The end of great books is ethical — to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.
— Russell Kirk
I often find myself jolting back to reality, hands clenched and back cramped from hunching over, so intent on my book that I’d never thought to check the time. I love the thrill of a captivating story that pulls me in, drowning out all sense of the surrounding time and place. The ability to give readers this “oblivious to reality” feeling is undoubtedly the mark of well-crafted fiction, but that raises a serious question: When does a story take the reader too far emotionally?
Our culture is obsessed with emotional realism in its storytelling mediums and places strong emphasis on the sensory and the physical. This is why many contemporary authors, particularly in the chick-lit and young-adult genres, turn out hollow characters into which readers simply place themselves. These authors are writing emotions, not characters with emotions. Consider the Twilight series, The Hunger Games, and the Divergent series: All are filled with emotional intensity and drama centered on flat, one-dimensional characters. Young readers are constantly confronted with self-centered, self-absorbed emotion in book characters, and it limits their capacity for personal growth.
I began reflecting on this issue after I found myself tense and embarrassed while reading overly descriptive intimate moments and excessively dramatic suspense scenes in Rook, a recent YA novel that pulled liberally from my all-time favorite story, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Written about 100 years apart, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Rook follow a similar theme: masked vigilante saves innocents from a violent government. We watch Marguerite of Scarlet Pimpernel as she attempts to rescue her captured brother, struggles with hatred for her husband, a man she thought she loved, and longs to protect a masked man who brings freedom to a suffering people. I’ve read this book countless times, walking with Marguerite through joys, sorrows, escapes, and love, but I’ve always been a bystander, never attempting to place myself into the character of Marguerite and make the story about myself.
Sophie Bellamy of Rook is supposed to surprise readers by being the masked vigilante, a typical modern plot twist made dull by a culture that complains about literature’s supposed lack of female protagonists while finding new supposedly subversive ways to supply them. The similarities to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s plot are obvious, but Rook’s scope is narrower, hyper-focused on its main character, and its tone is decidedly juvenile. We follow Sophie through a confusing, fluctuating post-apocalyptic world, living her every moment and thought. The story manhandles the readers’ feelings by attempting to elicit in them every emotion Sophie feels.
To be clear: Emotion displayed by characters within stories is absolutely necessary, because readers should feel a sense of connection to the events. The key, however, is that emotion from the characters must be connected to some kind of character growth and development. Going further: Two primary goals of good children’s literature should be to form the moral imagination and to teach us how to grow up well. Look to Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, the first book that made me sob out loud. Learning to deal with life’s tragedy and joy in a healthy manner is vital, and Paterson’s book does a beautiful job of teaching the reader this. Her focus is relationships: their development and how to conduct them rightly. We as the readers walk through the story with the main character as he discovers the truth of meaningful relationships, the tragic loss of such a relationship, and then how to use relationship skills in moving forward with his life.
Paterson’s book is powerful, but let’s not stop here. Why should YA and early-adult literature be held to any lower standard than that of children’s books? If we instill strong moral character in children through their literature from early on, why would we not want to strengthen it as they mature and progress into adulthood?
“Good stories teach truths to the reader about the human condition,” writes Sabrina Arena Ferrisi in the National Catholic Register. Overly emotional, vapid books stunt spiritual growth as much as they do emotional growth. We as humans are fallen creatures but through grace are striving for heaven. The misguided authors of shallow books allow their readers to flounder in the mess of adolescent emotions, but never raise them above it. Young people today are desperate for a challenge wherein they can discover God, themselves, and others. They desire to grow up, but we must provide them with the tools to do it well.
Mother of seven and well-known Catholic author Leila Lawler writes about relating books to learning about society and culture. She is quite clear, however, that young readers don’t need to know every dark thing in order to make it to adulthood. “Reading certainly is about worldly education and being versed in culture,” she writes.
However, it is more deeply a study of the human character in relationship to the world. We have to let a good cultural formation — a wide familiarity with time-tested literature — take place in this development. It’s about letting others help us, including artists — to get the child to the other side (the other side here being a robust, moral, well-formed adulthood) — without necessarily having experienced all the things he ought to avoid.
This challenge of growing up well is inextricably linked to discussions of the moral imagination, a topic on which the philosopher Russell Kirk spoke and wrote masterfully: “Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness —that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things.” Putting everything in purely emotional terms limits our experience and depth of understanding, limiting our growth. Our lives are short, Kirk says, so if we are to “attain very well to enduring standards,” we shouldn’t rely on personal experiences. We should “turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience.”
In giving our children unprincipled, overly emotional literature, we teach them how to become stunted and short-sighted, unable even to reach for “normative knowledge” because they’ve no capacity to understand its importance. Reading only heavy, dull books, however, or demanding censorship — a dangerous and slippery slope of its own — is not the answer either. We as a culture must care about what we consume, and what we let our children consume, with respect to the written word. Feed them on the mighty deeds of heroes, the pure love of good mothers, the courage of ancestors, and the faith of children so that they may know how to live and how to live well.