extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘YA Lit’

The Touchiest Of Topics

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 10:26 am

This post builds a little bit off a previous post about sex in literature, and also a little off my earlier series on how to define a YA Novel. It’s about a hot topic in the literary world right now: YA Lit and Sex.

I think that the topic is hot because YA Lit is increasingly prominent in our culture, and because sex in literature is as well. There’s also been a lot of talk lately about how dark YA Lit is becoming, but even with books like the Hunger Games series, which is held up as the ultimate symbol (if not the only one) of dark writing for kids, sex isn’t often something that comes up. At least, I assume; I figure I’d have heard about it by now if all the starving kids were also having sex. And, in part, publishers are realising that literature aimed at young adults isn’t just being bought by young adults. They’re now working to satisfy the adult desire for something a little steamier. There are a lot of great reasons for adults to read YA; I personally used to pluck random YA novels off the shelf during exam time in college, because they were easy on the brain and could be read quickly.

But, yes. For all of these reasons and others, as well, sex in YA Lit is becoming a forefront discussion.

Sex was an issue I faced when I was writing fanfic, especially Stealing Harry and Laocoon’s Children, two stories that rewrote the Harry Potter novels within an alternate universe. Because I was writing fanfic and not trying to sell anything to children, I had more latitude than a pro-published writer would; I was already including sex scenes between adults even when I was writing about Harry Potter as an eight year old. But as the kids I was writing about got older, I wanted to reflect what everloving horndogs a lot of kids are in their teens. So I was glancing off the idea of teens engaging in romantic and sexual situations; I didn’t want to write kiddie porn but I did want to be honest about how teens behave. I lost my virginity in high school; presumably it wasn’t unlikely that a tightly-knit group of friends would have similar experiences. It’s not that I feel kids ought to, it’s just that I feel like whether or not they ought to, a lot do.

I never got there, because that story fell by the wayside, but it has stayed with me, the idea that people in their teens do have sexual urges and sexual encounters. It’s a tricky place to go, because most writers (quite rightly) don’t want to use underage people as devices for sexual titillation, and more importantly they don’t want to be accused of doing it whether or not that was their intent. And I don’t want to add to the weird societal pressures surrounding sex, the conflicting “Have sex now or you’re abnormal!” and “SEX ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, IT’S A SIN.”

I believe that people shouldn’t be ashamed of having sex, of choosing their partners and the number of their partners, as long as said partners are consenting and capable of consent. I believe people should be told that they’re supposed to enjoy the sex they have, and if they aren’t, they should be encouraged to stop what they’re doing and seek alternatives, be that different partners or different kinds of sex or no sex at all. And one of the things I discovered while exploring the nature of YA Literature is that it is predominantly about adults who have a message they want to convey to young people — like what we think about sex and how we deal with it as adults.

There’s a fantastic quote by a fellow WordPresser, fozmeadows, discussing adolescent sex in YA:

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember.

Fozmeadows is speaking primarily about the way young women are treated both in the world of YA lit and within the books that compose it, which is entirely appropriate given, well, how young women are frequently treated in YA Lit. But it has a broader application as well: the idea that imbuing the concept of sex into a YA book automatically gives the reader just a little more agency and ownership than they had previously.

It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

It’s true, too — even books that discuss teens committing complicated crimes in an adult world, like the Heist Society series, shy away from teens committing sexual acts. What really hit home for me about that second half of the quote, however, is the concept of not putting an actual sex act into the book: not having to write explicit sex between underage partners — just the legitimate, unflinching potential for sex to occur, or the mention of it happening. Even the desire for it to happen unhampered by the usual “am I ready?” self-flagellating self-examination that media aimed at teens generally includes (almost exclusively with the eventual answer of “No” at the end) would be refreshing. And Fozmeadows is right: it is enough to show readers that they get to control what happens to their bodies and when, without necessarily baring everything.

I think this is important because even authors writing for adult audiences have trouble with sex scenes, as I talked about last week. So understanding that sex in literature is something that people look for and something that can positively influence the way young people see their sexuality (and those of others) is important. But it’s just as important for writers to know that there is space between “never talking about it” and “explicit sexual description” — that wanting sex and experiencing desire can be just as important as the sex that actually happens. It’s not just teenagers who could use a higher comfort level with discussions of sex and sexuality, after all.

