The Line Between Young and Adult
In addition to novels, I also write short stories. Once I’ve got a story I think is good, I submit it to various publications, starting with the pro-level scifi/fantasy magazines (F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge) and then moving down the list until I get to the semipro markets. If I can’t sell a story at at least one cent a word, I don’t sell it. It goes in a trunk until I either stumble across an anthology that it might fit in or until I figure out a way to change it into a new story.
As you might imagine, there isn’t a vast array of pro-rate short fiction markets and, furthermore, not all pro-rate markets will take the story I’ve written. Analog, for instance, only wants scifi, and I don’t write scifi quite as often as I write fantasy. A bunch of markets want stories of 3000 words or less, and I tend to write stories that land in the 5K-7K range. This, again, limits the number of places I can send things. So it comes to pass that, after I’ve gotten rejections from the three or four ideal pro-markets that might take the story I’ve written, I’m left with fewer and fewer publication options.
That leads me to my topic of discussion for today: Young Adult fiction and what is appropriate. See, there’s a couple smaller markets out there that pay pro rates and cater specifically to a young adult audience. There are a few markets out there that insist upon a “PG-13” rating. There are others that simply describe themselves as “wholesome.” Now, I don’t typically write YA, exactly, but I do occasionally write stories with Young Adult protagonists dealing with Young Adult problems which, to my mind, ought to qualify. But I also write without any real regard to whether the language or subject matter is “appropriate” for younger readers or not and, as I honestly don’t read a great deal of YA, I’m often left wondering where the line is.
So, by way of example: I wrote a story once with a YA protagonist undergoing a struggle with his mother. It involved duels, intrigue, and some sorcery, but basically that was the main conflict – would this kid defy his mom or not and go dueling with this jerk. The story had a little bit of violence (somebody gets stabbed) and, at one point, I describe this kid’s rival as “miming fellatio at him.” So, here’s the question: Is the term “fellatio” (not the act – the word) sufficiently racy to knock it out of the PG-13/Young Adult rating?
Second example: Wrote a story pretty recently that was about some truly vile cyber-bullying and how this kid gets out of it (there’s a troll involved). His bullies, being nasty examples of adolescence, apply some very filthy and cruel language to this kid. There are f-bombs dropped, sexual situations described, and public discussions of this kid’s genitalia. Now, what about that one? Is that out of bounds?
From my perspective, I really don’t feel that it should be. Hell, it might actually not be, but I’ve had stories rejected because I had a guy lose his arm in a booby trap and that was too violent for them. And yet, in the PG-13 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a guy gets his heart ripped out and his body lit on fire and nobody batted an eyelash (well, perhaps not entirely true – they did invent the rating just for that movie because of the gore).
As for profanity, I pretty much learned everything I needed to know about profanity by the time I was in 8th grade, and most of it from the mouths of bullies. I learned everything I needed to know about sexual terminology in high school locker rooms. I was harassed just about every day in middle school by nasty little assholes who said all kinds of vile things about my mother. In high school, it wasn’t quite as bad for me – I was a varsity athlete my freshman year and that gained me a modicum of immunity – but a lot of my friends got it bad and I heard about it or saw it. In my role as “stealth nerd” I also got to hear how the alpha males of the school talked to each other, and it was hardly pristine. There was one guy who said “fuck” at least twice every sentence, and regularly used its verbal form to brag about which girls he’d had sex with and where and how often.
But can you put that in a YA story for 14 year olds to read?
I mean, I think so. Hell, these kids are living it anyway. I’ve always preferred the John Hughes approach to teenagers – treat them like real people with real problems. Don’t flinch because they’re “innocent” – they aren’t half as innocent as you think, anyway.
But, ultimately, it’s not up to me. And if I want to get paid better than .06 a word for some of these stories, I actually have to care about where the line is (or isn’t). Which is a long, round-about way of saying I’m worried some of my stories are going to offend somebody and I don’t think they really ought to.
I submit them anyway, though. Worst they can say is “fuck off.”
Tales of Sneering Jackassery
First, you ought to read this brief piece of Joel Stein being a jackass. Heard this sentiment before? I bet you have.
Let me get one thing straight: I am not a YA author or fan, in particular. The science fiction and fantasy I write, I write for adults and, perhaps, mature teenagers. Weirdly enough, I usually don’t sympathize with the principal characters in YA fiction. I don’t recall a particular time where I was uncomfortable with myself or who I was (though I do recall plenty of people who had a problem with who I was who made things unpleasant, but I never considered that anything other than an external problem and I never adapted myself to them). I have always known, basically, where I wanted to go and more or less what I wanted to do. I had the misfortune of watching someone very, very close to me die very, very painfully throughout my entire teenage years, and this taught me a lot about what mattered. Other people’s opinions or the ridiculous insecurities of adolescence didn’t make the list.
Nevertheless, I appreciate what YA fiction can and has done, and not just for young adults. It distills very complicated, very adult problems into slick, fast-paced stories and, furthermore, gives your average teenager a voice in that problem. This is not only important for kids, but it makes a good lens for we adults to peer through from time to time. It makes us step back from ourselves, to try and remember a time when we weren’t so calcified into our lives. It makes us hope and believe in possibility in a way many of us don’t anymore. It kills cynicism in a way only the young truly can.
Furthermore, the sentiments of arrogant literati like Stein also encompass something else: the clear and emphatic disdain for that they choose not to deem ‘literature’ but, instead, cast off as ‘mere genre fiction’. This is the bit that really gets me.
Look, you’re entitled to your taste. You don’t like one genre or the other, fine. But two rules:
- Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean You Can Rip On It: I say this without irony: grow up. Are you actually incapable of appreciating something because it doesn’t appeal to you directly? Are you one of those immature jackholes who can’t admit a man is physically attractive because you’re afraid you might be considered gay? Is the reason you don’t and will not read YA fiction actually because you feel it adds nothing to the literary discussion, or is it, rather, because you are so pathetically insecure that the thought of another person witnessing you reading something intended for another age group give you the willies? Seriously, man, if the rest of us have to read Infinite Jest, you can man up and read some YA fiction just to see what the hype is about.
- Admit that Everything’s a Genre: That literary fiction you so adore? Guess what – it’s genre fiction. It has its set of tropes, standards, acceptable styles, target audience demographics, and the rest of it. Their readers focus on style and metaphor over plot and pacing. They forgive the occasional self-indulgent tangent or purple prose passage. Writers are pushing buttons in that genre the same as in every other one, so let’s get down off your high ‘literary’ horse and admit, once and for all, that literature is something much, much broader than what you perfer to define it as. Watchmen is literature. The Giver is literature. Neuromancer is literature.
I really don’t know how many times I need to say these things before they stick. You are all aware that some of the most pivotal and powerful stories of our history started out as simple adventure tales, right? Can’t you perhaps admit that The Hunger Games may be tapping into something important? Granted, I haven’t read it (and am not especially motivated to), but it isn’t because I think it’s bad or lacking (though it very well may be). It’s because I’ve got other things ahead of it in line, simple as. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but I’m not about to hold it against anyone who’s reading it now, no matter how old they are.
It’s CROAK Day!
A real brief post today:
My friend, Gina Damico, has her debut novel dropping today in bookstores all over the US. It’s called Croak, and it’s a YA Fantasy about teenage grim reapers…and it’s funny. It sounds marvellous, and I’ll be buying my copy today. You should too, if you happen to like fantasy, humor, and snarky teenage protagonists.
You can learn more here, at Gina’s website.
Also: Congratulations Gina, and good luck!