teen years, writing, young adult

How to Write Realist YA: Part 2

Reading girl
Young readers identify strongly with what they are reading

Once again, I am joined by my unnamed guest blogger in the final part of his insightful article on the problems besetting young adult fiction. I deeply appreciate all the effort he has put into writing this, and no, really, this isn’t me. I’d be bragging if it was! You can find the first part of this article here


In the last installment I described the facile nature of today’s “Realist” Young Adult Fiction as a sort of “porn” that indulged teenager’s most unsubstantiated worldviews of persecution and victimization.  Facile.  Yes, that’s exactly how I would describe these books.  It’s not that teenagers can’t handle difficult material; it’s the manner in which it is so easily delivered to their audiences that makes them so damaging.  They indulge in a teenager’s fantasies in exactly the same way people escape into porn.  While not the usual bump and grind, they do in fact, work on this level to their intended audience.

The formula by now is very shopworn, and has been since the days of Dead Poets Society.  You have an awkward misunderstood teen with the literary tastes of Simone de Beauvoir and the wit of Oscar Wilde.  Either they are new at school, or a new boy/girl arrives who makes them feel ALIVE!  The new arrival will undoubtedly speak in stilted phrases more common to an Aaron Sorkin production than an actual teenager.  They will dress in vintage thrift store clothing, affect odd habits, enjoy old photos or movies.  Secrets will be revealed and shared.  A near cult-like environment will develop around the core group.  They will be hated, bullied and in turn rebel against their unjust situation.  They will be portrayed as the only “awake” people while the rest of the world, parents, teachers, other popular teenagers, are unthinking automatons.

Unspoken romantic interests will be rife.  There will be a gay or minority friend who’ll be trotted out, not as a real person, but as a prop for some further conflict by which the protagonist can prove they have grown or become truly tolerant.  Parents are peripheral, useless or abusive.  Experimentation with sex or drugs or both is mandatory, and painted as a way to true intimacy.  (While John Green justifies his sex scene as awkward and unsatisfying, it none-the-less fulfills this purpose, being the cause of a later moment of intimate revelation.  The message is clear.  Even bad sex is more liberating than no sex.)  In fact, the genre more or less endorses bad decision-making as an avenue to greater self-discovery.

There will be lots of cute moments, good humor, minor triumphs along the way. Things will start to work out for the group, one will get a major part in a school play, get recognized by their crush, stand up to a bully, and a happy ending is hinted at, until there is some great disappointment, at which point it’s customary for a major character to die, – or more recently be institutionalized.  Whether by suicide or some terminal disease is optional, but it must be terribly earnest and cause lots of soul-seeking and anguish, which usually means the protagonist will find solace in a quotation lifted from the author’s English 101 class.  The trauma of losing this person is the one thing that will catapult the protagonist from their sheltered life, cause them to shed their false consciousness and finally start living for themselves.  All aptly summed up in a pithy phrase by the author that will be in the blurb and become a tagline in the movie version. You get the idea.  All feelings will be validated, but no real moral heavy lifting is involved.

This is contemporary “sick-lit” as it stands today.  Any clever writer could churn one out.  I’m not sure the term “sick-lit” is helpful.  Rather I think we should stick to the term “realist” even though I’m not exactly sure it’s an apt description either.  To say realist Youth fiction attempts to show the real world is questionable at best.  I’ll just say my teenage years were not populated by characters that could have dropped out of a Wes Anderson film.  I’m betting yours wasn’t either.  So they are not fundamentally realist at all.  They are fantasies, just the kind without quests and rings and wand and wizards. That in itself, is also fine. My objection is not to revive battles over genres.  To each his own.  No my objection is not that they present heavy themes, but those themes are fundamentally weightless, deposited in phony narratives, triggering emotional highs and lows at very little cost.

I remember pouring through Billy Bud and Kerouac, and let me tell you, it was work.  Not that they weren’t enjoyable.  Billy Bud remains a favorite, but it was work.  The emotional highs and lows, and sorting out what it all meant, was hard work, but worth it.   John Green is a good read, but a fast and fun read.   Unlike a hike that takes you on your own leg power, Green’s books and others like them are rollercoasters.  You just sit back and take the ride. It’s in this way that John Green is writing porn.  It takes no effort and provides only empty thrills.

