Teenage Wasteland

About five years ago, I wrote an essay than I never ended up publishing anywhere talking about how the rise in dystopian YA novels was a sign that kids were really f*cked up today. My theory was that teens preferred fictional dystopias to their realities.

How many kids read The Hunger Games and thought about the cut-throat world of college admissions? And saw their parents as the micro-managing and semi-evil as the rulers of the Capital? But instead of submitting to the system, the heroine blows it up and finds freedom.

I must have dozens of blog posts over the past few years about the stress, unhealthy world that we’ve given our kids. Here’s another article about the mental health issues that coming out of this disaster.

(I’m scavenging through the articles that came out last week and picking out the little tidbits that have some actual meat to them. I’ll post some random thoughts throughout the day.)

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26 thoughts on “Teenage Wasteland

  1. Yes, I remember noticing that to, dystopian novels, but dystopian novels not in which evil is battled but there is a meaningless, purportedly rule-based, but rigged game that bestows rewards but also sorts and divides you from others. You note Hunger Games, but there’s also Maze Runner, Divergent, Uglies, Battle Royale, Never Let Me Go, Ready Player One, . . . . Some of these were so game based that I found them unreadable (I read young adult fantasy, but my preference is stories in which they save the world from existential evil, not banal evil).

    Mind you, I think we run the historical risk, of thinking things are entirely different than they were before. Logans Run, the Ember Series, Ender’s Game predate Millennials & Gen Z but share similar themes.

    Nevertheless, I am worried. I see bruised and broken children too and some of them were so joyful as young people. Kid who were curious, creative, happy explorers. I once heard Tahanesi Coates speak at an education conference, and he said something along the lines of I was then who I am now, eager, open eyed, looking for learning, and the schools broke me. I patted myself on the back that my kids had not experienced that in their early schooling, and that the school hadn’t broken most. I am less sanguine about high schools; I hope the kids I know find themselves again.

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  2. “About five years ago, I wrote an essay than I never ended up publishing anywhere talking about how the rise in dystopian YA novels was a sign that kids were really f*cked up today. My theory was that teens preferred fictional dystopias to their realities.”

    Something to bear in mind is that a lot of the audience for YA is adults and it is overwhelmingly written by adults and (judging by Jesse Singal’s coverage of YA twitter), selfish, nasty, treacherous adults.

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  3. https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/279806/how-a-twitter-mob-destroyed-a-young-immigrant-female-authors-budding-career

    “Zhao’s troubles appeared to have started last week. But it’s impossible to comprehend her precipitous fall without understanding a little bit about the insular, frequently vicious world of “YA Twitter,” an online community composed of authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and readers that appears to skew significantly older than the actual readership for the popular genre of young adult fiction, which is roughly half teens and half adults. As Kat Rosenfield, a Tablet writer who is herself a published YA author, wrote in a deeply entertaining Vulture feature on “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter,” in the summer of 2017, “Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons—sometimes before anybody’s even read them.””

    “As is the case in many other areas of media, the competitive nature of YA publishing, and the limited, oftentimes rather winner-take-all nature of its financial rewards, mean that those who enter the field with significant resources already at their disposal often enjoy an unfair advantage.”

    Hence the love of Hunger Games-type scenarios!

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  4. Really? the evidence of YA SF novelists being “overwhelmingly written by . . . selfish, nasty, treacherous adults” is concerns about the portrayal of characters in a first novel by new author on twitter?

    Both the NY Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/31/books/amelie-wen-zhao-blood-heir-ya-author-pulls-debut-accusations-racism.html) & Slate (“https://slate.com/culture/2019/01/blood-heir-ya-book-twitter-controversy.html) have also covered the controversy. My take on the story is to believe what Zhao has written, that she wrote the book in her own cultural context and realized it would be read in another context. I think many hope that she is revising her book and that we will still see her work.

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    1. bj wrote,

      “Really? the evidence of YA SF novelists being “overwhelmingly written by . . . selfish, nasty, treacherous adults” is concerns about the portrayal of characters in a first novel by new author on twitter?”

