children’s fiction

Hopeful endings, vulnerable readers & research

The wonderful Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies has just published a post asking various YA authors (including me) the following thorny question: Do YA writers have a responsibility to provide hope at the end of their stories? Particularly when it concerns potentially vulnerable readers such as LGBT teenagers or those with mental illness? Read the full post here.

My answer got rather long, even before I tackled the second part of the question, so I decided to make it the subject of a blogpost where I could ramble at length without my contribution becoming a monograph. So here are my thoughts on  the issue of hopeful endings and the responsibilities of YA writers to vulnerable readers.

I think Literature should be inclusive so I fundamentally don’t believe that vulnerable young adults should be given stories with a different valance to their endings. There are lots of ways in which a person might be vulnerable – or not – and this often shifts with circumstances. Sometimes it is important to focus on someone’s vulnerability in order to provide assistance, but this can all too easily become an excuse for excluding people. Often the purported reason for this is to ‘protect’ vulnerable people, but few people need or want blanket protection from all things in all areas of life: it’s a short journey from there to marginalising vulnerable people even more.

I see no harm in having some system to help people avoid books with topics or approaches they aren’t comfortable with: an online database of trigger warnings that people can consult if they want to seems a simple solution. What more is needed in terms of protection? Do we really want to exclude vulnerable young people from stories that run the normal gamut from happy endings through hopeful ones to the odd bleak one? How will that help?

Surely vulnerable young people are hyper-aware of how often the world is grim and, at best, hopeful and sometimes not even that. Why would we even consider denying them a fictional representation of what may well be their experience of everyday life? Because they need an antidote? Perhaps, but if all they get is an antidote there’s a real danger that reading happy people getting happy endings will make them feel even more different, even further from supposedly normal people.

For me what is more important is to portray the truth of difficult circumstances.

Of course there is more than one ‘truth’ to every issue, but there are broad parameters within which the truth lies: that is the key to effective and responsible research regarding difficult things you’ve never experienced for yourself. Your character’s truth should fall within the parameters of what 99% of people in that difficult situation feel and think and experience. Because it’s a pretty wide field, getting it wrong is entirely avoidable and that means it’s also unacceptable.

Research failures should involve mistakes that aren’t easy to avoid: they should cover the tricky questions you don’t even know, from the outside, that you need to ask.

One of the things that is true for 99% of people in difficult situations is that one blow-up row, or one big revelation of trauma, does not fix things. It’s sometimes an important first step, but sometimes it’s a huge mistake. Either way, maybe it’s the start of things changing for good or bad, but it’s not going to be a simple, linear path from there to recovery. And the big thing is not going to go away. It may not control the person’s life in the future, but it won’t be gone. Nothing that big ever is. And that’s OK. That’s normal for 99% of people in the situation.

It’s so important that we tell people this: that we tell the vulnerable young adults who’re in the middle of a struggle and who think that success is 100% recovery or 100% happiness that it’s never going to happen, but that’s just fine. So long as life has happiness and things are better, it’s still a success. No one is 100% happy. No one is 100% OK with all of the things that have gone wrong in their life. In life, good enough really is more than good enough. We can reach for the stars, but if the message we’re getting is that anything less is no good, then we’re going to be pretty miserable spending our lives never achieving an unreachable goal.

Anorexics are never ex-anorexics even when they learn how to maintain a healthy weight, just as alcoholics are never ex-alcoholics even when they’ve been sober for forty years. It’s always there. But it’s not always there right at the front of everything. It’s not ruining your life and your relationships and your peace of mind all the time. Life’s happy and largely healthy and that is a huge achievement. It is more than enough. That is the goal, not the ‘perfect walk-off-into-the-sunset’ endings that too many books give us.

So if we’re going to have hope, it’s actually important that it’s not too hopeful: the hope needs to be realistic. It needs to be truthful. It needs to tell people that you don’t need all the hope in the world for your life to be good – you just need enough. All of this is just as important as trying to make sure that books are only bleak and nihilistic to a purpose.

