Tag Archives: violence

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Make Love, Not Death

My young adult novel is sexy.  It features teens who have sex and enjoy it.  I sometimes have them in exotically sexy, revealing outfits, that is when they aren’t just plain naked.  And I present this as a good thing.

I’ve had my critics, those who tell me that this sort of thing is “sad,” that it’s “not appropriate” for YA, that it sends “the wrong message” to impressionable teens.  They can kiss my fully-clothed ass.

First, let’s be clear: I’m writing fantasy.  Okay, technically it’s science-fiction, but so far to the “soft” end of the sci-fi scale as to be more like science-fantasy (I may start calling it that).  Let me repeat, it’s fantasy.  Fantasy allows things reality does not.  That means I can have a character who can move things with her mind.  It means I can have another character who can influence people’s emotional states.  And it absolutely means I can have a character who is a polyamorous pansexual and wears amusingly revealing outfits yet never loses her self-esteem or is thought less of by anyone in the world of my story as a result.  Because her sexuality doesn’t define her; her fierce independence and strength does.

Does this send the “wrong” message?  That message being, “it’s okay to feel good about your body and your sexuality”?  How the hell is that message wrong?  Is it because it doesn’t happen in the real world?  That’s the whole point.  If you are going to say that I shouldn’t send that message in my book, that instead I should somehow tell teens to cover their bodies and suppress their sexuality, then you are contributing to the problem, not me.  You warn girls that they will be “cheap” if they dress a certain way, or do certain things.  You insist that others will call them “slut.”  And you are probably right; others will do that.  And they will do it because you taught them to, by making it clear that you agree sexually confident girls are “sluts.”  You contribute to the “slut shaming” by warning girls about it, but doing absolutely nothing to stop it.

Boy, sounds like I’m really mad, doesn’t it?  Yes, I am.  I’m outraged.  How dare anyone tell me that my book could “damage” readers?  What about the damage caused by the stuff that you like, all the bleak, violent stuff?  Oh, no, you say, that’s okay, because the world is violent and readers’ lives are full of despair so their reading should mirror that.  I see.  And what do you suppose is the result?  I’ll tell you.  I’ll tell you why I’m angry.  I’ll tell you why you don’t get to say one negative word about the sex and nudity in my book.

Because a twelve-year-old girl in Florida climbed to the top of an industrial platform, jumped off, and splattered her life across the concrete.

Why?  Because she was being mercilessly bullied.  Perhaps the bullying included the “slut shaming” that comes from a sexually repressive society.  I don’t know.  I do know there were multiple taunts that she should die, that she should kill herself.  Until she finally did.

People are now trying to blame social media, but mostly they are wringing their hands, wondering if there’s anything we can do about this rising epidemic of children killing themselves and each other.  Sure there is: take a look at the real messages we send, messages in violence-filled, yet “honored” YA fiction, books whose authors insist they are meeting some noble purpose when really they are just emulating the violent movies and games that all send the exact same, very clear message: lethal violence is a valid response to all problems.  The bad guys aren’t arrested, they are executed; others who present an obstacle aren’t incapacitated, they are murdered; innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire yet are given nary a further thought.  And, as Colonel Stars and Stripes says in the execrable Kick-Ass 2, “We’re the good guys.”

As for the bullies, they read these books, see these movies, play these games, and get the even more profound message that every single one of them sends: people you don’t like should die.  That’s what the bullies in Florida thought.  And why wouldn’t they?  When their hero, Katniss, reacts to the first killing in The Hunger Games by coldly noting how stupid the young victim was to call attention to herself, not feeling the slightest trace of pity, that’s the lesson the readers who love her learn: some people deserve to die.

Where’s the outrage over that?  The silence is deafening.  Yeah, you try to blame Facebook and Twitter, but really you’re too busy blaming me because I’m writing a book that says teen sexuality can be a good thing.  When instead I guess I should be reserving that accolade for teen killing.

And the girl who jumped?  I wonder how many dark, violent books with downer endings she’d read?  Books that, in the guise of validating her feelings, simply contributed to the despair and hopelessness.  That’s the worst part.  These violent books might almost be okay if they ended with a sense of optimism, that things do get better.  But many of them don’t.  They end as bleak as they begin.  They tell readers that, in the end, nothing matters, that we’ll all going to die so who cares.

Not mine.  In my book, violence happens, but it’s tragic, and nobody deserves to die, not even the bullies.  Violence is something the characters desperately want to avoid.  Even the tough action girl, who would rather have sex with people than kill them.  My story is about love.  Love that keeps the characters strong and whole.  Love that inspires them to strive for a better world.  And, yes, love that motivates them to get naked and climb into bed (or some other convenient place) for the sole purpose of giving someone else a moment of joy.

What the hell is bad about that?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Did You Expect?

Something currently burning up the internet is the tremendous, and quite passionate, response of viewers of the Game of Thrones series to the events of the most recent episode.  This had taken on the name “Red Wedding,” and I’ll leave it to you to look it up.  Or not.  The point is that the episode features a wedding which turns into a brutal bloodbath in which numerous characters are mercilessly murdered.  This has, for some reason, outraged viewers.

I can only scratch my head.  Let me make clear that I am not a fan, and have no interest whatsoever in Game of Thrones, having not read a single page or watched a single frame.  But I know what it’s about, and it’s best summed up as “horrible people doing horrible things to each other.”  There isn’t a single upright character in the thing.  The closest the series had was a main character who was executed early on in the saga.  Perhaps that was making the point clear: no good guys wanted.

