Violence, sex and ‘dark’ lit

School reading lists are full of violence, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a California law barring the sale of violent video games to minors on free-speech grounds. It starts with violent fairy tales, Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. In The Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. … And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.”

I wonder how many high school students read Homer or Dante.  Still Lord of the Flies is still big on high school reading lists (no sex) and some complain that teachers are assigning or allowing students to read “dark” novels.

Much of young-adult literature invites teenagers to wallow in ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty, writes Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, defending an earlier commentary.

It is true that so-called problem novels may be helpful to children in anguished circumstances. The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and “cutting” (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.

Siobhan Curious, who teaches 17- and 18-year-olds worried about going too dark in choosing a book list for a class on personal narrative.

When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.

Almost every girl and about half the boys put Lucky on their list.

. . . many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

Adolescence is a dark time for some kids, counters Linda Holmes on NPR blog. She “took an entire class in high school where we read books about killing your family, double suicide, drowning, being murdered in your bed … it was called ‘Shakespeare,’ I believe.”

I was troubled by the murder of MacDuff’s family in Macbeth, the tortures of sinners in The Inferno. And poor Piggy.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Well, since the classics are so dark, we don’t have to go to the current publishers’ crop of near-pulp. Forget them.
    So, get your dark on–seems to please some teachers–and get your classics at the same time. Two for one. Since we’re in a pinch for resources, I don’t see any conceivable objection.

  2. Come to think of it, most of what we read in high school lit class 25 years ago was pretty dark: “Alas, Babylon,” “Deliverance,” and Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.”
    Even some of the poetry: “A Dream Deferred” and “Richard Cory.”
    But it did expose us to a wide mix of good writing.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    You mean the atomic war “Alas, Babylon”? The Cold War was practically over by then. It was a lot cooler to read it when it was written.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There’s nothing wrong with teenagers reading crap.

    I read linear yards of hyper-sexualized, violent, prose plumbing the depths of human depravity and evil when I was a teenager. Indeed, there are some things I wish I could unread even now. But for the most part, I couldn’t get enough of it: learning how to deal with the nasty side of one’s nature is really important to developing into a responsible adult — particularly for boys, I think, because of our biological impulses to violence, but I might just be biased because of my own experiences.

    The important thing is that this was not all I read. I also read linear decameters of more or less substantial, entertaining fare that investigated the human condition in its less eerie aspects.

    The recently publicized concern about the “darkness” of literature that has been springing up in newspapers and columns is, I think, really only a concern because on some level we (that is, the authors of such pieces expressing concern) are worried that this dark, brooding stuff is all that teenagers are reading, when they read anything at all.

    Which might very well be true, and which is unfortunate. Tragedy by itself is an insufficient measure of the human condition. We need Comedy also. As Mr. Miyagi says, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.”

    Lord of the Flies and 1984 are great books — but you need some Pride and Prejudice to flesh out the human experience. Read The Gulag Archipelago, for it’s a great book. But also read Walden. Have some Les Miserables (which is actually quite an uplifting book) with your Lovely Bones (which isn’t).

    And yes, that means you have to read some real crap along with your sublime classics.

  5. Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, the Bible, etc. may contain violent themes but they are well-written unlike many of the contemporary YA novels. Few of them are going to stand the test of time and be considered “classics” 50+ years from now.

    There are so many literary classics out there from which to choose that I don’t think valuable class time ought to be wasted on crap.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Crimson Wife.
    I agree. But the fun of deflowering young minds, for pay, seems to overcome some folks. Classics, by definition, aren’t crap and so, dark or not, they won’t fill the bill.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In the time-honored tradition of nit-picking on people with whom one mostly agrees, and in the name of completely-off-topic digressions…

    The Bible is many things, and its many things in some ways because it’s got so many different authors. As a whole, I wouldn’t call “well-written”, though. It has its moments, to be sure, but a lot of its charm (and perceived merit for many) is actually nothing more than the novelty of the archaic pattern of its words (which comes through even in translation). Once you get used to reading that style of language — once you’ve read a lot of it and it stops seeming like something magical just because of the sentence structure, you realize that the actual content that is written on the page is oft tedious, oft repetitive, and oft boring.

    Most liberal use of “Thees” and “Thous”, and the widespread peppering of the text with words seldom found in the modern vocabulary (as well as the use of stylized constructions like “words seldom found”) do not of themselves good writing make, and substantial stretches of the Bible are marked less impressive once one has worked a proper discounting on that basis. Frankly, there’s a lot of straightforward history, rife with polemic moralising. (The Book of Ezra comes to mind, but there’s more.)

    On the other hand, there’s a certain simplicity and starkness to archaic writings that might actually be its own form of “good writing”, and which might make it something worth reading, if for no other reason than exposure to the different ways language can be employed. Back to Ezra:

    And they made proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem unto all the children of the captivity, that they should gather themselves together unto Jerusalem.

