“… a wife who is fond of literature is seldom a good cook”*

The current debate over the influence of Young Audience (YA) fiction on young minds has been escalating for weeks.  Things Have Been Said.  Extraordinarily good rebuttals rose immediately from writers, readers, and those with brains. (Personally, I love the comments from teen readers in the WSJ article who respectfully and eloquently point out that YA literature isn’t as warped as, say, the news, or high school, or many other aspects of their lives).  The #YAsaves thread on twitter is part of that vanguard, but even as readers defend their right to decide what it is that fortifies their own brains, it seems there is concern on a new front in the gender-genre wars: romance. (Edit – link added.)   Yes, once again, those who read Dangerously are at risk of harming themselves.  This time, perhaps, because the romance isn’t safe enough.

Safety first, then, eh?  It would probably be wiser not to read at all.  Folks have been making this argument from the 18th century, and they likely owe royalties to whoever coined the “seen but not heard” mantra.

The source of my post title, “Novels are … the most dangerous kind of reading”: Metafictional Discourse in Early American Literature features a number of opinions from the past on dangerous reading that make it seem as if Megan Cox Gurdon and her cohorts haven’t made any new discoveries.  In point of fact, they seem to have dug up and retreaded an ugly aspect of the past.  The subtext reads: Imagination is dangerous.  Experience is dangerous.  It makes the imaginative experiencer a Less Useful Person.  Here’s my personal favorite, from the journal of John Winthrop:

 Mr Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought his wife with him, … who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books… . if she had attended her household affairs and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, … she had kept her wits and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.

(The Journal of John Winthrop, entry for April 13, 1645, quoted in Anthology of American Literature, 2 vols., ed. George McMichael, 2nd ed., vol. 1: Colonial Through Romantic (New York: Macmillan, 1980)

What I’m starting to wonder is why all the noise?  Novels in the 18th century were alarming to those who had voice and power because they gave a formerly voiceless class both a voice and the means to transmit that voice beyond their own walls.  So, today, in genre – be it YA, romance, fantasy, science fiction, or elsewhere, things are getting dark and scary again, and we should watch out?

What’s generating all this friction (besides the editorial need to pick a fight and get lots of traffic)?  Are we afraid of the lives our kids are already living?  Or of the world we’ve made for them outside of the bookstacks?

I, for one, am all for imagination taking us new places, both dark and light.  You need both, really.  For one, you need a bit of darkness in order to reveal the light.  Just ask my high school art teacher, or, you know, Milton. You need it to produce new, powerful, voices who speak their minds, and who speak their own way, for their own generation.   Let’s not do this yet again, shall we?

*The title of this post is from an 1813 letter to Albany’s The Stranger, via Jurgen Wolten’s 1994 article in Connotations



  1. Did you listen to the NPR debate between Maureen Johnson (a YA author) and Gurdon yesterday? It’s long — about an hour — and rehashed some points made in the Twitterverse and elsewhere, but it was interesting.

    I think you’ve made an interesting point about the debate; it reminds me of a point often brought up in the education debate. When people begin debating about how OMG this generation of students is lazy, ill-prepared, ill-read, someone always sighs loudly and brings up furious debate from other centuries about how THEIR current generation is lazy, etc.

    Also? Hey! I’m a damned good cook…whenever I can put a book down. (And that quote is pretty ironic, because in the 18th c., a literate wife who could afford books was likely to be at least middle-class, and therefore would have at least a couple of servants. One of which would be a cook.

  2. Fran,

    The debate about the deleterious nature of fiction is as old as fiction itself. Don Quixote, of course, is driven mad by all of the romances he has read (not the modern definition but the medieval one).

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