The series positively celebrates brutal carnage.  Characters are assassinated, executed, tortured with abandon, in graphic ways.  Many of the victims, and perpetrators, are children, including a nine-year-old girl who is a remorseless assassin.  That’s the case in the books; in the series she’s been aged up to around thirteen, although this was not actually done because a preteen assassin was unacceptable.  They aged up all the characters because the producers knew people would freak out at a sexually active thirteen-year-old, so they made her seventeen.  Mind you, the sexually active thirteen-year-olds in our society outnumber the thirteen-year-old assassins – at least, I hope they do – but that doesn’t keep people from freaking out about sex.  But that’s for another day.

On the other hand, the violence, even involving children, is just fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the whole point.  It’s why people watch.  They want to see it.  People are entertained by watching other people die.  Sure, they might say (as some of you are thinking right now) that the real appeal is the nuanced characters, the amazingly complex storylines and, in the case of the books, the clear, evocative prose.  Uh huh.  Tell me, you who are saying this, if you took away the violence, didn’t have a single murder, would you still watch?  Didn’t think so. 

So this recent fan reaction facinates me.  That I would find the very idea of a wedding massacre scene repulsive, nauseating and soul-crushing is of no significance.  That fans would is another matter.  The question is, why are they reacting so negatively to something that surely cannot have come as a surprise?  Were they expecting a fairy tale happy ending?  As the Player says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “You call that an ending?  With everyone still on their feet?  Over your dead body!”

Not that this sequence is without precedent.  The Godfather famously ends with a montage of brutal murders intercut with a baptism.  But this was very clearly to indicate the main character’s final slide into total darkness.  And it didn’t outrage people because we ultimately knew that this character was going to go that way, even if we hoped maybe he could be redeemed.  In the end, it became Greek tragedy.  The “Red Wedding,” on the other hand, was simply Grand Guignol.  And which would be more likely to draw an audience?

So the question remains, why did viewers, who watch the show specifically to see the carnage, react with such anger to actually seeing it?  The answer is intriguing.  As one person (a reader who knew about this sequence from when he read the book thirteen years ago) told me, “George R. R. Martin is really good at creating characters you care about, and then brutally slaughtering them.”  And that’s the key.  It’s characters the viewers cared about.  Well, that just changes everything, doesn’t it?  Death and violence are fine when I don’t actually care about the victims.  Bring it on!  But not when it’s someone I connect to.  How dare you depict such awful violence, you terrible author!  Shame on you! 

Um, I’ve been saying that all along.  I didn’t need to relate to the victim to understand that violence is sickening, not entertaining.  I guess the series’ fans did.  And they’re angry because they’ve actually come face to face with the reality of the depraved spectacle they love so much.

Is that why Martin writes such violent fare, to make a statement about our taste for death?  I doubt it.  He wrote it because it sells, and, I’m guessing, he wrote it because it appeals to him.  That’s true for all writers; we write what we like.  While it’s tempting to believe he’s trying to make a statement about pervasive violence in society, there’s no reason to believe that, any more than we should believe other authors when they say they are making a statement about how bad violence is by giving us copious amounts of it.  And, indeed, even if that’s the message, people aren’t going to get it anyway.  Otherwise they would have complained long before the recent episode.  If people actually bought the message that, “violence is bad,” then they would turn off the TV at the first violent scene.  They would walk out of the theater (as I have actually done).  No, the fact is, authors like Martin are making their message very clear: watching people die is awesome.  And readers and viewers whole-heartedly agree.

There’s another possibility, of course.  Perhaps the writers of such dark, nihilistic stories are just that cynical, that discouraged with humanity, that convinced that we are all monsters and there’s no hope for us.  Really, how misanthropic does someone have to be to make a movie as pessimistic as The Purge?  But that’s the norm now.  And that makes me sad.  This despite the fact that it doesn’t surprise me.  I’m a reluctant cynic.  I have often said that, given the opportunity, human beings will be horrible to each other.  Alas, it’s human nature.  So how can I fault things like Game of Thrones for reflecting that?  Because I don’t want to be a cynic.  I’m very sad that I have been made one by what I see.  I really want to believe in something better.  I want to believe that mankind is something loftier, that there is greatness in us, and that we should be striving for that within ourselves and each other.

This is reflected in my writing.  My characters are good people, trying to be the best they can.  That doesn’t mean they are perfect pollyannas.  They make mistakes and do the wrong thing.  And it has terrible consequences when they do.  But they keep trying to be better.  They don’t accept their dark sides, because neither do I.  Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world.  If so, it’s ironic, because most fantasy is like Game of Thrones, dark, violent, cynical, depressing, saying the worst about mankind.  You have to look far for something better.

I, for one, find myself looking some fifty years back to a little TV show called Star Trek.  To this day, it stands out for its positive attitude. Series creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the greatness of humanity, and made his show reflect that.  It’s a stark contrast to most science fiction.  True, the later series became much darker, but there was still that essential optimism.  I believe in that.

I confess I’ve put a few Star Trek references in my book, ones most of my target audience won’t get at all.  I also reference throughout the book a song by a mid-seventies progressive rock band that is also tremendously hopeful and positive.  Do I have these outdated references because I’m out-of-touch and clueless?  Probably.  But still they speak to something very important, something hard to find today.  A young friend recommended at one point a different, much more current song that expressed the same message.  But, while I liked the song (my musical tastes are extremely diverse), I found it musically too dark, too heavy.  Not what I want to reflect.

I believe we can be better, that we can aspire, that we are basically good, and that, given the opportunity, we’ll be good to each other.  I want to believe that, even though it’s hard.  So that’s what I’m writing.  There will be moments in the trilogy that will greatly sadden readers, maybe even anger them.  There will be times when, out of desperation and despair, my characters will do horrible things.  But they will feel the weight of their actions.  And they will find redemption.  Because if we don’t have that, then what’s the point of anything?  We may as well all be mass-murder victims at a wedding.


Filed under Uncategorized