Thursday, 21 June 2012

Y.A. at Hay - Celia Rees

I was recently at the Hay Festival, in conversation with Melvin Burgess and Daniel Hahn, talking about Young Adult fiction and our novels, This is Not Forgiveness and Kill All Enemies.

Daniel Hahn, Melvin Burgess, Celia Rees 
The discussion was interesting (I hope for the audience, too) and wide ranging. At one point, Daniel asked us if there was anything that we thought we could not write about, any taboo subjects, any darkness too impenetrable? I found myself giving the stock Y.A. writer's answer about leaving the reader with hope, etc., etc.. Melvin disagreed. This livened the discussion considerably, and his response gave me cause to pause and food for thought. He outlined a thesis which took me right back to where I began as a YA writer and also made me think about how far we have travelled since then but how little ground we had gained. 


It is an accepted shibboleth ( like the one about 'hope') that ‘at one time’ there ‘wasn’t much written for teenagers’, ‘nothing available for them’.Of course, this is not true. Teenagers have always found things to read, books and authors they felt comfortable with, even if those books were not written specifically with them in mind. Books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. And then there are the sic-fi/dystopian fiction writers: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and Empire of the Sun, John Christopher’s The Trouble with Grass.


Quite a considerable canon. I read a lot of these books when I was a teenager, back in a time when novels for teens were not supposed to exist. I don’t remember feeling deprived, or thinking I’d have to stop reading because there was ‘nothing for me’. I thoroughly enjoyed the books I discovered on the adult shelves of the library, finding them myself, or being directed to them by friends who liked the same books I did. Reading these books was a rite of passage. I found my mind stretched, my understanding deepened, my assumptions questioned and challenged, my imagination
 fired. They weren’t writing for me particularly, but that didn’t matter, they were connecting with me on all sorts of different levels.


Melvin’s argument was that because these writers recognised no limits, there are no limits. I found myself agreeing with him and thinking that these books and these writers should be our benchmark. Perhaps we have compromised too far. In creating a specific Teen/Y.A. Lit. (although I still think that is important) we’ve wandered away from these writers who had the power to appeal to adults and teenagers alike. We have compromised, we’ve bowdlerised. We’ve listened to outside voices: gatekeepers telling us what is acceptable and unacceptable; Focus Groups and Target Readers; Publishers who tell us what the market wants, what it will tolerate.


Compare some of the books and authors I’ve cited, especially in Gothic, Dystopian and Science Fiction, with what is on offer at the moment in these genre, and you will see exactly what I mean. Where is the depth and breadth of the vision, the resonance and relevance, the imaginative reach, the complexity of the realised worlds, the quality and power of the writing? It is a salutary lesson. Of course, teen readers can go and read these books, and they should, but that is not the point. It is not good enough to mine them, to take from them, we should be producing books that bear comparison.

Creativity is a strange thing. Those books that I read when I was a teenager challenged me to think, fired my imagination, introduced me to ideas, and opened me up to possibilities. Maybe that experience is what led me to want to write for teenagers. True, or not, I’m thinking about going back. At least I’ll be guaranteed a damn good read!

I’m taking a break from blogging for ABBA but I’ve been proud to be part of the blog and to have seen it go from strength to strength. I’ll certainly be visiting regularly in the future to read and to comment.


follow me on twitter @CeliaRees

11 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

Fantastic post, Celia. I SO agree - young adults need and deserve complexity and something to make them think. I *hate* the gate-keeping mentality that tries to get us all writing within the walled garden that middle American parents wished their children lived in. (This is my reason for wanting to start Two Maggots - to have a gate-keeper free zone with no limits except quality.)

I read all those authors, of course, and so do my Big Bint - she read you, and Malorie Blackman, and then went on to John Wyndham and the rest. So we are adding an extra step in writing specifically for young adults, that perhaps makes the transition smoother, but the clue is in the label: 'young adults' are adults, and books written for adults *are* written for them.

We all write for people, surely?

Sue Purkiss said...

