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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Some notes on sexuality in teen lit

What constitutes a young adult novel?

I started thinking about this question when I was asked to speak at the Cape Town Book Fair. Well firstly, I think its obvious that a young adult book must appeal to teenagers, hence the name. In many respects this is like walking over a mine field. Your book might make it, or it might bomb abysmally.

Teenagers are an ever evolving market. Five years ago it was androgynous fantasy novels like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials that were all the rage. Today, kids expect something more provocative. Books like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries are hugely popular, catering to most teenagers’ love of fantasy and star-crossed romance, but these books are still considered too tame by the teens I spoke to. So what do kids want? The answer is simple. Sex.

Teens prefer racy novels like Gossip Girl

Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series is hugely popular with the young adult market. There’s no gentle innuendo about kids finding their sexuality for the first time. These books hold nothing back – depicting teenage sex, oral sex, mood enhancing drugs and perhaps what makes them most appealing, is that they are completely unapologetic about it.

I spoke to Fanie, a matric student, who filled me in on what he thinks kids expect from their literature. “At school I had a deep fascination with any novel or drama involving some mystery and of course, a romantic element. I really enjoy a novel when I don’t get the feeling that I’ve read it before,” he explains. “The thing that I hate most is when people underestimate my intelligence. Seriously, young people are smarter than they were a hundred years ago.”

Too few school setwork books depict real teenage issues. John van der Ruit’s Spud is good for a laugh, but like Harry Potter, doesn’t go any further than that. Another grade 12 student I interviewed, Amy, told me her classmates don’t enjoy reading their setwork books, mostly because they have to. It’s a fact of life that teenagers today don’t want to read parentally approved literature. So if you flash a dog-eared copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in front of your fifteen-year-old they’ll use it to prop up their laptop while browsing YouTube. Some publishers are getting savvy and are re-packaging classics to appeal to kids, but unless they completely re-write the content (like in the case of Pride and Prejudice for Zombies) this isn’t likely to work.

Is this fooling anyone?

A young adult novel fulfils a very important purpose. Teenagers are under immense peer pressure to mature sexually much earlier than most adults had to when they were younger. Many teens are still in the dark about sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and even something as simple as a broken heart. Parents are no help in this regard as most would be mortified to discover their little darlings are having sex, let alone offer any advice on the subject. One of the things I remember from my teenage years was that my parents were unapproachable on the subject of dating. In fact, if I had to raise the subject with my father, he’d probably have an aneurysm. Sadly, kids can’t seek advice from their friends either, as a) their friends will be as clueless as them, or b) it’ll be the wrong advice.

Young adult novels are a neutral source of information and should always depict real issues without offering judgment or “talking down” to their readers.

In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga for example, a teenage girl, Bella Swan, is eager to explore her sexuality, but her boyfriend, a hundred-year-old vampire, won’t compromise on the issue of no sex before marriage. The pair eventually do consummate their relationship, and Bella falls pregnant as a result. Luckily for her, she’s in a happy marriage and the news isn’t as catastrophic as it might have been. In fact, one of the major themes in the Twilight saga is the fact that Bella and Edward don’t have sex, but it’s cleverly hidden behind layers of everlasting love, and teenage angst.

Writing for young adults is not a science, but there’s a definite formula involved.
1. The hero must always be a teenager.
2. In most cases so must the villain.
3. Adults usually play a secondary role in the story, and are quite clueless about what goes on in teenager’s lives
4. The book must not be condescending.
5. The book must feature real issues and offer advice without being preachy.
6. The story should be fresh, not just a reinterpretation of Twilight or Harry Potter.

In a recent article, Boing Boing blogger and teen lit author Cory Doctorow answered the question, “Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don’t you punish them for doing this?”

His answer summed it up nicely.

“Teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.

Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I knew. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn’t exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won’t be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 13th, 2010 @12:20 #
     
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    This is a great piece, esp the pics. A bit of backstory: Sally and I were asked to present on this topic for the hastily convened "Youth Lit" conference at the CTBF. Alas, our panel was cancelled at the very last minute (after we had already shown up!). I felt very badly for Sally, who'd put her heart into the project and prepared very carefully. So I'm very glad to see this, and here's hoping for more from her on this hot hot hot-potato topic.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    August 13th, 2010 @13:00 #
     
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    Thanks Helen. It was interesting research all the same.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    August 13th, 2010 @13:41 #
     
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    Sorry to hear it was cancelled. I remember you rushing off. Judy Blume is a master of YL lit. She does not shy away from the drama. I think I understand the spirit of Doctorow's quote, however, I feel it is, itself, slightly condescending. Perhaps I am not reading it right.

    Yes, teens do stuff, and the puff here, the drink there, people - as adults prove, live. Nor should these issues be written as, "You touch that stuff once, life is over" - agreed.

    But teen life is full of drama. Real drama. I think adults do teens disservice by belittling the real-life teens do live. Which is partly why Blume is still so popular. Looking back in my own teen years, my friends: the suicides, the pregnancies, the lethal car accidents, the eating disorders, the cops, drunk parents, abusive parents, foster parents...all the while adults belittling the tears and telling youth life is easy.

    You couldn't pay me to go back to High School.

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  • <a href="http://slgrey.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">S.L. Grey</a>
    S.L. Grey
    August 13th, 2010 @13:41 #
     
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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 13th, 2010 @13:43 #
     
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    Oh, Sally - I'm sorry to hear the panel was cancelled. And delighted in retrospect that I didn't make the trip to Cape Town in the end. I had intended to extend my stay just for that session!

    This is such an interesting topic, and can be extended to a general discussion of sex in genre fiction, where I've noticed a lack of sex. It seems the only 'legitimate' place for talking about sex is in 'literary' novels -- (apologies for the 'scare quotes') -- where sex is theorised and artified to death. In genre fiction and YA fiction, one imagines, sex could be dealt as a visceral, obssessing topic, which it is in real life. There's a big gap here - we're missing real, thoughful considerations of sex, either because we're patronising our target market, or we're afraid of Bad Sex Awards and the associated schoolmarmish attitudes, which are nthing but a neo-conservative tool to suppress and shame us.

    A range of honest representations of sex and thoughts about sex would help demystify the subject for kids and adults alike; make it part of life, take it out of the violent cloisters of the home where kids only learn the sexual attitudes of their scared or damaged parents or their misguided friends. Imagine if every South African novel written in the last five years had a sex scene or two... just imagine the range of voices and the light and fresh air that would be shed on the subject.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    August 13th, 2010 @14:06 #
     
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    @tiah that's why writing teen lit is so interesting. You never run out of things to say.

    @Louis I hear you and I'm keen to start exploring sex in my own novels. Researching this topic showed me that there is a definite need for this.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    August 13th, 2010 @14:20 #
     
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    Also, as important as these issues are, we are fiction writers. Which is more important - covering relevant issues or the story? I think the danger comes in when the sex starts taking over the story and it becomes too preachy. Kids, as well as adults, want to be thrilled by a book. I think the answer might be to keep it simple and natural, cover the issues without seeming to do so. Otherwise, as Louis said, you're either going to end up talking down to your readers or produce something too literary.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    August 13th, 2010 @15:28 #
     
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    Slight tangent - I was taught by this writer:
    http://rosemarygraham.com/

    Her blog and web seem interesting and make me want to read her work. (Can't get them here). Her female characters look to be fierce. Be interesting to know how she tackles it all.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    August 15th, 2010 @22:02 #
     
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    Very interesting piece, Sally. I'm always fascinated by the way different genres deal (or don't deal) with sex. I for one am all for it, but then I guess that's why I write chick lit.

    @Louis, if you can't find decent sex scenes in the fiction you're reading, then you may be reading the wrong fiction. :)

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 16th, 2010 @11:55 #
     
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    You're right, Paige. It was a dim-witted generalisation.

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