up a book, I don't see why our panties are in a bunch.

I was in a college prep English class in high school. Did I read the Great Gatsby or My Antonia or Their Eyes Were Watching God? Yeah sure... on SparkNotes! Those books didn't interest me. I knew they were classics, yet felt no inclination to read them. 15 years later, I have picked up those books again and appreciate them much more now.

And as for classics standing the test of time... This is a whole new time.

Many classics, like To Kill A Mockingbird, were scrutinized and/or banned during their contemporary time, but have risen to the standard of "classics" now. Who's to say that the banned books of our time won't rise to be classics in the future?

Anonymous said...

Your entire response is nothing more than a complicated cop-out. You clearly passed judgment on works of fiction that you had admittedly did not read and dismissed them out-of-hand as not worthy of reading. You then write this post and try to make it appear as though you did not. But you did. You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but at least be intellectually honest with yourself, if not with the people who read your blogging. How much harm can come from reading the books and then re-stating an opinion on them afterward. Leave the parents out; most of the irritation you've aroused is in the simple fact that you didn't read them. Are you afraid of these books?