Sympathy for the Devil

When my first book, The Cry of the Wolf was published in 1989, I was told I was writing for teenagers. I was surprised; as far as I was concerned, Wolf was a children’s book, but who was I to argue? The next few I wrote were also marketed as teenage books, but as I began to go on school visits, it soon became clear that all was not as it seemed. If I was writing for teenagers, why I was being paraded in front of Years 7 and 8?

Librarians and teachers confirmed that few people over the age of thirteen ever read the books. People such as Robert Westal, Anne Fine, Bob Swindels, Gillian Cross and myself were really writing for pre-teens despite what it said on the back cover. So where was the fiction for real teenagers? Books are written for every age group, from toddlers to granddads. In music, film, TV and every other media, youth represents one of the most well-exploited markets and vigorously creative areas in the world. But with books, no one seemed to bother. Teenagers fed on crumbs dropped from the adult table – Trainspotting, Catcher in the Rye and so on – or watched movies instead. The received wisdom was that teenagers didn’t read, or else they read adult stuff and by and large, this was true. Even today there’s a great deal of soul searching about boys in particular not reading. But is it because books are only for old and uncool people, like opera or bingo? Or could it be that the books that might interest people of that age are simply not written?

This was a period when books for young readers were changing. Modern concerns – I say modern even though these areas had been issues for decades – such as sexuality, drugs culture, family break-down and other social issues were being more honestly portrayed, and people were discovering that young people were far more sophisticated than the material previously written for them would suggest. Publishers dealt with this trend by calling books with a content some parents might object to, teenage fiction. All this was working quite nicely, thank you very much. Eleven and twelve year olds were pleased to be told they were reading teenage fiction; publishers were able to fob off complaints about pre-teens reading such stuff by saying that it was aimed at teenagers, educationalists were able to use these more serious books in the classrooms, and the Christian far right who look after the nation’s morals, were able to flap around convinced that the tide of filth was being staunched for our children’s sake at least.

Some time in about 1994. my publisher, Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press, suggested I write a book dealing with drugs. I liked the idea. For one thing, it was something I knew about. I come from one of the first generations where drugs were widely used recreationally; if I hadn’t done it myself, I’d certainly known someone else who had. I read the few other books that had dealt with this area, and I was not impressed. There was a great reluctance to deal with the realities, the way drugs are used, why they are used, the kind of decisions that people make, practically, socially and ethically. Drugs and drug culture was portrayed as a kind of dark force that turned ordinary well-meaning people into evil shadows, like the Nazgul, who could occasionally be brought back to decency by an innocent who usually only escaped corruption themselves by the skin of their teeth. In other words, it was fantasy, badly disguised as social realism. I’d already built up a reputation for honest writing, dealing with issues directly and I wanted this book to show those same virtues. Above all, I wanted it to be authentic. Authenticity had a number of attractions – partly because it is by its nature honest, but also because this book was going to have a rough ride, and I didn’t want to be accused of making anything up. That’s why the novel, Junk, is set in a real place, involving characters based on a real group of people, with real music, real fashions, real everything, including as much as possible, real events. There are a wide range of different people shown – people having a good time on drugs, all the fun of young people enjoying themselves, as well as the darker side – addiction, casualties, despair.

Predictably, it was both those areas that were singled out for criticism – the good times, because moronic teenagers were obviously going to copy-cat and end up as junky whores, or else the poor sweet things were too fragile to cope with the realities of addiction.

Junk was an experiment; we all thought it stood a good chance of languishing on the shelves – Puffin did some research which suggested that even those librarians who liked the book would be reluctant to stock it. In fact, it sold like hot cakes, greeted with glee by young people, teachers and drug workers alike, and snarls of rage by the moral right and, of course, the press. After winning the Carnegie Medal in 1997, it was front page news. The Daily Mail was outraged, the Today programme started exhuming moralist pressure groups that had been interred sometime in about 1963. The broadsheets were disturbed and did a great deal of soul-searching about the loss of innocence, children growing up too quickly, and the dangers of sensationalists such as myself exploiting childish curiosity. I have to say it was fun. I enjoyed the publicity and the attention, which authors usually feel they don’t get enough of, and I enjoyed arguing my corner. I had written the book for a reason and I felt it was something to be proud of. Not only that, it seemed to me that most of my opponents had little to support their case but professional outrage. Were people really surprised that teenagers wanted to read this sort of thing? After all, drugs are in the news daily, and it’s a rare school were everyone doesn’t know someone who smokes cannabis by Year 10.