Critically, this is true for all readers, vulnerable or not, young adult or adult. So I worry a lot less about whether my endings are happy/hopeful/bleak and more about whether they speak to a larger truth. Even in fiction, when we enjoy the ultra-happy ending, we tend feel uneasy. We know it’s not real. We know it’s not true. And the best fiction always make space for a truth beyond the story: a truth that speaks to what human beings are and what we can become. The truth is rarely out-and-out happy, but it’s also rarely without hope. Hope is the touchstone of the imagination: it’s where truth meets possibility, and surely that is what fiction is.

 

white daffodils

Against Those Against YA

Earlier today a retweet popped up in my timeline pointing me to an “interesting and provocative” case (though the retweeter also said he disagreed with it) for why adults should be embarrassed to read YA. Here’s the article in case you’re interested.

I can see why the retweeter thought, on first glance, that the article is well-argued. Actually, it’s just (fairly) well-written and so it simulates a good, reasoned argument – without actually offering one.

One small thing punctures the writer’s whole case: she assumes that adults who read YA *only* read YA.

Or (shock, horror!) YA and detective fiction.

<pause for collective shudder>

Ultimately, her argument is based on the premise that adults who read YA miss out on literary fiction. Instead, most of the YA-lovers I know – adult or young adult – read widely and voraciously across many, many genres. (And, yes, I think YA is primarily a genre rather than age category – but that’s an argument for another time.)

Reading YA doesn’t mean you *only* read YA. Yesterday I finished Apple Tree Yard: today I am reading We Were Liars. I don’t think I’m especially atypical. Different genres collectively deliver different things: that’s why we group books into genres. But most people also recognise the huge variation in books within genres. That’s why Crime has diversified into categories as wide-ranging as ‘hard boiled’ and ‘cosy’ – not to mention the huge number of extraordinary literary crime novels as exquisitely written and constructed as anything in the plain ‘literary’ category.

Ruth Graham unintentionally makes a good, if blinkered and somewhat “smug” (to quote an incensed friend), case for YA… if read alongside books from other genres. Which is the case for most readers. Where does that leave her article?

I suppose she could, instead, have argued that adults should be embarrassed to read YA if that’s all they read, but let’s face it: she wouldn’t have received nearly as much air-time for that article. Not least because lots of people would agree with the gist of the argument. Not the bit about  being embarrassed by your reading choices (better to read something than to read nothing, surely). But I think most readers would agree that reading YA – or any other genre to the exclusion of all others means you miss out on the wonderful diversity of literature.

I’d counter-argue that YA is incredibly diverse – arguably the most diverse genre/category out there – but I still wouldn’t want to be restricted to just that section in a bookstore.

But leaving aside the gaping flaws in her premise, Graham goes on to say some downright silly – and ignorant – things, notably this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

I don’t disagree that a lot of YA is slightly neater than a lot of literary fiction in terms of endings: literary fiction is famous for messy (and often irritating) endings. In point of fact, quite a few literary books would be better for a neat ending rather than one that’s only messy to make a pretentious point: if the story hasn’t lead to messiness, then tacking it on at the end is worse than starting and following a path to something relatively neat and satisfying.

But as for the claim that YA endings are “uniformly” “simple” and “satisfying”… Well, Graham has obviously not read much YA, recent or classic. On this point she is patently and unarguably wrong. And it’s not too often you can say that about anything to do with literature.

Take the first example to pop into my head… double Carnegie winner Patrick Ness. Ness’ writing is extraordinary. He’s up there for me with writers that would presumably meet Ruth Graham’s approval, like Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver. This is a person who has a unique, fascinating voice. Who does creative things with language without doing them as a statement of how creative and unique he is: this is how his mind works, the words it conjures – just as it is for the best literary fiction writers. And his endings are anything but neat, simple, tidy. Sometimes they’re not at all ‘satisfying’ – at least in the simplistic ways Graham is criticising. Some are as complex and difficult as anything in literary fiction.

How about the lovely Tim Bowler or the challenging Siobhan Dowd, just to look at other Carnegie winners who come quickly to mind? There are so many other writers I could mention in this regard. Take Ruta Sepytys’s wonderful Out of the Easy, recently shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. This is fully equal to Sarah Waters’ historical fiction for literary value in my opinion: I’d argue that it is often even more nuanced and difficult and “unsatisfying” (in Graham’s terms). How about YA fantasy, which Graham rubbishes at the start of her article? Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter delivers a messy, difficult ending that doesn’t satisfy in simple terms at all… but does satisfy on all the more complex levels Graham is talking about; it’s what probably would happen; it’s realistic and interesting and difficult. I’m still chewing away at my feelings about it.

