Tag Archives: teen fiction

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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The Great Cookie Panic

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.

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