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Mind Meld Make-Up Test: Orson Scott Card on Young Adult Fiction

Here’s Orson Scott Card’s response to last week’s Mind Meld on young adult sf/f fiction, which was received after the post was published:

Q: It seems that more and more, fiction marketed as “Young Adult” deals with mature themes. Has it crossed a line? Is young adult sf/f is too explicit?
Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. Card also writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

It seems to me that if YA writers want to write about adult stuff, they should change category. Nothing stops young readers from following them into the adult shelves. When the YA label is placed on a book, it’s a promise to parents, teachers, and librarians that certain standards are being adhered to.

This is not a trivial matter. There is genuine damage to some young readers from being exposed too early to sexual or overly violent material. Other young readers seem to be unharmed. But the writer is in no position to judge the maturity of each reader. That is up to parents, teachers, and librarians – and part of the information they use is the YA label.

When you put out a book with “adult” content under a YA label, you’re not a hero of artistic liberty, you’re a liar and a cheat. You want to keep getting the same income by pretending your writing belongs in a category that you have left behind.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

29 Comments on Mind Meld Make-Up Test: Orson Scott Card on Young Adult Fiction

  1. This from the guy who wrote a book in which a pre-teen kills someone that bullies him and then breaks someone else’s arm in order to make it clear nobody is to mess with him?

    I seem to remember that his preface to my edition of Ender’s Game was nothing BUT Card bragging about how much kids liked the book.

    So if someone is a liar and a cheat if he includes “adult themes” in a book aimed at young adults, what does one make of a man who writes a book with incredible levels of school-yard violence, brags about how his work has inspired young adults and then insults people who do… well… pretty much exactly the same thing?

  2. *nods*

    I was going to say hypocritical homophobe but it’s not like the two states are inconsistent. In fact, a number of people seem to have made fortunes out of it 🙁

  3. Joe Iriarte // March 19, 2008 at 7:05 pm //

    Be fair. First, Ender’s Game was not originally packaged as a YA novel. Second, believing that homosexuality is a sin does not make one a homophobe. And, you know, Card’s alleged homophobia is irrelevant to the topic, so bringing it up is a pretty pure example of an ad hominem attack.

  4. YA fiction didn’t exist when Ender’s Game came out.

    Thinking that homosexuality is a sin makes you a fool, thinking that gay people should be thrown into jail as an example to others makes you a homophobe.

    And yes, it was an ad hominem.

  5. Donna Scott // March 20, 2008 at 3:30 am //

    Absolutely agree with you Jonathan!

    Besides which, Mr. Card should realise there’s an A in YA, modified though it is by the Y…

  6. I am glad Mr. Card is speaking the truth to such a close-minded, hostile, infantile audience. I applaud him for being out of step with the other authors who answered this question, who shrugged off their responsibilities toward their readers with a plethora of meaningless pieties.

    I see from his responses that, some of you, at least, are not man enough to address his comments. Ad Hominem is not just an informal logical error; it is also cowardice, shameful cowardice. You should apologize.

    John C. Wright

  7. The charge laid at Card’s door is not that he’s wrong, it’s that he’s a hypocrite. He’s boasted about how popular Ender’s Game is with kids, he’s even accepted awards on that basis. Ender’s Game features a pre-teen who kills his bully and then breaks the arm of another child in order to make it clear that nobody is to mess with him. And I’m glossing over the other unpleasantness in Ender’s Game.

    Card then says :

    “There is genuine damage to some young readers from being exposed too early to sexual or overly violent material.”


    “When you put out a book with “adult” content under a YA label, you’re not a hero of artistic liberty, you’re a liar and a cheat”

    Now while Ender’s Game pre-dates the use of the term YA, he has accepted a prize for his writing from YALSA, the YOUNG ADULT Library Services Association. He could have pointed out to YALSA that an award from librarians who concentrate on young adults would not have been appropriate as his books contain violence and were not aimed at Young Adults, but instead Card accepted the award and the “young adult friendly” stamp of approval that went with it.

    So, to recap, Card calls people who puts violence in books read by young adults “liars and cheats” despite the fact that his books contain violence and are read by young adults… something that he is proud of to the point of mentioning in the prefaces of his books AND accepting awards from young adult-oriented library associations.

    I can’t see how that doesn’t make him an utter hypocrite.

    An Ad hominem argument is an informal fallacy when one uses it to make a point. “Orson Scott Card is wrong about YA because he’s a homophobe” would be an example of a fallacious argument. But I wasn’t presenting an argument so much as stating a fact; Orson Scott Card is homophobic.

