Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Using Technology in YA Literature - Clementine Beauvais

I don't 'do' Snapchat, unlike my little sister (19 years old), but I love dreaming about the narrative possibilities it offers. A murder mystery, where the serial killer sends short Snapchat videos with clues every time s/he strikes...

yeah, the logo looks more like a Casper story

Anyway, I'll never write that story, but I do love literature that talks about new technology. In many ways, it's difficult to think of a contemporary social realistic story, especially for teenagers, which wouldn't include smartphones and apps - Facebook, Tumblr, 2048, Google Maps - as a solution to many of the traditional adventure plotlines (nope, sorry, you can't be actually lost; nope, sorry, you can't actually be bored waiting for your train; nope, sorry, you couldn't not have known that she was in a relationship (and it's complicated)).

But I like it even more when stories integrate technology in a non-gimmicky way - as an essential part of the plot, as the plot. Many such stories are realistic: it's impossible to keep track of stories that revolve around mystery blog-writers, from rom-coms to dramas. Others are supernatural, but even a fantastical story like iBoy by Kevin Brooks is based on very real features of contemporary smartphones.

New technology offers possibilities both for entirely new plots and for interesting spins on older plots. There's been a spate of YA novels recently that revolve around revenge porn - one of them, in France, is mine. Of course revenge porn existed before smartphones, but the order of magnitude is different now, and so are, therefore, narrative possibilities - especially regarding character development, and some central themes of YA literature, such as gossip or bullying.

In my latest YA novel, Comme des images, there are snippets of Facebook conversations, YouTube comments, texts, emails - breaking up the narrative from time to time. Those are other voices, seemingly external to the plot, but actually crucial to it - because the existence of those hundreds of other voices is the very reason why the central event is so important: it isn't just there, it's also commented on, in the whole world. 

Of course, you need to get those voices right, because it can just fail to ring true. Being friends on Facebook with teenagers of that age - in my case, my sister and all her friends - can help. I'm not sure I'd dare do it in English, where I'm not as familiar with the language used by teenagers. So does being very active on these platforms, or at least having an excellent understanding of them. I cringe when I read books in which it is clear that the author (either by themselves or pushed by an editor) has attempted to include some (generally gimmicky) references to apps, software, video games or device without knowing anything about it ("'I sent you a Twitter yesterday!' she chuckled.").

Hybrid texts where 'normal' narrative is sporadically broken by other types of discourse - from mock-tweets to mock-Wikipedia articles - can be highly sophisticated. There is immense value in harnessing the narrative possibilities that technological innovations offer us, not to be trendy; in part so that we continue to map, as faithfully as possible, the changes that are occurring in teenagers' lives, and make guesses as to how they might influence their personalities, their reactions, their tastes, their values. But it has literary and artistic value, too. Such uses are not - or shouldn't be - just a way of spicing up a dull, ordinary story: they can be the opportunity for intensely original, groundbreaking advances in storytelling, for YA literature and beyond.

The only imperative is to avoid at all costs 'giving a message', 'warning' teenagers 'against' the 'dangers' of 'technology'. But frustratingly, in order to make them palatable to mediators, this pedagogical 'guarantee' is frequently used to qualify works which should instead be praised for being uncomfortable or unsettling, both ideologically and linguistically. Let's keep the unease, at all costs. Personally, in my double life - virtual, real, barely separated - saturated with a myriad different voices and worldviews, I have no patience for consensus and all the time in the world for controversy.

Clementine Beauvais writes books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


spec sisters said...

Hi Clementine. Great article. I agree YA writers tend to underuse technology in their books in comparison to real-life teens. iBoy is brilliant-also MT Anderson's feed, one of the best YA sic-fi books ever (published over 10 years ago but so ahead of it's time). Is your teen book being translated over her?

spec sisters said...

FEED and sci-fi….apologies have been awake for too many hours..

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, those with teenagers around should be very glad of it for research and for the enjoyment of the tech world!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you! no, my French books aren't translated here and Comme des images probably will never be (too culturally specific). I love sci-fi and there's so much we can do with it in YA. In this case though I was talking more about already existing technology.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm thinking of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, in which the heroine is a big star of fan fiction on the Internet; in the old days, you'd be a star f a much smaller community, because it all had to be printed, bound and sent out to readers.

What sometimes irritates me is when writers fail to remember that technology makes a difference. Even being able to communicate at any time with a phone - you read the book and the protagonists are stuck in a scary house where the lines have been cut and nobody thinks to use their mobile phones. And yes, I've read this in a novel by a top writer. I also read a novel where the heroine needs some information from a boy in Germany and asks him for things she could simply have Googled! I think the use of teenage beta readers is more important than ever!

CatherineAnn Minnock said...

I love this article, Clementine, it's so interesting. I might even challenge myself to read your new book with my horrendously limited French!

As a teen myself, I'm proud to say that "snaps" don't get confused with "tweets" in my writing, and characters can make conscious decisions about whether to "iMessage" or "DM" or old-fashioned SMS!

I, however, encounter a different problem--the fear that if I am too specific, my story might go somewhat "out of date".
for example in 2009 I wrote a passage in which someone "flipped open their phone"

...nobody flips anymore. it's all about the touch screen now, darling... How embarrassing! ;)

So say I wrote a novel now where twitter or facebook takes centre-stage, and in five years' time people--especially young people--would scoff at it and say "Nobody uses FACEBOOK any more!"

...or perhaps they would see it as delightfully vintage?

In conclusion, I'd like to ask the world to stop moving so fast... it's ruining my stories!