John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

YA too explicit?

The good people over at SfSignal (one of my favorite internet haunts) polled a group of science fiction professionals and asked them if SF YA, science fiction marketed to Young Adults, were too explicit. I assume, for most people, your answer depends on the age range included in the definition of "young adult." I mean, if "teen" means thirteen, your answer might be different than if it means nineteen-and-a-half.

The original article is here.

The responses came from such luminaries as Stephen Gould (JUMPER) and Ellen Datlow (OMNI). These are not people on the fringes of the field, but well respected editors and writers. Here is a sample of their answers:

Stephen Gould:
"Short answer: no."
He goes on to explain that reading about explicit descriptions of the harsh realities of life in fiction is educational; and that, in any case, it is the job of the parent, not the school or the library, to decide what is too explicit.

Ellen Datlow:

"to me the whole issue is asinine. Let teenagers read what ever they want"

Farah Mendlesohn:

"If you mean sex, only Melvin Burgess has had the courage to say "sex is fun, and you should do it for fun, and not insist that this must be lurve".
These answers range from the thoughtful to the thoughtlessly irresponsible to the deliberately and maliciously irresponsible.

I was pleased to see one answer that, at least, recognized what the issue was.

Ben Jeapes
"Consider: would Heinlein's juvenile SF novels have benefited in the slightest if he had added what we would consider 'normal' young adult feelings to his young adult characters? Alternatively, would Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy have benefited if he had written it all as a thrilling adventure for Will and Lyra but minus the sexuality? In both cases, let's go for 'no'."

"The only reason any fiction gets explicit is to turn on the readers; it's rarely for information purposes."
He goes on to say that, in his opinion, most YA is explicit enough to be honest but not so explicit in "turn-on" detail to be adult.

I agree with Mr. Jeapes for his analysis. If you want to write mere light escapism, fine, write it. But one needs to deal with certain weightier themes in order to be honest about them, and artists have a duty to be artistically honest to their audience. A young audience is more demanding, and requires more honesty. So the work has to be explicit enough to be honest. Mr. Jeapes draws a line at mere titillation: whatever is so explicit that it becomes prurient crosses over into the adult area, and should be labeled and sold as such. If the youth reads a grown-up book he knows is for grown-ups, at least the author did not deceive him or tempt him.

I might disagree with his conclusion, because there are YA books I think are clearly over that line. I won't name them for you, because some of them are written by a family friend.

Finally, belatedly, came an answer that I agreed with, both in its analysis and its conclusion. I quote here that answer in full.

Orson Scott Card

It seems to me that if YA writers want to write about adult stuff, they should change category. Nothing stops young readers from following them into the adult shelves. When the YA label is placed on a book, it's a promise to parents, teachers, and librarians that certain standards are being adhered to. This is not a trivial matter. There is genuine damage to some young readers from being exposed too early to sexual or overly violent material. Other young readers seem to be unharmed. But the writer is in no position to judge the maturity of each reader. That is up to parents, teachers, and librarians - and part of the information they use is the YA label. When you put out a book with "adult" content under a YA label, you're not a hero of artistic liberty, you're a liar and a cheat. You want to keep getting the same income by pretending your writing belongs in a category that you have left behind.
The reaction in the comments section was immediate and illogical: Mr. Card is denounced as doubleplus ungood thoughtcrime. He was exposed to the Two Minute Hate.

With particular favor I note Mr. Card's denunciation of the "hero of artistic liberty." Some of the answers seemed to have a little too much of that self-congratulation which comes from iconoclasts for my comfort.

To the iconoclasts, every moral rule is merely an unfair taboo, something to be broken merely for the pleasure of breaking. One would think the word "education" meant little else aside from weaning children away from traditional morals rules.

Is YA too explicit? My reaction is two fold. On the one hand, I agree with Dave Barry. If I found my child reading the Marquis de Sade, I would think "Thank God! He's reading!" On the other hand, I would be taken aback if I heard people hotly defending that particular choice in reading matter, or if they excused the advertiser who sold that book to a child, or a librarian who lent it. If the writer wrote "adult-only" material, and then agreed or urged it to be read by children, he is being irresponsible. To defend or excuse such a writer, or to pretend it is not a problem, or to pretend no child ever gets hurt by such things, is likewise irresponsible.

You see, my experience is different, no doubt, from most of these answerers. I have both been burned, and accidentally burned others. I am chary of playing with fire.

Certain books I read when I was a child perverted my ideas about sex and marriage away from the norm and into a libertarian, libertine, abnormal mold. I am not placing the blame on the books rather than on myself -- I mean, I was the one who read them. No one forced me to absorb those ideas.

No one forced me, but they certainly helped me a along, tempted, lured, encouraged, applauded. Some of these books used sophistry and one-sided propaganda techniques that even a bright teen (such as I was) had not the experience to detect and disarm. And these were ideas that lodged in my brain and formed (or malformed) my personality; because that is what happens when an impressionable youth is impressed with an idea. For good or ill, the stamp stays with him for years.

I know a man who tells me that he vowed as a youth always to be a perfect gentleman to the ladies, because he wanted to follow the example of John Carter swordsman-adventurer of planet Barsoom. Can anyone tell me, with the straight face, that this youth would have turned out the same way if he had vowed to follow the example of, say, Tarl Cabot swordsman-adventurer of planet Gor?

(I am not claiming any of these books are YA; I merely challenge the argument that all books are kid-safe, or that kids have such wariness or innate goodness that no adult supervision is required. If you grant me that adult supervision is required, it become a matter of honesty in labeling if you tell a parent that your book is appropriate for minors. If the YA label does not mean it is appropriate for minors, then it has no meaning; which is another type of dishonesty.)

I wrote a book starring teenagers (actually, twenty-one to twenty-four year olds who are told they are teenagers) which many reviewers thought was supposed to be a young adult book. I did not think that, I was shocked anyone would think that, and would have objected rather strongly to marketing the book as such. One of the main bad guys is a sexual pervert, and the perversion is rather strongly implied, if not on stage. I don't know if the scenes are prurient, but they are tasteless, and not something an impressionable kid should read. There is also an amount of gory violence in my books, as I do not flinch at describing wounds and bloodshed.

Well, the first review I ever read of my book was from a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. It embarressed me, and rightly so. My books were not kid-friendly and not meant to be.

If other authors have different experiences, they are right in coming to different conclusions. I cannot say that they are wrong to be nonchalant about the issue; I can only say that my evidence tells a different story.

My experience, both as someone who has been exposed by material too adult (at the time) for me, and who has written material I would not necessarily want kids to see, is that the YA label ought to be treated with some respect. As Mr. Card says, it is like a promise made to readers and librarians that the material inside is not going to shock or mislead young minds.

To those of you who want to argue that it is the job of the parents, and only of the parents, to monitor the material their children view and read, allow me to say: The comment is only valid (and not a self-serving excuse) when made by those who do not contribute to the lowering of cultural standards.

I grant you it is the job of the parents to raise and school their children: but why do you feel the need to make our job harder, rather than easier? You are polluters arguing that getting a gas mask is the responsibility of every breather.
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