Nothing To Hold On To
I read The Bunker Diary a few months ago. Since that time, I’ve probably read 40 books (hazard of the day job). I could probably have read 400 books and I still wouldn’t forget The Bunker Diary. I first heard about this book after I read a piece in the Guardian that compared it to John Fowles’ The Collector (though the Guardian claims TBD lacks The Collector’s humanism and poignancy) saying, “It is depressing both in its nature and its lack of redemption…” This book won the UK’s Carnegie Medal, and has been the source of a tremendous amount of debate over its worthiness ever since.
When a book hits a note like that with a reviewer or several reviewers, the first thing I must do is read it. To have elicited that sort of reaction usually means at the very least, it’s worth investigating. I have written before about how I’m not super interested as an author in making people comfortable. Some authors write books full of love and hope and wonderfulness; this is a valid and great thing. I edit many of these sorts of books for my day job, and yet, I would never want all the books in the world to be like this. As a reader, I would grow bored very quickly with the lack of depth resulting from a book selection limited to only those that entertain us or make us feel good.
My first two books don’t have happy endings. Sorry, not sorry. I’m not incapable of happy endings. I’m not incapable of offering hope. But in my core, I can’t seem to shake the hopelessness that plagued my high school years. I read books where rapists get caught or justice is served at the end, and I think: huh, that didn’t happen to me. I read books where a hot mess of a girl and a hot mess of a guy get together and their love saves them both, and I think: well shit, I must have done something wrong because I didn’t get saved and neither did he. And I start to wonder if maybe there are people in the world who feel/think like me. Who wonder why these books always seem to turn out so happily or hopeful when the shitshow of their lives is nothing like that.
We live in a dirty, depraved, unforgiving world. We live in a beautiful, tender, redemptive world too. It’s always going to be like this. The older my own kids get, the more I realize the value in providing them access to all sorts of books with all sorts of stories. Do I want my kids to be able to escape into a fun book? Yes. Do I also want my kids to sometimes learn about the world from books? Yes. Do I also want my kids to develop empathy and learn to ask questions about what they believe about themselves and the people around them? Absolutely.
Do I think this is all the responsibility of a fiction author? No. I really don’t. An author can be trying to do all sorts of things, teaching all sorts of lessons, hoping that their book will save a life. They may achieve things with their books that they never could have dreamed of, and yet, this to me is all gravy. We have one job as fiction writers: to tell a story.
I’m fascinated by the burden of responsibility that seems to fall on the shoulders of those of us who write for children. I’m not completely clear who decided on the rules about YA books, but there seems to be an insistence that if the books are going to be about difficult things, then they need to somehow “save”. I have long hesitated at this notion that YA Saves because I think it puts us in the position that we must then acknowledge that the opposite can be true too. That if we’re going to assert that YA books save lives, then we have to allow that they can damage people. And this power makes me very uncomfortable.
So when I read The Bunker Diary, I went in knowing that this was a “problem” book for some and tried to think like those people. Tried to figure out what about the hopelessness of this story would make me get all up in arms enough to want to keep it out of the hands of children. The book itself is raw and sparse and gorgeously written. It leeches at your emotional landscape with every page. It is a horrifying type of “No Exit” that pushes us to the point of not only examining the complicated dynamics of interpersonal relationships, but also examining truths of our world. But in the end, for all the emotions the story elicited in me, I didn’t step away thinking that this was a guidebook to morality/immorality or that it was a strong message book or anything else. And frankly, I think we’re better for not being spoon-fed answers or having everything wrapped up in a tight bow of satisfaction. We learn about ourselves and the world because we experience both the difficult and the beautiful.
I finished The Bunker Diary with questions about my own life. I didn’t think, “what would I do trapped in a box?”, I thought, “what am I going to do about my loneliness?” And there is value in that self-examination, but I don’t think authors should be held accountable if readers walk away from a book without that.
But Christa, you’re saying, isn’t it nice to offer a glimmer of hope?
Of course it is. Lots of people do that. But should this be a book mandate? Hell no. We don’t always get into the college we want. We don’t always make the team. We don’t always get asked to prom. When we pepper young adult books with this constant hopefulness without any recognition of the reality that there are shitty things that happen that we have no control over, we create a false expectation of everything turning out at the end of the half hour if you just work hard enough, fight hard enough, etc. Sure, it’s fiction, we can do that. But isn’t it more interesting to also have access to the fiction that doesn’t solve everything for us?
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