Morality and controversial matters in youth literature: a perspective on Onderwêreld by Fanie Viljoen

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Morality is a concept that is difficult to define because of the diversity of people and their lifestyles. The following commonalities emerge from an examination of the wide range of definitions of morality: Morality is a personal and subjective consciousness of what is good or evil or of what is right or wrong in one’s actions towards oneself and others. Morality therefore implies the ability to express an opinion on controversial matters that surface in youth literature. Controversiality, on the other hand, implies a debatable matter. In other words, it is possible to judge a matter differently. Morality can be summarised as follows: Morality judges controversial matters, which in this case refers to youth literature. In other words, moralityjudges whether certain debatable matters in certain youth narratives are right or wrong.

Since adolescents have free access to literature, it is becoming more difficult for parents to monitor what their children read. When certain youth novels are analysed, controversial content seems to be the order of the day. Owing to these controversial matters in youth literature, the stories are either severely criticised by certain role players who regard themselves as the moral gatekeepers of the youth, or enjoy the support of others who believe that the occurrence of controversial matters in youth literature provides an opportunity to conduct an intellectual conversation with the adolescent reader.

Teachers who shy away from these contentious topics in youth literature and who do not want to address these matters in the classroom with their learners, or would rather not have these controversial youth novels prescribed for their learners, no longer provide a solution to this problem. The question should rather be what effective methods can be used to facilitate these controversial matters with the learners in the classroom.

An extensive literature review was launched in an effort to determine the nature of morality, to pin down who the role players are in shaping adolescent morality, to shed light on the international view of morality in youth literature, to examine contemporary trends in Afrikaans youth literature regarding morality, as well as to investigate the different perspectives of adults regarding controversial matters in youth literature.

As it appeared from the literature review that morality is personal and subjective in nature, it was decided to use reception aesthetics as the literary theory to support this article, as described by Wolfgang Iser (1978). Iser (1978) argues that “literature is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized, and furthermore the realization is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader”.

From this can be deduced that reading a text involves an active creation of meaning by the reader from the text itself.

In the text analysis of the embodiment of morality in Onderwêreld by Fanie Viljoen an integrated literary approach as a descriptive method was followed. The steps followed were the analysis, interpretation and evaluation of the text. This approach was taken to suggest ways for the teacher to facilitate certain controversial matters with Grade 12 Afrikaans Home Language learners in the classroom.

The controversial matters that are becoming increasingly commonplace in youth literature and subject to censorship laws can be divided into four categories, namely violence, politics, sexuality and religion (Fritz and Van der Westhuizen 2010:163–82). Disrespect towards authority, drugs and alcohol use (or even abuse), smoking and sexual promiscuity are some examples of the controversial matters in youth literature on which a moral judgment can be expressed.

In the literature several role players and factors are mentioned that play a contributory role in shaping the morality of adolescents, including the parents, the church, cultural views, schools, politicians, singers, film stars, peer groups, as well as writers (Du Plessis 2017; Martinez 2017). The adult role players sometimes reveal contradictory values themselves that lead to confusion in the adolescents. Writers as well as teachers remain among the most important role players to possibly establish a moral awareness among adolescents.

Adults hold diverse perspectives on the exposure of controversial matters to adolescent readers in youth literature. Some believe that the reading exposure to controversial matters adversely affects the adolescent (angst theory), while others argue that adolescents find the conclusion of their own problems in this way (catharsis theory).

Internationally, the trend among youth writers is to consciously select content and contexts in their youth literature that are a fairly true reflection of their readers’ worlds, and ongoing efforts are made to deal tactfully with controversial subjects. The majority of youth writers want to lead and support adolescents and want to create stories of hope for their readers. Some of these youth writers warn that the content in their books should not be taken as necessarily reflecting their own views: when they write about divorce, teenage pregnancy or child abuse, it does not mean that they are propagating these controversial matters.

The Afrikaans youth novel ’n Pot vol winter (1989) by Maretha Maartens was the first youth novel to be severely criticised by the Censorship Board because it was the first Afrikaans youth novel that dealt explicitly with sex. Some other Afrikaans youth literature writers, who sometimes weave controversial matters into their narratives explicitly, though with caution, include François Bloemhof, Barrie Hough, Derick van der Walt, Carin Krahtz and Fanie Viljoen. Controversial matters addressed by these writers include sex, sexual orientation, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, single parenthood, molestation, rape and the negative impact of social media.

Youth literature with controversial content can no longer be kept from adolescent readers. Onderwêreld by Fanie Viljoen is currently one of the prescribed books for Grade 12 Afrikaans Home Language learners. Viljoen, who is one of South Africa’s most productive writers, indicates that he reads newspapers on a daily basis to determine the ethos of, and to gain a glimpse into the mindset and lives of, adolescents. It is precisely these occurrences on which he wants to focus in his youth novels. Viljoen believes it is unnecessary to write morals or life lessons into his youth novels, as he feels that adolescent readers can decide what is right or wrong.

Onderwêreld is about the illegal industry of hacking, but nowhere in the story does Viljoen say that hacking is wrong. He actually presents the pros and cons of hacking and leaves it to the reader to decide whether it is acceptable. He does, however, state the law against hacking at the end of the story to strengthen the reality of this activity and to serve as a possible warning to the adolescent reader. Other controversial matters in this novel are suicide, teenage sex, as well as alcohol and drug use.

Greg Owen is the head boy at Lawson College, a distinguished school in the Drakensberg. A new learner of whom is not much known, Eckardt Wilken, is accepted at the school – somewhat unheard of for this school with a strict policy of admission. Over time, a close friendship develops between Greg and Eckardt. Systematically, Eckardt pulls Greg into the dark underworld of hacking. When Eckardt unexpectedly disappears without a trace, Greg has to help the police and the school to search for him. Greg realises that neither the school nor the police should know that he and Eckardt are hackers.

Greg follows clues and realises that Eckardt has become involved in activities that he should rather have left alone. Greg makes the shocking discovery that the principal of Lawson College is involved in illegal activities. Just when Greg seems to have all the answers, Eckardt suddenly reappears. Greg makes the startling discovery that Eckardt has planned everything in detail, including finding out everything about the Owen family. Greg is disillusioned when he realises that his father, too, is involved in the evil underworld of the school principal. Unwittingly, Greg has turned his own father over to the police. Eckardt’s motive for the attack on the Owen family is that years before, Greg’s father had destroyed Eckardt’s family in a similar way and Eckardt sought revenge for his own sadness.

Suggestions for the facilitation of controversial matters in youth literature in the classroom include the following: teachers should raise intellectual discussions and debates with the learners on these matters in the controlled classroom environment. The therapeutic value hidden in this type of youth literature is enhanced by discussing the causes and consequences of, and possible solutions to, such matters.

If the perspectives of youth writers and other experts in this field of study are kept in mind, as well as the reception aesthetics of Wolfgang Iser, one realises the extraordinary influence an author’s youth novel may have on the moral consciousness of the adolescent reader. Possibly it remains the responsibility of the youth writer to leave the adolescent reader with a spark of hope after reading a youth novel.

Keywords: controversial matters; Fanie Viljoen; morality; Onderwêreld; youth literature

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Moraliteit en omstrede kwessies in jeugliteratuur: ’n beskouing oor Onderwêreld deur Fanie Viljoen

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