Wolf On YA (Updated)

In this week’s NYTBR, Naomi Wolf doesn’t like what she’s seeing in certain kinds of YA:

Yet if that parent opened one, he or she might be in for a surprise. The "Gossip Girl," "A-List" and "Clique" series — the most successful in a crowded field of Au Pairs, It Girls and other copycat series — represent a new kind of young adult fiction, and feature a different kind of heroine. In these novels, which have dominated the field of popular girls’ fiction in recent years, Carol Gilligan’s question about whether girls can have "a different voice" has been answered — in a scary way.

I haven’t actually had time to read her piece yet; I’ll update this post when I do (assuming it provokes some sort of response). I’m hoping it’s more than the standard "oh, these teenagers, they grow up so quickly and just look at what they’re reading!" piece. In the meantime, opinions? Anyone else looked at it? Off to do taxes.


Okay, so I finally got a chance to read it. (Hell weekend.) And mostly, I echo what y’all are saying below. Much ado about what? The literature of the shallow? It seems to me the vast majority of girls reading these books are reading them as pure escapist or pleasure literature; just because you want to look at what’s on Paris Hilton’s Trio every once in awhile doesn’t mean you want to be Paris Hilton. Or that your life or value system is similar to hers in any way.

Having read very little of this stuff myself (I’m with Scott, the brand-dropping just GRATES), it seems to me that Wolf is making an argument I have seen played out in real life in pretty tame ways. In my experience, it usually involves magazines.

My parents, for instance, never told me what to read or not read. They were glad I did it and helped me have greater access to books however they could. The only time, in fact, that my mother ever expressed concern over something I was reading involved an issue of Sassy magazine (purchased from the local Convenience store), which contained a detailed diagram of the male form with information about various things (some sexual). Years and years later, I was in a household with similar permissiveness in reading material where a teenage girl was forbidden from reading (my) Jane magazine because of sexy content. Now. I don’t believe the parents in either case thought that saying "You can’t read that" would stop us from finding out this stuff (or even keep us from reading it), but it was their impulse, so they did it anyway. I think Benjamin Rosenbaum’s right on the money that it’s not an unusual or even wholly bad thing for parents to react with concern about things like this sometimes. (When they go over the top with it, that’s something else.) They wouldn’t be parents if they didn’t. Naomi’s reacting like a mom and her reaction is lame — it’s also a little sweet if you look at it sideways (but still lame).

It seems to me that these novels — the It Girls and Slut Queens or whatever — are Cosmopolitan and Jane packaged as narratives. That’s why they’re so full of brand names. That’s why they’re so full of shallowness. And that’s okay. Just like flipping through a magazine and reading sex tips for adults didn’t transform my teenage mind, burning out all feminist ideals and turning me into a docile Prada wearer or a high-priced call girl, so I don’t believe that’s a real danger to the girls reading these books.

It’s just for fun. Leave it alone.

See also:

Scott Westerfeld’s response (and yay! on the listyness)
Colleen Mondor’s response

p.s. I’m bumping this post up since there’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments.

19 thoughts on “Wolf On YA (Updated)”

  1. I haven’t read any of the books she’s talking about, but it seems to me a bit storm-in-a-teacup-ey: I mean, so girls are reading books that don’t have good values, so what? I just don’t have the temperament for moral outrage about this kind of thing–yes, I’m sure the books are shallow & materialistic, but if that’s what people like to read for fun, who are we to tell them otherwise?

  2. Justine Henning’s list of recommended YA reading could make for an interesting discussion too:
    I’m turned off by the prudish lead-in, and there’s other, more fabulist books I’d put in — but can’t fault the Westerfeld inclusion. (Maybe we could hop from here to more discussion about Itzkoff’s top 10! 🙂 ) I’d like to see Colleen Mondor’s take as well. Or read *her* list.

  3. Bear in mind, this is the woman who vomited on Harold Bloom and twenty years later accused him of sexual harassment. Just sayin’.