Last (and not to blow my own trumpet but because it’s the book I know the most about) there’s my own debut novel, The Bone Dragon. I defy Ruth Graham to say that the ending is simple, neat or simplistically satisfying. One of my favourite reviews, by Isabel Popple at The Stardust Reader and on the Waterstone’s site, says this of the ending:

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but it’s also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Tread lightly, readers.

She concludes that the book “left me feeling itchy inside my skin”. That’s exactly what I hoped readers would feel. For me, while I’m inside the book the ending is satisfying and empowering and tied up in a neat little bow. When I step outside the book, the ending becomes anything but. It becomes frightening and sad, tugging me in at least two directions. It’s a book that can’t end happily for everyone – not just inside the book but once the cover closes – and that is the whole point. It’s a book with no answers, just a lot of difficult questions.

So I challenge Graham to read this or any of the other books people must be pouring in to offer as examples of the fact that she has managed to be outright wrong in a field where that’s actually pretty hard.

Or we could just go back to the beginning of the article and the fact that the whole piece is built on a silly, badly thought out premise.

So here are my thoughts…

Read. Read widely. Be proud of reading. Be proud of reading widely.

Just don’t be snotty about it.

There’s room for all sorts of books and the world is better for that fact.

 

Women You Should Know About screencap from Emerald Street article

Women (writers) you should know about: Reading women on International Women’s Day

First some good news! I am so honoured that the amazing Suzi Feay has picked me as one of her top four up-and-coming women writers. Read the full article here. Suzi will be on two fantastic panel discussions ‘On Reading Women’ (at the British Museum, Saturday 8th March 3.30-4.30opm: find out more here) and ‘Celebrating Women Writers’ (Working Men’s College, London, Thursday 13th March, 7pm: find out more here).

I was planning a post about reading women writers anyway, so here it is!

Now that people can start calling themselves feminists again without everyone assuming that they subscribe to any of the sillier brands of academic feminist theory (a legitimate worry if, like me, you’ve ever worked in academia), we can get back to the business at hand: recognising that although things have moved forward men and women are not yet equal in the world and we must continue to strive to make it so.

But please let’s do it without every second word being ‘phallocentric’ or every phrase involving a ‘binary opposition’ that ‘essentialises’ something. We don’t have to induce a mass headache to make an important point.

‘So what’s the relevance to reading?’ you may ask. ‘Is this going to be just another article moaning about how men get more press coverage, and more reviews are written by men about men, and men are selected more often for prizes and…’ The fact that all this is still true means it’s worth repeating, but it’s not really what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how all this relates to reading habits.

Another thing the statistics show is that while women make up the majority of fiction readers, they read books by both sexes (and, yes, I’m leaving aside the debate about whether there is, indeed, a simple ‘binary opposition’ between sexes) while men tend to read books by other men.

I mostly read books by women for one simple reason: what I read about books by women (in blurbs, in articles, on Twitter, in blog-posts, and in reviews) tends to make me want to read these books, whereas I quite often don’t like the sound of books by men as much. Also my experience is that, as a rule, I’m more likely to enjoy books by women. However,  of my favourite-ever books, quite a few are by men while I’ve read plenty of shockingly dire books by women. I would never not read a book because it was by a man. And I would never not read about a book by a man. I set myself up to read and to like books by men as much as those by women.

It’s probably worth saying here that I quite often ignore the author’s name entirely. I’m dyslexic and I find it very hard to read names I don’t know. I once nearly failed a maths exam because I couldn’t tell if Michael was the name pronounced ‘mi-kal’ or the name pronounced ‘mi-shell’. When I don’t recognise a name, I quite often skim over it – for entire books if necessary. Until someone explained that ‘Her-mee-OWN-ee’ was actually the much more attractive ‘Her-MY-oh-nee’, she was just ‘H’. So for about three Harry Potter books…

I tend to focus on titles rather than author names because names are hard for me and, usually, I don’t think they’re worth the trouble. It’s what’s inside the book, not on the cover, that I really care about. If the author’s initials are given, I rarely try to find out if the book in my hands is by a man or woman. In general, the only reason I ever know is that I read the author’s bio and the acknowledgements before starting a book, and that quite often gives the game away. But the point is that it doesn’t matter to me. Other things have drawn me to the book and it’s only after the fact that I realise that, yes, my reading ratio is 75:25, give or take, in favour of women writers.

