Monday, 1 November 2010

The Subtle Censor - Celia Rees

A quick look through recent blogs will tell you that writers for Young Adults spend a lot of time worrying about their readers and what is deemed to be appropriate or inappropriate in their fiction. More so than other writers, as Nicky Morgan pointed out last week. Other people also get exercised about this, hence the calls for book banning and burning that have been discussed here, too. The difficulties are almost always to do with sexual content. Violence not so much. Language a bit more concerning. But sex. That's the difficult one. This puts the writer for Young Adults in a bit of a dilemma. Do you, or don't you? If you do, how are you going to do it? I'm not talking about putting yourself forward for the Bad Sex Prize here, more how you are going to mention it at all.

Here are some rules: Sex is OK if...*

You are a male writer of some stature or a male writer who is Well Known For It (preferably both).

You are the above and writing about boys from a boy's point of view (but NOT homosexuality).

You make sex into a metaphor, so you are not writing about sex per se but something else, something Other, something to be put off for a long time (preferably altogether) or something Bad will happen and your heroine will never be the Same Again. It is better to burn than turn.

The outcome is Bad. See under abuse, rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, because then it is a) A Serious Issue, b) not the heroine's fault and c) even though it is not her fault, she's getting punished for it anyway.

Sex for sex's sake. Sex where people enjoy it. Sex that is part of everyday life, even if it is safe, legal and not frightening the horses.

So there is a kind of censorship, nothing official, nothing as dramatic as banning and burning, but it is there, nonetheless. Most damagingly, it can get into the writer's own head after years of being told to take it out or tone it down because if you don't then the libraries won't take it, the schools won't like it, the booksellers won't know where to put it and, oh, you can forget the Carnegie. No mention, of course, of teenagers, the actual readers, who might like to see their lives reflected with veracity and applaud the book's honesty.
* ellipses are useful in this area of writing.


Keren David said...

Oh blimey, have just broken all those rules..

Meg Harper said...

Hmm...very interesting, Celia...and spot on about who can get away with it! Grrr! Gnash!

One of my unpublished books was very mild about sex but the general comment from editors was that they didn't like the heroine - she wasn't very 'nice' - by which I think they meant that they didn't like the fact that she was enjoying sex for fun without 'falling in love'. I thought she was a very interesting, feisty girl but I was told she had to be totally sympathetic. Nobody quite said that it was her sexual mores that were the problem but I can't think what else was wrong with her! Gave me pause for thought.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of my favourite YA authors, Sarra Manning, does sex v well but she will never win the Carnegie because it's romance.
But the thing to remember is as Stephen Fry said, we are ladies and of course none of us actually likes doing it anyway so what do we know?

adele said...

Nice to be back in this comments box after ages away! (Moving house!) I do have views about sex in all books, and not just children's books but am too involved with men coming to fix new boiler etc to write about it! Will try and put together something rational later! Lots of reading to catch up on here too....our internet was not connected for a bit so I have been missing all the fun.

Stroppy Author said...

Oh, so true Celia... (though I was banned for 'violence' this year in the US so it does happen).

I was talking to an agent in the summer about a book and practically her first question was 'is there any sex?' with a view to wanting it removed, I'm sure. She didn't ask about violence (of which there is a great deal).

Character said...

Maybe this was true, but things may (hopefully) be changing. Has anybody seen the recent Andersen Press anthology 'Losing It'? It breaks all your rules.

Miriam Halahmy said...

So its back to Jane Austen, then -
and Crikey! Mind you language.

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, Celia, and all so true! Sex still isn't okay in teen lit when 'the outcome is bad', although it is making more of an appearance in YA books, so that's good. But generally, very publishers like to take those kinds of risks.

Savita Kalhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keren David said...

Never sure about the distinction between teen and YA in the UK, but would recommend Della Says OMG! by Keris Stainton in which a girl has sex and enjoys it,with no bad outcome.

Bab said...

This is a gift of love, no one make it general or public.
Jewelry Link Exchange

Celia Rees said...

Glad 'Losing It' got a mention. Andersen Press are one of the few British publishers who are willing to be brave and honest, although it would be interesting to know how many school libraries will take it and I haven't seen it in Waterstone's (but might have missed it - appearances in Waterstone's being increasingly fleeting). Even if publishers are willing to take the risk, too often the gatekeepers are not, so books still have a hard time getting through to that crucial late teen readership.

Leslie Wilson said...

Jenny in 'Rafael' has sex with him, though admittedly under exceptional circs, and they do it because they love each other - but there is no ultimate bad outcome - ok, she gets into a concentration camp, but that's not the end of the story. And I was nominated for the Carnegie, but I didn't make the shortlist. But it is still a long way away from girls doing it because it's fun. I admit it.
But I do think the sex, and my quite realistic attitude to it, was one reason the kids loved it enough for it to end up on two shortlists chosen by the young..

Gillian said...

All my teenage protagonists so far have had sex *gulp*. I don't describe it graphically but they've definitely all been at it. Neither Bloomsbury nor Strident had a problem with that, though other publishers turned down one book because of the 'problematic' sex scenes (they like each other and they enjoy it). And like Leslie, I was nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie despite the sex. And again, I found when talking to schools that the non-catastrophic, enjoyable sex was one reason teenagers liked that book.

I didn't anticipate consensual sex being a problem at all, but I know now that it often is. What I did think a publisher would object to was my heroine in Crossing The Line being a smoker - but as it turned out, nobody mentioned that.

Such an interesting topic and post. Thanks Celia.

Nicola Morgan said...

Frankly, my main reason for avoiding it (as in writing about it...) is that my parents would read it! Obviously, they would pretend they hadn't noticed it, but I would still have to imagine them reading it. Oh, when will I ever grow up??

So, when I say I write thinking about my readers, I mean that in a rather precise sense.

But also, I haven't had times in any of my books when I've felt restrained from writing about sex. I've just managed to avoid getting myself into that situation. Erm, if you see what i mean...

But I do agree, Celia, very much.

Property in jaipur said...

Excellent blog and great post .. its interesting