      Sorry, I miswrote that.

      What I should have said is that the online YA community is pretty toxic, so it’s not surprising that that community produces a lot of dystopian, alienated and alienating dog-eat-dog stories.

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      1. Yes, online communities need watching, but, am far more concerned with the adults discussing violent nationalism than the young adults discussing books.

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      2. bj said,

        “Yes, online communities need watching, but, am far more concerned with the adults discussing violent nationalism than the young adults discussing books.”

        It’s not young adults–it’s grownup people who should know better who are sabotaging each other’s books and snuffing out the literary careers of rivals before their work ever hits the the bookshelves.

        This is a subset of the contemporary problem of people trying to get others fired for their political beliefs and otherwise wreck their lives, which is a big deal. Remember all the jerks who were trying to get the Covington kid who hadn’t even been in DC kicked out of his future college (a culinary school, too)?

        People need to learn to keep online stuff online, rather than reaching out and trying to destroy people in real life who don’t meet their purity standards.

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  5. The Tablet article, on the other had, doesn’t feel very nuanced, and instead feels like the use of a story to support a general complaint about “social justice warriors” and identity politics.

    I’d like to see an exercise — potentially answerable by you and Dave: the trajectory that leads you to these stories (and, am happy to do a similar exercise). I don’t follow YA SF twitter, so did not hear of this story of Zhao from there. I believe, thinking back, that I heard of it through an Asian-American group, in which I got a pretty nuanced discussion of the story (since Amelie Wen Zhao is Asian, and wrote/marketed with support of those working to increase diversity in the field).

    I’m guessing that you don’t regularly read the Tablet (but, maybe you do), so do you know what lead you there?

    I think these questions are important for us to ask ourselves because I think that one of the things I am realizing about the consumption of information on the internet is the ways in which we are lead to stories.

    Everyone is talking about it because of the massacre/terrorist act in New Zealand: MARCH 19, 2019 “More extremists are getting radicalized online. Whose responsibility is that?” on Marketplace Tech this morning, as an example

    “https://www.npr.org/podcasts/381443930/future-tense”

    And, I am not suggesting that any one group is prone to this skewing, but that the interactions between the internet and the brain’s tendency to look for reward, reinforcement, excitement, and confirmation might be leading us to more extremists viewpoints. Not a new argument applied to the population, but one that we need to apply to ourselves.

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    1. bj said:

      “I’d like to see an exercise — potentially answerable by you and Dave: the trajectory that leads you to these stories”

      I actually came to the YA stuff via Jesse Singal (as I mentioned earlier), who is a pretty progressive guy.

      Zhao is not the only example–Singal has a lot of stuff on online YA community weirdness. Here’s a non-Singal take on one of the stories he’s covered:

      https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html

      And I’d ask you the same question–what do you do to open up your world and make sure that you are getting a reasonable range of information points of view? I’m here and I read a lot of mainstream/liberal media–what conservative sites and conservative thinkers do you engage with?

      Not to be mean, but you have stated in the past that you are unwilling to be social with or live alongside people that you disagree with politically. Don’t you see that as being problematic in terms of ever discovering where you are wrong or uninformed or ever getting feedback as to how you are underestimating/misreading your fellow Americans?

      Back to the Zhao story, I strongly suspect that it’s a bad trilogy. BUT, I don’t think this process (censorship via social media mobbing and removing every potentially offensive detail) is ever going to generate great literature. Think about if the shoe were on the other foot. If a Catholic group were outraged about a book that was about to come out (that almost none of the group members had read), how would you feel if the author or the publisher yanked the book at the last minute and did the full Chinese Cultural Revolution self-criticism thing for having offended Catholics? Would that make you feel good about the process?

      “I’m guessing that you don’t regularly read the Tablet (but, maybe you do), so do you know what lead you there?”