    It was a cheap shot and orthogonal to the discussion admittedly, as was the question of wealth, but I see no reason for apologising until Card apologises to the gay people he thinks should be thrown in prison as an example to others.

  8. Gregor Eisenhorn // March 20, 2008 at 2:24 pm //

    Except that he *doesn’t* think they should be thrown in jail.

    Thinking something is a sin is not the same thing as thinking it should be a jailable offense. I think lying is a sin. I don’t think that liars should be thrown in jail.

  9. Thinking that the belief in the existence of sin is a moral imperfection makes one a fool, thinking that fools should be shunned makes you a hypocrite.

  10. Joe Iriarte // March 20, 2008 at 5:17 pm //

    OSC’s stance is a bit more nuanced and complex. According to the article Jonathan is doubtlessly referencing, he doesn’t believe that practicing homosexuals should be thrown in jail, in general. What he does believe is that antisodomy laws should remain on the books when they have been legislated into place and not be overturned by appellate courts. He believes (as I recall) that such laws express the disapproval of homosexuality by the communities that have passed them, and that they should remain on the books but be generally unenforced, simply to send the message that homosexuality is not considered acceptable. In connection with this, he believes homosexuals should be discreet in their love and sexuality. The laws are basically to enforce discretion, not heterosexuality. I don’t think he’s necessarily saying they need to stay in the closet about their status, but something along the lines of “don’t ask don’t tell.” So yeah, he really does, according to his op-ed pieces, favor keeping laws against homosexuality, but no, he doesn’t argue for putting gays in jail.

    We could certainly debate the merits of this position, along with the position that homosexuality is a sin, and that position that only a fool could possibly believe that homosexuality is a sin. But then we wouldn’t be talking about the original question, whether YA science fiction is becoming increasingly graphic, and whether that’s a bad thing. I think shifting the debate into the topic of homosexuality is a bad choice, personally. It’s one of those topics that many people seem incapable of reasonable discourse about, for one thing. For another, when I followed a link to this website last week or so, I thought this was a site about science fiction, not about religion and morality. I personally would much rather see the merits of Card’s answer discussed than whether or not he is a hypocrite. Discussions of science fiction interest me. I’ve seen plenty of debates about homosexuality, and as a general rule, they suck.

    People keep saying that when Ender’s Game came out, there was no YA category. I’m not sure that’s right. I was fourteen when the novel came out, IIRC, and I’m pretty sure I remember reading YA novels, in school if nothing else, when I was a young adult.

  11. “I can’t see how that doesn’t make him an utter hypocrite.”

    Well, it would be hypocritical if he said that any violent material in young adult books was too explicit. The key word in his statement is “overly”.

  12. Gregor — Card says : “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”

    In other words, throw the odd queer in jail, it’ll send a message to the rest of them. He may well believe homosexuality is a sin, but he also believes in the use of temporal powers to keep sinners like homosexuals in line.

    Chris — Sorry… I don’t follow your line or argument. I don’t believe in sin, I think that anyone who believes that homosexuality is immoral is a fool, I think fools should be shunned. I fail to see any hypocrisy or logical inconsistency there.

    As for the use of the word “overly”, how much more violent can you get than having one pre-teen kid kill another for bullying him and then break another one’s arm to send a message to the other kids not to mess with him? Or does “overly” just mean all violent books that aren’t written by him?

    Joe — You are correct that that is his position, but at the end of the day he thinks the state should use its power to enforce heteronormativity by randomly persecuting people for being gay. The fact that he only thinks the occasional gay person should be thrown in jail rather than all of them really doesn’t make that much of a difference.

    As for the morality of his views; fine… but he played the morality card in calling other people liars and cheats. If he doesn’t want his ethics picked over then he should refrain from calling into question the ethics of others, especially when he so obviously fails to live by those moral judgments himself.

  13. Joe Iriarte // March 20, 2008 at 8:51 pm //

    We agree on at least one thing. Card was out of line in assuming that the only reasons people would write books with what he considers to be too much explicit violence and sex are because they are either liars or cheats. I dislike his unfortunate tendency, in his rhetoric, to paint those he disagrees with in the most evil possible light–much as I object to you doing the same in this discussion.

  14. “believing that homosexuality is a sin does not make one a homophobe.”

    Believing that homosexuality is a sin makes one a barbarian, plain and simple. Believing that homosexuality is a sin means you do not deserve nor are you fit to live in a civilised society (though said civilised society will of course have to put up with you, as it puts up with the racists, the mysogynists and all the other hate-filled ethical retards the rest of us are burdened with)

  15. Joe Iriarte // March 26, 2008 at 12:22 pm //

    Do you find that approach wins many converts over to your side?

