As part of my return to blogging, I’ve skimmed over some of my older posts. Not in much detail, but one of them caught my eye.
Back in 2012, I wrote a post called Writing YA? Screw Your Message. I do stand by the essence of what I said. However, I want to fine-tune it a little bit now that I have a bit more experience. I will mention books for younger children in this post, but I do not write children’s books and it’s not the primary focus here.
I still maintain that teenagers hate being preached to. Most people do, especially when it comes from somebody in a position of power over them. I don’t believe telling people what to do should be a writer’s primary purpose behind writing a story. That goes for any work of fiction, not just Young Adult. Fiction is primarily a form of entertainment. It needs to be enjoyable.
My view on what exactly a message is, however, has become more nuanced. This likely won’t be the only way to break it down, but I see there are two distinct types of messages we often see in fiction.
- Commentary on real life issues.
- Prescriptive messages.
That first point will be fairly obvious at a glance, so I’m going to spend a little time on the second. Prescriptive messages are the sort we find most easily in young children’s books and fairytales. They tend to be unyielding and ham-fisted, i.e. always tell the truth or sex is bad. Messages like that ignore real-life nuances for the sake of teaching. Prescriptive messages make a little more sense in fiction for young children who are being introduced to world, given too much nuance can overcomplicate a story for an early reader, but even then there’s a line between an entertaining book with a moral lesson to learn and a glorified sermon.
Teenagers have a much lower tolerance for this than young children do, owing much to the fact teenagers are often treated like children despite having much the same intellectual capability as the adults around them. While teenagers are still growing and learning, they are at a different level of development from the children younger than them, and that needs to be respected. In all honesty, adults never stop learning, either. I tend to take the view that teenagers, especially the older ones, should be treated like adults whenever it is reasonable to do so.
Commentary on real life issues can bear some similarities to prescriptive messages. They might tackle some of the same issues, but commentary tends to respect the intelligence of the readers and let them figure out their conclusions for themselves. The biggest difference here is nuance. Theft, for instance, we as a society agree is not a good thing. However, if that theft stops somebody from starving, it can be forgiven. Some people will disagree with that, but that’s their problem. This view on theft is more nuanced than the sweeping message of don’t steal. This example was informed by a section of the Complete Writing for Children Course, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything said there.
We can apply this principle to other messages, such as the two I listed above. Always tell the truth loses its lustre when we look to the real world and find that, sometimes, telling the truth can be dangerous. Many LGBT people, for instance, are not out to certain people because they don’t feel safe revealing that part of their identity in that particular environment. Sex is bad is an inherently ridiculous message considering humanity would have died out a long time ago without it. No, I don’t care if you don’t want your teenager having sex. Assuming they’re not hurting anyone or being hurt, it’s none of your business unless they decide to share it with you. Now teaching safe sex is important, but writing a story focused on it will likely produce eye-rolls. Know your audience and their expectations when it comes to a work of fiction. They want to be entertained, not lectured.
I’m more understanding these days of writers who want to tackle issues in their fiction, assuming they’re not doing it as an attempt to control what their readers do. It’s worth being aware of the sorts of messages that come out in our writing, if only to make sure we’re not accidentally saying something we don’t agree with. At the same time, however, I don’t think writers have to start out with a message. People who say otherwise are being unnecessarily rigid. Writers have different approaches and not every piece of advice will work for every writer.
There’s one more issue related to messages in YA fiction I want to address, which ties into the whole ‘respecting young people’ thing. I think it’s something most YA writers will agree with. I don’t believe the presence of mature elements such as sex or violence means a book is going to be harmful to young readers. In fact, I find the concept of sheltering young people to be far more harmful, considering there’s plenty of sex and violence out in the world and by the time someone’s a teenager, chances are they’ve already witnessed them in some form, even if it’s something basic as the blatant sexualisation of women in the media. These things need to be addressed, if not to prepare young people, then to accurately represent the world they live in. This doesn’t mean every YA book needs to have those issues represented in it, but books that do should not be penalised. These things don’t go away just because you don’t want to acknowledge them.
I think the healthiest thing we can do overall is write a variety of books from a variety of viewpoints and let readers choose for themselves. Movements such as We Need Diverse Books certainly help with that.
Basically, my current point of view boils down to this: respect your readers. Respect their intelligence. Respect their right to make their own decisions. If you want to make a point with your writing, don’t force it upon them.