MIND MELD: Is Young Adult SF/F Too Explicit?
A recent post by Nancy Kress concerning the mature themes of current young adult science fiction struck a chord with my own observations over the last few years. Namely, that the fiction being marketed to today’s young adults deals with adult themes more than the young adult fiction from yesteryear. This seemed like a good topic to throw at some of the people in the field:
[UPDATE: See also, a belated answer from Orson Scott Card.]
Short Answer: No.
I have a dear friend, a hospital pediatrician, who told me her father had explained that “sex is wet and messy.” This kept her from experimenting with same for nearly two years longer than she would have otherwise. This, in of itself, would justify more explicitness. My book (it’s all about me, Me, ME!), Jumper, was on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books List (1990-1999) because it essentially said, “If one of your parent’s is an active alcoholic bad things may result” (page 2) and “If you run away from home you may become the target of sexual predation” (page 9).
Now let’s try a thought experiment. You have a child. You want them to find out that they could be targeted for rape as a homeless teen by (a) Reading about it in fiction or (b) experiencing it.
Anybody choose B?
The job of writers is, foremost, to entertain, but we have other functions too. We give people experiences about choices and consequences from which they can draw conclusions for their own lives, and they didn’t have to go through that sexual assault or become a drug addict or live in a war ravaged city or kill somebody themselves. But, we also have to sell it–to make it real, to make it believable and sometimes that calls for explicit detail.
Looking back two hundred years, we can see a significant shift in what is explicit and what isn’t. We aren’t tying skirts around the legs of our tables lest the exposed nature of the “limbs” unduly excite the young (but the Victorians did.) Bare midriff’s would give them a heart attack.
And what is too explicit shifts widely between cultures and even between families. It shifts too much to expect school and public libraries to be able to decide (other than on a broad basis) what is and isn’t appropriate for your kids.
That’s your job.
When I was growing up, there was no such animal as young adult fiction. There was fiction for children and there was adult fiction. I moved from Nancy Drew to adult fiction as soon as I knew it existed and was reading Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, John Fowles’ The Magus, and Hesse’s Steppenwolf by the time I was 15. So to me the whole issue is asinine. Let teenagers read what ever they want–they’ll either get it or they’ll be bored with it and won’t continue. Which may seem funny coming from me as I’ve been co-editing young adult anthologies for the past six years. But hey, they sell, so who am I to argue with the market?
I think this is an interesting question that reflects on how our whole society is changing. When I look back at what was on television when I was young (before cable TV grew up) it was a totally different world. Any questionable phrase would be “bleeped out,” there was no nudity, no drugs, blood and gore. Kids and teens now have been raised in a world where they can press a button on the family computer when mom walks out of the room and see anything they could imagine.
I really think that what is going on in the YA book world reflects this, somewhat. But at the same time, do we have a responsibility not to add to the mayhem? Should YA writers try to provide a wholesome counterpart to the other media, or is it okay to jump on the bandwagon and go for the ratings/sales in any way possible? How lucrative is it to have a conscience?
When I browse the aisles of teen fiction (not to name authors, of course) it amazes me what is being marketed to girls. Some of it is wonderful, with strong characters, interesting settings. Some is stereotypical, pandering sex, coolness, drugs, and sex and drugs for coolness, etc.
This is one of the reasons why I am so glad to be writing fantasy. When I create my own world, I can put my characters in touchy emotional situations, grave danger, romantic moments, massive highs and give them tough decisions to make without one mention of sex, pregnancy, swearing, smoking, or guzzling vodka. So maybe I have it easy. I think it would be tough to find a realistic fiction book that would stimulate today’s teens that didn’t deal with some of these issues. I suppose it’s how the issues are dealt with that makes the difference.
No, I don’t personally think authors and artists have a mandate to be moralistic, or show kids and teens the world as a perfect, pure place. But I personally hope that others, like me, want to create a world for kids (and adults!) to enter that is a safe respite to escape from some of the garbage that is bombarding us all the time, and hopefully not be adding to it.
My field of view in this is, by necessity, narrower than it might be. I have two boys, one 9, the other not quite 12, and so much of the YA material I read is fiction that I already have some idea that they can handle. And while I do like to broaden my reading horizons beyond scoping out what the boys like to read, time is pretty limited in this household, what with non-fiction for research and the odd work of fiction I want to read for pleasure. However, I often find the books even before the boys have any idea that they’re out there, and then pass them on in hope that they’ll enjoy them.
Does this mean I have no faith in the boys’ ability to monitor themselves? Not at all. They’ve both surprised me quite a bit in their discernment and ability to test things out on their own, and as they grow, both in age and in taste, their horizons will broaden at their own pace. That pace may be faster than I hope, but with aid from their mother the librarian and their father the author, hopefully their critical thinking faculties will also follow that pace.
And of course, critical thinking probably ends up being the issue, doesn’t it? I’m probably preaching to the choir right now, but I believe that many (most?) people who are well-read, critical thinkers, tend to raise the same. And in a world where sex and violence and language alerts are sometimes needed not just for the programming on TV but for the commercials that accompany those shows, these skills are needed. In the long run, I trust my boys to be able to handle what they read, or to ask my input if they run into something that bothers them. And I trust the (good) authors to tell the stories that need to be told, and to do so in the tone and style that they feel is appropriate to that story.
