“No, bad language, please”: the YA fiction debate, Jane Westaway

Sex, suicide, abortion, incest, violence, substance abuse – read all about it in young adult (YA) fiction. In the last decade or so, the genre has become identified with what enthusiasts applaud as gritty realism, presenting characters and situations adolescents can recognise from their own imperfect lives.

Critics, though, charge it with robbing young people of hope and innocence, commercial exploitation, and conspiring to undermine family values and corrupt morals. Their objections are reminiscent of the fuss a few hundred years ago over the advent of the novel itself and the fear that it would rot the moral fabric of society.

Few nowadays credit books with so much power – except in the disputed territory of non-adult fiction. Writers, publishers, librarians, teachers and parents – anyone who believes they have young people’s interests at heart, except, noticeably, young people themselves – argue fiercely about what YA fiction is and ought to be, who should and shouldn’t be reading it, and whether it even exists.

Some of those making the most noise about YA fiction are easy targets for literate liberals: Graham Capill, for instance, who protested on Holmes about Boock’s Dare, Truth or Promise; Agnes Mary Brooke, who objects to language that 90 percent of teenagers don’t even register as coarse.

Australian academic Heather Scutter is not so easily dismissed. In Displaced Fictions she coldly eyes a genre she believes has suffered from publisher cynicism and librarian/teacher/award-judge gullibility. And, pour encourager les autres, she dissects Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs.

I read this prize-winning Australian YA novel a couple of years before I got to Scutter’s analysis, so my first impressions were my own. I found it disturbing – pretentious and pointless. My objections have nothing to do with content that includes generous helpings of animal slaughter, brother-sister incest and parental violence, and excludes humour and warmth. Rather, it’s that I can’t discern a single honest reason – literary or otherwise – for a story that is no more a portrait of real life than is The Famous Five, only the other end of a pole. Sleeping Dogs reminds me of a remark by a New Zealand publisher (who’d probably rather remain nameless): “If it’s gothic enough, it’s YA fiction.”

Any fiction can have a hard or soft centre; whichever it is has no bearing on whether it’s a good or bad book. What’s so unpleasant about Sleeping Dogs is that, despite its portentous tone, it has no centre at all. As far as I know, no New Zealander has yet published anything as cynical, but Scutter’s analysis stands as a warning – but a literary, not a moral one.

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Much YA fiction criticism presupposes a victim: either the hapless writer exploited by a greedy publisher, or teachers and librarians putting one across parents, or defenceless children being manipulated by any and all of the above. This is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

It’s not that I believe children and young people don’t need protection – of course they do, but very rarely from books. And while a few earnest grown-ups are off in a corner bickering about whether kids should be allowed to read about schoolgirls in love, the kids themselves are elsewhere and, amongst other disturbing things, watching tens of thousands of acts of onscreen violence before they’re 18.

The fact is that YA marketing doesn’t target its own readers. Every YA writer can cite glowing testimonies from readers – or their mothers – but most of us know these kids to be the exception. Books and reading, and especially reading YA books (however salacious or “relevant” their content), are not priorities with most teens. The keenest YA readers are wanna-bes – 10-and-ups yearning for teen life, and – to be brutal – has-beens, the middle-aged and beyond. A demographic which, it ought to be said, includes most successful YA writers. Teenagers are rarely seen in bookshops, let alone browsing the children’s section (where YA books are usually shelved) or handing over hard-won cash for a YA book. Younger children, here and in libraries, tend to have a loud say in their choice of reading material. But it’s relatives, teachers and librarians who choose and/or buy YA books.

About the only defining characteristic of YA fiction is that it invariably features teenaged main characters. The converse isn’t true, of course – by no means every book featuring a young adult is labelled YA, and generations of teens have seized on The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, and those wretched Flowers in the Attic, books that as one Australian writer puts it, speak for adolescents rather than to them. And books, incidentally, that we’ve never really considered kids might need shielding from.

