It’s always interesting when a confluence of unrelated events creates a coherent picture. This has just recently happened, beginning with my having run across a Publishers’ Weekly article from last fall that discussed then-current trends in teen fiction and had a number of agents weighing in on the subject. Much of what the agents said was contradictory, and ended up coming down to, “We never really know what will succeed and what won’t.”
Much was said about how glutted the teen market has become, and how books that were published even five years ago wouldn’t make today. The picture being painted was a rather discouraging one, not just for famous-pessimist me, but for a lot of would-be authors. But near the end, the agents got a chance to express what they would really like to see in their inboxes. They all made the usual sounds about wanting to see something different, unique, daring, etc. Something that surprises them and knocks them over. Uh huh. I must say how gratified I was when a number of people in the comments section, including authors, educators and librarians, basically called bullshit.
The fact is, as I have said more than once, agents might say they want to see something “different,” but it’s not what they actually take on. One key statement, the most honest line in the whole thing, came from an agent who admitted how it really works: “It’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept idea because it’s easier for publishers to sell a high-concept story to readers. There’s a real challenge when you can’t describe a story in one sentence.”
Yep. So much for the complex, unusual things they claim they want. They will continue to pick up simplistic action yarns because they are easy to sell to publishers. And film studios. This was confirmed to me just this weekend, by a review I read of some new teen thing called “Panic,” which also put the lie to the claim that dark dystopia is on the way out. Essentially, the premise is of some obscure high school where the students play some sort of ritualized game of fear, friendship, betrayal, etc. Basically Hunger Games lite. Or, let’s be honest, Battle Royale lite. The book is only just out, and has already been optioned for a movie. Apparently there was a “bidding war” before it was even released. No longer do they wait to see if a book is a success. Now the agents are shopping it to film studios right alongside publishers.
The worst part, of course, is the kind of book it takes to have this sort of unwarranted success. High concept, defined in one sentence. Dark, violent, all that. More stories about children inflicting horror on each other for the amusement of readers and theater-goers. How did we become a society with such hatred of children that our mass entertainments are filled with them killing each other?
To be fair, I understand Suzanne Collins’ motivation for writing Hunger Games, which had nothing to do with an alleged mash-up of Survivor and Gulf War coverage, and everything to do with her working out having spent a decade at Nickelodeon, dealing with arrogant, ill-behaved child TV stars. No wonder she had fantasies of them being killed on TV for the entertainment of rich people such as herself.
But that doesn’t explain the fascination with child violence that drives the rest of society. And you are probably thinking it’s not an indication of hatred of children, that I am overstating the issue. Don’t be so sure. See, the next eye-opener that came to my attention was something that hit me very close to home. I am currently enjoying my annual binge on those addictive substances with the deceptively innocent name, “Girl Scout Cookies.” Those little marketing geniuses have us. One enterprising little girl in Colorado, who gets my vote for the Nobel Prize in Economics, set up her little table in front of a marijuana dispensary. She probably sold out in the first hour.
But apparently all is not well for the girls. It seems there is an attempt to lead a boycott of Girl Scout Cookies due to a perceived link between GSA and Planned Parenthood. Anti-abortion activists say it’s the GSA promoting “abortion on demand for young girls,” but in fact all it is is a program that emphasizes the accomplishments of women, including in the fields of health and sexuality.
And there’s the real fear. People on various right-wing websites are decrying the idea of promoting “fact-based sex education” to girls. It’s not “wholesome,” whatever that means. What we see is a very vocal arm of society that is as fearful of sexuality as they aren’t when it comes to violence. They are horrified that young people, especially girls, might have the means to make healthy decisions about their bodies and their sexuality. And if girls can make their own decisions about sex, what’s next, deciding they don’t have to have my dinner on the table when I get home? Oh the humanity! And that mindset is every bit as damaging as all the violent media kids are saturated with.
That’s one of the reasons I am so frustrated at having met no success with my book. I have very body-positive and sex-positive messages in it, messages I think entirely suitable for teens. But I suspect if I ever do find an agent, all that stuff would be the first thing she’d want cut. We can’t be telling kids that sex is okay, even fun. The only way it seems to be permitted in teen books is if it’s traumatic. I recently suffered through the first book in the Graceling series, and was subjected to a sex scene that not only was completely unnecesary to the story, but was so unpleasant, so awkwardly presented, it made Fifty Shades sound like D. H. Lawrence in comparison and made me wonder if the young author had even had sex, or was just basing it on stories she heard in the girl’s restroom at high school. I’m not the only person whose sex drive was shut down from reading it. But that gets a pass. I guess to try and scare the kids away from having sex or something. Not that that will stop them.
But the damage caused is real. And so we deluge children with fear and hate and violence and despair, feeding the darkness rather than leading them to enlightenment and hope. How did we get here? One possible answer lies in the final element that has come to my attention.
A recent Pew study has found that the so-called “millennial” generation (with an approximate age range of 18-33) are not turning out to be the great community builders people thought they would be, but are instead even more self-absorbed than their Baby Boomer parents were (and that’s quite an accomplishment). They are educated but largely unaccomplished, having lived highly structured, sheltered lives, where zero-tolerance polices on aspirin are the norm, and distrusting authority is an abstract mantra. They are now filling a world that expects them to take an active role, and they don’t want it. They aren’t prepared for it. They make a lot of noise about issues, but it’s accompanied by very little action.
Is it any coincidence that the writers and promoters and publishers of violent, sex-negative, child-hating “teen” books are almost all right in the middle of the millennial demographic? As are many of the “adult” readers of these books. It makes sense. It’s a generation less-prepared for responsibility than any before. And more fearful of it. Obviously there are exceptions, and some of my closest friends fall in this age range. I have some highly motivated students, but they, too, are fearful of a world where the traditional certainties no longer apply. They are the first generation in history that cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents’, for whom still living “at home” in your twenties and even later is no stigma, but often the only practical choice. I don’t envy them.
Many in this demographic are postponing or avoiding traditional institutions like marriage and family in record numbers. This is not in and of itself bad, and I made the choice to not have children myself years ago. But the scope in this case is indicative. These are people who do not want the immense responsibility of family and children, and some of them who took it on anyway (possibly not by choice, thanks to inadequate sex education) fell apart when they discovered what’s really involved. They do not want the responsibility the real world demands when the worlds presented in books and movies and video games are so much easier to grasp. Unlike a best-selling teen book, life cannot be described in one sentence, so they want no part of it. They escape a world they aren’t ready for by creating alternates where the social order they distrust and fear has collapsed, where life is cheap, and where they can lead armies and save the dreamy boy without having to worry about paying a mortgage and buying diapers.
So what’s my solution? I don’t have one. I’d say reject the darkness and read books full of fun and optimism, like mine. But they don’t get published. Okay then, have some Girl Scout Cookies. Guaranteed to make anyone feel better. But you’d better hurry before they’re banned for promoting sex.