  4. Man, Kim, that’s cold. If the event was anything like she described it in Promiscuities (where she did not out him by name), thank God vomiting sufficed.
    Oddly, I just finished reading Promiscuities. It’s a great book, well-written and deep, and not the least bit prudish — in fact, while Wolf honors 1970s for everything it won for her generation, she also distances herself from its latent puritanism. The problem, she argues, is not protecting innocent, pure teenage girls from dangerous male sexuality; rather, the problem is that female sexuality including that of teenage girls is just as urgent and ferocious — or more so — but it’s denied, ridiculed, and demonized –stunted by a culture in which “slut” is still a word with a lot of power, date rape an ongoing risk, and the old-fashioned period of enforced noncoital petting (which used to be an inevitable if unwilling education for boys in female sexual response) is on the wane.
    I agree with Scott and his commentors that Wolf underestimates the savvy of YA readers. She says “these books show appalling values”, and they answer, “Duh!” I certainly hope she’s not calling for censorship — I certainly agree with Scott that, in that regard, “talk to your kids about what they read” is the bottom line.
    Nor am I much for didactic fiction aesthetically — there’s clearly some bad faith in the tradition Wolf valorizes, in which the poor, virtuous girl always triumphs in the end. Since in real life the clique usually wins, at least in the medium term, a realistic and satiric literature that provides you the opportunity for a love-hate relationship with its rich-bitch antiheroines may be more cathartic and useful than a consolatory literature of the triumph of virtue. Just as gangsta rap’s brutality is defensible as an emotionally honest picture of the street, surely there’s a place for a nihilistic literature of the mall.
    Perhaps the review errs simply in conflating the books with the culture they depict. As Scott’s commentor lili points out, “there aint nothing in the GossipGirl books that you won’t find in the schoolyard.” Insofar as Wolf is speaking as an adult cultural critic and historian of that schoolyard, though, she may have a point. For kids who have to survive a schoolyard where “sorry, I don’t speak Slut” is a devastating rejoinder, science teachers have to sniff water bottles for vodka, and LooLoo clarifies of a pregnant sixth grader that “no, she wasn’t raped”, shrugging off the brutality of a sexualized, money-obsessed grade school is a necessary survival skill. For adults who don’t have to live it, but who might have more influence on it, moral indignation (if seasoned with a little humility) may be preferable to moral resignation.

  5. You know the whole time I was reading this I kept thinking that Naomi Wolf really needed to chill out. Honestly, I might be 20 years out of high school but I remember back in the day when you couldn’t even go into the girl’s bathroom because of the smoke and there were many many bitchy comments flying between classes, but no one ever heard someone say “I don’t speak Slut” and took it seriously.
    If someone was saying that crap, then I wasn’t listening to her.
    We were reading Harlequinn romances and passing them around like candy and we watched General Hospital with a near slavish devotion – and none of us were interested in getting raped on the dance floor one night and falling in love with our rapist the next (ala Luke and Laura), but we loved watching the drama!
    I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes we all read trash and sometimes we watch trash (desperate housewives anyone?) but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be scarred for life. And wouldn’t it be great if Ms. Wolf had devoted her valuable intellect and column space to some good books that teens might love to hear about instead of spouting off about titles that have already sold over a million copies?
    Do we realy even need to hear about this crap other than to make oursevles feel like a bunch of superior adults?
    I wrote about it all in my blog and yes, gave some thoughts on books I love. (And while Little Women is a treasured favorite, I thought it was a little old to be dragging into this discussion.)
    Jenny D is right – aren’t we ever allowed to just read something for fun anymore?

  6. When I was in junior high (’82 to ’85), the guilty pleasure reading was V.C. Andrews. Incest! Torture! Terrible family secrets! Angst! It was all there. The books were not exactly high on the “good for you” meter. And so far as I knew, no adult batted an eyelash.
    Heck, someone was passing around a pornographic book in my 7th grade class. (Never will I forget the lurid prose…. AWFUL.) And so far as I know, none of us were ruined by reading it secretly in the back of science class.
    Naomi doth protest too much.

