Sunday, 10 July 2011

Do publishers patronise teen readers?

Do we patronise teens with YA fiction?  I think so.  I’m just reading a piece by Nicolette Jones in the Sunday Telegraph which argues that teenagers are mature enough to deal with dark, even brutal or gruesome fiction.  I agree wholeheartedly.  Funny thing, so do all the teens I know. 
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.’
Patrick Ness, author of Monsters of Men, agrees: ‘To not write about serious things is, in a way, abandoning a young reader.’  And Mal Peet, author of Life: An ExplodedDiagram, adds, ‘There is an underlying idea that teenagers are empty vessels who will believe, impersonate, be irredeemably depressed by what they read.’  And, of course, they are not. 
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.’

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.  


Rob-bear said...

Oh, pleeeeeze; let us not sanitize the world til it no longer Bears any resemblance to what we see every day (or every other day)!
Kids know a fraud when they see one.
I'm with you, Jane.

mum in meltdown said...

It's funny that there are those particular rules for books, however if you look at films for the 12 or 15 age bracket and compare the content surely they combine the fantasy with realism in those! Why so different for books I wonder?

F said...

I think there may have been YA books when I was young? Though by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I was ripping through Harlan Ellison and Stephen King as fast as I could lay hands on them.

I don't think teen novels are being sanitized for the kids. God knows you'd have to get beyond debauched to even come close to the dissipated parties of my (pre-college) youth. I think it's so parents don't get offended. In the litigation happy US, I can totally see one of the "pro-family" groups suing a publisher for corrupting the delicate youth. Libraries have been sued, so it's probably happened already. I just live under a rock and missed it.

Anonymous said...

Hurrah for Jane!!
despite being so old YA didn't exist when I was a kid, I shall be buying this one the moment it comes out.
I do believe it is the time to kick the gate keepers in the goolies and get on with things.

Isobel Morrell said...

Whilst you may have a point, cannot help but feel that it's just because life is so bleak that I think books for YA folk should hold off all the realism. They're a long time living: let them be children for a bit longer? Just what's wrong with that. As a member of the Third Age, perhaps I'm being too wistful.

Frances said...

Well Jane, as you know, I don't have any children, so must travel way back in time to think about what I was reading in my teen aged years.

There was no fiction category marketed directly at my age, and I had not reason to think that there might be. a voracious reader, I just continued my borrowing from the library, working my way through the classics of English literature, and then plunged into what was then current adult fiction.

Glad to report that my parents never forbade any of my choices ... funny but I think that they might not have ever read what I was checking out.

As always, best wishes to you. xo

Greta said...

Go for it, my dear. Don't sanitize. I want to read the whole dark-and-dirty story. I'm sure you have the marketing grunt to make it work.

Tattieweasle said...

How young are YA? 13 upwards, by that time I was reading all sorts and most of it adult. Come on guys this was where I learnt that life wasn't all cosy as it was in my family. It helped me to grow up, understand and consider another's point of view....

alison said...

As another commenter said, I wonder if it's because they worry about the parents' reaction rather than the young adults themselves?
I once worked as a script editor on a
drama strand for teens at the BBC. We adapted Stone Cold by Robert Swindells (about a serial killer of homeless kids) and Junk by Melvin Burgess amongst others. It was always the parents who wrote in to say how disgusting/immoral/ etc the stories were. Good luck with Samael.

family affairs said...

How did my teenage daughter escape your trial read?? Sounds fascinating and yes, they do seem obsessed with keeping it in a very tight arena....Fingers crossed and toes then for the edit x


Sessha Batto said...

Well, I can't speak for books, I read adult books my entire life ;) But I do recall as a child finding the sanitized families on the popular television shows more depressing than uplifting - teens need more than anything to know that any bad things happening in their lives are NOT just happening to them, it can be comforting to realize you aren't so unique after all. I say be true to the story and the teens will lap it up!

Unknown said...

This is exactly why when I was a teen, I read adult books. My life wasn't all about proms and football games. I couldn't relate to the Wakefield Twins of Sweet Valley High. One of the things I love about current YA lit is that it is starting to deal with more realistic issues. Authors like Jackie Morse Kessler & Laurie Halse-Anderson address real problems in the lives of teens and give them hope that they will make it.