So why is this such a problem?  I mean, we aren’t talking about actual porn or obscenity, so what’s the big deal? Isn’t everyone entitled to a little escapism now and then? Certainly they are.  I escape into real estate listings I’ll never be able to afford. I’m not against people being entertained, and I haven’t even checked the listings for manors in the Napa valley today.  To paraphrase Cecil B. DeMille, I am more than happy to give the people what they want.  And clearly, teens want it, and authors like Green are expert at giving it to them, but do the teenagers know that’s what they are getting?

The article goes on to argue, somewhat ineffectively I think, that unlike the recent vampire or dystopian crazes in young adult fiction, teenagers can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, fiction and fantasy.  The obvious fantasy of sparkly undead and death match lottery-winners are therefore “safer” than stories about kids facing suicide or terminal cancer, because they don’t trigger this confusion.  I’m not so sure that’s true.  I think that’s exactly wrong in fact.  Books are about more than just events and settings.  They are about ideas and feelings.  Precious few if any of us have shared the decks of a whaler with a peg-leg maniac, or a raft with a runaway slave.  Those experiences are as remote to most of us as the fields of Pelenor or Narnia, and yet they remain safely within the category “real.”  Rather it’s the feelings and ideas a book generate that make it real.  I was nearly as traumatized by the (Ok mild spoilers here) death of Dobby, as I was of a real person, and it wouldn’t have mattered at all if he had been a South Londoner and drug-addled teenager instead of a house elf.  There are no “safe” books, as long as the books connect to a reader’s feelings and mind.  And the kind of books that don’t are rarely worth reading.  This however doesn’t make the article’s point less important.  If anything it makes it worse.

At this point I will resist the urge to go into a long discursus on V.S. Ramachandran’s work on mirror neurons, – seriously, you should look it up – but basically, humans are hard-wired for empathy.  It doesn’t matter if the person is a house-elf in a book, or your real life best friend, because “feeling” is real, no matter how it happens.  The things we feel in imaginary places are as real as the things we feel in real life, if only less intense.  This is where an author has a moral responsibility to his audience, and where I think Young Adult authors are especially culpable.  Some are very deft at letting their readers know, by wink and nod, that this is, though it takes place in a presumably real world, largely a fantasy, a construct designed to make the reader cry and make the author money.   I know he may have some high-minded ideals he wishes to teach through his work, but that’s basically the gist of it.  Feelings=money.  That’s what an author is paid to do. So you drown your reader in it.  It’s just smart marketing, and frankly, pretty easy to do.

This is why Young Adult fiction becomes problematic and why so much of it crosses over into the category of “porn” as it I have defined it, a self-indulgent fulfillment of unrealistic expectations or fantasies.  As the father of two teenagers, and as a volunteer for my church youth organization, as well as many local and community youth organizations, I can tell you that teenagers do not extrapolate knowledge from many examples and many experiences.  Rather they tend to extrapolate knowledge from their own immediate experience in a rather self-centered way.  I know, shocker huh?  We all do this, but the filters that prevent us from doing this are not as developed amongst teenagers as in adults.  Well most adults anyway.  They just haven’t experienced as much, so their own immediate experience takes precedence, over the views of others.  (If any one doubts this analysis, let me ask first if you have met any teenagers.)  And what they read, becomes part of that immediate experience.  With me so far?  That means that whatever validates the usual and unremarkable slights and offenses of an average mundane teenage life get amplified. The Venn diagram overlap between how teenagers are depicted in realist young adult fiction and actual teenagers is truthfully, very small.  Almost zero.  But the overlap between the characters and how teenagers imagine their lives to be, is huge.  It justifies their sense of hurt and loneliness, amplifying it and feeding it back to them in an endless loop. You can get a nerve to twitch if you hit it just right. The authors of these books have found their nerve, and they are stomping on it, repeatedly.  By concentrating on feelings, and validating those all too common feelings of victimization and isolation, they can guarantee a steady stream of emotional outpouring (and money) but at what cost?