    Now I’ve been reading stuff like this so long that when I read it I just hear, essentially, “They told all the people listed in Chapter 2 to come to Jerusalem.” It’s not exactly what I consider “good writing”. But maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe learning to read sentences like that is a thing of its own worth, even if it isn’t particularly well-written.

    On yet the other hand, why read Ezra when you can read translations of Chretien de Troyes, whose writings really are excellent, even in translation, and yet deliver the same lessons?

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael Lopez.
    You’re aware we’re talking about kids reading in school, right? So, where’s the Bible come in?
    As for the proclamation sentence, it gives a sense of how far they had to go to get the word out. In your supposed shortening, they may as well have been telling a meeting.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Richard –

    (1) What I wrote was clearly a response to Crimson Wife’s mention of the Bible, to whom you replied without bringing up the supposedly unteachable-in-schools nature of the Bible. Why pick on me?

    (2) Objective, secular, Bible-as-literature courses are hardly unheard of. Sometimes they’re controversial — there was a little dust-up out here in California a few months ago, as I recall. But schools do it all the time.

  10. RIchard Aubreyq says:

    Michael. The Bible as lit is controversial. That’s putting it mildly, considering schools are always getting in trouble over the free expression clause. The board and super would have to be pretty brave to anticipate legal action from the usual suspects. So, although it’s not unheard of, the rarity makes it not likely to be a prospect, or even a suspect.
    I understand in CA, the Koran has a better chance.

  11. Of course The Odyssey and Inferno are still taught. We use novel sets, but they’re included in all the usual literature texts.

  12. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Personally, as a Catholic, I don’t read the King James Bible for devotional purposes.

    BUT I think portions of it should be taught in HS English— because it had a huge influence on the British and American Literary traditions. It’s nice to be able to see allusions when you come across them, and it’s important to see who authors are writing in response to.

  13. DM: King James excerpts are also in all the usual lit texts. Glencoe, Holt, Prentice-Hall, Bedford St. Martins are the major publishers.

  14. I grew up in the bluest of blue states (Massachusetts) and we read parts of the Hebrew Bible as literature in my 10th grade English class (the same year we read Gilgamesh and The Odyssey). The OT contains beautiful poetry (many of the Psalms, the Song of Solomon) and some great stories (like the Book of Job) regardless of whether or not the student accepts it as the Word of God. Is every chapter of the Bible well-written? No. But from a cultural literacy standpoint it is an important book and enough well-written parts can be found within it to include in literature classes.

  15. Cranberry says:

    There’s a difference between Shakespeare and first-person, contemporary YA victim-lit. I’d love my children to be required to read all extant plays from ancient Greece. Incest, murder, rape, cannibalism, it’s all there. Cool. Bring it on. I would not be happy to hear my kids were required to read “Lucky.”

    My middle schooler read Homer this year. It can be done, if the teacher’s willing to do it. The reading list suggested by the College Board for college-bound students does not include “Lucky”, or “The Kiss.”

    I’d much rather a teacher spend her time guiding my children through such works.

  16. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s hard to tell what will be an enduring classic until some amount of time has passed.

    Kids in the non-honors English classes used to read ‘relevant ‘ books when I was in high school. (Honors got Shakespeare and Sophocles.) These books included “Go Ask Alice”, a book that our middle-aged teachers remembered as a “classic” but which was really just pathetic.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure what teachers SHOULD be doing with the kids who can’t handle Homer and just want to read “Flowers in the Attic” instead. Would reading-level classics be better? If you assigned “Charlotte’s Web” would they feel demeaned? Or would it improve their reading?

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    Friend of mine is reading “Catcher in The Rye” for CC. Poor kid. That was a loser when it was written. “coming of age” to end up in the giggle emporium. Right.
    Who decreed that was a classic?
    IMO, some of these “classics” are declared so because the sheltered English professoriate thinks it makes them worldly people. Had an English prof like that. Genius in teaching composition, but got a different posture, stood straighter, chest out, when talking about Hemingway. Had never been more than three months, tops, from school since kindergarten, I imagine. Got to be some cockamamie reason for these “classics”.
    Plus, as I have mentioned before, there is a sneaking pleasure in deflowering young minds.

  18. Dierdre- the kids who can’t handle reading the original Homer could probably handle reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s excellent retellings Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus. That would provide cultural literacy benefits even if it isn’t quite the same thing as reading the original epics.

  19. J. D. Salinger says:

    Friend of mine is reading “Catcher in The Rye” for CC. Poor kid. That was a loser when it was written

    Oh, so now you’re an expert on literature too, eh? Is there anything you don’t know? Hard to tell any difference between you and the teacher you had who puffed his chest out when talking about Hemingway.