An excellent piece by Annie Julia Wyman in the New Yorker last week, “What Kind of Town Bans Books?” asks “What is art, anyway? Must it be good for us? Do we accept a character’s moral flaws if we read about them? Must we experience everything an author puts into a book, or can we skip the things that disturb us or with which we disagree?” Wyman comes down where I come down: “On one side of the cultural divide, the pro-books side, our answers align against moralistic messages, against utility, against excisions of any kind. We feel that, while art is so powerful it can change lives, it is also so fragile and precious that it badly needs our protection.”
In a National Public Radio piece on Saturday, “Why adults are buzzing about YA literature,” Stephen Colbert says, “a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.” If there’s some truth here, and I believe there is, why should it be so? I think the answer lies partly in the nature of the dominant traits of modern mainstream literature and cinema in recent decades, a long-running set of trends that A.O. Scott discussed recently in the NY Times: in short, the supremacy of the anti-hero. In welcome contrast, YA fiction depends on the true hero, on protagonists whose character evinces qualities that everyone (not only teen readers) yearns to applaud and admire, bravery, dignity, clear-sightedness, and compassion.