Monday, November 24, 2008

Varian: My Role as a YA author

A little over a year ago, as I was preparing for My Life as a Rhombus to debut, I received a great blurb from Ellen Wittlinger, author of the Printz Honor winning novel Hard Love. Giddy with excitement, I hurriedly placed the blurb on my website and blog. Then, a few days later, I found the following anonymous message in my blog comments:

"Without a bit of preaching..." - Why is it whenever anyone dares to take an unpopular position on a controversial moral topic in our society, their ideas are described as didactic, dogmatic, preachy, or any other apparently negative label? With all the destructive sexual activities and misinformation plaguing young adults in America, it would be immensely helpful if those with the power of the pen would use their gift to steer some attitudes in the right direction rather than be content with "keeping it real."

I normally ignore anonymous blog comments, but this one made me pause. The first part of the statement was easy to dispute: anyone that has written a novel for children and young adults in the trade market understands that authors should avoid peachy and didactic prose. However, the second part of his comment struck a chord with me. What is my role as a YA author? Is my job to simply tell a good, entertaining story, or should my writing have some underlying moral?

My Life as a Rhombus is a story of one girl’s struggle to reconcile with both her father and herself while dealing with the emotional effects of an unplanned pregnancy and abortion. I feel that the story is really about friendship and forgiveness; sex, teenage pregnancy and abortion are just plot devises to help me reach my goal. However, that’s a somewhat naïve statement; the main character’s abortion directly leads to her strained relationship with her father. Thus, the topic of abortion, and therefore sex and pregnancy, can’t be ignored.

In his message, the anonymous poster calls on authors to “use their gift to steer some attitudes in the right direction.” But in the case of abortion, what is the right direction? As an author, is it my right to dictate what someone should or shouldn’t feel on the matter, especially on an issue that continues to divide our country?

Personally, I don’t want to write a book that makes a statement about abortion because I don’t know how I feel about abortion. Or rather, it’s easy for me to choose a stance on abortion; I’m thirty-one years old, married to a wonderful woman, and am fully capable of supporting a child, both emotionally and financially. More importantly, I believe that it’s a little unfair for me to dictate if someone should or shouldn’t have an abortion, being that I’m not the one that can get pregnant.

The anonymous poster is correct, though. Many young adults participate in destructive sexual activities. Many young adults don’t have the necessary information to both educate and equip themselves once they decide to become sexually active. When I go school visits and see sixteen year-old girls wearing crimson-red stilettos and low-rise jeans with their green / black / blue / yellow thongs showing, I want to shake some sense into them. I want to warn them off all the dangers out there in the world. I want to tell them that they shouldn’t be so quick to become “women”; that it’s okay for a sixteen year-old to act like a sixteen year-old.

However, I can’t do this; not in real life, and not in my writing either. In my opinion, novels need to entertain first, inform second. If I’m skilled enough, perhaps I can find a way to include snippets about safe sex in my work. Or perhaps, the young people reading my novels can learn something about the mistakes that my characters have made. Of course, the key here is making sure that this information is both important to the novel, and is presented in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending.

Perhaps my biggest issue in all of this is the balance between writing for myself and writing for publication for a young adult audience. I’ve never started a book thinking, “Hmm, this would be a great topic for young adults to explore and discuss.” Rather, I pick a topic or theme of interest to me, then craft characters that can explore that theme. It isn’t until many drafts later that the reality of publishing for the YA market begins to affect my work. For me, writing is very much a personal process—my character’s struggle with the same issues that I struggle with, even as an adult.

Ultimately, I think most authors will have widely varying views on this topic. However, I must continue to write novels in a way that works for me. My goal is to create entertaining, realistic fiction. I like to explore topics that interest me—not necessarily to impart a moral or ideal, but rather to look at both sides of a topic. More times than not, I end up like my characters—stuck somewhere in the gray area between the “right” and “wrong” of an issue. And as a writer and a human being, I’m okay with this. Hopefully, a few potential readers will be okay with it as well.

8 comments:

  1. Great post, Varian.

    I agree. I'd much rather entertain than inform. And if I can make people think ... so much the better.

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  2. The only person I ever feel like I'm informing is myself. I'd feel like a dipstick trying to inform anyone else. All I can do is pick at the truth from all sides and see what happens.

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  3. Great, Varian, thank you.
    I don't have any final word on this issue for myself, either, but I know that what I want first is to create a compelling read. In that process, my worldview influences content, but I'm never conscious of "teaching" the reader.

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  4. To me this ties back to some of the flack that the YA For Obama community took for daring to take a partisan stance during the pre-election days. My book also dealt with pregnancy and sexual themes, and of course, I'm aware of the potential impact my work may have on a reader, but I'm not sure why having a public platform means that any of us should feel guilty for taking a stance one way or another. My story is not a blueprint for your own morality, my point of view doesn't have to be (and probably shouldn't be) yours.
    Anyhoo, thanks V!

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  5. Well said, Varian. I think the minute we start trying using our pen to steer teen's attitudes is the minute teens will put down our books!

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  6. Personally, I think PARENTS are the ones raising kids, not books. It's not my responsibility -- in fact, it's far from it -- to instill values in a teen. By the time my readers get to my books (which aren't particularly racy or controversial, but do have swear words and moderate to heavy nookie content), they ought to have their own value systems in place.

    When I was 12, I read Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, etc. and guess what? Here is a list of the following things I never did after reading about them in books:

    1) Slept with a random stranger while underage

    2) Tried out a new swear word that I read

    3) Ended up in a mob boss' trunk

    End rant!

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  7. More times than not, I end up like my characters—stuck somewhere in the gray area between the “right” and “wrong” of an issue. And as a writer and a human being, I’m okay with this.

    I'm okay with this, too. I mentor young women. You're right. You can't preach them into the right direction. Rather you listen, you support, you start where they are. I can't make them read. What I can do, is what I do: I built them a library. I created a blog and online community. I share with them what I read (I read a lot of YA- mostly realistic fiction). I try to provide opportunity. I try to inform. I don't counsel. I don't preach.

    Well said. I look forward to reading your book and putting it on our shelves.

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