An Author In Search Of A Novel

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

I am picking up today where I left off a few days ago, with my examination of YA literature; you can read part one (the problem) here, and part two (the research) here.

After months of trying to finish the essay that those two parts began, I realized that my search for a definition was in fact the wrong search. I should have been searching for a process, because process often defines product. So, thinking as a creator of literature rather than a consumer of it, a few things became clear.

I decided that marketing, definitions applied by others, and even adolescents’ self-definitions don’t matter to the creation of this particular form of novel. In this sense, a YA novel is not a book about something. Except in the rarest of cases, a YA novel is an adult talking to a teenager. Everything else is window dressing.

So I thought about motivation and message and after that came a very simple three question formula (I do love things in threes).

  1. Why do I, an adult, want to talk to young people?
  2. What do I want to tell them?
  3. Why do I want to tell them that?

Mind you, calling them “young people” makes me feel so very old, but I am more than twice the age of the youngest readers on this blog, and I was an adult before some of my presumed target audience was born.

Here’s the kicker about these questions: they are sequential. Each question leads to the next and you can’t get to two without answering one. Question one is vital because I have, in fact, heard writers answer it with “That’s where the money in publishing is”.

That’s a bad answer. Possibly not the only bad answer, I haven’t been through every answer, but certainly a bad one. Even if the statement itself is true — there is a lot of money in YA lit — it’s not the way you ever want to answer a question about your passion.

Anyway, it’s a good question to keep one honest, because it’s the first step in not condescending to your audience. It’s what sticks me down, because initially I thought I don’t want to talk to “young people”. But then I thought, really, it’s more most young people. The Dead Isle came as a surprise YA Fiction to me — I’ve had many parents buy it for their kids, or to read with their kids. It does carry a message that is not exclusively for the young, about compassion and justice and the power of creativity, but that message is conveyed by young characters.

The characters I created for The Dead Isle are the kind of kids I want to talk to. Shy, nerdy, brilliant Jack. Affectionate, cheerful, isolated Clare. Independent, aggressively sensible Purva, who has no patience for the games of others.

But the question isn’t who, the question is why, and I suppose the answer is

1. I want to talk to young people who are who I was: shy, nerdy, smart, independent, relatively happy despite my isolation, old before my peers were, already sick of the bullshit. Because I’ve been there.

I didn’t get very many books about me. Catcher in the Rye was one. Ender’s Game (despite Card’s horrible politics) was another. The Magician’s Nephew, my favourite of all the Narnia books. Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, which might not be highly acclaimed literature but was valuable to me. These are books of varying quality and era and genre, but they were books about me and they gave me comfort. They taught me about my future.

So assuming those are the kids I want to talk to, the kids like me, what do I want to tell them? I’ve got friends with kids, Olivia and Irene and Harry and Vivi and Little Sam and Noel and Gabriel and a handful of others. I can’t lie to them or be cruel to them. For one, I will get totally busted by their parents.

What do I want to tell them?

2. Well, basically, what I want to tell everyone: that compassion is a high and difficult art, that greed is insidious and cruel, that the world is waiting for people to discover it. I want to explain how the wonder of discovery makes compassion easier and greed more difficult and how the more those two balance out, the closer you come to justice. And sometimes I want to tell stories just plain ’cause I like telling stories.

Three is a little more abstract, because the answers lie in the first two questions. Why do I want to tell kids that?

3. Because people told me about compassion and greed and wonder once, and I believe strongly that what they said was true. If we as a species are going to do more than murder each other and destroy our only home, I think everyone has to understand it. I don’t have all the answers but I have the tools to get us there if kids who are smarter than me take the philosophical hand up that I’m offering them.

So in the end, I don’t know if I want to write a YA novel, or I should say another YA novel. If I did, I doubt it would be one any trad publisher would be interested in. But if I do want to, now I have the knowledge necessary to lay it out.

Really, it’s what I’ve been doing all along.

Failing At Wikipedia or, It’s YA Because It’s YA

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

This is part two of my exploration of YA Literature and how to define it in a useful way, as a writer who may be interested in writing it. I’ve talked a bit about the initial problem, which is not only a broad one of definition but also, in my case, a specific issue with experience. When last we left me, I was stuck without a formal conception of what YA Lit was.