I learned a number of important lessons from that book. For starters, it exploded the myth about teenagers not reading – they read this one in droves. Admittedly it still wasn’t being read by anyone much over fifteen – perhaps even fourteen in those days; something which is changing now, since teenagers have become aware that material is being written for them that they might actually like – but it had hiked the age range for teenage fiction up a year or two at least. It convinced me that it was the material that was faulty – not the readership.

The second myth it exploded was that of the moral majority. From reading the papers and listening to the radio, you would have thought that whether young people were safe reading a book like this was a burning issue in schools and families up and down the country. Well, it isn’t. People know perfectly well that a great many of young people will experiment with drugs, that most of them will come through it OK; that parents have to learn to let go before their kids leave home rather than later on, and be prepared to watch them take risks and make mistakes. Those who truly believe that we can ring-fence our children against the adult world lost the plot a long time ago, even with children far younger than those who might read Junk. The real question is, why is it such an issue in the press when the public in general have moved on? The answer is simply that it makes a good story. It doesn’t move the debate forward, it’s not informative in any way, it helps no one, despite protests from journalists. It provokes a good rant or a ding-dong in the studio, is all. Really, the only sensible response to this sort of stuff is treat it as entertainment – it makes good publicity; that’s its only real virtue. Of course there is a genuine contemporary debate about these kind of issues, and some of it – not much but some -takes place in newspapers and on the radio; more of that later.

The point is, that since Junk was published in 1996, I have had not one letter or email of complaint about it. The gulf between the official and unofficial views of teenage morality, which I think says a great deal about the traumatic way we view adolescence, is never clearer than with the issue of youth censorship. Adult films, for 18+ are regularly seen in cinemas by girls of thirteen and fourteen, slipping in with the aid of a stick of lippy and a bit of slap. The boys soon follow and even if they can’t be bothered, they probably saw their first 18 film at the age of six with the rest of the family. This has been true for over half a century. The same goes for computer games for 18+. The nine o’clock watershed on TV is breached regularly by every primary school child, and material with an “adult” content is splashed enthusiastically all over radio, internet and TV without a scruple. I well remember Jenny Murray asking me in outraged tones what I was doing putting an incident in a book which involved a sixteen year old injecting into her breasts while she was still breast feeding – having just had it read out at half past two in the afternoon on national radio. This incident in the book was three quarters way through a 90,000 word novel. Even if your parents disapprove, restrictions are easily circumvented. We all know this goes on and yet when something is produced with any adult content directly for young people, throats are clutched, the guilt begins, the groaning starts. Why is our legislation on this matter so hopelessly out of date? Young people of course have no vote, no pressure groups, no voice, no say, whereas every moralist with a unilateral agenda for good and bad makes very sure that they do.

Does it matter? Often, not at all. The nation en mass simply allow their young people to fall through the gaps and do what they like. But it does have some bad effects. If you are fifteen or sixteen and you want to read about people with sex lives, those people will have to be in their twenties or late teens at the earliest – no one writes for you. The whole entry into adult life is substantially unsupported by literature; which is bollocks as far as I’m concerned. So let’s admit for starters – most of the controversy about my work is a paper tiger. People recognise the realities of everyday life, are concerned but not scared by the fact that there are few secrets from children these days, and recognise young people’s ability to contextualise fiction on their own, without adults pointing out which conclusions are right and which are wrong. In fact, in a world more embedded in fictions than ever in the form not just of books but gaming, politics, film, TV, adverts, even education, kids are probably more able than their parents to appreciate the different ways stories are used.

The final lesson of Junk was this; that we massively underestimate our young people. We’re so used to watching them struggle with Shakespeare and grunting at us when we ask them what sort of a day they had at school, we forget that in terms of their own culture they are extremely sophisticated and able to deal with concepts, particularly fictional concepts, with ease. Of course they struggle with Shakespeare – you have to spend years of study to pick up the references. Of course they struggle with Hardy and Dickens – the same thing is true. But if we take the trouble to speak directly to them on their terms of reference instead of ours, they stop waddling clumsily and become intellectually easy and graceful, just like they’re supposed to be. We’ve been putting up hurdles when we should have been listening. Of course this isn’t so easy for us oldsters, given that we aren’t any more aware of their cultural references than they are with ours. But contemporary fiction is a common language. Kids have been practising it for years. It’s a question of trust, and of making books interesting – surprise surprise!

