Reading girl

How to Write Realist YA: Part 1

Reading girl
Young readers identify strongly with what they are reading

I am joined today by a guest blogger, a friend who was good enough to allow me to publish some of his musings on Young Adult Lit, and what the deep problems are in the genre, and why. He has asked me to withhold his name as he is concerned, perhaps rightly, about backlash from his views onto his professional life. 

In 2008 two teachers in a high school outside of Buffalo, New York wanted to use John Green’s debut Printz Award-winning young adult Novel, Looking for Alaska, to teach eleventh graders.  The book deals with issues of teenage sex, drug use, suicide and ends with an elaborate prank involving a male stripper.  Because of the controversial content, the teachers asked parents to sign a permission form.  Parents who objected or failed to sign the form were given the opportunity to opt out, and have their kids read a different book, but for some parents that just wasn’t enough.

A campaign was started to have the book banned entirely on the grounds that the book’s graphic content was pornographic and unsuitable for teens.  John Green ably defended himself from those charges on his blog and in a video he uploaded to Youtube “I am not a pornographer.”  He argued that while there was a somewhat graphic – and painfully awkward – teenage sex scene, it was justified as it contrasted the difference between sexual intimacy and true emotional intimacy.   He’s right of course and I agree.  But it’s not the sex scene that makes John Green’s book pornographic.  The whole darn thing is porn.  Let me explain.
One of the things I love about language is that it is always changing to fit niches we never knew existed, but once discovered, can’t imagine how we ever lived without them.  If you had used the word “porn” thirty years ago, people would have assumed you were talking about…well…porn.  Naked skanky actors, bump and grind, delivery boys, you get the drill.  Now today the word porn has morphed to mean any one of a variety of diversions that exist just to titillate our fantasies.  My own personal indulgence is Real Estate Porn.  Real Estate Porn involves trolling the MLS listings looking for architectural fantasies just out of reach.  Keep in mind I have a home, a very nice home in fact; solid, well-built, practical and more importantly, it has a reasonable mortgage.   That doesn’t stop me from scratching the occasional itch for a Palladian window, a Craftsmen door or travertine floors.

Like real porn, Real Estate Porn comes with it’s own subgenres.  There’s the nice Cape Cod in my zip code just out of my price range (that’s like the girl next door variety) all the way up to the Tuscan Villa on a private island (celebrity sex tape.) There’s all kinds of this sort of porn for all sorts of enthusiasts and hobbies: gun porn, boat porn, gamer porn, geek porn, and new varieties are being invented all the time.  How we ever got along without this term I’ll never know.  What they all have in common is an admitted cheap emptiness.  They are guilty pleasures, fun self-indulgences, diversions that satisfy our wildly unrealistic imaginations, but only for a moment.

Now I’m no prude.  I have no problem with cheesecake, either the kind that comes in bikinis or the kind that comes in Spanish Colonial tile (although lately I’ve been partial to half-timber Tudor if you know what I mean and I think you do.)  However, saturation in our unfulfilled and unreasonable fantasies will only lead to envy, detachment, resentment and depression.  As porn, the real bump and grind stuff, has spread through the Internet, it has led to the social isolation and detachment of millions of young men, not to mention impotence.  And when young men are willing to risk impotence for their fantasies, you know it’s bad.  (So far my DIY home improvement skills remain unaffected, but you never know.) The point being is that porn (of any variety) and especially the obsessing about unfulfilled or unrealistic desires is the certain path to disengagement and ultimately, misery.  At some point, you have to push away the laptop, the real estate websites and their endless temptations of unattainable Georgian façades or Queen Anne turrets and get back to fixing the leaky sillcock on your own house, (and no that’s not sexual, it’s a real thing, look it up.)

The condemnation of the long-term negative effects of habitual use of actual porn is pretty universal.  But you hardly need to go to such extremes.   What makes porn, porn – at least as it is used in this modern sense – isn’t the genre, it’s the way in which the media panders to our easiest and most indulgent desires.  Whether you are doing a 30 hour session of World of Warcraft or catching up on three seasons of your favorite TV show in a two day marathon, it’s pretty clear that there are all kinds of things that risk putting us over the edge, jading our perceptions and crippling our ability to deal with real situations, real people.  It destroys our ability to deal with the present issues, to deal with reality.  No bigger indicator of this than the complete disconnect with reality represented by so-called Reality TV.  Used in small amounts, with temperance, even the simplest and most innocent of guilty pleasures can impair our reason and empathy.  Porn, is ultimately about us, the individual and his desires.  Whereas real life is – to use the worn out cliché – isn’t about us.

