So I have been wanting to post a new blog for a while. What’s a while, you ask. Well, I had this idea for a blog for mother’s day, so it has been at least that long. It was a blog about parents in YA, so maybe I will post it for Father’s Day instead. (Two blogs in one month would be amazing though…perhaps even miraculous). Today, however, I have something else on my mind. I was reading this WSJ article Darkness Too Visible, and it struck a cord, because it is something that I am always very aware of in terms of my own writing. Warning: This is a bit of a long one–read it in two sitting if you need to :).
For those who do not want to read it, the basic premise of the article is that YA lit has entered new depths in terms of the violence, darkness of experience, and so forth that it depicts…and that this phenomenon is not necessary a good thing. The author also says that those who write this boundary pushing material are doing something of a disservice to their audiences.
I write about shape-shifters. Violence is, necessarily, a part of the equation. When you have claws, sharp teeth, and other preternatural powers, the violence can tend to get both elaborate and messy. What I struggled with in writing the first book of the series was how much of the violence to depict, considering that my first novel, at least, would probably attract more from the younger side of the YA spectrum. What I struggled with for the second book is that it is considerably more violent and bloody than the first. And, as the author, I just can’t see any other way around it.
It’s not that I am opposed to teens being able to read and access books that contain violence, darkness,
and depravity(this term is from the WSJ). When I was a kid, I was into the darker stuff. I was reading Lucky by Jackie Collins when I was in the third grade (I don’t know that I should necessarily admit that out loud, but hey, it is what it is.) By the time I was in high school, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Saul (who, of all of these, creeped me out the most), and Laurell K. Hamilton were my authors of choice. But, what all of these books had in common was that they were not marketed towards a young adult audience (12-18). They were shelved with the horror books, not next to The Babysitters Club.
On the other hand, I also loved/love Susan Cooper and Madeleine L’Engle; two authors whose work routinely delved into emotionally deep waters (suicide, good vs. evil, sex), exploring the meaning of experience and some darkly fantastical matter as well, without being horrifyingly graphic and violent. To this day, nothing is more creepy to me than the image that L’Engle paints of IT, the Man with the Red Eyes, and the completely regimented life on Camazotz. L’Engle was able to convey so richly the horror of that sort of reality without resorting to laundry list depictions of bloodied and horrifying acts.
Ask me which I would prefer my children to read. I did, in fact, forbid my sister (who is several years younger than me) from reading any of my Koontz, Saul, King, and Hamilton until she was at least 15. Though, whether or not she listened to me is anyone’s guess, since I was away at school most of the time.
When I take that back to my own writing it translates into my being very conscientious about the amounts and the kinds of violence that I depict. I think that there are several things that have been really important to me in figure out what I deem appropriate for my own writing. The first is whether it is organic to the story. Does the violence make sense? Is it gratuitous? Even though the second book is far more violent (with all of the blood and guts) than the first, I am satisfied that the scenes that I wrote were both made sense in the story and were not over the top.
The second is am I still writing for that tween/teen audience. This is a trickier question to answer. I remember my life during that time; after all, it wasn’t that long ago. It was full of challenges, but nothing to the extent of the subject matter that seems so popular for YA lit these days. (Some of the subject matter seems distinctly adult to me.) So there is a level on which I feel that I could not write authentically about those kinds of experiences or write in a way that can tap into the “darkness” that is at core of those kinds of experiences. Of course, I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be trying. That, after all, seems to be what YA audiences are gravitating towards (though one might wonder what came first, the audience or the product.) On another level, I do believe that as a YA author, I am not writing books that have watered down adult content. I am writing stories for tweens and teens and I want to write in a way that taps into the experiences at that moment in life, without rushing my readers down some experiential track. To put it another way, the shape-shifter novel that I write for a YA audience looks nothing like the one that I would write for adults.
What I do know that what we write about and how we write about it must always be the artist’s choice. It should not be imposed from the outside or limited by outside forces. The proof of the writer is the reader’s response to her/ his work. If the writing is strong, readers will respond regardless of how heavy it is or is not. It’s something that I think about a lot. I am not sure that I really have my thoughts worked out on it yet. I guess we’ll see with book three. 🙂