February 25, 2011

Nihil Obstat

Brendan Halpin has some thoughts on self-censorship in YA.

He's right that a variety of forces, from within and from without, can combine to cause a fairly warped picture of actual teen life in a quite a lot of teen fiction. The model he describes (sex and drugs are okay as long as someone suffers horrible consequences as a result -- so let that be a warning to you) is still very much with us, as an aesthetic tradition as well as an unspoken rule of thumb. The weird thing is, pretty much everyone is aware of this and sees it as a bad thing, a regrettable relic of a past where teenagers were seen not as autonomous readers who ought to view fiction and other types of art like regular people do, but rather as mere objects for social conditioning.

But of course, fiction is still written with an eye to showing how people ought to behave, by people who don't acknowledge or don't even realize they're doing it. Our aesthetic and moral pretenses have shifted a bit since the days of the dreaded Victorians, but the essential dynamic of societal disapproval and squelching remains the same; and just as many, if not more, bad things are frowned upon and put up the "red flags" that people are so concerned about when it comes to fiction these days, I'd reckon. Moreover, it's a two-way street. Readers can be quite unforgiving when characters in fiction do things of which they disapprove. If you've ever written a novel in which a character makes questionable choices or expresses disagreeable or objectionable opinions, I guarantee there will be a contingent of readers (and perhaps quite a sizable one, if the flags are particularly "red") who will conclude that yours is a "bad book." Writers want to avoid clichés like the bad kid who, say, smokes marijuana and winds up causing the death of his entire family or something, but they also want to be liked. There is a subtle pressure to pander to your audience's expectations that is far more powerful than anything "the industry" can exert.

The upshot is that depicting reality (or, indeed, satirizing it) when it comes to sex and drugs and what have you becomes a fraught, worrisome issue regardless of your intentions. You at least have to consider that it may be fraught. Maybe, you think, it would be better simply to avoid the whole topic rather than open that can of worms. You pull punches, make oblique references, or, most commonly, your characters and their world undergo a gradual, silent "make-over": your protagonist becomes the one teenaged guy in the history of the world who isn't obsessed with sex, who thinks there has to be something more and doesn't understand why other guys like pornography and such when all he really wants to do is go the museum and stare at the Cézanne and think about helping people. And he attends the one high school in the country where no one ever smokes, or even mentions, weed. It happens. I've never knowingly done it myself, but I can sure see why.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 25, 2011 05:40 PM | TrackBack

"Our aesthetic and moral pretenses have shifted a bit since the days of the dreaded Victorians."

When you actually read their stuff, that have far fewer pretensions than we do.

Political Correctness is a much more suffocating code than Victorian moralism ever was.

Posted by: Lexington Green at February 25, 2011 08:54 PM

and people don't just say the book is bad, they often assume the author thinks everything the character says and does is good, and is therefore a bad person him/herself.

Posted by: aaron at February 25, 2011 09:59 PM

Amen, LG. Is there anyone today as brave, brilliant, and forceful as Carlyle?

Posted by: josh at February 26, 2011 02:31 AM

Damn Frank,
There's more spam in here than a Korean pantry.

Posted by: Bill at March 8, 2011 04:35 AM