  16. Approach? Convert? Side?

    Joe, you are under many, many misapprehensions here.

    1) I’m not gay, so I have no “side” to speak of in this matter.

    2) As far as I’m aware, you cannot “convert” someone to homosexuality (or from it, for that matter, despite the shrill insistence of fundamentalist bigots to the contrary).

    3) This is not an “approach”, it’s a (carefully considered) opinion. I couldn’t care less whether you, Orson Scott Card or anybody else finds it palatable, any more than I care that the Ku Klux Klan are unlikely to endorse my opinions about racial equality. This is simply something that needed to be said in this conversation, and I have said it. You may make of it what you will.

  17. Joe Iriarte // March 26, 2008 at 10:05 pm //

    :-$ Your side of the argument. Do you convince many people of the rightness of your views by calling them barbarians, unfit to live in civilized society?


  18. What I find, Joe, is that barbarians, by definition, are not very amenable to reasoned discourse or rational debate (if they were, they wouldn’t believe in such demonstrably ridiculous concepts as “sin”, nor victimise other human beings on the basis of skin colour, sex or consenting sexual preference).

    You cannot “win over” or “convince” a barbarian – you just have to police them as best you can, keep an eye on them and see that they don’t cause too much damage to the fabric of civilised society. You put up with them within those bounds, and you hope that eventually they’ll go away and that their children, if they have any, will grow up to be a bit more enlightened.

    Of course, it can be frustrating, this extending of tolerance to those who show no sign of grasping the concept themselves, but in the end that is how we define ourselves as civilised, that is how we demonstrate our ethical superiority to the barbarian model. It’s a tough brief, but there it is.

  19. Joe Iriarte // March 27, 2008 at 10:49 am //

    I guess, in the absence of evidence, I’ll have to take your word for it that you are capable of reasoned discourse or rational debate.

    For myself, I’m a lot less loose with bigoted phrases such as “barbarian,” and I find that when I treat even the views I disagree with with respect, sometimes people do come around and begin considering the possibility that the people they disagree with have come to their conclusions not because they are evil or stupid but for other reasons, and they, sometimes, begin to consider those reasons. I have seen people become more open to ideas they found challenging in this manner. I’ve seen it a lot, in fact.

    But I believe that calling people barbarians, fools, or uncivilized is the antithesis of reasoned discourse and rational debate, and it pretty much closes the door to any sort of meaningful conversation. I object to it when people on either side of a debate descend into insults instead of rationalism, as I have already demonstrated in this thread. I think the world would be a better place if we would approach disagreements, and those who disagree with us, with respect for their humanity, their intelligence, and their decency.

    Civilized, decent, intelligent people can come to conclusions I disagree vehemently with. If I trust that they are civilized, decent, and intelligent people, I can engage them in dialogue. I can listen respectfully and thoughtfully to why they think I am wrong, and hopefully they will return the favor. I might not change anybody’s mind on the issues we discuss, but at the very least perhaps I can demonstrate the decency of the people who agree with me, through decent behavior.

    What a shame you hold your rhetoric in such low esteem, that you can explicitly state that it is not a worthwhile effort for you to go through the trouble to treat someone who disagrees with you like a civilized, rational human being. You seem like an intelligent person; I think you can do better.

  20. Wow – not just a barbarian, a POMPOUS barbarian to boot.

    Or maybe not, maybe just straightforward pompous; truth is, Joe, you’ve been rather slippery about what it is that you do personally believe on the subject of homosexuality and sin.

    Tell you what – I’ll do you a deal. I wouldn’t ordinarily engage on something like this, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Could be I’ve got you all wrong. Why don’t you lay out here exactly what you believe by answering these questions:

    1) Do you believe in “sin”? If so, what do you understand by the term? What rational evidence can you advance to support this as a meaningful social descriptor?

    2) Assuming an affirmative answer to (1) above, do you believe homosexuality to be one of these “sins”? What rational evidence can you advance to support this inclusion?

    3) Assuming an affirmative answer to (2) above, what legal and social measures do you think should be taken to underline the “sinful” nature of homosexual acts?

    We will then know whether or not you deserve the epithet (and believe me I intend it not as an insult but as a coldly functional and purely descriptive term, a kind of hazard warning if you like) barbarian.