Since Junk I’ve had a lot of fun and satisfaction identifying those areas that have been neglected, and trying to write books to fill them. The first of these after Junk was Bloodtide – an attempt to publish a book, as I said at the time, “with no educational value of any sort whatsoever.” I should illuminate that remark. I’m not anti-school or anti-education in any way, and I’m very conscious of how important librarians are in a school context – as soon as you enter a school with a strong reading culture, you know there is a good librarian behind it – and a good reading culture makes a real difference to the quality of a school. The same is true of many teachers. But a true literature for young people is one they go out and buy for themselves. We’re paid too much attention to that lucrative school’s market, which has driven book sales to young people for years. Schools, like all institutions, are far more wary than individuals. The result has been an emphasis on the relationship between the book and the child in education, rather than the simple and genuine relationship between the reader and the text. The classroom brings a different kind of reading to the fore – sometimes critical, sometimes educational (“What do you think Gemma should have done, Katy?”) – all good stuff; but it leaves behind the primary thing – that this book is yours, and tells you things that you perhaps never thought about, but that you recognise; that it’s about you in some indefinable way. Once you have decided that young people can contextualise narrative in their own right, make a moral judgement on it in their own right, recognise the difference between story and real life in their own right and understand that it relates to their own lives in many more ways than simple example or advice, you can let go of any attempt to lecture them or help them get to the right ideas and simply tell your story. The feelings and ideas that arise out of it are there for the reader to exploit as and if they will. The context they already have.

Bloodtide, based on the Icelandic Volsunga saga, is probably my best work to date, and it raised barely a murmur in the press. If there was a controversy around it, it would have been because the book was violent, but it seems the objectors only complain about things that are enjoyable. Predictably, it was the most enjoyable activity of them all that caused the most fuss; sex.

Well, sex is great, isn’t it? It’s simultaneously filthy dirty and romantic, fun and deeply meaningful. It feels nice, tastes nice, looks both ugly and beautiful, it can be either obsessive or casual, can turn disgust into delight, it’s absolutely hilarious and, of course, it’s the source of the most meaningful relationships in our lives. When young people become sexual, we ought to throw them a big party, balloons, fireworks, everything. You’ve got sex – great! You’re really going to enjoy this. But of course, it’s not like that. It’s all dire – first mechanics, then pregnancy, disease and emotional failure; fear before pleasure. We live in the age of the paedophile beast – it’s every parent’s worse nightmare, the worst crime in our statutes; these people are heretics and witches to us. So it’s maybe not so surprising that we are so fearful when it comes to adolescents. Children with sex! It’s all wrong … I remembered what I used to get up to when I was in my teen years. At fourteen I had a girlfriend. We weren’t sleeping together but we were doing all lot of other very nice things. It was great. We knew all about sex, from straight sex, to various positions, to oral sex and sodomy – you name it. We had a filthy sense of humour and nothing ever put any of us off it, to my knowledge. We were also self-conscious, nervous, grumpy and, as I realised as I wrote the book, really rather loveable, despite occasional cruelty.

Times had changed a great deal since Junk came out. Adult content on film, television and the radio had become even more prevalent. Teenage fiction was becoming more common – in 1997, my book was one of very few on the market for older teens. The age of cross-over fiction was upon us, and publishers were more wiling to take risks, on the grounds that books could sell across genre and age group, rather than having to rely on schools and libraries. Publishers had also discovered that with children’s books as with adults, there is no such thing as bad publicity. My own books, despite the fuss, had always received more support than approbation, and a good deal of critical success, which also helped a very great deal. Even so, this was going to be a different business. What I wanted to write about was young male sexual culture – not always a pretty sight. There are plenty of people who genuinely dislike young men, and find them really rather revolting. Since feminism, female sexuality is celebrated, but the male version remains suspect. It’s visual, often pornographic, touchy, but not anything like as touchy-feely, far more easily removed from the person and often extremely rude. Great! I found myself thinking a lot about the Woody Allen quote – “Is sex dirty? Yes, if you’re doing it right.” It’s also tender and loving, attentive and generous – also great. It puts me in mind of one of those African fetish dolls. There’s no shortage of people willing to sneer at young men for their clumsiness, their shyness, their lack of social skills and to attack them for their attitude to girls.