      I’ve seen more pieces from them recently. I’ve been reading a lot of Jewish conservative twitter since 2016,

      “Everyone is talking about it because of the massacre/terrorist act in New Zealand”

      I’ve been thinking about that lately–that the internet and the world of facts (or “facts”) is just so big nowadays that people can find or create whatever reality that is most personally congenial to them. You never have to deal with ideas or facts that you don’t like if you don’t want to. I’ve been in some other discussions elsewhere about how taxing contemporary media/social media is on average people in terms of the need to sift unreliable sources of information (which unfortunately includes previously more reliable major media).

      I think you’d be very well-served to start following Seth Mandel on twitter.

      https://mobile.twitter.com/sethamandel

      He’s a good, fair guy, and it would do you a lot of good.

      I think it would also do you a lot of good to read Jonah Goldberg.

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      1. I’ll start by saying that I regularly drop in on Fox, Breitbart & RedState. I’ll admit that I never learn anything at Breitbart or Redstate except what other people are seeing. I also read the Wall Street Journal & the Economist. And, I am also trying harder to understand what lead me to a particular story because I think there is a very clear tendency to follow news sources that confirm our beliefs.

        Also, let’s be careful about the word censorship, a word that I believe the conservative mob uses very casually. To me it means preventing the dissemination of information by the government. A twitter mob of 15 year olds who cause an author to decide to reconsider her text is not censorship (and note, I am accepting the official information that it was her decision, based on her desire to tell her story in the way she wants it to be read).

        I have read Mandel & Goldberg, though not regularly.

        Don’t mind being challenged on my statements about not being willing to interact with Trump supporters — though that is not the same as people who disagree with me on political issues. There are a wide range of political issues on which I am comfortable debating. Interestingly I’ve just recently had to support my Trump supporter opposition in a way that shows my opposition has limits.

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    2. That’s an impossible exercise, given the algorithmic personalization of online search results.

      DuckDuckGo asked participants in the study to conduct identical searches at the same time. It found:

      Most participants saw results unique to them. These discrepancies could not be explained by changes in location, time, by being logged in to Google, or by Google testing algorithm changes to a small subset of users.
      On the first page of search results, Google included links for some participants that it did not include for others, even when logged out and in private browsing mode.
      Results within the news and videos infoboxes also varied significantly. Even though people searched at the same time, people were shown different sources, even after accounting for location.
      Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little filter bubble protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity most people expect. In fact, it’s simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble.

      https://betanews.com/2018/12/04/duckduckgo-study-google-search-personalization/

      I just ran my own test, comparing DuckDuckGo, Google and Bing in the same browser, with the same search terms, which were: “New Zealand Massacre,” “Vaccination,” “free speech,” “Microsoft,” and “Immigration.” Of the three, Google included more opinion (rather than reporting) pieces. DDG & Bing had more straight information in their search results, for me. DDG & Bing had more links to primary information sources, such as the CDC or USCIS. Of course, emotion hooks people. Adding a certain number of provocative links keeps people clicking.

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      1. Cranberry,

        That’s interesting.

        It’s certainly very obvious when I’m on youtube. I’m usually there doing bedtime unboxing videos (don’t judge me!) or craft videos for the kindergartner. Youtube has us all figured out–whatever we watch, youtube offers us lots more of.

        If other internet platforms work similarly (and it sounds like a lot of them do), you’re going to wind up getting inundated with whatever you choose a little bit of.

        (Side note: There are apparently people out there who let their preschoolers roam freely on youtube.)

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      2. It’s not impossible to try to remember why you ended up with a certain source (i.e. did you follow a tweet or re-tweet, did you read it here, did you click on a you tube suggestion, did it appear in your FB feed, etc? It’s the algorithms that have me worried. They are shaping your experience to what they think your prior history suggests, which is fun when it’s craft videos, but troublesome when it is news and information.

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  6. “And they live in this fishbowl with everybody else hiring tutors and coaches. To not participate in these activities, takes enormous courage and faith in the child.

