Time article calls teen novels “trash”

I’m a bit peeved with Time Magazine right now.  I was browsing through their website when I came across the article “Profanity In Teen Novels: Characters With Foul Language Are Often The Most Desirable.”

I’m a librarian-in-training, so I clicked on the article, only to find (and I quote):

As with so many things, surmise the researchers, parents are probably in the dark about the trash their kids are reading.

I did a double take.  Trash?!  Did the author really just lump all teen novels together and call them ‘trash‘?  Yes.  Yes she did.

One of the most important things that I took away from the whole Megan Cox Gurdon “Darkness Too Visible” controversy last year is the importance of context when evaluating teen novels.  The same idea is applicable here.  Just because a book has dark themes or strong language doesn’t mean that the book endorses those ideas.

For example, one of the novels cited in the Time article was Nic Scheff’s “Tweak,” which is about the consequences of a methamphetamine addiction.  I don’t think that it would be reasonable to expect a character who’s a meth addict to always use clean language.  Life just doesn’t work that way.

I think perhaps what I found most interesting is that the author of the Time article seemed to be far harsher in her conclusions than the authors of the actual study, who concluded that parents should talk with their kids about what they’re reading (a very sensible position, in my own humble opinion).  I understand that profanity in YA literature may come as a surprise to many people who don’t read that genre, but calling books you don’t like ‘trash’ seems a wee bit excessive.

29 thoughts on “Time article calls teen novels “trash”

  1. This all comes down to people enjoying the delusions they create for themselves. The author probably believes that if children don’t hear foul language, they won’t use it, and beyond this, there’s the fallacy that foul language is somehow harming our existence. Sure, it’s nice if people learn to communicate intelligently, but cussing doesn’t somehow negate intelligent discourse. So I say fuck that noise. Time magazine can kiss my higher-education-having-ass.

    1. Some of the most intelligent people that I know could out-cuss a sailor without even trying.

      I think the problem here is mostly that adults think they can shelter their children/teens from the harsh reality of life, and then they throw temper tantrums when it fails. Better to learn how to live in the world and navigate it than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

    1. Anyone who thinks that kids/teens don’t swear has clearly never been in middle school. It’s a part of the culture, and I get more weirded out when authors try to write realistically about teenagers and they never utter the occasional curse word.

  2. This is just an opinion of one journalist. I remember when the first season of Game of Thrones was released (TV series, not the book), some highly opinionated female journalist ran a pretty harsh piece on it, and followed by a hue and cry raised by the fans. And guess what, that’s the reaction she likely desired. Strong opinions attract strong reactions, and strong reactions bring more readers to a publication, more readers means more advertising is sold, more advertising means staff of the publication has a regular paycheck. So, really, there is nothing to worry about. 🙂 Same is true for blogs. Try running a series of posts on controversial topics heavily tainted with opinion and see what happens. You may be getting enough traffic to be able to monetize your blog 🙂

    1. I remember that… there was a lot of controversy that it was racist/sexist/whatever, but it felt like people just wanted an excuse to be mad about it. You can’t expect every character in every piece of fiction to be 100% politically and morally correct because in a perfect world where everyone’s perfect there isn’t any story.

      I’m generally not very controversial, but I’m very protective of books and the right to read them. 😀

  3. Does this mean A Wrinkle In Time series is bad too? I don’t read “teen novels”. Nothing that I’ve read would be seen as teen unless you count the novels I’ve read as Lord of the Flies and a few others when I was in high school. Never knew what is seen as a “teen novel”.

    1. YA novels are generally aimed at a high school or early college aged audience. Stuff like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” or Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” would fall under this category. It’s a bit more simplistic than adult novels tend to be, but at the same time it can go a bit farther with themes/content than the typical children’s book because they’re not aimed at younger kids.

      I think it’s interesting that this article only analyzed bestsellers though, because in my general experience bestsellers don’t always have as high of a literary quality as other books, but rather are the type of stories that suck you in even though they’re flawed and are easy for a wide range of people to identify with.

    1. I read their health/science articles periodically even though I prefer Science News Daily for that. Oddly enough, this article got lumped under the category of “Health,” even though it’s completely unrelated.

  4. I bet the author of that study hasn’t read any actual ‘teen fiction’. Or, if she did, only with a bias to find what she wanted to say. It’s a mixture of ignorance and intolerance with self-righteousness on top. Ugh. Totally agree with your thoughts, Grace. But I also think others comments here also true, esp. about bringing in readers, though that doesn’t make it OK to label a whole category of books as ‘trash’

    1. Yeah. There’s so much variety in teen literature that one really can’t lump it all into one group, and people see what they want to see. It may bring in more readers for Time, but it might have the unintended consequence of making parents panic about the fact that their kids are reading.

  5. I think I could easily fall into the category of intelligent, well educated people who could make a sailor blush. The extent to which people use obscenities is in no way an indication of how intelligent a person is. They’re simply words that are a part of my vocabulary that I use on a regular basis, nothing more.

    Talking with your kids about what they’re reading? What kind of insanity is that? It sounds like, *gasp* actual parenting!