Men, perhaps not in society at large but in fictions, often don’t get a good deal these days. There’s the action man, and, the cool dude and the oaf; not much else. On TV, the feisty woman – someone who’s up for life, ready to take things on despite her various problems and difficulties – is a common theme. But the term is exclusively female. Not that many women would want to be feisty, but where is the feisty man on TV? So many TV men are overcome by their own weaknesses – from The Simpsons to Fraiser, to Sex in the City and Friends, it’s the women who seem sorted. I wanted to do some psychological realism and show that young men aren’t just blundering buffoons, teetering on the edge of sexual violence all the time, but sensitive as well as coarse, thoughtful as well as lustful, vulnerable as well as crude; and above all, irreverent and funny. For research, I went around all my friends and acquaintances and asked everyone I knew for their early knobby stories – everybody has one – and I came out with a great stack of tales, some crude, some pathetic, some funny, some charming, but all with something to say. Out of these, I assembled the events in Doing It around three lads I knew when I was younger.

Sex is one of those areas where people want a code of behaviour in common that goes far beyond the basic ones about violence and free will. There would be the Christian right wing, of course, but there would also be some feminist criticism as well, which I was far more concerned about. For one thing, as a young man in the seventies, nearly all my female friends and lovers at the time were feminists, many of them fiercely so. Once bitten, twice shy. But we still live in a male world in many ways and I was concerned with not actually saying something to the boys at the expense of girls. It had to be just right. The area that was obviously going to attract the flack was that filthy sense of humour. Smut is one of those things you either find funny or you don’t. There were those who talked knowledgeably about how childish it all was – although let’s face it, childishness is pretty essential in a sense of humour – but the main point of attack, and one I took seriously was this; was the book sexist, was it demeaning to girls? On one level this is obviously true. Some people found it offensive, and if you are offended you feel demeaned. But outrage isn’t enough – Doing It was never going to be a school text, you don’t have to read unless you chose to. For my part I feel that humour crosses a lot, although not all boundaries; and that as an act in itself it is not oppressive. Of course humour can be used to bully, if it is flaunted in the face of those who find it oppressive or used inappropriately; and of course it can be used by good and bad alike. But making jokes in private is our prerogative. Half the fun is that we know they’re all wrong …

When the book came out, there was a different kind of criticism from other sources, that the book didn’t go far enough. Some people thought I was after writing something that explored the genuinely dark side of sexuality. Not at all; the idea was simply to show ordinary lads in all their warty glory, wanting as much sex as they could get but genuinely concerned not to do anyone down in the process. The big attack when it came was from an unexpected source. So far I’d had almost, if not quite, total support from inside children’s books. Anne Fine, winner of almost every award from children’s books going and the Children’s Laureate of the day, did a full scale, full page savaging in the Guardian, since described as the most thorough hatchet job in the history of children’s books. I was terrified when I heard about it. Anne has a reputation for going for the jugular and she certainly had in this case. According to her, the books was grubby, everyone associated with it ought to be ashamed of themselves, it would put girls off dating for life, it was demeaning not only to girls but to boys as well. It was also badly written, badly edited, objectionable in every conceivable way. Although Anne has stated since that she was only complaining about the book being published for young people, the real thrust of her argument was that it was sexist and demeaning, and possibly damaging to young readers. After reading the article, I was somewhat relieved. There didn’t seem to be anything new here – there was no real intellectual back-up, no argument, except the feeling that this sort of thing was bad in itself. All the quotes, even taken out of context, were funny. Well, they made me laugh, anyway. By the time we had all the reactions back, it was apparent we’d got away with it. There were those who found it disturbing that a man my age should write something that would turn their children on, a few who agreed with Anne that it was sexist book, but by and large people, certainly most of those involved with children and young people, recognised Dino, Jonathon and Ben from real life, saw their sense of humour in the context of their fundamentally decent and fair behaviour towards their girlfriends, the airing of their uncertainties and foibles as fair. Ok, Jonathon was worried about being seen out with a fat girl but he knows he’s an idiot for doing it; OK, Dino is so big headed he thinks he can walk all over people, partly because he’s so arrogant, but also because other people’s feeling are such a closed book to him – we all know people like that, don’t we? The girl’s in the book were not gone into in the same depth as the boys – but the book was about boys. I was relieved to see it accepted as an “up” book, something positive, delighted with how many people find this stuff as hilarious as I do. Talking about minge, tits and arse among your friends is no crime and does no one any harm. In fact, it’s a bit of a larf. So long as you don’t do it aggressively, as long as you find your bits equally hilarious – and who would deny that? – why not?