And so I went to the internet, looking for how they defined it. Sometimes, the best way to define something is to find someone else’s idea of the thing and figure out where you disagree.

When in doubt, start with Wikipedia and a skeptical expression.

Wikipedia says that YA Lit is literature written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents between the ages of 14 and 22 (22, Jesus, that’s an old Young Adult) but really that’s not that helpful. It’s a book for kids because it’s written as a kid’s book, essentially, or even just because it’s sold as one. I could have gone full-out with The Dead Isle; I could have marketed it as a YA adventure, since three of its four main characters are under the age of twenty and the fourth is very much cast in the mentor role. But I wanted the story to present as a book with broader appeal — and while there’s no length limit on YA novels, it’s an awfully long book.

Reading onwards, Wikipedia diverts fairly quickly into a discussion of the most prominent member of the YA Lit family: the “problem novel”.

Problem novel refers to young adult novels in the realistic fiction category that “addresses personal and social issues across socioeconomic boundaries and within both traditional and nontraditional family structures” (Cole 98). Some of these themes include: identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, familial struggles, bullying, and numerous others. Some issues that are talked about in young adult literature are things such as friendship, love, race, money, divorce, relationships within families.” [….] In a paper written by April Dawn Wells, she discovers seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.”

Thanks, Wikipedia. You just defined all of literature. Subject matter, it seems, is not going to be much help. It’s all very well to say that YA Lit concerns identity, of which many other aspects including sexuality, class, family, and race are a part, but if that were true I wouldn’t have been the only kid in AP English who liked The Great Gatsby.

Primarily, the focus is centered around a young lead character and the reader experiences emotions, situations, and the like through this character and is able to see how these problems/situations are resolved.

Also that sounds like an invitation to “write down” to the reader as you instruct them on problem resolution, and we’ve discussed “writing down” already.

Granted, I think the above is important because it can expand. I haven’t read The Hunger Games, but I understand that they are in major part about the resources that teens have at their disposal with which they can help repair damaged societies.

So there was my first answer, but not a particularly satisfactory one.

I considered a survey of the “big names” in YA Lit, but that has shifted over time as well, from the in situ dystopia of SE Hinton to the imagined dystopia of Suzanne Collins, from Catcher In The Rye to Go Ask Alice to the pulp suburban horror of my generation’s teens. Even defining Catcher In The Rye as a young adult novel will probably get me some flak, but most people I’ve met who love it do so because they read it as teenagers and could relate to Holden’s attitudes and predicament. That says something to me about the audience it got, whether it wanted it or not. And given that it is now marketed to teens in the form of classroom reading…

So I could have gone all out, but a survey of the world of YA literature just sounds exhausting. I thought I’d set that aside as a last resort. I hit upon the idea to look at contests — competitions asking for YA submissions with the winner being published or a published story being rewarded with publicity. Surely those would have decent quantifications for YA; they’re looking for the next big thing, after all, they should know how to ask for it.

The work cited will illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence.

Uh.

To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18.

Guess not.

Other websites were a little more helpful — or more cynical, depending. An article at Jezebel states:

Since as far as I can tell, these categories exist primarily for schoolteachers, booksellers, and award-givers, Fine Lines will from now on define “YA” as any book read in one’s own company from the time one learns to read to the time one pays one’s own rent.

That’s actually quite useful. As is this quote from a school library blog critiquing a story that is only YA in the sense that it’s marketed to teens:

this journey doesn’t feel like the teen journey (from acted upon to acting upon).

In that vein, James Dawson, who I quoted in the first essay, has a novel theory about children:

I had a recent conversation with a librarian concerned at the number of year 10 and 11 pupils reading EL James’s erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. However, she also admitted that many realised early into the book that it “wasn’t for them” and chose to pursue it no further. Teenagers are as capable as any reader to decide what is right for them. As a 12-year-old, I had no access to young adult fiction because it didn’t exist. Instead I went straight to Stephen King and James Herbert. I was able to choose what was suitable and unsuitable.

But none of this is all that helpful in giving me a framework.

Which is where this essay stalled for months.