  7. Benjamin: I read Naomi Wolf’s article (from beginning to end) in Newsday when the whole Harold Bloom brouhaha erupted. What revolted me as I read the article was the aura of Victorian missishness about her message: that women are delicate flowers who must be protected at all costs from the sexual depradations of evil, moustachio-twirling men. Such an attitude does nothing to advance the cause of feminism. Rather, in my opinion, is it a giant step backward. That may not be the message that came across in her book, but it was definitely present in her article. If she intended to convey the opposite, she failed. In fact, she failed so profoundly that I would not pick up a Naomi Wolf book now if you paid me. And yes, I’m cold.
    Colleen: I was right there with you reading Harlequins and watching General Hospital in high school. Books are not the cause of psychological dysfunction; genetics and childhood environment are.
    I am vehemently opposed to anything that smacks of censorship, even under the politically correct banner of re-education. The idea that girls learn to be hateful to each other from reading YA novels (or any novel) is ludicrous. From time to time, women are hateful to women, men are hateful to men, and women and men are hateful to each other. It is not a gender issue, but rather a human issue. You can no more train out the inclination to harm than you can breed it out.

  8. I didn’t follow the Wolf/Bloom thing all that closely (though I was more in her camp than against). However, I do think she still needs to answer for the Al Gore earth tone makeover. 🙂

  9. I missed the Newsday brouhaha, and I’m not big on Victorian missishness.
    At the same time, in the decontextualized world of the web, “Bear in mind, this is the woman who vomited on Harold Bloom and twenty years later accused him of sexual harassment” reads a lot like “disregard her, she is disgusting (for vomiting) and cowardly (for waiting twenty years) and, perhaps, overwrought (sexual harrasment? why do you have to make such a big deal about everything?)” — i.e. “sorry, I don’t speak Slut”.
    I expect that’s not what you meant — IRL, if I’d heard your tone of voice, that would undoubtedly have been clear. But nor did I feel like letting it slip by unremarked.
    Mind, I’m not accusing Bloom of anything — I have no data. I just think vomiting, being afraid to speak, and ultimately speaking, are natural reactions to sexual harassment.

  10. I agree with y’all that a premature yelp of “Parents! Do not let your kids read these books!”, is unwise; the guilty pleasures of trash have their place, and as I said above, “telling it like it is” is often preferable to “telling it like you think it should be”.
    ‘Parents, think about these books’ is not bad advice, though.
    (Colleen, they did actually devote column space to the “good” books, right? They listed eleven, including Scott’s Uglies.)
    No one is scarred for life by a book, and anatomically correct models of the penis in Sassy magazine surely do much more good than harm (and if you read Promiscuities, you’ll note that Wolf suggests that Japanese pillow books and the kama sutra should be added to the sex ed curriculum — she wants kids shown more sex, not less — just not exclusively heartless sex about status).
    Trash — and by “trash” I don’t mean “books about sex” but “books that think shallowly” — is fine: as catharsis, as fodder for irony, as a way of safely being naughty, I expect it’s very healthy.
    But on the other hand, I don’t buy that moral books don’t matter.
    Moral books are not books that scold you into good behavior. They are not books where the good are always rewarded — or even where the definition of good is clear cut. Moral books are, firstly, honest, and that means they are more likely to be banned from your library than trash books, however full of sex the trash books might be.
    Of course moral books are often also full of sex. I read Dahlgren at fourteen, and it was quite an eye-opener, believe me. It was packed with nonstandard sex practices, violence, social decay, and morally ambiguous characters. But it was a book that took seriously the people in the book and what happened to them; it tried its best not to lie about that.
    No, nobody dies from reading cotton-candy books with an incoherent or disinterested moral universe. But the converse is not true: people are sometiems saved by finding books that tell their story, that provide them with a moral universe they can believe in, that give them a place.
    These aren’t necessarily going to be the books of which the parents approve; the parents might yearn for the kids to stay safe and not grow up, the kids are about the severe and serious business of growing up.
    I think Dahlgren was the first piece of art I’d encountered in which sexually alive gay people were fully human; maybe the first in which objects of sexual desire, period, were fully human. I think I learned a lot of sexual ethics from Dahlgren.
    I also read Dancers of Gor around the same time. Man, that was hot.
    Were my humane sexual ethics shattered by John Norman? Was I turned into a leering cock-dominated rapist?
    No, I wasn’t. But it’s more in the matter of a missed opportunity. Gor was not a problem; only Gor would have been a problem.
    Would I have become a leering rapist if I had read only Gor (and, say, prim novels which never addressed those issues — The Mad Scientist’s Club or the Foundation series) and never found Dahlgren?
    No. I would have remained an ethical person. But I would have been a little sadder, a little less certain, probably a little more cowardly. .