But what if you’re the type of person who does look at the author’s name when you pick up a book, beyond pure brand-recognition? Maybe there’s something to be said for making an effort, at least for a while, to go 50:50 on your reading habits… and see if you’re still reading as many books you like as before.

The question I’m left with is this: do men read fewer books by women because they don’t tend to enjoy books by women as much, as a rule, as those by men or are they dismissing these books out of hand? I’d really like to know the answer to that question.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that men and women experience the world differently. Perhaps it’s purely because of the way we’re socialised and the social expectations we live with: I think women expect to be called on to a different extent by a wider-range of people needing a wider-range of things than most men – and, in general, we seem to feel more bound to answer these calls. Of course men have to be different things to different people in their relationships too – some more than others – but I think this is more so for most women. As a result, I quite often find that in books by men the characters seem to lack a normal degree of connectedness with other characters and people in the world of the book: this makes them come across to me as rather odd and asocial (even when they’re clearly not meant to be), cardboard cut-outs driven only by internal motivations rather than also by a web of relationships that mean they need to be different people at different times.

The other key thing I find missing in a lot of books written by men is a sense of how being a woman shapes your life. Most female characters in books by men don’t seem to do things like look into the wardrobe and think ‘Oh, I’d love to wear that’ and then feel they have to decide not to because (a) it’s likely that at some point during the day a man will say something sexually aggressive if not actively try to touch them (and, true, it’s not fair but if it’s avoidable better to avoid it), and (b) because various people will turn up their noses at a little exposed flesh below the neck or above the knee. I quite often do my shopping now in the frumpiest, scruffiest outfit I can find because I am so very sick of men breathing down my neck in queues when I wear, say, shorts and a tank-top or finding excuses to touch me (and, yes, it’s mostly on the arm but it’s still unnecessary, unwanted touching as if I shouldn’t have the right to dictate ALL the touching that involves my own body). Being a woman shapes a lot of what I do, largely because men make it so… and that’s what’s missing from a lot of books by men. It’s not about anger or taking a feminist position or decrying sexism, it’s about the fact that actually women do pay a price for being women pretty much whenever they leave the house. And often in the home too. And that’s not because of all men being beasts all the time, but enough of them are beastly enough quite a lot of the time that it has a real impact on what life is like.

Of course I don’t have any experience of being a man, but it seems to me that men, as a rule, are less aware of being male – with the exception of when something challenges their ‘manhood’ (the physical or socially-constructed version). But maybe that’s not so: I’ve never been a man, so feel free to tell me otherwise.

What I do know is that the people who inhabit a lot of books by men often don’t feel real to me the way that characters in books by women tend to, mostly because in books by men characters often don’t seem to be as intimately connected to a web of people – friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances – as I and most of the women I know are. That’s at the heart of why I tend to like books by women more: the relationships feel more rounded, more interesting, more recognisable as human relationships… and that’s one of the things I’m most interested in when I read: the people and the way they relate to each other.

So here’s the heart of what I’m trying to say… If you don’t pay attention to whether you read men or women writers, but have a tendency to like books by one sex more than the other, then it’s fair enough to have a reading ratio that tilts one way or the other. But if you basically don’t read books by one sex, how could you possibly know? Isn’t it worth making an effort to balance your reading stats, unless you’re truly ‘blind’ to what an author’s name implies about their sex?

Isn’t it always worth being open-minded enough to leave room in your reading for both men and women writers?

WaterstonesChildren'sBookPrize banner

The Bone Dragon shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize

Read it all about it!

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/childrens-book-prize/1185/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookprizes/10633552/Waterstones-Childrens-Book-Prize-2014-shortlists.html

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/faber-leads-waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist.html

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/feb/13/waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist-2014

So thrilled and honoured to be on this amazing shortlist. Happy paperback publication day to me indeed! 🙂