About playing Novelist: I have a very conflicted (and recently surfaced) identity as an author of Young Adult fiction. Even as I’ve decided that I want most to write stories for 13 to 17 year-olds, the decision is fraught with a simply stupid amount of self-doubt.
On the one hand, “Young Adult” is not a genre. It’s not a kind of story. It’s a publishing category created to market books to a certain demographic. The need for teenagers to have a seperate category of books written specially to them is, at bottom, artificial. (“And vaguely insulting, don’t forget vaguely insulting,” says 14 year-old Nicci). The truth of the matter is that, if we want them to grow into the right kinds of people, every young adult should at least be attempting to read those books that were NOT written with their attention span or vocabulary or emotional limitations in mind.
Also, there’s the sad fact that much of it is to literature what the Huffington Post is to journalism.
But here’s the thing… I can’t get around what YA lit has the potential to be. I can’t shake the idea that these still-forming people we’re calling young adults are quite possibly the best audience in the world to write for. A teenager naturally inhabits a very wide world of potential stories. They’re young enough that their brains are still naturally in “research” mode. They are still quite willing to believe that the world is a wonderfully strange place, full of whole other realities they have yet to experience, with plenty of strange things to teach them. Whether or not they always act like it, young readers fully expect to discover that there are whole worlds of things they know nothing about. The idea of unseen and undiscovered realities is something that is viscerally very natural: it’s something that lights up the teenage brain like a Christmas tree ( this is, I think, why the young adult reader is so naturally inclined toward fantasy novels. It’s about the exploration of a new reality, more than an escape from this one. But that’s a whole other post.)
Because of this, a teenager’s horizon of expectations (the expectations they bring to a story about what a story is, and what it means, and how it should go) is less firmly fixed than those of an adult. As such, they’re more or less ready for anything to happen. While I’ve known plenty of adults who became peeved or even alarmed when the thriller or the murder mystery they were reading turned out to be a story about a criminal whose society refuses to re-integrate them , or when the historical romance they were reading turned out to be a story about somebody whose own time and culture and place of birth won’t allow them to do the right thing (I’m not saying that YA stories are all this pleasantly and quietly unexpected: again, Huffington Post of literature.) But I have known few young adult readers to mind it when their stories go a little strange. They perk up at the sudden appearance of zombies or demons in their steampunk romance novels. They’re delighted when what they thought was a straightforward ghost story turns out to be the story of a bizarre friendship.
At the same time, teenagers are just beginning to learn that life can be a grind, that existence in this shiny world is inseparable from sorrow. Even as new parts of their brains are being illuminated, they’re learning that there’s such thing as true despair, and that every life comes with it at least one long dark night of the soul. We aren’t looking to protect teenage readers from complex emotional realities in the way that we do when they’re children. YA stories can be stories that speak difficult truths: “Repentance is hard, and horrible and you might wish you were dead before it’s done, if it ends at all.” “Sometimes it is too late to correct a mistake, but you have to try anyway.” “Very few people in the world will ever truly understand you.” “Not everything in your life happens for a good reason.” “Your best friend in the world is going to die some day, and so are you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” If they’re truly brave stories, they can put these truths in the mouths or in the back-stories of characters from which we never expected to learn anything… war criminals, ritually abusive parents, the mentally ill, the dead. Even as they rollick in a fictive city in Louisiana fraught with warring clans of good and evil werewolves, young adult readers are more than prepared for the shit to get real, preferably without ever stopping the action of the story. (it’s common for YA stories to go too far too fast in the “shit gets real” direction, but more on that in a moment.)
So the storytelling potential of the YA market is kind of dazzlingly limitless in all directions. I was not at all surprised to learn from a writing professor that YA is oftentimes a label stuck on stories that are too categorically funky to be sold as anything else. It’s a big, wide, insanely-run zoo full of stories, and some of the stories are the freakiest-looking animals you’ll ever see.
This is not to say that I feel all or even most YA lit is utilizing any of this potential. I’m more than willing to cop to the infantile sensationalism and emotional laziness that characterizes the Twilight series, the cheaply enthralling but (as Orson Scott Card points out) ultimately nonsensical society presented in The Hunger Games. The problem with an audience as viscerally responsive as the young adult market is that authors who believe they remember how the teenage brain works soon discover they can get by by ignoring it entirely and leading their audience around entirely by their guts.
Of course they can By constantly appealing to teenagers’ profound sense of isolation, their preoccupation with sex, and their supposed knowledge that the world is a darkly titillating and cruelly salacious place where all the most interesting people have had unspeakably awful things happen to them , you can get a teenage reader to enjoy almost anything. Do you know why? Because young adults are people. And people on average find it easier to be sexually excited than emotionally connected, more immediately gratifying to be told that they know all about how the world really is (even if it’s a world full of child molesters and wife-batterers) rather than learn something about the world that they didn’t know before. There’s tons of writers for full-grown adults that engage in this sort of gut-grab pandering. The difference is that teenagers are almost never savvy enough to know when they’re being pandered to.
Sure teenagers need literary characters whose experiences are real and salient to them. Sure they do. But all people, all over the world, go through tunnels of immense isolation and loneliness and self-hatred. These tunnels are real, and persist throughout life, even as you can see the other side of them. And we’re all pretty much a little preoccupied with sex, aren’t we? We just learn to handle the inconvenience of it a little better, and we learn that if we get out of our head long enough, there’s a real person out there somewhere whose talk after sex gets our blood going more than the sex does. My point is, the sooner we stop treating teenage problems as teenage problems and start treating them as people problems (if temporarily exaggerated by hormones and financial dependence) the more young adult readers will feel they’re really being spoken to.
The trap lies in the idea that, in order to be characters that teens identify with, protagonists of young adult novels must not only be of the same age-group, experiencing the same turbulent feelings as the readership, but he/she must also react to those turbulent feelings in the same way, with the same sense of urgency and short-sighted permanence. because you can’t fight how you feeeel! Feeling is stronger than anything!
In order for YA to really justify its existence, we need to write to the young adults we want our young adults to become. Even as impulsive 11-year-olds, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger had the stirrings of bravery, loyalty, kindness and brilliance that would make them into strong, honorable, and ultimately self-sacrificing adults. Lyra Belacqua, even as the childish compulsive liar we meet in The Golden Compass, has the self-will and forthrightness that will eventually make her the heroine of her world. These young people have tremendous faults all, and they all go through their angsty, self-involved tunnels of fear and doubt, but we the readers are permitted to see their hang-ups and know them to be the temporary states they are. We see what these people have the potential to be, to become, if only they could get beyond those hang-ups. And when a character makes lasting decisions based on his or her temporary tunnel-vision, we recognize it as a wrong and short-sighted thing, even as we completely identify with his or her feelings.
Of course, there’s always, always the danger of becoming moralistic. But seriously, are we meant to admire Bella and Edward? What kind of healthy person severs all ties with family and friends in devotion to their lover, even when that’s what they feel like doing? Do we want our daughters to grow up to be the sort of people who end things with a kind and dear friend because they happen to desperately want to have sex with somebody else?
Anyway, maybe by the time I publish, I’ll have figured out a way to channel all my issues with YA into the novel itself, and my work will fit quite nicely in with the rest…