    We didn’t do coach Jonah or review his papers or help him study for his history exams, in part because of lack of funds and principle, but also because he wouldn’t let us.”

    This is Laura, from “Cheating and Coaching, Part 3”, and, it is so true. I think that more parents (and children) make the choice to let their children be who they are. For some, that does involve intense participation in crew, and, yes, sometimes that leads to Harvard or Stanford or MIT, but in none of those cases do I think that parents were choosing those activities for the college. They did, however, have funds to spend with ease.

    The ones who are breaking are the ones whose parents are actually pushing them into the fishbowl or who have so internalized the values of the world around them that they have pushed themselves there. I get angry, though, when the press/etc. suggests that parents can solve this problem. They can try to avoid being the problem, but they can’t solve it, because the world intervenes.

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    1. Laura wrote, “And they live in this fishbowl with everybody else hiring tutors and coaches.”

      I haven’t really heard about that stuff in our area of TX, and we have a pretty privileged peer group via the kids’ private school (SO many professors’ doctors’ and dentists’ kids!).

      So far, neither of our older kids has needed any tutoring. They handle their school work pretty well by themselves at this point (11th and 8th grade) and our high school junior got a nearly perfect SAT with just a lot of home SAT workbook study. However, the junior has an 85 in her Intro to Calculus that I am not happy about, because I think she left some points on the table. But if she cracks 90 for her end of term grade, I’ll be OK with that (it should have been a 95, though). She doesn’t need a tutor. She just needs to do all of the homework and turn it in and do math in math class. She’s somehow carrying a 100 in AP Physics 2.

      On the other hand, it’s possible that our kindergartner will have different needs. In that case, we would get a tutor. But if we needed to do that now for the older kids, it would be a real sacrifice to find the money for it.

      We also may get the junior a Latin tutor for next year if her school doesn’t have a Latin course for her grade level, just to keep her skills fresh. (She’s in AP Latin right now.) I bet we could get somebody decent locally for $20-30 an hour for once a week, which would be OK.

      bj said,

      “I get angry, though, when the press/etc. suggests that parents can solve this problem. They can try to avoid being the problem, but they can’t solve it, because the world intervenes.”

      A lot depends on your parental peer group, which you may not have a lot of control over.

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  7. My children are not broken, and I give Laura a bit of the credit, because when I am tempted by those around me to go too far, I remember her comment about Jonah, that she can’t force him onto the treadmill without “breaking his essential spirit.” My kids are different (they are more willing to jump on the treadmill themselves), but, that’s the most important thing of all to me, that their spirits not be broken and they are principled, even when they are not being watched.

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  8. There is plenty of adolescent dysfunction in communities where the parents (and the schools) do not pressure kids for achievement and/or elite college aspirations. Social media alone, even without pressure from the adult world, can damage vulnerable children. My now-33 -year-old daughter says that she is glad there were no cell phones or Facebook when she was in middle school, because she and her friends would have been made miserable by them.

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  9. I just think publishing is always trying to reproduce the last hit book. The Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, 50 Shades of Gray, etc. Each of those series spawned many imitators, and the process is accelerated by Kindle Unlimited.

    I mean, I don’t think there are many more people wanting to experiment with the lifestyle depicted in 50 Shades than before its publication. It has influenced the romance genre, though, not for the better.

    An interesting new genre is the RPG genre. I noticed my children and their friends exporting computer game rules into their real world games years ago. It’s fascinating it’s reached fiction now. Search for “Lit-RPG” on Amazon to see examples.

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  10. I admit I don’t really pay much attention to what my son is reading, though he reads a lot. Mostly it looks like knock-offs of either Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or similar. Some of them now have cover art with definite hints of cleavage in the cover art.

    He’s also watching a load of history videos on YouTube. I do listen in there because I want to be sure he doesn’t watch Pewdiepie or whatever.

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      1. But you won’t be able to keep your kiddo away forever. My kids do the “get of my lawn” bit about the younger kids, the ones who grew with parents willing to hand them, or buy them, iphones.

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