It seems I’m doing a lot of that lately–starting books and not finishing them. Sometimes it’s just because my brain is restless and I can’t settle into anything, and there’s really no predicting what will finally catch my interest. Sometimes, though, I really give a book a fair shot, and I finally abandon it because there’s something about the book that I just can’t get over, go around, or otherwise ignore. I’m noting my two most recently rejected titles because I think it’s something to discuss–why young adult literature, award-winning young adult literature at that, tends to the extreme on so many fronts. I know this isn’t popular (I did go to library school, after all 😉 ), and I’m really not suggesting at all that literature should be a sanitized version of real life. What I am suggesting is that a book doesn’t have to be profane or violent in the extreme to be well-written; in fact, I would argue that the opposite is true–that writers who can write a compelling story without shocking and offending at every turn are, in fact, better at the craft.
I rejected The Absoloutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie after reading just a few chapters. There are those who would argue and say that by not reading further into it that I did not give it a fair chance. Actually, I’m not even saying that it’s not a good story in terms of being well-written, compelling, or insightful in some way; it was the subject matter and setting that made me pick it up in the first place. However, I just wasn’t willing at the time to wade through a profusion of profanity and crudeness. It’s not easy for me to stop reading a book after I’ve invested a half hour or more of my time in it; my reading time is precious enough that I don’t want to waste any of it. However, the scales finally tipped against this book (probably after just one more curse word, or more likely, just one more ***ual reference) and I closed it. I’m not saying that I’ll never open it again, but I will approach it (and anything else by the author) with some caution. I understand that young adult authors include profanity, etc., in their stories because they believe it paints a picture of the way life really is. This may very well be true for some people, and yes, I have known a few of them. However, I do not believe that every young adult speaks this way, and I know that not every young adult wants to read it. I didn’t, and I still don’t. This doesn’t make me any less intellectual or intelligent than someone who is more “enlightened” about such matters. I wish more young adult authors would dial back the shock value of their books a few notches; readers like me end up rejecting books based on something that is likely peripheral to the real story. It was the review of Sarah at Small World Reads that piqued my curiosity of the book to begin with; she loved it and even named it one of her top picks of 2010. Read her review for a positve take on what must be a well-written book. However, as much inspiration I usually take from Small World Reads, I have to say that my opinion on this book more closely mataches that of Noelle at Never Jam Today. If you click over, be sure to read the comments–she further clarifies her position there.
Although I might someday pick up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian again, I can guarantee that the chance that I’ll ever try to plow through Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is virtually nonexistent. I actually read about half way through this book when, finally, just one more instance of graphic violence forced me to close the volume with a resounding and irrevocable thump. Graphic and gratuitous violence is one mountain I am willing to die on, or rather, to allow a book to die on, to muddy the cliche. I just have no tolerance for violence, neither in books nor movies. I haven’t done a lot of research on the effects of experiencing (participating in?) violence vicariously, but I just can’t imagine that it could be good for a person. I know it’s not for me; I’m horrified and emotionally undone by it. Whether or not this is my own personal weakness might inform whether or not you’re willing to pick up the book; just be aware that if violence bothers you, this book isn’t for you. It’s too bad, too; I love a good dystopian story. Sherry at Semicolon gives a more or less favorable review of it, so take her recommendation if you’re not put off by violence. (For the record, this book also contains a lot of cursing, but even the preponderance of four letter words was overshadowed by the violence.)
I guess the thing that perplexes me most about these books is that Part-Time Indian won a National Book Award in 2007 and Ship Breaker was a finalist in 2010 for that same award. I understand that the National Book Award is an award given to writers by writers, and the panelists are looking for the books with the most literary merit. I can buy that maybe the literary merit is there in Part-Time Indian; the protagonist is unusual, the concept is unusual (the book contains cartoons “drawn” by the protagonist), and the theme of the story is compelling. However, unless things picked up a good bit in Ship Breaker in the last half, I just don’t see its literary merit. By the time I quit reading this novel, I still can’t say that I cared very much about the characters. My main complaint is that I had wasted that much of my reading time, but maybe I missed something.
This is probably the most opinionated and most negative review I’ve written on my blog to date, but the truth is, I don’t usually stick with anything I don’t like long enough to write a review of it. (Some might argue that I didn’t this time, either.) Maybe I felt compelled to get this all recorded because I rejected two books in a row. Whatever the case, this is my opinion. Anyone else care to weigh in on the subject of offensive material in young adult books?
Dare I open this can of worms?