  21. Joe Iriarte // March 27, 2008 at 4:02 pm //

    I have not commented on my beliefs because they are irrelevant to the topic: whether Young Adult science fiction sometimes crosses a line and becomes too explicit. (Remember?) I objected to the introduction of the topic of homosexuality and Card’s views on homosexuality on the grounds that they were irrelevant, and I objected to the use of ad hominem attacks against Card’s religious views as a substitute for addressing his take on the issue. This is not being “slippery.” What a ridiculous phrasing.

    I am uninterested in entertaining you with in-dept answers to your questions about my beliefs because my beliefs about sin, God, and homosexuality continue to be irrelevant to the stated topic, and because you have already stated that you are asking as a prelude to continued insulting of me, just as, as far as I can tell, you insult everyone who disagrees with you on anything. Suffice it to say that the assumptions you have clearly held throughout this discussion about my views on sin, homosexuality, and legislation are erroneous ones.

    If you are interested in my beliefs about the Young Adult label or in my beliefs about how civilized people actually behave toward each other, though, I have elaborated on both on this site already.

    I am still waiting to see evidence that you are capable of disagreeing with people without insulting them. Thus far you have insulted Card because you disagree with his religious beliefs, and you have insulted me because you disagree with my views of what constitutes polite discourse. I disagree with your views on what constitutes “civilized,” incidentally, because by my definition, your behavior is a counter-example. Again, I am of the belief that civilization will progress best if people give each other credit for good intentions. Your expressed belief seems to be that people who don’t hold all of the “right” beliefs are not worth talking to, unless it is to insult them.

  22. yeah, yeah, yeah…..same old story……let’s have a rational debate – until time comes to actually lay out your rational arguments, and then surprise, surprise, wriggle, wriggle, there’s suddenly a stack of excuses why we can’t do that.

    Like I said above, some people just aren’t amenable to reasoned discourse. Looks like you’re one of them after all, Joe. (But I can’t say I’m really surprised.)

    Let’s recap. I did not join this thread to talk about either YA SF or Orson Scott Card, neither of which really interest me. I joined the thread because it had veered into the area of anti-gay bigotry and I offered a straightforward opinion on that bigotry. That is the point on which you took issue with me, and that has been the point of our exchange. We are not taking about YA SF anymore, as you well know. You protested at my stance, you talked up the joys of reasoned discourse and rational debate. I have offered you that rational debate, and your response is to run and hide.

    You’ve been called, son – and you were bluffing all along. I rest my case.

  23. Joe Iriarte // March 27, 2008 at 8:23 pm //


    What a pile of manure.

    I have never suggested I wanted to debate any of those things. On the contrary, I have said from the beginning that we should be staying off of that irrelevant topic. It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject under discussion. And again, I’ll reiterate that your assumptions about what I believe are wrong. The only thing I’ve communicated to you is not a desire to discuss homosexuality, but a desire that you should behave like a civilized person, not use bigoted epithets, and, if you must discuss homosexuality, discuss it with good intentions. You have demonstrated since your first post in this thread that you are not here to discuss anything in good faith, but to insult people who don’t agree with you on every single thing.

    I suppose you also believe that people who believe in discussions with mutual respect and without gratuitous insults are barbarians not worth spending your time on.

  24. While I am sure somebody somewhere is enjoying this banter, I am concerned this has veered off into a ditch and is no longer discussing the topic at hand (which I believe Joe tried to get back to). The point at the start of this was about YA SF/Fantasy fiction and crossing boundaries. I am sorry but this is no longer part of that, and I will be forced to exercise my moderation baton. I will also be forced to wheel out my trebuchet and start lobbing dead animals at all parties who fail to yield to my wishes (going with that barbarian theme) 🙂

  25. Tim – well, I guess you couuuuuuuld argue that there are some boundaries being crossed here, but no – fair’s fair, you’re right; we’re way off topic. I should probably never have engaged in the first place. Just whenever that old time bigotry rears its ugly head……..gets me like a red rag to a bull every time.

    Oi – careful with that dead cow, that was nearly me head. 🙂 Signing off….

