My YA novel Samael has been read by over a hundred teens (yup, that many – I like to do my research!) and not one – no, not one – baulked at the dark moments. In fact, quite the contrary, they loved that the book didn’t flinch at the tough stuff. They also loved that it combined heady romance and sexy supernaturals with gritty realism.
Yet editors at YA imprints are coy, verging on infantile, when they commission. When the first draft of Samael did the rounds of publishers earlier in the year, it was turned down for being “too dark”. Editors baulked at the elements of realism that intruded on the fantasy – the racism, the alchoholism, the bad parenting, the rape and violence. It seems that supernatural romance novels need to stay ‘nice’ – though the definitions of nice are a bit shaky. It’s okay for young girls to snog bloodsucking vampires or hunt with wolves but it’s not okay to show that the countryside isn’t always a bucolic paradise; that bad things happen even in middle-class homes.
Authors however are keen to tackle such themes. Theresa Breslin, author of Prisoner of the Inquisition, is quoted in the Telegraph piece. ‘We must let our readers see that, in certain circumstances, people get hurt, physically and psychologically. Let us not patronise, insult or disrespect our youth; it’s a writer’s obligation to deliver emotional truth.’
I don’t know about you but when I was a teen I was reading widely – and reading adult fiction because the notion of YA books simply didn’t exist. I read about murder, rape, sexism, racism, underage pregnancy. Okay, there wasn’t a lot of sex (not for want of searching) but there was a bit…and there was violence in spades.
Nicolette Jones makes the point that ‘youngsters experience everyday traumas: muggings, bereavement, divorce. They are not living innocent lives.’ She goes on to muse, ‘Perhaps they never did. Once they went out to work, married young, watched hangings. They fight our wars and always have. And youngsters have always scoured literature for the taboo.’Exactly.
Come on publishers. Don’t fall into the trap of lowest-common denominator button-pushing. I know these are tough times economically; I know you’re playing safe…but, but, but… Bend your rules a little; break a few boundaries. Why shouldn’t teenage novels have sex and violence in them? Why shouldn’t a supernatural romance also deal with gritty everyday issues?
I'd like to say I stuck firm to my guns but I want Samael published so, in the end, I caved in. I rewrote the book taking out or toning down the parts that bothered the editors the most. But I wouldn’t go all the way…so to speak. I won’t take out the alcoholism, the racism, the lousy parenting because those elements are as fundamental to my story as the desperate, hopeless love between Gen and her supernatural lover.
If you’d like to read a little of Samael it's here on the blog.