Critical Essay by Zena Sutherland
SOURCE: "The Teen-Ager Speaks," in The Saturday Review (New York), January 27, 1968, p. 34.
In the following essay, Sutherland examines the controversy surrounding The Outsiders, providing comments excerpted from a newspaper article by Hinton, from letters written by teenage fans of the novel, and from letters written by adults who objected to the violence depicted in the novel.
"Have you looked at the books on the Young Adult Shelf?" S. E. Hinton asked in Read magazine November 1. "They are written by aging writers who either try to remember their own youth—which was at least fifteen years ago—or they try to write about today's teens without knowing them." S. E. Hinton, now a college sophomore, wrote The Outsiders at the age of fifteen. I'd been watching for the book because of a letter from an established writer who had read the manuscript and—although presumably aging—was impressed by the author's ability.
The Outsiders describes the conflict between madras-clad, middle-class boys (Socs) and those from the wrong side of the tracks (Greasers)—and it is tough, rough, exciting. The book has raised considerable controversy; one reviewer felt that it had received so much praise because everyone involved in children's books was eager to laud anything that might be classified as "realistic." It is a novel "… written with distinctive style by a teen-ager who is sensitive, honest, and observant," I commented in S[aturday] R[eview], May 13, 1967.
Having learned that S. E. Hinton is a girl, I looked forward with curiosity to meeting her. Prepared for a tough, shrewd, and possibly belligerent young woman, I met a pretty, gentle, and slightly nervous girl. She had written the book because one of her friends in Tulsa had been jumped and beaten up as had Ponyboy, the protagonist of The Outsiders. Had she gotten any letters? Many, she said, and most of them from teen-agers; one boy, sure that she was describing him, rebuked her for saying that his hair was reddish—it was plain brown. This note of identification was repeated by other correspondents. The bulk of the letters from teen-agers, said Susan Hinton, expressed fervent gratitude that someone had written a book about the way things really were, but some of the mail from adults was hostile or critical. "I'd love to seem the letters," I said.
Here are a few excerpts. "I feel that all teen-agers from all environments should read this novel," writes a fourteen-year-old girl. "It would give people a better understanding of these troubled teen-agers and not judge them by their long hair and odd ways." A boy the same age writes: "In presentation this story seemed very true to life as I know those kind of circumstances prevail in many N.Y. areas." "Your novel," says an adult, "was an education in what I should have known, and it helps me, in retrospect, to understand the tensions I felt around me." "At school we have socs and greasers except we do not call them by those names," reports a high school junior. "We call our socs cliques. The greasers are hards." A letter, addressed to "Mr. Hinton," reads in part: "If you are really Ponyboy, and you have been through these ordeals, God must really love you." Another is quoted in its entirety: "Dear S. E. Hinton, I am 10 years old, going into 5th grade, and I LOVE to read. One day, a friend of ours asked me if I wanted to read The Outsiders. I said okay. Even though I'm only 10, & your book was for teen-agers, I think it's the BEST book that I've EVER read! I really enjoyed it! [Signature] (and Believe me, I've read quite a few!)"
And that—save for one young correspondent who disapproved of the fact that Ponyboy smoked at the age of fourteen—is what teen-agers think. Some adults agree, but many have criticized the novel or the article Miss Hinton had in the New York Times Magazine of August 8, in which she pleaded for books that reflected the real stresses of adolescent life. "I feel," wrote one, "that Miss Hinton is a cliché grabber, not a free thinker…. I feel that America has more responsibility to the people of the world than to think teen-agers are to be looked up to or catered to." "I have three teen-age children," a correspondent said, "and they just don't know any people like those in your book."
One letter accused the author of trying to make a sensation, another predicted that teen-agers "won't believe a word of it," and several suggested that the book couldn't really have been written by a teen-ager. Most of the critical letters are from people who object to the violence (one fight culminates in death) either on the grounds that such books are in themselves an incitement to violence or that such books shouldn't be written for young people.
In the newspaper article Miss Hinton says, "Adults who let small children watch hours of violence … on TV, scream their heads off when a book written for children contains a fist fight…. Only when violence is for a sensational effect should it be objected to in books for teen-agers." The violent world that Susan Hinton describes is foreign to me; I know it exists and deplore it. It isn't the only kind of book that teen-agers should read, or that they do read, but it depicts a world that many of them know—and they want to read about life as it is for them. The author doesn't defend violence; she defends honesty. "The teen-age years are a bad time. You're idealistic. You can see what should be. Unfortunately, you see what is, too!"