Explaining Your Art to Warren

Barry Lyga had a brilliant response to the horrific Wall Street Journal article that was talked about all weekend. Granted there have been many, many responses to this article, and my own opinion is no different than anyone else’s. It was disgusting and offensive, and the WSJ’s sad attempt at salvaging what they printed was patronizing and unconvincing.

I didn’t want to read the WSJ article because I knew what my response would be. I’m sparing you that full response here because everything I want to say has already been said, and frankly I’d prefer to put this trash to rest. But Barry Lyga’s post reminded me of a simple quote from the underrated movie, Empire Records, after a kid named Warren asks why someone would glue quarters to the floor. Response: “I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.”

If you’ve never seen the movie, you do not need to know who Warren is to see the relevance this line has. Yes, it’s a silly little ’90s slacker movie, but this quote seems especially apropos. As Mr. Lyga says, he refuses to justify his art. And really, why should anyone?

Yes there was the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter this weekend and the many, many blog responses about how clueless the author of the article is. And clearly she is. While I don’t know her, I can picture her. She’s Tipper Gore senselessly fighting to ban 2 Live Crew. She’s the librarian in Small Town, USA who refuses to stock Laurie Halse Anderson. She’s the news anchor who asks whether Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine. She’s Reverend Lovejoy’s wife on The Simpsons who screams, what about the children??

She’s Warren.

She sees something she doesn’t understand, and when she doesn’t get a satisfying response, jumps to her own conclusions. Her opinions, though wrong, are forgiven. She, after all, did not publish that article in a national newspaper by herself.

While that’s all true, I have to remain on the side of Barry Lyga. Why bother? There will always be people like her, and there will always be people who get upset by people like her. Nobody needs to explain their art. No one needs to defend themselves. If you are a writer, all you need to do is write.

Yes, it is always difficult when someone – OK, a lot of people – demoralizes you, claims your work is inferior, refuses to see the good you do, and doesn’t understand your importance. The stigma that YA literature is somehow “less than” is hurtful and wrong and should stop immediately. But it won’t stop immediately. We need to show people the power of YA and its credibility as a genre. Books are powerful enough to do this, but it will take time.

If YA gets taken seriously, then maybe teenagers finally will too, and then maybe people won’t be as concerned about their precious virgin eyes and ears that need to be protected. But until then, all we can do as writers, and workers in the publishing industry, is produce stories that need to be told, hope the right people read them, and not let anyone else tell us we don’t belong.

To borrow another relevant quote from Empire Records, “Damn The Man.”

20 thoughts on “Explaining Your Art to Warren

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sarah! Beautifully said.

    As a teenage reader and writer, I appreciate that you take YA books and teenagers so seriously. I feel like there have been a lot of condescending articles concerting YA lit lately. I read this article yesterday (http://www.slate.com/id/2296056/) which upset me because it implied teen readers don't care about the quality of what they read.

    Anyway, the point is, I'm glad you understand! Thanks for sharing your opinion. 🙂


  2. @Scott – I appreciate the alternate view, and I agree that Ms. Gurdon was not calling for book banning. I also understand the desire to want to keep a child innocent for as long as possible. However, my argument with that is that teenagers aren't children. Imposing a desire to keep them “innocent” is more in the interest of parents who wish their sons or daughters were still children, and less in the interest of the teens themselves.


  3. I feel really embarrassed by all the verbally-violent reactions to that caring woman's (and mother's) article. When did the parental impulse to help children keep a little of their innocence a little longer become oppression?

    You seem to imply that because this woman wants to shield children from darkness, she is an Orwellian policewoman. I've got news for all those eager to write about the darkness of the world, in case you don't have children of your own that you're responsible for: there are ways to teach children about abuse and terrible things without showing it to them. A kid doesn't need to see a graphic rape/suicide/war in 3D with surround sound to understand that it's bad/should be avoided/can be recovered from. You can explain it to them in terms they'll understand, without forcing the full horror of it on them. Please do not participate in the active dismantling of innocence. Yes, some kids have already lost innocence and need help, but exposing them to more of their nightmares isn't helping them.

    Ms. Gurdon's article included a list of novels that show how to depict darkness realistically without describing in intimate detail just how horrible it is. Those novels are all much more successfull and helpful than the ones she cited in her article as damaging, and there's a reason for it.


  4. This is one of the best posts I've seen about the topic because you took the high road. If YA writers start defending themselves they've already lost half the battle by just responding to ignorance.

    Thanks for the mature reaction and the fun movie quotes! (I was considering submitting to you. Now I know I will.) 🙂


  5. Wow, I have such mixed feelings about this. I worked in the counseling field for years, first as a Social Worker, later as a Staff Psychologist, and always tried to tell everyone of every age that they could be anything they hoped to be in life, the Darkness be damned.

    On the one hand, I really, sincerely feel that the teens who succeed best in life are those who are offered opportunities to do anything they want to do in life, who have awesome mentors, and who really believe that they can meet the academic and real-world challenges offered to them. Many of them seem to be the teens who shun popular YA books and read, instead, the classics, along with BC Calculus (harder, more challenging than AP Calculus, which is already a college-level course for high school students), Organic Chemistry, AP Physics, AP English Literature…who, whether or not they have intensely troubling problems at home, have received and believe the message that, really, they can do anything they want to do in life…that they can come from the same degree of difficult circumstances as Clinton or Obama did, and become President of the United States of America…or they can work for NASA or become a successful writer like J. K. Rowling…truly, they can do anything they want to do in life. On the other hand, the #YAsaves discussion on Twitter has sparked a lot of feelings in me from my own teenaged years and shown me another side to the debate, and I’ve found myself returning to writing my own YA novel, SHADE, and for that I thank everyone who’s shown me another side of YA literature. This is probably the deepest, most character-driven novel I’ve ever written. I think discussion is best when it isn’t polarized, and I think that both sides of this debate have great merit.


  6. Haven't seen that movie in a while but I still shamelessly listen to the soundtrack.
    I love your response here. And I will second Josin.

    Also my husband worked on “child in need of aid cases” when he first finished law school and my guess is that a lot of YA books are toned down from their original stories, or are only a shadow of what could have been.


  7. The funny thing is that most YA books aren't at all like the ones described in the article. The other funny thing is that I still like to read YA because I don't like the smut in adult fiction. I guess you find what you're looking for.


  8. “We're both screwed. At least you're used to it.”

    An excellent point. While it really bothers me that this attitude is so casually displayed and not really explored by those who share it, it does warm my heart to know that it will not stop powerful YA from being written, published, and read. Damn the Man, indeed.


  9. I think the best possible response so far is that there are less than 40 comments on that article in support of what was written there, and after an hour on Twitter there were over 15,000 #YAsaves Tweets.


  10. I've been thinking of this for some time now. I generally consider teenagers as adults, not “young adults” at all. It seems that “adolescence” is a contrived intermediary psychological stage — public schooling and the legal system infantilize them so I think they “act the part” because they've been socialized to do so.

    I don't see a reason why teenager shouldn't be able to apprehend and contextualize the same things adults can, like books.


  11. Love the analogy Sarah! Great post! “Damn The Man” is right and I'll even take it a further step to say, “Damn the Wo-man”. Geesh. *runs off to work on edgy, dark, gritty novel* muwahahaha


  12. I've been thinking about this movie all weekend, before the article, and now I really want to watch it again because underrated slacker movies, like the books we love, have as much merit as we give them. I'd like to damn the man who tries to take either, but in the end, I feel sorry for what he's missing out on.

    P.S. I've found your blog really helpful for all sorts of publishing related topics. Thanks!


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