  26. As a young adult (now 20), who really didn’t want to read books (or see movies etc.) with explicit scenes, just thought I’d present a different view. At the time, things like that made me feel uncomfortable, and I felt pressurised, wondering if I ought to be more interested in sex (as far as I was concerned, it was how more humans were created, end of story.). Now, I simply find explicit scenes rather boring. I did read plenty of classics, which I think handled adult issues in a genuinely mature way (Of Human Bondage is a good example of one I read at the time). From my experience though, teenagers can be more innocent than adults think. As I was quite ‘sensitive’ as a teenager, my friends didn’t feel the need to act more ‘mature’ around me, and would often confess, in private, that they felt uncomfortable with the way that ‘adult’ material was presented (for instance, sex education lessons suggested that all teenagers inevitably have casual sex), leading to some interesting discussions, but sadly they wouldn’t believe me when I assured them that they weren’t alone in feeling pressurised, and they didn’t need to act in a certain way if they didn’t want to. I don’t think YA SF is particularly explicit though – books set in our present seem to be much more so (maybe books should have movie-style ratings, to make it easier for people to choose).

    To me, it seems that considering it necessary to, for instance, describe sexual intercourse in explicit detail is similar to thinking it wrong to mention it at all – both ways make it into a big issue, in a way that, say, teaching children about sex in a purely scientific manner doesn’t.

  27. Yourandidiot // February 19, 2009 at 5:07 pm //

    Honestly, as a young adult I think that Orson is about 93% in the right, It doesn’t matter if we put a YA label on it because If thier interested in the topic or book then they will get it themeselves it isn’t really our decision it’s the parents if you all think that your idiotic comments make a differance well… Nobody cares.

  28. A. Nonymous // August 28, 2009 at 10:31 am //

    I personally don’t care. I believe literature, art and film of any nature or type needs to become exponentially more bizarre, sexual, violent, psychological etc. The whole idea of sensitivity in teens is manufactured delusions as part of our (i’m 19 and just leaving teenagehood) hormonal need to be the literal opposite of how adults percieve us. In reality we are nasty, inhuman, barely sentient masses of acne ridden flesh and organs. We need a big dose of shock and STFU to knock us out of our delusion and back into the real world. The longer we keep ourselves in our magical pixie land of high school and prepubescent politics, the harder it is to get out of it when we get old enough to do something with ourselves. And if books can get us out of our funk, more power to them.

    Also, the limitation of content in YASF/F is a just another symptom of modern society’s inherent need to coddle children and make them soft, weak lumps of flesh. And jsut for that, one day, i plan to write the most violent, psychologically and sexually disturbing YA novel ever (mmm. a children’s equivalent of blood meridian), just as a response to this bullshit coddling society that made what ever i read (exeption being redwall and harry potter) boring from age 7-13.

    This whole matter on Homosexuality and Card is irrelevant to the topic at hand, but i guess i should put in my two cents. Card’s basic overall assumption that homosexuality is a sin is also wrong because it bases its foundation in the belief that it is a choice people make that goes against the will of god. See the concept is inherently wrong because homosexuality is not a choice, it is a predetermined factor of a person’s being. essentially (it was scientifically discovered not too long ago, i read a paper on it in a scientific journal) there is a gay gene some people have that results in them being more attracted to members of the same sex. Thus to say homosexuality is sin is to say that it is a sin for a person to be who they are. its like saying having red hair or blue eyes or being well endowed is a sin.

    The fact that card does not know this simple biological fact says alot about him as a science fiction writer and his relative familiarity of the ‘science’ part of the genre he prescribes to.

    All in all, I feel bad for him. He is truly ignorant and really trapped in the clutches of a virulent, ignorant religion. the idea that you can follow the word of god from a man the mormons themselves call ‘a teller of tall tales’ (IE a LIAR) is almost as laughable as a religion based on a relatively terrible science fiction author (hubbard). And the fact that so much of mormonology is cribbed from freemasonry, a group that literally prides itself on being all inclusive and non judgemental, that a racist (they thought black people were evil whites cursed by god with ‘marks of the traitor’ seriously), prejudiced group such as the mormons even existing is beyond even me making a definitive negative statement on the matter. it literally leaves me speechless.

    As for Card, if he is listening to a lowly canadian such as me, I hope that he in some degree takes what I am about to say to heart. I have no problem with believing in any form of faith or spirituality. But when you prescribe you life to the tenets of a dogma or organized religion, you limit yourself mentally, morally, and creatively. Please believe, as the son of a Catholic and a Agnostic, that religion is a limitation on the human mind and soul. It is a construct of man attempting to control other men with the fear an invisible omnipotent being. And seriously I don’t think god in the infinite universe it created would seriously give a goddamn shit about some tiny remote planet with a tiny remote species where some of us decide that they like members of sex more than the opposite sex. I mean really? Do you really think that it is that important to him? Like he is standing over us, ignoring the rest of the entire universe, and getting pissed that a couple of people like getting it from another member of the same sex? REALLY?

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