There is a huge debate over whether Romance novels are setting unrealistic expectations for women with some merit.  But of course, most readers of Romance are adult women and like most adults then know when to push back the fantasy world and get back to the real life problems of family, kids and making their relationships in the real world work.  Just like I know when I realize that I shouldn’t judge my kitchenette against the stainless steel museum kitchens I see online.  (I can quit anytime I swear.) Which brings us back to John Green.

John Green doesn’t write novels for adult women or adult men with unhealthy fixations on architecture.  He writes novels for Young Adults, specifically, teenagers.  And while I agree his novels don’t meet the criteria for actual porn, they absolutely do meet the criteria for porn as I’ve defined it above.  I realize this is a serious charge, and it’s one I’m prepared to defend at length.  His novels set unrealistic expectations for teenagers, and exist to satisfy and pander to some pretty unrealistic fantasies that teenagers commonly have, their sense of loneliness, of victimhood and fear of rejection and pain.

It’s a funny thing about the human condition, but you can excite the pleasure centers of the brain even when you are bringing down your audience with tales of woe, because this too touches into the very deep capacity humans have for empathy.  Pathos, the Greeks called it, and it was a big seller in the 5th C. BCE as much as it is today.  Those fantasies can also be very indulgent and self-satisfying.  If you don’t believe this, there are some exiled Nigerian Finance Ministers I need to introduce you to.  No group is as much concerned with it’s own troubles as modern teenagers however.  Mix in the despondent sob story with the right mix of humor and fine tune it to the teenage mind’s appreciation for absurdity and self-importance, sprinkle with pop-culture references and you’ve got a winner.  John Green’s novels, expertly target this teenage empathy sweet-spot, like a sniper in a ghillie suit stalking a … oh I’m not going to try and pretend I know what I’m talking about when it comes to snipers.  I’m on much firmer ground in architecture but I just can’t find an architectural metaphor at the moment that involves anything predatory.  (The sun glistened off the original Talavera tiles of the Mission style bungalow home, its stucco walls tensed in preparation, when it suddenly pounced out at me from out of the real estate listing! Nah…not working, and I yeah I know, I clearly have a problem and I will get help. Moving on.)  Let’s just say he’s good at it.  Dang good.  It’s catnip to the teenage bruised ego.  He’s by no means alone either, and I’m not the only one who has noticed.

John Green has found himself again at the heart of another minor controversy regarding “sick-lit” for young adults.  “Sick-lit” is a term used by Tanith Carey in an article in the Daily Mirror to describe, what she thought of as the troubling growing trend in youth literature that deals with themes of terminal disease, but also, suicide, abuse and other very difficult topics.   John Green’s latest book, The Fault of Our Stars, which deals with a love story between two teenagers with terminal cancer, was singled out in the article, but it was by no means alone in the genre.  It’s nothing new either.  “Sick-lit” is a new term, but so-called “Realist” young adult fiction has been around for a very long time.  Divorce, abuse, cutting, rape, you name it, it’s all there in young adult lit and has been since at least the 70s.

The article took exception to such material as exploitive, and playing on the emotions of impressionable young readers, that their authors, were in effect, pandering to teenage emotions and predilections irresponsibly.  Many authors defended themselves against the charge by putting up something of a strawman, suggesting that critics thought that Teenagers were dumb or immature and couldn’t handle mature, difficult topics. (A defense that was likewise, carefully crafted to pander to the egos of their target audience, teenagers, and their enablers.)  The article’s objection however was not to the difficulty of the material, but to the context.  I likewise, have no problem with difficult or serious subject matter.

When my daughter read Kerouac’s On the Road, in the eighth grade, it wasn’t the subject matter that bothered me.  It was how my daughter would interpret it.  Kerouac has been used to justify a lot of self-indulgent behavior, but I knew the book, I knew her teacher, and I knew my daughter.  At the end my daughter quickly identified the core problem of the book.  Kerouac was his own worst enemy.  Spending your life drunk or waking up in vomit was no way to live your life and not terribly liberating or revealing at all, a reading of the book that even Kerouac himself endorsed.  So it’s not the difficulty of the material, or the adult themes, it’s the facile way in which they are presented and served up to unsuspecting audiences.  In the second half of this article I hope to demonstrate just how facile they are and the potential damage they can do to young adults.