“The canon” used to be The Phrase — the words no debate about what high schoolers ought to be reading could do without, the concept cultural conservatives and progressives competed to define, the idea that summer reading lists bowed down to or undermined. Nowadays, though, The Phrase most likely to come up during discussions of high schoolers’ required reading is “‘issues’ novels,” a gritty and/or simplistic strain of YA fiction first railed against in the NY Times one year ago and again attacked in Slate last Friday.
Contrary to what readers might expect (or what they might have expected if I hadn’t named the publications as the NYT and Slate), neither attack makes a bee-line for “issues” novels” sexually explicit passages. Neither relies on religious or conservative sentiments, either. Instead, “the real trouble with such issues-oriented contemporary fiction,” Slate‘s Ann Hulbert argues,
is that it encourages what you might call (in Jeanne Kirkpatrick style) literary equivalence: The genre, as teachers have discovered with the help of accompanying guides, lends itself to trendy and tidy didacticism. And so the books can end up as assigned reading for older kids precisely when these students deserve to be discovering the difference between real literature and the melodramatic fictional equivalent of an Afterschool Special.