When you write YA, and you’re at all connected to the online community, you often see people who are new to the genre asking questions like, “Can my main character hold a gun?” “Can my characters have sex?” “Can they drink?” “Can they have drugs?” and “Can my main character swear?”
The more experienced writers cry, “Jesus. Freaking (perhaps something less polite, if they happen to write ‘edgy’ YA ). Christ. Have you read any YA? Ever?”
It’s an understandable reaction (I know I react like this sometimes), but I think the people with those questions are less naive/time-wasting than we often think they are. In light of the recent WSJ article (which is horrible, so I’m not even linking to it, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, resist your google fu. It’s not worth the time. And no, this is not another blogpost about the article), it’s clear that a lot of people believe that the purpose of YA is to teach. To illuminate the right path for the youth of today.
And my question to you guys is, should YA be didactic?
The knee-jerk answer is, of course, NO. We always hear agents and editors and everyone else in the world saying, “No messages. No morals. Don’t preach, tell a good story first and foremost”. But I’ve always taken that to mean, don’t overtly preach. Theme, to me (subtly explored theme, anyway) is a huge part of what makes a book transcendental. REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly (which is awesome. You should read it if you haven’t) wouldn’t have the same flavour without the theme at the heart of it: brutality rules the world, but not necessarily us as individuals.
Beyond this, beyond me thinking that a theme is a truly important thing to have and subtly explore (it’s not like Donnelly is like, “HERE IS MY THEME, TAKE THAT READER,” every two pages), I think that there are contradictory messages even within the writing community on whether or not messages are important. I mean, there are a lot of people who want to see CONSEQUENCES to every. single. action.
They want to see the girl who drinks occasionally have something bad happen to her as a result of that drinking. If the kids have sex, even just once, there MUST be a baby. Or an STI.
If someone takes drugs, it must be made clear, clear, clear that DRUGS ARE BAD. BAD. BAD I TELL YOU. Maybe the character can become an addict and wind up in the gutter and then work their way back to being a ‘normal’ person. If a character speeds, they’re obviously going to be involved in a car crash.
I’ve seen a lot of people, within the community, argue essentially that if we DON’T show these consequences, we’re neglecting our responsibility to our audience. That we’re teaching them bad things, and they’re impressionable, and we shouldn’t do that. And that kind of attitude betrays us, because it shows that no matter what we say, a lot of us think that YA has a didactic purpose.
I disagree (you guessed it, didn’t you? It was like an overly foreshadowed plot point that you could see from chapter one) with this attitude, completely, however. Firstly because, you know, I am a teenager in real life (I know, another shoddily foreshadowed plot point. It’s in my bio and all). And I know other teenagers.
And guess what? Sometimes, we’re irresponsible. Does the kid who speeds always wind up in an accident, or get a ticket, or lose their license? No. Does the kid who drinks always wind up an alcoholic, totally alienating everyone around them, losing everyone’s respect? No. Does the kid who takes drugs wind up an addict, or have a really horrible come down, or something else terrible? No. Does sex (unprotected) always lead to a pregnancy? No.
You know, when people take risks like this? There are rarely BIG EXPLOSIVE consequences. In my opinion, it is not irresponsible to not have consequences for these actions. It’s just being honest. And as a reader, I find it refreshing when the characters can smoke and drink and have nothing too bad come of it the vast majority of the time (Looking For Alaska, The Absolute Value of -1).
I think we need a diverse range of representations of these things. We don’t always have to hammer our readers over the head with the DRUGS ARE BAD message, or the SEX IS BAD message, or the ALCOHOL IS BAD message. We can sometimes, and in certain stories (and I think these stories are so valuable, and have a place, for sure. I write them, sometimes), but it doesn’t pay for this to always be the case, because we just wind up with shelves full of didactic stories that are not true to life.
And we set off bullshit detectors.
And okay, since I’m making a habit of being more confessional in my blogging lately, I’ll admit the other reason I worry about didactic narratives: I don’t know anything. I mean, that’s not true. I know a lot of things about maths (okay, not really…) and literature and art and the way people talk to other people, and what all those facial expressions mean.
But I haven’t figured out the world, and I don’t think I ever will figure out the world — not now, not when I’m a hundred. Oscar Wilde once said, “I am not young enough to know everything” and seriously, when I’m a hundred, I think I will be truly old enough to say that I know shit all.
I don’t write from a place of moral absolutes. I don’t write from a place of knowing and wisdom. I write from a place of uncertainty. I try to write as honestly as I can, and I avoid didactic narratives, because I have nothing to be didactic about. And I give my readers what I can. Instead of offering all the right answers, I offer, I hope, all the right questions.
And isn’t that better? Even for those of us who do know things? Isn’t it better to give our audience questions, and let them think on those questions, rather than to force the answers down their throats? To let them think on those questions, and reach their own conclusions, no matter how vastly different than ours they are?
So those are my thoughts on being didactic in YA. What do you guys think?
Vahini Naidoo is a YA author and University student from Sydney Australia. Her currently untitled debut novel, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.