Creative Minds: How much is too much?

Writers such as Melvin Burgess (pictured) have attempted to push open the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and have faced mixed reactions, writes Stephanie Williams. He has become the writing equivalent of Marmite – you either love him or hate him!
Perhaps he could be seen as brave, daring to bring a touch of gritty realism to young adult fiction and to tackle the subject of sex from a very honest and sometimes frank standpoint.

There is a varied school of thought when it comes to the question ‘how much is too much’ regarding writing for teens, particularly when the issue of sex is introduced.
The urge to protect young minds is very strong, particularly in those working within the education system and perhaps even within the publishing industry itself.

Does young adult fiction need more voices like Melvin's? Can it hurt to have more writers who are tackling the real issues that teenagers face? I attended a talk at Waterstones in Manchester where William Nicholson and Melvin Burgess discussed love and sex in the young adult novel.

Honestly when I first bought my ticket I half expected to disagree with everything they said and come away with my slightly conservative views on what is acceptable completely in tact! I didn’t.

I walked away feeling like the boundaries of what is classed as acceptable are actually wide open, whether I agree with it or not, teenagers experience far more of life than perhaps they are given credit for and they like it, they want to experience it and they don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

The most pertinent question that a writer can ask a teenager is why they pick up a book? What makes them decide to read a particular title and what do they expect to find within the pages? Escapism versus reality! Surely anything that encourages a young person to pick up a book and read can’t be a bad thing! Escapism is catered for in abundance in the current market.

 There are supernatural romances saturating the shelves but realism is a little harder to find. The major players over the last few years have been Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling who offer their readers excitement and adventure; romantic and yet frustratingly unrealistic love.

William Nicholson’s novel Rich & Mad is explicit to a point but it depicts love in its most vulnerable form. Love for teenagers is exciting and yet terrifying; fragile and yet all encompassing. It is also comical and awkward, two people literally feeling their way around and making a mess of it in the process. That is what William Nicholson wanted to depict; not the impossibly perfect true love of Bella and Edward but the real love that teenagers experience every day.

So back to sex! Is it possible to depict real teenage life without not just touching on this issue but actually embracing it?

Both Melvin Burgess and William Nicholson would say no and there is a strong possibility that they are right! Teenagers are naturally curious and they want answers, what they don’t know is where to get them from and so they search. They search on the internet, they search under their parents’ bed and they search their friends’ often false accounts of personal experiences. Why not make it easier to find?

Melvin and William have done their research. They have made their visits to schools and they have spoken to their target audience. Teenagers love the honesty of their books but they aren’t the ones with  the buying power and unless teachers, librarians and parents jump on board then their books will remain relegated to an adult readership.

There is "of course" still a strong and intelligent argument for protecting teenagers from unnecessary and crude depictions of sex, along with various other aspects of grim reality, but perhaps the answer is to have enough diversity out there to cover everyone’s tastes and for writers to keep writing whatever messages they want to send out into the world.

A few words from William Nicholson 

What inspired you to write Rich & Mad?
I’ve only written fantasy books before for this age group. My publisher suggested a contemporary love story for teens and the idea took root in my mind.

What do you hope that it will accomplish in the field of writing for teenagers?
I’ve tried to get into the book what it’s like for the girl and the boy – all the doubts, fears, insecurities in this area – as well as telling a good story. I think books really can help readers know what happens in other people’s minds. Also very few other writers seem to be writing about sex – not the mechanics but the emotions and muddle of it all. So I decided to wade right in there too. Otherwise teens will think that what they see in porn videos is all that happens.

What kind of feedback have you had so far?
Good and bad! Terrific response, with virtually no criticism of the sex detail. It gladdens my heart to hear teenage girls saying, “it’s so like me, how on earth did you know?” The negatives: some have said my hero, Rich, is too nice. My daughters said, “Where can we find a boy like Rich?”

What do you think of the current trend of supernatural romance novels?
They’re fun, so I’m not going to knock them but the more fantasy there is out there about love, the more we need some other books that try to get real.

Some people believe that reading should be about escapism and that teenagers need a break from grim reality. What is your response?
I agree entirely. Reading should be fun. But the best books manage to be both fun and revealing. Not all reality is grim.

What would you say to teachers, librarians and parents to encourage them to make your book available to the teenagers they are responsible for?
First, read the book. Every teacher who has done so has realised that there is no problem giving it to their students. There is a problem, however, for those who haven’t read it and make wrong assumptions – so a teacher may be afraid a parent would feel their child is too young for the book. Again, if the parent reads it, I think the problem will go away. There are of course some people who believe no teenager should be thinking about sex until they’re married. Such people should not read this book.

If you had 250 words to say to other writers who are writing for teenagers what would they be?
I can’t preach to other writers. We all do what we can, within the limits of our own ways of writing. Any writer who gets teen readers gripped is doing something that works, and gets my vote. All I would add is that writers for teens don’t need to be afraid to bring sex into their stories where it’s appropriate. Their readers know it all already. It doesn’t come as a surprise. So the opportunity is there, to tell love stories that young readers can really identify with, and to some degree take as role models. I’ve had my go at it. Other writers will be able to do something different, and better. The more versions of real love there are out there the better.

Rich & Mad is available in all good bookshops.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.