Spring had slipped underneath my eyelids and soon enough, the first brisk notes of summer sang through the window. Along with sunshine that felt new and clean, almost naked, came deadlines. I scrambled to put together a research proposal about sexual assault in young adult literature. My professor suggested bringing the draft to the MIT Writing and Communication Center for proofreading, so one Thursday afternoon, the day before the proposal was due, I found myself wandering inside an unfamiliar building with sharp edges and crisp corners.
The writing advisor sat me down and we went through my proposal line by line. One sentence, near the end, gave her pause.
“This book,” I had written, “may be dangerous because it perpetuates the idea that victims are ruined forever and are forever defined by what happened to them.” The book in question depicts a heroine who commits suicide after being raped. The implication, it seemed to me, was that her life was both psychologically and physiologically over after the assault. It was an implication I despised.
“What do you mean by this? Are you saying this book shouldn’t be written?” she asked, peering at me over the top of her spectacles.
I immediately jumped to explain myself. “I mean, I’m saying that this book--well, I mean, of course, I don’t support censorship of any kind, I think the author can write whatever book she wants--but that doesn’t mean it’s a good book--” I was immediately reminded of For Such a Time by Kate Breslin, a romance novel that received significant backlash for glamorizing a relationship between a Jewish heroine and a Nazi concentration camp guard. “--like, there was this Nazi romance book, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been published, but it’s not a good book...”
“What you’re describing is censorship,” she said. “Fellowship committees won’t approve of anything that purports censorship of any sort.”
I crossed out the sentence.
Later, I left the writing center wondering about the responsibilities of literature. As a young child, I was first drawn to fiction because it was an easy form of escapism. I could slide inside the words and temporarily adopt a new emotional reality, a world bigger and more linear than my own. In elementary school, most of the books I read were compelling stories, but not particularly realistic depictions of actual life. There were clear-cut villains and heroes. Motives were simple enough to be succinctly summed up in one sentence. Character arcs unfurled neatly.
As I got older, I began looking to literature for guidance. I could only aspire to attain Harry’s bravery, Hermione’s wit, and Ron’s loyalty. If even the best of protagonists lied to their parents on occasion, surely it wasn’t that bad if I did as well.
In high school, I began reading literary criticism. Online, thinkpieces disparaging marginalization in young adult books abound. It seemed like so many of my childhood favorites were problematic--Twilight promoted unhealthy relationships, Harry Potter was wrung dry of diversity. By pushing these novels onto vulnerable, impressionable adolescents, were the authors encouraging problematic messages to permeate and fester inside their readers? Is it a writer’s responsibility to ensure that their books don’t cultivate potentially dangerous or discriminatory ideas?
I haven’t yet arrived at any tangible conclusions. But I do know this: the world of fiction is too vast to rein into any singular interpretation. Literature is constantly in motion, and that is what makes it so necessary.
Rona Wang is eighteen years old and a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has won five national medals from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her writing can be found in The Best Teen Writing of 2016 and 2014, The Sierra Nevada Review and The Adroit Journal.