June 8, 2005: Perspective
a challenging read
By Jodi Picoult van Leer ’87
Jodi Picoult van Leer ’87 is the best-selling author of 12 novels, including The Pact, My Sister’s Keeper, and Vanishing Acts. She and her husband, Tim van Leer ’86, live in Hanover, N.H., with their three children.
I am a member of a club that no author sets out to join. And although I have to admit that it’s quite a heady feeling being grouped with the likes of J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Katherine Paterson, and Toni Morrison, there is — unfortunately — a significant catch. We are writers whose books are routinely assigned in schools, and just as routinely challenged — by parents, school boards, and religious institutions who feel that our work is inappropriate for children.
My fifth novel, The Pact, published in 1998, is not a comfortable book. It’s about teen suicide and depression, and about the fact that parents don’t know their children as well as they think they do. Although it was not written for the young adult reader, over the years it developed a cult following among high school students. Those who have read it tell me it’s because the book tells of how teenagers think, whom they love, what they fear, what they hope. Shortly after publication, librarians started to put it on school shelves, and teachers began to include it on curriculum lists.
One of the first schools to do this was Keene High School in New Hampshire. Teachers there asked me to speak to their students, and the exchange was considered such a success that the invitation became an annual one. But two years ago, when I went to speak at Keene, it wasn’t business as usual. All my illusions of a perfect afternoon faded when a woman stood up in the middle of my reading, waved a copy of The Pact, and proclaimed, “This is smut and trash ... and I’m going to get it removed from the curriculum!” She pushed her way out of the room, leaving the rest of us stunned and speechless.
Nothing quite like this had ever happened to me before. As a writer, I was accustomed to putting my soul on the line as well as on the page, but there had always been a nice fat buffer zone between me and my readers — I had always been able to hide behind my book. This felt personal. My heart pounded; my hands shook. “If anyone feels at all uncomfortable, please feel free to leave,” I said, “but I’ve been asked here to do a job, and I’m going to finish it.” For one interminable moment, I held my breath. No one left.
When I opened the floor to questions, a Union Leader reporter in the front row nearly leaped out of his seat. “Can you comment on what just happened?”
“Well,” I replied, “personally, I don’t think my book is either smut or trash. But as a parent, I applaud that woman for getting involved in her child’s education. Off the top of my head, I can think of another widely taught piece of literature that portrays teenagers who have sex and commit suicide ... and I’m quite sure that if Romeo and Juliet is banned from Keene High School, William Shakespeare won’t come here to complain.”
That week, I became the northern New England poster girl for free speech. Even the Union Leader — traditionally a conservative newspaper — wrote two editorials in support of my book. Sales jumped.
Part of me was proud to take a stand for something I strongly believed in: an author’s right to have a thought- provoking, possibly controversial book admitted into a classroom. But another part of me began to doubt myself, to question what I had written — to wonder whether I should have written it at all. The truth is, I don’t write easy books. I cover issues such as domestic and sexual abuse, rape, euthanasia, infidelity — topics that are unsettling. My objective as a novelist is to take you for a breathless ride, and to make you rethink what you believe, and why.
What is eye-opening to one person is offensive to the next, and it is nearly impossible to draw that line, or determine who has the right to draw it. Long before Eminem’s lyrics were labeled with Parental Advisory stickers, Elvis Presley was admonished for shaking his hips on television screens in family living rooms. And 50 years before The Pact was considered questionable for kids, a psychiatrist named Frederick Wertham testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency about the language and content of comic books, and how they contributed to the decline of American youth. Someone is always monitoring what our children listen to, watch, and read — and you don’t have to look very far to see that this vigilance carries over into what’s allegedly appropriate for adults, too.
I don’t write about controversial issues because I like to be edgy. I write about them because, like my readers, I don’t have all the answers. When a moral or ethical question roots itself in my mind, I find myself thinking about what I’d do in that situation. I force myself to turn over every stone, consider the issue from every perspective. I find myself walking down roads that are often uncomfortable: talking to the parents of pediatric cancer patients, for example, who would move heaven and earth — not just stem cell research laws — to save their children; speaking to victims of sexual abuse, who cannot shake the memory years later; asking a battered wife why she still loves her husband; listening to a teen who has attempted suicide explain what the world looks like through her eyes. None of this is easy, but it opens my eyes, and I have every reason to believe that’s a good thing. For every uncomfortable parent who wanted to burn a copy of The Pact, there is a reader who has come up to me in tears to confide that he is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Just as different readers are attracted to different sorts of books — mysteries, romances, dramas — so, too, are different writers drawn to different kinds of books. While I can appreciate a good beach read as well as the next person, I also think there is a place in modern fiction for the sort of book that exercises one’s moral compass and asks questions that cannot — and maybe should not — be answered. For the record, I’m not the first commercial fiction writer to try to address social issues through the vehicle of fiction: Charles Dickens was a master of the technique. He realized that most people shy away from difficult issues, which is why nonfiction about these topics rarely attracts an audience. However, write a book with compelling characters and a driving plot, and readers won’t notice that a serious moral or ethical issue is being served up, too. They are swept along for the ride and wind up examining big questions almost by accident.
Recently, I have heard from three successful novelist friends who presented a synopsis of a future novel to editors. Each was met with “suggestions” to tweak the story: to change the main character from a woman in her 60s to one in her 30s; to make the writing less highbrow; to focus not on three generations of a family in California in the 1800s but on four ladies at a spa who talk about life, love, and their wayward children. When my friends asked why their publishers thought such changes would improve their stories, they were told that these would make them into books people wanted to read. As upsetting as this is, the editors may be right. In America, junk sells, and books that make you think are much more of a sales risk.
Call me an optimist, but I think that readers are far smarter and more unpredictable than most publishers think they are. Americans don’t like to be told what to read any more than I like being told what to write. Sooner or later the pendulum will swing, and creativity will triumph over uniformity.
How can I be so sure? Personal experience. There was Keene High School, after all, and the irate parent who wanted to ban The Pact. The subsequent decision of the school board rang loud and clear: Not only does Keene continue to teach that book, it has added two more of my novels to class reading lists.
It’s a heartening sign for an unorthodox writer.
A longer version of this essay appeared in the Washington Post on March 6.