The Violent Death of My Writing Career

I’m coming to face the reality that the novel I am in the final stages of completing is utterly unpublishable in the current Young Adult market.  I am simply unable – and unwilling – to include the level of brutal, bloody violence that the readership demands.

Well-meaning people have told me many times that I don’t have to write it that way, that they aren’t all like that.  Actual published YA authors tell a different story.  They make clear that it’s about the violence, both in their own commentaries (and if there’s one thing writers love to talk about, it’s their own writing), and, more to the point, in the books that they publish.  Stories about a teenage cat burglar who is being hunted by her latest victim.  Stories about teens dealing with the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.  Stories about a teenager killing a convict with his bare hands.  I swear I am not making any of this up, and I am merely scratching the surface.  And this is considered suitable fare for our children.

I am not alone in my objections, of course, except most people who object to the increasingly dark and violent tone do so because they say it’s damaging to the readers, which is not the case.  It’s the symptom, not the cause.  Defenders of garbage like The Hunger Games insist that it’s appropriate for today’s teens because they live in a violent world full of hopelessness and despair, and they want to see those issues played out in the books they read.  To put it simply, that’s bullshit.

Today’s teens are the most sheltered, privileged, entitled generation the world has ever seen.  True, we are living at the first point in history where the children cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents, but that may simply be because their current living standard is already so high it’s almost incomprehensible.

These are children who have never known want or care.  They have big screen TVs, movies on demand, smart phones, instantaneous information, and the expectation that they will be entertained and stimulated twenty-four hours a day.  For them, trauma comes from having a slow internet connection. 

Even worse, they are overscheduled.  Helicopter parents whose lives revolve around their children make sure that every moment of those children’s lives is filled with sports and art and tutoring and as many activities as can be crammed in, fearful that, left to their own devices, the children might become – gasp! – bored.  Or worse, that they’ll get up to mischief.  But they have been deprived of the opportunity to explore, to experiment, to take risks.  So they ride their skateboards off of the roof in the hope that someone will see it on Youtube.  And they seek out those videos so that they can laugh when someone else is critically injured.  They play carnage-filled computer games like Halo.  They go to see movies where the solution to every problem is to kill anyone who gets in your way. And they read books about teens (whom they presumably imagine to be just like themselves) killing with abandon.

They aren’t reading violent books because they live violent lives; quite the opposite.  They read – and, more to the point, watch – violence because of the absence of it in their lives.  The children in Syria or Sudan aren’t reading books about killing.  They’re too busy seeing it in the streets.  Why would they want more?  It’s us here in the wealthy, protected Western world who want it.  We are barbaric, bestial, violent creatures, who crave death and killing.  We take pleasure in it.  For most of human history, it was a real fact of life.  Today we still want it, but have to find it in our fiction. 

Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe violent fiction is an outlet for our violent urges that keeps us from enacting violence in real life.  Maybe we should actually be encouraging young people to read violent books so that they learn how to deal with those feelings.  Maybe.  But try making the same argument for sexual content and just see how quickly people change their tune.  I have decided that there will in fact be implied sexuality in my book; there won’t be actual sex, not in this book, but there very likely will be in the next book, if it ever gets written.  And I intend to present it at all times as a positive thing: it’s okay as long as there’s honesty and respect (which is a better message than “kill or be killed”).  Teens have sexual urges even more than they have violent urges.  Will reading my book allow them to explore and learn to deal with those feelings?  I hope so.  But will they even get a chance to do so?  We’ll have to wait and see.

People tell me to hang in there, that what I have written is good, whether it’s violent or not, and that these things always go in cycles.  True, trends do change, and so I guess I will soldier on (to use a violent metaphor).  Maybe my novel will be that rare trend-buster that actually gets some traction.  But in my half-century on this planet, one thing has been made clear to me: the level of violence in entertainment has always increased, never decreased.  There’s no reason to expect that trend will reverse itself.  And it’s just going to get worse and worse.  Your children are reading books about teens hunting each other for entertainment.  What will your grandchildren be reading?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Violent Death of My Writing Career

  1. Ryan

    I meant to comment on the original post but wanted to mull it over for awhile. You make some very valid points about the state of YA literature, which I do agree with, as well as society in general. I’m glad that your revision of the post ends on a more positive note rather than just throwing in the towel. Getting traditionally published is difficult no matter what genre you’re writing for. A lot of what I’ve read about getting published can be summed up to luck, or networking. I say keep at it, stick to your beliefs, write the book you intend and forget about the trend. On the other hand though, not catering to the market you’re going to have to accept the lower likelihood of getting published. I do think though that there is a decent market out there for the type of story you’re trying to tell. Not all teens are obsessed with violence. As a matter of fact, the more I’ve looked into the ‘YA’ market, the more I’ve realized that it’s actually dominated by adults.

    • Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate that you note that it is necessary to be aware of the realities of the genre and the market. It intrigues me that editors so often advise new writers to “not write to the trend,” but then they turn around and say, “Here’s what we’re looking for now.” In other words, do pay attention to the trends. In the end, it’s a huge crapshoot and luck does play the largest part: being in the right place at the right time. And knowing the right people. It’s no coincidence that the majority of successful new authors had years of previous experience in the publishing and/or media industries.

  2. Great response from Ryan, and I definitely agree with all points!

    I also wanted to mull this over a bit after my initial read, mostly because I suspect what I want to say isn’t too original. You’ve obviously have people say already that not all YA books are full of violence, and I do believe that. I read a lot of YA and I tend not to go for the heavily violent stories. Some are violent, yes, but not everything and I don’t think I’d even say most are. From what I’ve read of your story, I would believe there’s a market for it as-is.

    If you really feel like it’s not going to be a fit for YA, you might want to consider looking at the middle-grade market. I know you have characters who are 16, but Robin and Tanya are younger, and I think you’d find that middle grade books aren’t as plagued by violence. It’s often a very fuzzy line between juvenile, middle grade and YA anyway. Just a thought!

    • I continue to wrestle with this, and, while you are right that violent content isn’t universal, it’s the norm. Yet the more I consider it, the more I think that the adults are at least as much to blame for the problem. There seems to be a belief among teachers, librarians and the like the the “best” books for young readers are ones in which the protagonists deal with “heavy” issues, including, particularly, death. This is jokingly referred to as “Death by Newberry,” given that any book that wins the Newberry Award is guaranteed to have the death of a key character be a major plot point, and much of the book is devoted to “dealing with that.” I’m not entirely sure why this is considered so important, and, in my own experience teaching high school, I recall nearing the end of one year where one of my 9th grade students came to me and asked if we could please read something where nobody died. I took a look at the 9th grade reading list and realized that my options for texts without death were extremely limited.

      As for middle grade, while I breifly considered that long ago, at this point my decision to not try to write for the YA market has allowed me to reapproach the novel and make revisions that would make it even more unsuited for MG than it is for YA. I’m starting to think I’m writing an adult novel that happens to have YA protagonists. When I was a teen, the YA genre was largely limited to stuff like Judy Blume, and fantasy and science fiction was simply for adults, and we teens ate it up. I realize my novel is much more suited to that, and I’ve been told that, were I writing this thirty years ago, it would be an almost certain sell. It’s different today, for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer number of would-be writers bombarding editors, simply because technology has made it so easy. Editors have to be a lot more selective, and good writers can get lost in all the noise. But, given that more and more adults are becoming regular readers of YA fantasy (consider Harry Potter or The Hunger Games), perhaps I’m actually on the cutting edge of developing the next trend: YA for adults. Maybe that’s my way in.

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