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Innocence, Ignorance, and Experience: Quad City Arts “Super Author” Chris Crutcher Discusses His Controversial Young-Adult Literature - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 06:00
Deadline, by Chris CrutcherSomething Other Than Fear

One of the most common complaints against Crutcher's novels is his use of profanity, as the author is determined to write the way teens actually talk - a choice that his critics have argued is irresponsible in books directed toward teenagers. (The "F" word, the "S" word, and the "S.O.B." phrase are routinely employed in Crutcher's works.)

"It's an easy out," he says of the issues some take with his works' frequently salty conversation. "They don't have to get in the discussion of why they really want the book banned. One of the things I did with [2005's] The Sledding Hill, which I haven't done with any other book, is I purposely scoured it for bad language. If somebody wanted to go after the book" - which, ironically, climaxes with a town-hall meeting on the subject of book-banning - "I wanted them to not be able to hide behind 'There are some bad words in there.'"

But Crutcher's themes would seem to give his critics no end of ammunition, and the author says that nothing seems to engender more debate than his nonjudgmental depictions of homosexuality in such works as Athletic Shorts and 1995's Ironman. "The whole gay thing is where the racial thing was 20 or 30 years ago," says Crutcher. "If you're looking for something that's just blatantly bigoted that people look past all the time, that's it."

The author refuses, though, to let squeamishness over the subject prevent him from addressing the issue. "When I was working full-time as a therapist, I worked with some kids who were gay, and I discovered why there's such a high suicide rate, and why there's such a high attempted-suicide rate, and why there's such a high rate of depression among those kids - because they feel they can't tell the truth. And that's dangerous."

Crutcher has also received his share of criticism for his characters' inquisitive, uncommitted attitudes toward religion, and his casting of devoutly religious characters - such as The Sledding Hill antagonist Dan Mulke - as the most closed-minded figures in his books. "As much as conventional Christianity or Islam or any of the major pool of religions are meant to be comforting," he says, "they operate on fear. If you don't behave right, some real bad stuff is gonna happen to you.

"And burning in hell doesn't sound great," says Crutcher with a laugh. "Eternity's a real long time. So the idea that we need to find something other than fear to operate from makes a lot of sense to me.

It's impossible not to imagine many of Crutcher's own beliefs being echoed through his characters' dialogue; in an amusingly meta subplot in The Sledding Hill, the author even introduces Chris Crutcher as a character in the story, invited to a public discussion on the censorship of his own books. (Interestingly, the "character" actually chooses not to speak once he arrives - he decides to let the book's central character speak for him.) And Crutcher makes no bones about his characters oftentimes serving as a personal mouthpiece. "There's no question that if you read my books," he says, "you get a pretty good sense of what my politics are. And my belief that a lot of kids who exist in isolation don't have to, and if we knew them better, we wouldn't allow it."

Yet Crutcher says he has always been prepared for angry complaints against his themes and style. He admits, though, that he's still shocked when parents and organized groups want to take their anger to the next level, and prohibit his works from schools and libraries.

"You know, coming out of the free-speech movement in the early '60s, and the hippie generation, I thought it was done," says Crutcher of literary censorship. "I was real surprised when my first book got challenged and then banned in a middle school. And that was in the '80s. I mean, I thought we fixed this, you know? I thought it was shameful to want to ban a book."

As Crutcher well knows, he's certainly not the only young-adult-literature author to see his or her works embroiled in controversy.

"I was talking with Judy Blume," he says, "and I used to do some banned-books events with Robert Cormier, and it always seemed to me like they were wounded by the attacks that were made on them. Judy Blume was completely blindsided. She thought she had written a book that was really gonna help girls" with her youth classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., "and then she got hammered. She didn't see it coming."

Crutcher, though, says he refuses to take the attacks personally, and makes no apologies for the potentially frightening subjects he explores. "Every story I've ever written has a source of reality in a kid's life," he says. "So I know I'm talking about something that's real, and I feel totally comfortable with my work.

"I always said there were two places in my life where I'm fearless: I would go anywhere with a client [in therapy] - there's no place I'd block off - and there's nothing I wouldn't write about. Beyond that, I've had every human failing and fear there is. But you have to acknowledge fear, and if you can articulate it, it's less scary. A monster out of the closet isn't as scary as a monster in the closet."