  11. You know your right, they did list some good books – but they listed them, they didn’t get into a long discussion about new great fantasy or mysteries, or even historical fiction. What Wolf did was a big freak out and then there is a nice little list that is supposed to make us all feel some hope.
    What I want to see is the NYT (and other major media) give long, rich articles about YA authors and stories and not devote so much time to negativity – especially lame ass negativity.
    So yes, Benjamin, balanced reading is good. My point is that the balance is not served by Wolf’s article and if the NYT is going to print an essay like this, then they should also plan on interviewing Scott (and Justine) and give all these poor misguided young ladies (and their parents) a look at what else they could be reading.
    I mean isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing – writing about good books?!

  12. I’m with you 100% on that, Colleen.
    And, yes, if the NYT *only* has articles trashing cheap YA, and no glowing praise for great YA, that’s lame and counterproductive.
    That seems like more the NYT’s editors’ fault than Wolf’s, though — one heartfelt motherly “o tempora, o mores” complaint at teenage barbarity may be valid — a consistent pattern of them to the exclusion of any celebration of YA is evil.
    Of course, she does talk about stuff she likes — it’s just that none of it was written since 1950.
    Wolf does lose points with me by name-checking the movie Mean Girls without sufficient praise. That movie kicks ass.

  13. Hmm, on this: “the aura of Victorian missishness about her message: that women are delicate flowers who must be protected at all costs from the sexual depradations of evil, moustachio-twirling men” — I can’t find Newsday, but I did track down this — http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9932/ — where she says, “What Harold Bloom’s hand on his student’s thigh set off was not a sexual crisis. I was sexually active—and not even especially modest. An unwanted hand on a thigh from a date was nothing. Nor was it an emotional crisis. I wasn’t that vulnerable. What it set off was a moral crisis, shaking my confidence in the institution I was in…There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma…This victim construct in the law is one reason that women are often reluctant to go public. But sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal.”
    In other words, no one needs to protect women from sex. Institutions need to protect their lower-status members from being at the mercy of their higher-status members.
    Sexual harassment by a professor is akin to a professor extorting sums of money from a rich kid for good grades. In the latter case, no one asks “But why did you wear that Armani suit? Didn’t you know what appetites that might arouse?”

  14. Yes, yes, yes, Colleen.
    Also: Isn’t part of the attraction of these books the fact that parents wouldn’t necessarily approve of what’s in them? I always felt like I was getting away with something when I read “naughty” books as a kid and a teenager.
    And yes, Ben, on balanced reading — couldn’t agree more. I worry more about kids who don’t read at all though. Or is that not fair either? I dunno.

  15. Okay. Just for the record: Sexual harassment, bad.
    Also for the record: Shoveling it all up twenty years after the fact to sell a book, also bad.

  16. Yes Gwenda – the attraction is always about getting with something! I can’t be the only former teen who had certain pages of Judy Blume’s “Forever” practically memorized!
    You know Ben I had to laugh when Wolf brought up “Little Womem”. How out of touch can you be if that is the most recent book you can reference? If she even had any teen readers at that point, she lost them. Don’t get me wrong – I love Alcott – but really, do we have to reach back over 100 years to find a book to mention in the essay?
    Lameness people, the lady suffers from terminal lameness! ha!

  17. i have mixed feelings about this. the article is definitely totally prudish and alarmist, but i responded to some of the points she makes. what bugs me about gossip girl isn’t that they have sex or drink or whatever, but that they really don’t seem to be having any fun doing it. I think it reflects a certain strive-y joylessness that reminds me too much of my own high school experience in the halcyon LATE NINETIES. It may, in some ways, be an accurate reflection of the world, and I guess it’s satirical, too, but to me it’s just depressing that this is what passes for escapist these days.
    That said, Nomerz Wolf is definitely a total lunatic whom I put in the same category as Camille Paglia– except Camille seems like way more of a good time. I sort of love both of them. But then again, some days I love ANN COULTER, too.

  18. Okay. Just for the record: Sexual harassment, bad.
    Also for the record: Shoveling it all up twenty years after the fact to sell a book, also bad.

    Huh. So you’d feel exactly the same way about, say, grand auto theft? (Auto theft: bad. Dredging it up having had your car stolen twenty years later to sell a book: also bad?)

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