This article is based on Melvin Burgess’s keynote speech delivered at the Turning Point Conference on the state of young adult fiction.
Is teen publishing a marketing ploy? Do other forms of media have more relevance to the lives of young people? Do teenagers read teen fiction?
Melvin Burgess, Carnegie Medal winner for his teen novel, Junk, explores.
Teen fiction is a hybrid beast, springing as it does from children’s fiction yet addressing increasingly adult issues. When I started writing some 15 years ago, I was told my books were teenage fiction, but in school I was asked to speak to 11 and 12-year-olds. For years I don’t think I ever even saw a teenager. It quickly became obvious that the concept of teenage fiction was in many ways a fiction itself, used in much the same way that the 9 o’clock watershed used to be used by broadcasters. Everybody in the industry was perfectly well aware that teenage books were read mainly by 11 and 12-year-olds – but they weren’t actually for children that young – Heaven’s no! Of course they might be read by children as young as 11 or even younger. If parents gave permission to their children, who were the publishers to complain?
The result was that any book addressing the more adult areas of teenage life was labeled as a teenage book yet marketed at 11-year-olds. Complaints were thus neatly by-passed, and since 11-year-olds were flattered to think they were reading above their age – they weren’t – the teenage labeling worked as a marketing ploy as well as placating the moral right.
Marketing to teenagers
Teenagers represent a strange group in terms of market. They have no vote, no voice, yet practically every adult group with any hope or vision of the future wants them in their pocket.As a result there is a continual battle being fought over their heads as to what sort of values they should be inculcated with, and of course, what sort of fictions they should hear, see and read. But we live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-value society, in an age where television, radio, the press and the internet have rendered the secrets adults may wish to keep from children impossible to hide. They know what we get up, and by the time they reach their teenage years they will almost certainly have had, or soon will be having, the chance to try it all out for themselves. Our best hope is to help them become fleet of mind, understanding, tolerant and above all, able to make decisions for themselves. That last clause, of course, is not popular amongst adults who are convinced they know best. Young people are sometimes going to make bad decisions. Worse – sometimes they’re going to make bad decisions on purpose. But at least they know what they’re letting themselves in for.
The tolerant view holds sway by and large, at home; but at school children are in a very different world of censorship and caution. They will likely have seen their first 18 film with mum and dad in front of the TV before they are ten and snuck in to see it in the cinema by the time they’re 15. It would be impossible to show them such films at most schools. They will have discussed drugs with their friends, not in terms of how bad it all is, but in terms of are they going to try them, and if so what sort and under what circumstances? There again, all teenagers will be practicing sex by the time they leave school – many of them with no one else in the room, it’s true, but still – imagine the sort of fuss if the details they understand in their daily lives were presented to them in a film for 12 or 15-year-olds.
In other words, the real questions, ethical and practical, are actively avoided in most schools. Young people have to leave their real level of sophistication and understanding behind them every Monday morning. Teenagers in their own element are graceful, fluent, quick, clever and sophisticated. At school they are all rendered down into dummies.
Surely it can only be a good thing to address young people in a way that they understand and with which they feel comfortable. Films, music and other media all do this, but books have lagged behind. Fifteen years ago, there were almost no books for fifteen and above. Why? The industry answer used to be that kids of that age read adult books. So they did – so they still do. But adult books aren’t about being 16. The real answer is that we have been scared into silence by right wing bullies. Aidan Chambers used to be about the only writer to challenge this – perhaps Robert Cormier as well. Things are better today; teenage fiction is slowly growing up, but it’s still not supplying its audience with enough of what they want.
One effect of marketing books for young people so much through schools has been an over-emphasis on the ‘issue’ book. There are some stout defenders of these kind of books and rightly so – many of the very best novels are set in areas of social tension. But the discomfort people feel about ‘issue’ books is also justified. In some ways, the problem is bad writing – books that twist life to suit an educational purpose fool no one. But a more insidious effect has been what I’d like to call educationalism – the idea that a book is somehow better because it is useful in socialising young people. Novels don’t need this gloss. They are a fundamentally humanist form, focusing as they do on the inner workings of people as individuals in relationships and in society.
Novels are all about relating and understanding. The primary relationship in written fiction is between the reader and the text – not between the class and the teacher. Reading is best done alone, in the privacy of your own imagination. You pick and choose what you like, what you don’t like, you decide what to take away and what you want to drop. Perhaps the most special feeling you can get from a book is that feeling of recognition. Most people reading this article will recognise the kind of book I mean – one that speaks directly to you about things that involve you, that matter to you. Such books may be issue books, or fantasy or a real life drama; what they have in common is that they speak to the heart. When you read it, you know it’s yours, not because it’s going to make you into a better citizen, but because it makes you more yourself.
An intensely personal fiction
Teenage years are life changing and often dangerous. No one can predict how they are going to end, only that everything will be different. It’s a time when people take the greatest risks and are most open to new ways of behaving. A fiction for people in their teens should be dangerous, thrilling, intoxicating, experimental, daring – but above all intensely personal. It shouldn’t be telling you what coast you want to end up on, it should be encouraging you to launch off and get there.
My own experiences in this field have taught me one thing above everything else – that this is an age group that it is almost impossible to overestimate. When Junk was published back in 1997, everyone thought there was a good chance it would languish on the shelves. Teenagers read adult books and schools and libraries wouldn’t dare buy it for fear of the moral right. And of course that group howled in objection, right on cue; but in fact, the book was welcomed with open arms by almost everyone else – drug educators, teachers and young readers alike. It taught me that teenagers will read books so long as they are the right books. There are more such books these days, some even winning major literary prizes. But the pool of such books and authors is still surprisingly small.
We in the West have a strangely traumatic view of teenagers – the fact that our official strategies for them differ so radically from our private ones confirms this. Fear of those self-appointed, self-righteous protectors of the nation’s morals still dominates at many levels and to a great extent, prevents us from moving forward to a real debate about what a true literature for teenagers should provide. The only way this can be done is to produce books that young people want to read – that they will want to buy for themselves. Authors need to leave education to educators. Just looking at the reality of things is always enough.