    This sounds oddly similar to the same argument that every age group makes: “everything coming out today is trash, back when I was a kid we had quality music/TV shows/movies/whatever.” It’s an easy argument to make, and something that I find myself thinking from time to time, mostly with music.

    This is nothing more than a ratings grab as one of the other commenters said. Nobody wants to read about a mild, tempered opinion, they want to see outrage. If we ignore them they’ll forget about this and find something else to complain about, really nothing to worry about.

    1. There will always be a generation gap in pop culture, and people like to reminisce about the “good old days.” Kids of one generation won’t necessarily like the same books that the youth of the previous generation grew up on, and that’s completely normal.

      I totally feel that way about music sometimes; our musicians need more creativity (potentially fueled by LSD, since most of my favorite songs are from that era) instead of rehashing the same tired pop sound over and over again with different lyrics. Then again, I admit that I have weird taste in music.

  6. I have a big problem with this type of journalism. It’s like those who interview two people who like, let’s say pineapple, and then invent a “new global pineapple craving trend” or some such nonsense (you get my drift).
    And I really agree with this “Just because a book has dark themes or strong language doesn’t mean that the book endorses those ideas.” It seesm that people do not even know how to read novels anymore.

    1. Yes. I’ve heard far too many people judge books that they haven’t even read. I remember people in my town panicking about Harry Potter because it has witches even though the point of the book is the basic clash between good and evil. Context is essential, and understanding it involves actually reading the book.

  7. Completely agree! Calling a YA novel “trash” because it contains swearing is ridiculous. Also, according to the article, any “excretory” words were considered swears. So if a character says “oh poop” the study counted it as an instance of cussing. That seems a bit extreme to me.

    1. Mhm. I wonder if “excretory” words count if they’re not being used to swear… if someone poops their pants, does that count?

  8. Have you read Roxane Gay’s article about The Hunger Games on The Rumpus? She doesn’t talk about profanity, but she addresses the criticism YA lit has been getting recently for being “too dark” and tackling subjects that young people supposedly aren’t prepared to deal with yet. That assertion is, of course, ridiculous, because young adults are some of the darkest and most fucked up (pardon my French) people I’ve ever met, and that has nothing to do with their reading material. Roxane defends YA novels and talks about why it’s actually really helpful for a teen going through their own darkness and struggles to read about heroes and heroines who are facing hard things, too, and getting through them. If you haven’t read it yet, I think you’d find it really interesting: http://therumpus.net/2012/04/what-we-hunger-for/

    1. It’s an interesting article. I think that a lot of adults don’t realize that teenagers do have to deal with a lot of issues, and often literature is the only place that teens can find an honest dialogue or contextualization of those topics. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Sounds like it’s the same group of people who want to ban “Catcher in the Rye” because of a few words. Honestly, if you want me to be interested in a book, ban it. I will then be curious to see if and why it needs to be banned and will probably immediately read it to decide for myself if it should be banned or, more appropriately, recommended to be read at a certain age level.

    I could also point out that there’s a lack of adults out there who take an interest in making sure kids have age and maturity appropriate reading material. Instead, they just ban everything and then wonder why kids don’t read.

    1. The media storm that happens when libraries or school districts try to ban a book generally increase that book’s sales. 🙂

      There are a lot of different types of YA novels out there, and they’re all suited to different readers. I think it’s probably easier for people to judge them all than to take the time to form an educated opinion about what’s out there.

  10. And adult novels with profanity and so much sexuality they could be considered pornography aren’t trash? I hate it when people lump all YA novels together into one category. Remember what they say about ‘assume’?

    Anyway, well written article! You definitely make some valid points.

    1. Thanks! I get frustrated when people try to demonize reading/video games/etc. Kids are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for, and sheltering them from the world doesn’t give them an advantage.

  11. I’m always a bit peeved when people call a certain genre trash, especially when they haven’t really read much in the genre, and most certainly fail to see the context in which it was written. People seem to have an unreasonable expectation that they can keep their kids from anything unwanted, when I think the important thing is to have a open and honest communication with kids to explain what the world really is. But that is just my humble opinion.

    1. Exactly! I don’t read much YA, but I don’t dismiss it entirely either, and enjoy the occasional teen novel. I do read a lot of SF/F though, and I get frustrated that much of it doesn’t get the kind of critical or academic acclaim that other comparable books would get. Genre fiction deserves as much credit as “literary fiction,” and you can’t dismiss an entire genre just because it isn’t one that you like.

      I think that a lot of adults don’t realize the kind of issues that their kids have to deal with from an early age. We idealize childhood to the point that we pretend problems don’t exist, which makes it a lot harder for kids to deal with them. 🙂

      1. I agree totally. Which is why I kind of went off in a rant the other day on my blog about women SF&F writers. Who seem to get ever more of a bum rap about not writing high brow literary fiction. Rubbish (to the naysayers, not their books).

        I’ve never understood idealization of childhood, but maybe that is just because of my own childhood. 🙂

        1. And people like Ursula K. LeGuin are more literary in their sci-fi than most “literary fiction” authors that I’ve read. I’m continually impressed by her books. 🙂

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