Recently I picked up the latest Jodi Picoult novel, The Storyteller. I actually am not much of a Picoult fan, but I find her books reasonably compelling–something decent to whip through in a day. the real problem i have is that Picoult always saves One Big Twist, and once you’ve read a couple of her books you can guess the twist.
But anyway, I liked this new book much more than I’ve liked any of her more recent books. (SPOILERS)
i’m going to ignore the parts that felt much more typical–girl meets boy etc, quarterlife crisis, blah blah blah). the part that i felt was an interesting choice on Picoult’s part was to use some of the chapters in a first-world account of being a Nazi. I found this part incredibly compelling. Gut wrenching and rage making and also compelling. There’s also a narrative of a camp survivor, which was exactly as horrifying and depressing and soul-crushing as you expect. Picoult clearly did her research, and there were details in both of these narratives that I certainly was unaware of. So it was certainly not the sort of light reading I associate with Picoult. It was, instead, well….draining. But I want to say that I really respect Picoult for writing such a book. It’s true taht WWII has been written about a lot, but equally true that there are still Holocaust deniers out there, and quite honestly I think it’s a good idea for popular fiction to include descriptions of this atrocity.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a much different book, told entirely through letters–a concept I often dislike–and it is much lighter. Quite honestly it was a relief. Ever since I read the two books I have been super into WWII, and I listened to some podcasts and a book on tape and now I am watching a documentary, and after this this is going to have be it for me for awhile.
I remain fascinated by the complicity of everyday Germans–SS soldiers and citizens–in the wholesale massacre of other human beings. I think this is the part of the Holocaust that we all find fascinating and terrifying, because it gets to the very fundamental question of humanity. As I was reading especially the narrative “by a Nazi” in Picoult’s book I kept thinking that the asshole should just say NO for gods sake, stop being such a horrible person, etc etc. I wish that I could say that I know for sure that I would not have participated. But I can’t know that. I don’t think anyone can. I suppose I am as sure as I could be that I wouldn’t have participated–but I also know that it is impossible to say that completely. You never know, outside of context, what anyone will do. You cannot. I think that is part of what leaves the Holocaust so full of ongoing mystery. It is so frustrating to listen to the news on any given day and here about the other mass murders still happening; and yet, sometimes it seems as though isolationism vs interventionism will never be resolved. There is a huge part of me that believes firmly that it is totally unethical to just stand by, and for that reason alone Roosevelt will never be a good President to me. And yet we have seen evidence that outside intervention sometimes makes things worse.
Well. I think what we are learning is that I clearly do not have any good, clear answers. Basically, sometimes people are evil, and sometimes people are complicit in atrocities, and sometimes the rest of us have no good options.
SHERMAN ALEXIE I LOVE YOU: “And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”
So the Wall Street Journal has published a really irresponsible article attacking young adult literature. I’m not even going to link to it, that’s how absurd the article/editorial is. It’s basic claim is that YA books are too intense and have too much trauma. Apparently, books discussing self-harm will spread the idea; books including “foul” language are somehow bad for kids; violence is obviously a no no, and etc. To which I say: balderdash. Or, to use a non YA safe term, bullfuckingshit.
The piece makes the assumption that teenagers only experience trauma through books. This is patently absurd. And even for teens who are basically happy, healthy and well adjusted, there is still trauma. Being a teenager is hard. It can be really, really hard, or it can be somewhat less hard, but it is always hard. Reading helps teens much as it helps children: it articulates things they cannot yet put into words. Hell, books do the same thing for adults.
Are their YA books I hate? Sure. I cannot stand Twilight: I think it’s abstinence porn message is anti feminist and, unexamined, dangerous for young women. Are there books for teens–just as there are books for adults–that are tawdry and cheap? Of course. But I don’t buy the argument that books normalize behavior: I doubt that anyone who reads a book about self-harm suddenly think it is okay. Now, descriptive scenes about anything can be triggering, sure. But that’s no reason not to write them.
Books save. YA books hit kids at exactly the right moment, and they can really save. A great deal of my worldview comes from books, and especially YA books. To claim that books are bad and censorship is good is patently absurd. There are books I wouldn’t give to a second grader, for sure, but by the time they are high schoolers kids have learned enough to know what they can and cannot handle. We don’t trust children nearly enough: we feel that they can handle the pressures of insane school schedules or sports or whatever, but that they cannot handle READING about trauma.
Also, why are we even talking about this now? Surely Flowers in the Attic was more fucked up than anything teens read today.