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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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