And then last week I thought, I’m going about this wrong. I’m coming at the problem as a consumer, not a creator. I am both; most of us are. But I was using the wrong half of me for this particular issue. I’d been looking for what a YA novel is, when I should have been looking for how a YA novel comes to be.

When I finally swapped over, the solution to the problem was a delightfully simple series of questions, and they came very easily. I’ll be discussing those on Friday, so stay tuned!

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Everyone Under The Age Of 22

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

I keep circling back to this essay. Every time I put it away, I eventually come back to it. It is the essay in which I try to define YA literature.

And it got really long, so this is the first of a three-part series in my examination of YA lit. This is a rough essay, and certainly some of you out there are more well-versed, so suggestions (not for books to read, oh god, please not for books to read) and critique are welcome.

So today’s topic is an introduction of the problem.

I made a post once about how I had difficulty with YA lit, both with writing it and plotting it. Most of the people engaging in the discussion at the time made a good point: I couldn’t very well be saying that if I didn’t have a good definition of what it was. Besides, defining a problem is the first part of solving it. But a definition of YA lit is like a definition of porn. Most people just kind of know it when they see it.

I thought a lot about how to define YA literature. I thought about discussing how I never liked children much even when I was one; about how I started reading “Tween and teen” books when I was eight, and how when I was a teen I was mostly frightened of the other teens around me. I fled to the adult company of the newly-minted internet, and avoided most of my peers. It’s not a particular badge of pride or shame, it’s just what is: I was never any good at being a Young Adult, and they still hold that mysterious power for me. A cool kid at the age of sixteen will always be cooler than I am no matter how old I am. I don’t especially have a burning desire to encounter many.

I also thought about the discussion that my readers had about “writing down”, a reaction to the condescending youth-aimed literature of the mid-twentieth century. SFNovelists had an essay on what YA is:

It described fiction written for adolescents, who weren’t quite ready to move on from Middle Grade books to more adult reading matter, but who nonetheless wanted more complex and challenging subjects. What this meant was that YA books had a more limited vocabulary and syntax than books written for adults, and it showed. We found the language patronizing, and the characters, often simplified to make the author’s point, annoying.  YA was for people who, we thought, didn’t really like to read, or they’d learn to do it properly.

One of my commenters posted a quote from a LeGuin essay from 1973:

All you do is take all the sex out, and use little short words, and little dumb ideas, and don’t be too scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on. […] But you won’t have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic.

Now, on the one hand, good points all; on the other hand, see what I mean about how frightening Young Adults are?

It’s also easy to say kids should be treated like intelligent beings, because lord knows I wish I’d been treated that way more often, but it’s not the end of the story. Children aren’t miniature adults, even the really smart ones. I wasn’t any good at being a kid, but I would have made a shitty, irresponsible, miserable adult, too.

I considered studying the loud and vicious debate that’s going on right now regarding “darkness” in YA literature. It does look as though things have been getting darker, but I wonder. Kids half a generation below me get Hunger Games, but I got Christopher Pike novels — and we both get The Hobbit and the Narnia chronicles, just like our parents and grandparents did. They weren’t any less dark, really, they just had fewer televisions in them.

And I think it’s better to write dark books for youth and let their parents decide, rather than legislate what a writer can and can’t say to a fourteen-year-old. The publishers are already going to keep those gates pretty tight. One YA author, James Dawson, said that the things publishers keep from YA lit are the three S’s: “Shagging, swearing, and slaughter”. Despite, as he points out, these being three very popular things with teenagers.

And while Dawson doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t write, he’s aware that if he wants his books published, there are certain things that won’t fly. This isn’t necessarily a problem with self-publishing the way I do it, but of course traditional publishing still has perks that selfpub doesn’t, and one of those is a very strong connection to schools and libraries that buy YA literature.

At the start of this I was left with the problem that I am trying to understand books written, in the main part, for someone I never was, in a field (traditional publishing) to which I don’t fully belong. I could read a lot of YA Lit; in the past, I have, particularly in college where I used to pick books at random from the YA shelf and read them to relax. But I never read them at the right time, first too young and then too old, and finding the patterns and traditions is hard going.

So I turned to the internet, and we’ll be talking about that adventure on Tuesday.