The desensitized addicts of real porn have to seek bigger and more extreme forms to keep getting the same hits.  They turn inward on themselves and seek only their own pleasure and gratification.  A culture of teens raised on books that focus on feelings, as opposed to life skills, will not challenge itself.  If they listen to books which say that fulfillment is found in experimentation, (sexual, drugs or otherwise) instead of in self-mastery, self-denial and mental and emotional discipline, it will create a generation of very disappointed young adults.  As they enter the real world, they will continue to seek emotional salience and greater validation for their emotional states in a world that frankly, is uncaring and unresponsive.  And here I also speak not from theory, but by experience and must get deadly serious.

I am an educator, and as such I see the products of the current age of popular culture.  I am amazed that my students have a hard time when I grade them and find them wanting.  They immediately respond with indignation, emotionalism or disbelief.  I find it astonishing that they even have a difficult time understanding that an answer, or an argument can be “right” or “wrong” at all.  Often they will argue with me, bitterly, that because their answer was well and sincerely felt, it should count the same as if it was well argued, well-thought or even factual.  When I inform that, no, your emotional state, your sense of validation is most definitely not the same as the correct answer, or a well-written essay, they are completely stymied. So over-stimulated is their emotional reflex, the other parts of their being can’t even interact.  Not validating their emotions is the worst thing imaginable you can do to them.  When faced with my intransigence on this matter, they often break into tears, unable to accept that I am not willing to validate their inner feelings.  I am not relating merely a few anecdotes here and there, and many of my colleagues have noticed the same trend. I feel pity for these kids, but feeling, is ultimately not the same as doing, or even being.

Entertainment takes many forms, but the authors of these books, if they know what they are doing, are playing on the fears of a group that is desperately seeking this kind of message, and I fear they are doing so irresponsibly. How much of this is the fault of the fiction they are reading, or the practice of giving everyone trophies for just showing up, or the constant reinforcement from social media is hard to say.  I myself check my updates near constantly and feel little pangs of joy whenever someone ‘likes’ something I’ve said or finds it at all clever, (or more commonly despair when they don’t.)  I am grown-up enough however to know that this is just a temporary hit.  However, I fear the current generation doesn’t understand it.  When your books tell you that the secret to life is to feel authentically and act on your emotions, you are going to have a rude awakening some day soon. We all will.

Now I don’t wish to be a killjoy or a curmudgeon.  At this point I’ve probably crossed the line into self-parody and should find a lawn somewhere so I can tell people to get off of it.  I don’t mean to pick on John Green especially, but I mention him for two reasons.  One, I’ve actually read his books, and two, I’m kind of a fan.  I love his crash course series and vlogbrothers venture and have since I was introduced to them, but his books are indulgent in precisely the way I’ve described them.  Not bad, just indulgent, especially to their target audiences.  Not to say that they are without literary merit, but production qualities aside, yeah, they’re porn.  They exist to give easy gratification to a particular segment’s self-inflated sensibilities.

So my plea is not to say we should censor these books or their authors.  Nor do I wish to say that all of these are bad books or that all these writers are bad authors.  If they were, it would almost be excusable.  Truthfully, I think many of them are excellent authors, which makes it worse.  They have fine-tuned their talents to pluck a particular thread in such a way, as to excite a specific and emotional response.  There are of course exceptions, and many young adult novels reveal characters that discover the virtues of self-mastery, discipline, building life skills and self-sacrifice.  Some are just dreck, and some are a mixed bag.  Many of these novels also have much to recommend them and try to demonstrate the age-old principles of adulthood championed since at least the days of Vergil, and probably much earlier, but those messages get lost in the overwhelming backwash of emotionalism targeted specifically to young adults.

No my plea is not for authors to be banned, but for authors to write better ones.  You can entertain and uplift at the same time, without pandering.  Adulthood is hard, but the principles are basic.  You show up.  You keep your promises.  Sacrifices are necessary.  People most often care about what you can do, not how you feel.  It is oftentimes boring, and hard, but you do it because others depend on you and the rewards are worth it.  We shouldn’t make it harder for youth to find those messages because we are too busy selling their own insecurities back to them.