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The Fiction of Generation MTV

Stephen M. Lilienthal

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If you want to seek a measure of America's cultural decline review current fiction written for adolescents and teenagers.

Years ago adolescents read books such as the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries. The main characters were mature teenagers who endeavored to lead principled lives and who contributed to their communities. Books about wholesome characters such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys still exist but some fiction about teenagers in this Age of MTV might be more appropriate for The Playboy Channel.

Consider the The Gossip Girls series, read by many 13-year olds. Like Nancy Drew, the Gossip Girls come from privileged backgrounds. Unlike Ms. Drew, their values are shallow and they embrace unhealthy lifestyles. Not surprisingly, one website promotes the series with this purportedly complimentary tagline: "If Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City had a little sister, she would be a Gossip Girl."

School Library Journal describes the first book in the series: "Sex seems easy, no one worries about protection or consequences, the alcohol flows like water, and the language is raw."

The Gossip Girls is among a long and growing line of books written for younger teenagers, NBC News Correspondent Janet Shamlian noted when she interviewed Adolescent Psychiatrist John Sargent. There is the Rainbow Party, which involves oral sex. Claiming Georgia Tate is about incest. Teach Me discusses a teacher-student affair. Dr. Sargent told Shamlian that parents "buy [such books] thinking they're doing something nice for their kid, when, in fact, they have no clue what it is they're exposing their kid to."

Parents have good reason to be worried about purchasing such books for their teenage children. Some parents may rationalize that if they avoided buying the books their sons or daughters would read them anyway because school libraries have the books on their shelves. Other parents may rationalize that books such as The Gossip Girls are acceptable reading for their children, and therefore purchase or borrow them.

Parents should know what books are on the bookshelves in school libraries and should know they can protest the schools' collections of unacceptable books. Parents who decide such books are acceptable have the right to visit a bookstore or online bookseller to purchase them or to borrow them from a library. However, school libraries should not feel compelled to distribute books that reinforce undesirable activities such as underage drinking and teenage sex that the school and community want to curtail.

Parents should know the policies of their school libraries for distribution of inappropriate books. Parents have the right to make their views about distribution policies known to the community. Of course, merely seeking a policy requiring parental consent to let children borrow more provocative books from the school library could draw fervent opposition.

Several years ago The Chosen, a book by Chaim Potek, would have been considered acceptable reading for young teenagers. In The Chosen, a young Hassidic Jew, whose father is a respected rebbe of a strict Hasidic sect, struggled because his goal was to study psychology rather than to succeed his father. The book might have angered a few devout Jews but it was written in a respectful manner, certainly not meant to belittle the rebbe. The Chosen would be too challenging for many younger readers of the MTV Generation but it would be far more enriching.

There also is a challenge for other adults who dislike the salacious fare being foisted upon American teenagers. The author of Teach Me argues that his work moves its readers "to a higher level of maturity." Really? Isn't there a need for more values-oriented fiction to be placed on school bookshelves? Suppose a book were published about a teenager who resisted peer pressure to engage in the lifestyle of the Gossip Girls? The book could be as dramatic as The Gossip Girls but could stress choices that would lead to a stronger, more elevating conclusion.

Many believe in traditional values and that positive behavior and good character are the results of adhering to such values. Fortunately there is a market for popular books that emphasize traditional values and character-building. The theme of these books often is that there are adverse consequences for those who emulate the lives of characters such as the Gossip Girls. Characters that possess traditional values learn more self-control and achieve self-fulfillment by avoiding the lifestyle of the Gossip Girls.

Why not a series called The Values Girls? Instead of lives revolving around the superficial values of the Gossip Girls the characters in The Values Girls would try to live based upon Judeo-Christian values. They would face struggles in school and continually would be besieged by diminished standards and moral relativism. Sometimes they would face problems similar to those of their less values-oriented schoolmates. A comparison could be drawn as to how each group of girls attempted to solve its problems. The Values Girls could come from different religious backgrounds but have a common bond to seek truth. They could subdue temptation and at the conclusion of the book demonstrate greater resolve and character. Characters like the Gossip Girls would find themselves in deeper trouble.

There is no reason why a series like The Values Girls could not be published and find its way to bookstores and library shelves. Grant-making foundations concerned about societal norms could consider it productive to fund talented writers to develop teen literature about contemporary issues which would demonstrate how adherence to traditional values would help people lead better lives. The challenge would be to craft contemporary stories that would strike young readers as relevant and true, and neither avoid tough issues and nor read as lecturing or condescending.

Television programs, music and movies marketed to young teens long have glamorized unhealthy lifestyles and mocked conventional attitudes and values. At one time parents were content that their children read books by Jane Austen or Franklin W. Dixon, whose writing was wholesome and reflected solid values. Good books written for adolescents and teenagers continue to be available. Parents must look hard to find them. More important, parents must examine closely what their children are reading and learn whether those books comport with their family's most important values.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a policy analyst with the Free Congress Foundation.

Read this article on the Free Congress Foundation website (new window will open). Reprinting allowed.

Posted: 29-Aug-05

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