A post to make one think: it's so easy to accept these shibboleths without questioning them. I agree with you: I never used to prowl around the library, wondering why I couldn't find anything to read. The only slight difficulty was getting into the adult library, to access the riches available there. I think I used my sister's ticket till I was deemed old enough to have a ticket of my own. I read widely and richly - many of the books you mention and lots of others besides, non-fiction as well as fiction, classics as well as modern. I certainly don't remember recoiling from anything in the way that I do now, because it was too harsh or didn't have a happy ending. I think perhaps as a teenager, it was a case of stepping into other worlds, other shoes - without necessarily relating the content directly to oneself.

Emma Barnes said...

Do you think the "there must be hope" thing is a specifically YA shibboleth though, or more the human tendency to crave a happy ending? Lots of non-young adults also like a happy ending...

adele said...

This is an excellent post and I agree with it entirely! Shame you're not going to be writing on ABBA any longer but hope you'll come back one day or do guest posts or something. Nicola Morgan has sensible things to say about writers TRYING to write a crossover novel! It's a vain hope. And of course teenagers found plenty to read in the old days. I'm even older than you and I never had any problem. To the writers you cite I'd add Mervyn Peake, John Galsworthy ( best soap ever: Forsyte Saga...all the books!) Mazo de la Roche, Georgette Heyer, etc. Loads more. And it's very interesting to me that a YA novel,(reviewed as such in Carousel) Shield of Achilles has won the Orange Prize...and why not? Lots to think about...

Nick Green said...

I must agree with your original position, Celia, on leaving the reader with hope. Even 'Animal Farm' and '1984' leave the reader with hope. How? Well, by the fact that you have read them, and been able to read them. Only when you live in a place that denies you the right to read such books can you talk about the absence of hope. Books ARE hope.

Penny Dolan said...

A most pointed post to leave on - and ABBA will miss you.

HOPE that you'll visit again soon.

Lily said...

Really enjoyed this post and agree with it entirely. Although I write for it (reluctantly, at the moment), I sort of wish the genre YA had never been invented. Not at all because I look down on teenage readers, but for the reasons you mention - the limits. I think these limits are getting more and more strictly defined and guarded the more YA becomes a commercially successful genre - or maybe the more our culture seems to want to at once demonise and protect and control young people.

I've noticed my local library has made some interesting shelving decisions when it comes to YA. Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is in the adult section. So is Linda Newbery's Set in Stone.

Freya Morris said...

Wow, some food for thought.

I refuse to listen to these age groups, so I like to read all sorts: YA, children's, adult. It all depends on the story. I like to think (and hope) that readers don't listen too much to these forced categories. These are how the publishers like to think, not how people buy.

Makes me want to go write...

jongleuse said...

A thought-provoking post, Celia.
I think the very best of YA does stand up to comparison with these great writers. There is also a lot of slick, readable, commercial dross out there but perhaps the teen/YA market has room for all? I was a great reader of 'proper' books from the 'grown-up' bit of the library from 10 or 11, but also loved murder-mysteries and good old Jilly Cooper for a bit of light relief...

K.M.Lockwood said...

Thank you for this post, Celia. You are good at stirring things up in a worthwhile way! The best writers don't pander to expectations.
However
I am with Nick Green - and incidentally David Almond - every book is an act of hope.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Excellent post, Celia! The point about "depth and breadth of the vision, the resonance and relevance, the imaginative reach, the complexity of the realised worlds, the quality and power of the writing" resonates and is so critical. I'm wary of the gate-keeping mentality, as Anne is. As young adults we read "adult" books and today's young adults do too. It's up to YA authors to write in the same way, keeping it relevant to today's teens, reflecting the world we all live in. The thing that YA fiction does, that we never had as teens, are the teen protagonists, seeing the world through the eyes of a peer and so creating something that is perhaps more "relate-able". But restricting topics that appeal to adults as much as young adults, is a dangerous thing - YA readers need to be able to read in "stretched boundaries" indicative of the very name of the age category - young adult - rather than in boundaries prescribed by a seemingly omnipotent gatekeeper. Their reading should help them grow as people.