All that said, I also understand that there are parents who don’t necessarily prepare their kids for all this, or are not aware that they might have to. I’ve sold one YA story so far, and hope to write more. The story, “The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake,” was an homage to childhood fave Thornton W. Burgess, and appeared in Julie Czerneda’s anthology Fantastic Companions. But when I sold the story I realized that, if I were an ordinary reader, I wouldn’t want my own kids reading something by this Derryl Murphy guy and then seeking his collection, which contains material I definitely do not believe is appropriate for them. And so I created a pseudonym, Matt Walker. It’s not a perfect solution, since my name still shows up on the copyright page, but kid, if you’re going to be that persistent, fill your boots.
So, in the end, I guess I take a somewhat libertarian view of things. If authors write stories for a YA audience that happens to shock some adults, so be it. Hopefully the more sensible adults will be heard, but if hysteria rules, in most cases that probably just results in higher sales. Good news for the author, and a sign to publishers that more of this is wanted. There is no line until someone draws one and someone else jumps across it.
I have no idea what you mean by mature theme. If you mean sex, only Melvin Burgess has had the courage to say “sex is fun, and you should do it for fun, and not insist that this must be lurve”. For the rest, YA sf is a sex free zone but has been heavily contaminated by a form of romance which is embarrassing in its “this is forever” immaturity.
Similarly, if you mean violence, I also have no idea what you mean. Of the books I’ve been reading recently, only Kathrine Duey (Skin Hunger) and Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) have real violence with real pain — and very fine books they are too. The rest are mere cartoons and that’s as traditional as Tom and Jerry.
The one area where YA and children’s sf can be really mature is in getting kids to think through ethical issues: Pratchett, Reeve, McNaughton, Halam, Baxter, Doctorow and Applegate, to name just a few, are outstanding at this and it is never to young to learn about ethics.
In principle, young adult sf/f can never be too explicit because if it is then, by definition, it ceases to be young adult. But then the question specifies ‘fiction marketed as “Young Adult”‘, which is a different matter. We’re talking about the stuff that, rightly or wrong, ends up on the teen shelves in the bookshops.
Consider: would Heinlein’s juvenile SF novels have benefited in the slightest if he had added what we would consider ‘normal’ young adult feelings to his young adult characters? Alternatively, would Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have benefited if he had written it all as a thrilling adventure for Will and Lyra but minus the sexuality? In both cases, let’s go for ‘no’.
Yet both take as their starting point the very positive characteristics of young people that make them such a pleasure to know here in the real world – their drive, their optimism, their sense of right and wrong. That is the core of any young adult fiction. From that starting point, Heinlein and Pullman branch out in the different directions that their stories require.
And that is the key question – what does a story need? Stories need, most of all, to be convincing to the reader for the milieu in which they occur. If in the real world a sexual situation would occur then so should it in a story; if not, then not. By ‘situation’ I don’t necessarily mean having sex – even just a boy musing on the benefits of a well fit girl, or vice versa, would come under that heading.
Teenagers know about sex and they know about sexual feelings, even if they haven’t had sex themselves (which is still the case for the majority). Ignoring that fact in a book is just being dishonest. If the needs of a story do get it all the way to a sex scene then teenagers will probably want to Know What It’s Like and will justly feel cheated if a veil is drawn over the whole thing. However, it’s quite possible to get that across couched in terms of what they already know from experience. Linda Newbery’s The Shell House – young adult, though not sf – comes immediately to mind as an excellent example.
The question goes on to ask: ‘is young adult sf/f too explicit?’ The only reason any fiction gets explicit is to turn on the readers; it’s rarely for information purposes. Teenagers don’t need turning on: drop a few hints if you must, and imagination will do the rest. My extensive market research here involved browsing through 20 pages of titles labelled by Amazon as young adult science fiction & fantasy. Of those that I’ve read – about 50% – I would say there is plenty that fulfils the above criteria of basic honesty, to different levels depending on the nature of the story, but none that goes into explicit levels of turn-on detail that would be better suited to a more adult book
I don’t believe there is a line. For one thing, a large portion of the YA audience is already reading adult books — they’re mature enough to decide what they’re ready to read. Things that don’t speak to individual teen readers will usually be avoided, explicit or not.
The whole notion of something being “too explicit” or “too adult” stems from what I firmly believe are notions about child and young adult-hood that gloss over what that time is actually like. It’s easy for adults to put a glossy sheen on the nature of children, the way they interact with the world, the strength and sometimes even ugliness of their emotions. In other words, I haven’t read anything in YA — SF/F or not — that strikes me as something that teens don’t experience or simply can’t understand. These types of concerns usually come up in regard to sex, and to some extent graphic violence and drugs. (I never hear people complaining that much about fantasy fight scenes though…wonder why?) These are all things that a large number of teenagers either experience or spend a significant amount of time thinking about on a daily basis (especially the sex). To censor this type of content from stories because of an underlying assumption about what is adult and what isn’t is misguided. I don’t see writers putting elements in their stories to be provocative. I see them putting these elements there because they’re necessary to tell the stories in question. That teenagers often respond so strongly to them just proves the point that they’re relevant and needed.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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