Underneath Anne’s whole article is that same nasty sneer I remember from when I was small – ” How revolting. Aren’t you a dirty little boy?” – the same attitude which was exactly what made me want to write the thing in the first place. I think of this as a kind of bullying. It really is the sort of thing young lads can do without, and it says a very great deal about social and personal awareness that Anne had apparently managed to get so far in life writing for children without being aware how common this kind of humour is; the little darlings didn’t want to offend her and protected her from it. Doing It is an attempt to look honestly and affectionately at teenage male sexual culture – not at everyone’s, but not at a small, misogynist, bunch of future rapists, either. This stuff is widespread. Some of it might shock you if you don’t share their sense of humour, but regardless, the real heart of a novel isn’t just in the people in it, or even their behaviour; it’s between the lines. I was obviously on the side of those boys but I think anyone without a specific moralist agenda would understand that neither is the book anti-women. A novel isn’t a educational tract, but all my books do have an ethical side to them – of course, that’s part of all our lives.

There is a contemporary ethical debate about young people and sexuality, but it isn’t about rules and regulations, or what age you do this and that, or how often. It’s about the nature of sexual experience and sexual responsibility of course, but also about the nature of irresponsibility and risk-taking in the context of the kind of lives that people are living, or will live. I addressed those issues in an earlier book, Lady; My Life as a bitch, in which a young girl, off the rails in her life, gets turned into a dog and has chance to taste both an unrestricted sensual life, and a chance to look at being a person from the outside. There’s so much written about doing the right thing for young people, and really very little about taking risky. Naughty but nice, as Salmon Rushdie pointed out. Go on – you know you want to. With Junk, I was writing a book not for those who say no to drugs, but for those who say yes; with Lady, I was writing a book to those who say yes to sex. Needless to say, that one got a rough ride from the moralists as well.

Anne did have one genuine point to make, however – about the marketing of books like this. Teenage fiction has grown up out of children’s fiction, and books like mine don’t sit happily with Peter Rabbit. Because book shops are divided into children’s and adult sections, buying a book makes a statement about who you are; and if you’re a teenager you might very well prefer to go to the adult part of the bookshop, certainly with the paucity of stuff still being published for you. Doing It, in fact, is being published in paperback as an adult book. I’m happy with that – I think more teenagers will find their way to it there than on the Young Adult shelves, and I would hope that the market for this sort of thing, as with music and film, would be from about fourteen to almost thirty. We’ll see. This is a market that is still finding its feet. I was once photographed in Paris, while doing some publicity for Galimard over there, by an elderly man – I forget his name, I regret to say – who was proud at having photographed many novelists and writers in his life – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoire, to name just two. “I like to photograph novelists,” he told me. “They are the humanists.”

I think this is true. Writing about people makes you engage with people. The real reason people object to these books isn’t simply because they talk explicitly about areas they find objectionable, it’s because they are about understanding things they find objectionable. To date I haven’t actually written anything that understands the viewpoint of anyone genuinely bad – nearly all my monsters to date have their hearts in the right place, sooner or later – but I would happily do this, too. Teenagers are perfectly at home with that kind of fiction. I don’t think understanding is a cure-all; there are plenty of people who will happily stab you to death however much you sympathise with them – but there is a fundamental ethical difference between those of us who believe in understanding and tolerance and those who believe in specific moral solutions and life styles. It is not us who are the bullies, who are unable to trust or allow things to grow. Sympathy for the devil doesn’t mean you don’t fight him, but I’d rather know how he ticks than take the risk of lumping the Dinos, Bens and Jonathons of this world in the same basket. That’s why I write these kind of books.

Teenagers are in a better position than most people to say yes to some of the more risky things life has to offer. That might be a bit scary, but it is life they’re saying yes to, and when some blobhead turns up and tries to force them to say no instead – well, it makes me want to write a book for them. As far as the future of fiction for young adults is concerned, things look a lot rosier than they did a decade ago. Publishers are investing a great deal in cross-over fiction – books that have a market with adults as well as children, and teenage fiction certainly comes within this range. But it’s a fragile thing. Teenagers still have no voice; they only have their spending power. Many schools are still running scared of the bullies and although there are centres of real excellent here and there, in general they cannot be relied upon to address personal concerns. The best hope we have to create a reading culture and a genuine literature for young adults – to write books they want to read – edgy, dangerous, forceful, thought provoking, funny – all sorts. And definitely, non-educational. They get enough at that at school. I suspect and hope that people will stop writing issue-led books. I think of them myself more as brooms to sweep away the mess before you get down to the real thing, and although I am best known for my two social-realism attempts, Junk and Doing It, they aren’t typical of my work. Sex, drugs and rock and roll will much more likely be incorporated in stories rather than dealt with head on. With any luck, books for teenagers will become more commonplace, more embedded in literature in general and, like movies and films, part of our normal cultural life.

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