The crux of the YA controversy is, as Philippa Hawker says, that childhood – let’s call it non-adulthood in this context – isn’t a state but an idea, a site for political and emotional negotiations, something people have a stake in. Different people, different stakes.

I always smile when I hear another concerned citizen declare what writers ought to be writing. Unless you head a police state, these declarations are pretty much a waste of time. Writers will always write what they want to write. Just as publishers will, by and large, publish what they believe will sell.

Kate de Goldi relates (in the December 2000 issue of New Zealand Books) how publishers “tell you endlessly that YA writing doesn’t sell because teenagers don’t buy books.” It’s true, some publishers insist that this is the case. But what a non sequitur – YA books often do sell, and precisely because their intended readers don’t do the buying.  Which writer (and publisher, and bookseller) wouldn’t rather sell a class set than an individual copy?  But here’s a potential trap for the writer: the balancing act between credibility and acceptability. You can write pretty much about anything, but please, say publishers’ reps, no bad language. It will stop your book selling in schools.

And if you’re still keen to allocate blame for the rise of YA fiction, try this: a socio-political system which for a couple of decades has bought into economic policies that tolerate high levels of youth unemployment, forcing young people to delay independence and stay on at school whether they are academically inclined or not, whether they are readers or not. Since they’re too big, and we’re too enlightened, for old-fashioned bullying, they must be seduced into reading. Austen, Dickens and James won’t do the trick, so how about one-night stands, eating disorders and … see the opening paragraph?

In this regard, the YA label itself has always made me uneasy. There’s a whiff of dishonesty about it; it seeks to flatter and cajole. “Look,” it pleads, “you might be sitting here in school uniform, but we don’t think of you as children – heavens no, look at the grown-up content in this book you’ve got to read by the end of next week.”

I dodge the label when I can, referring to teenage fiction instead, and the resonance of that term takes me right back to why I like writing and reading in the genre – it’s for anyone with a teenage consciousness.

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I devoted my childhood to Alice and Heidi, Katy and Little Women. I didn’t simply love those books, they were the air I breathed. But I abandoned them almost overnight. Suddenly I needed something new – fiction that would help me find my bearings in a world I was beginning to suspect I might have to be a part of. Fiction that wasn’t fantasy but “real life” – whatever that means.

John Braine’s Room at the Top was my first venture away from kid lit, followed by Lolita, retrieved from the top shelf of a kitchen cupboard where my mother had hidden it, and, from the same hiding place, the new Penguin paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But grown-up books baffled me. Their stories – if any were discernible – moved with glacial speed towards indeterminate conclusions that left me wondering if the last few pages had been torn from the book. The characters – older by far than I would ever be  – were prey to motivations utterly beyond my understanding. Grown-up fiction wasn’t about anything. Thirty years later, I began writing the sort of fiction I needed back then. Not fiction I believe all kids need all the time, but fiction that can be part of a balanced cultural diet.

Many of the arguments over YA fiction are side-shows, resolvable not in social but literary terms. I want, for instance, characters who’ll come alive for readers, and if teenage characters never utter an obscenity, they’re less than believable. On the other hand, a barrage of “bad” language makes for a boring read.

I tend to favour, in reading and writing both adult and non-adult fiction, not happy endings but endings that allow some hope. But that’s a gut feeling, a personal preference, not something I’d elevate to a philosophy, let alone a prescription. I thoroughly admire Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War even though it’s one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read in any genre, chilling and pessimistic. Cormier’s intentions and authenticity – not just his skill – set it a million miles apart from Sleeping Dogs.

One short-listed New Zealand Post children’s book awards writer wondered aloud in the Government House ladies’ loo last year whether bestiality was the last YA frontier, and whether someone would write a novel about a teenager falling in love with a sheep. They probably will, and whether it’s a good or bad book will depend on how the writer handles it – the material, not the sheep.

 

Jane Westaway is a Wellington fiction-writer and journalist.

David Hill reviews four recent YA novels on p21.

 

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