When my first book, The Cry of the Wolf was published in 1989, I was told I was writing for teenagers. I was surprised; as far as I was concerned, Wolf was a children's book, but who was I to argue? The next few I wrote were also marketed as teenage books, but as I began to go on school visits, it soon became clear that all was not as it seemed. If I was writing for teenagers, why I was being paraded in front of Years 7 and 8?
Librarians and teachers confirmed that few people over the age of thirteen ever read the books. People such as Robert Westal, Anne Fine, Bob Swindels, Gillian Cross and myself were really writing for pre-teens despite what it said on the back cover. So where was the fiction for real teenagers? Books are written for every age group, from toddlers to granddads. In music, film, TV and every other media, youth represents one of the most well-exploited markets and vigorously creative areas in the world. But with books, no one seemed to bother. Teenagers fed on crumbs dropped from the adult table - Trainspotting, Catcher in the Rye and so on - or watched movies instead. The received wisdom was that teenagers didn't read, or else they read adult stuff and by and large, this was true. Even today there's a great deal of soul searching about boys in particular not reading. But is it because books are only for old and uncool people, like opera or bingo? Or could it be that the books that might interest people of that age are simply not written?
This was a period when books for young readers were changing. Modern concerns - I say modern even though these areas had been issues for decades - such as sexuality, drugs culture, family break-down and other social issues were being more honestly portrayed, and people were discovering that young people were far more sophisticated than the material previously written for them would suggest. Publishers dealt with this trend by calling books with a content some parents might object to, teenage fiction. All this was working quite nicely, thank you very much. Eleven and twelve year olds were pleased to be told they were reading teenage fiction; publishers were able to fob off complaints about pre-teens reading such stuff by saying that it was aimed at teenagers, educationalists were able to use these more serious books in the classrooms, and the Christian far right who look after the nation's morals, were able to flap around convinced that the tide of filth was being staunched for our children's sake at least.
Some time in about 1994. my publisher, Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press, suggested I write a book dealing with drugs. I liked the idea. For one thing, it was something I knew about. I come from one of the first generations where drugs were widely used recreationally; if I hadn't done it myself, I'd certainly known someone else who had. I read the few other books that had dealt with this area, and I was not impressed. There was a great reluctance to deal with the realities, the way drugs are used, why they are used, the kind of decisions that people make, practically, socially and ethically. Drugs and drug culture was portrayed as a kind of dark force that turned ordinary well-meaning people into evil shadows, like the Nazgul, who could occasionally be brought back to decency by an innocent who usually only escaped corruption themselves by the skin of their teeth. In other words, it was fantasy, badly disguised as social realism. I'd already built up a reputation for honest writing, dealing with issues directly and I wanted this book to show those same virtues. Above all, I wanted it to be authentic. Authenticity had a number of attractions - partly because it is by its nature honest, but also because this book was going to have a rough ride, and I didn't want to be accused of making anything up. That's why the novel, Junk, is set in a real place, involving characters based on a real group of people, with real music, real fashions, real everything, including as much as possible, real events. There are a wide range of different people shown - people having a good time on drugs, all the fun of young people enjoying themselves, as well as the darker side - addiction, casualties, despair.
Predictably, it was both those areas that were singled out for criticism - the good times, because moronic teenagers were obviously going to copy-cat and end up as junky whores, or else the poor sweet things were too fragile to cope with the realities of addiction.
Junk was an experiment; we all thought it stood a good chance of languishing on the shelves - Puffin did some research which suggested that even those librarians who liked the book would be reluctant to stock it. In fact, it sold like hot cakes, greeted with glee by young people, teachers and drug workers alike, and snarls of rage by the moral right and, of course, the press. After winning the Carnegie Medal in 1997, it was front page news. The Daily Mail was outraged, the Today programme started exhuming moralist pressure groups that had been interred sometime in about 1963. The broadsheets were disturbed and did a great deal of soul-searching about the loss of innocence, children growing up too quickly, and the dangers of sensationalists such as myself exploiting childish curiosity. I have to say it was fun. I enjoyed the publicity and the attention, which authors usually feel they don't get enough of, and I enjoyed arguing my corner. I had written the book for a reason and I felt it was something to be proud of. Not only that, it seemed to me that most of my opponents had little to support their case but professional outrage. Were people really surprised that teenagers wanted to read this sort of thing? After all, drugs are in the news daily, and it's a rare school were everyone doesn't know someone who smokes cannabis by Year 10.
I learned a number of important lessons from that book. For starters, it exploded the myth about teenagers not reading - they read this one in droves. Admittedly it still wasn't being read by anyone much over fifteen - perhaps even fourteen in those days; something which is changing now, since teenagers have become aware that material is being written for them that they might actually like - but it had hiked the age range for teenage fiction up a year or two at least. It convinced me that it was the material that was faulty - not the readership.
The second myth it exploded was that of the moral majority. From reading the papers and listening to the radio, you would have thought that whether young people were safe reading a book like this was a burning issue in schools and families up and down the country. Well, it isn't. People know perfectly well that a great many of young people will experiment with drugs, that most of them will come through it OK; that parents have to learn to let go before their kids leave home rather than later on, and be prepared to watch them take risks and make mistakes. Those who truly believe that we can ring-fence our children against the adult world lost the plot a long time ago, even with children far younger than those who might read Junk. The real question is, why is it such an issue in the press when the public in general have moved on? The answer is simply that it makes a good story. It doesn't move the debate forward, it's not informative in any way, it helps no one, despite protests from journalists. It provokes a good rant or a ding-dong in the studio, is all. Really, the only sensible response to this sort of stuff is treat it as entertainment - it makes good publicity; that's its only real virtue. Of course there is a genuine contemporary debate about these kind of issues, and some of it - not much but some -takes place in newspapers and on the radio; more of that later.
The point is, that since Junk was published in 1996, I have had not one letter or email of complaint about it. The gulf between the official and unofficial views of teenage morality, which I think says a great deal about the traumatic way we view adolescence, is never clearer than with the issue of youth censorship. Adult films, for 18+ are regularly seen in cinemas by girls of thirteen and fourteen, slipping in with the aid of a stick of lippy and a bit of slap. The boys soon follow and even if they can't be bothered, they probably saw their first 18 film at the age of six with the rest of the family. This has been true for over half a century. The same goes for computer games for 18+. The nine o'clock watershed on TV is breached regularly by every primary school child, and material with an "adult" content is splashed enthusiastically all over radio, internet and TV without a scruple. I well remember Jenny Murray asking me in outraged tones what I was doing putting an incident in a book which involved a sixteen year old injecting into her breasts while she was still breast feeding - having just had it read out at half past two in the afternoon on national radio. This incident in the book was three quarters way through a 90,000 word novel. Even if your parents disapprove, restrictions are easily circumvented. We all know this goes on and yet when something is produced with any adult content directly for young people, throats are clutched, the guilt begins, the groaning starts. Why is our legislation on this matter so hopelessly out of date? Young people of course have no vote, no pressure groups, no voice, no say, whereas every moralist with a unilateral agenda for good and bad makes very sure that they do.
Does it matter? Often, not at all. The nation en mass simply allow their young people to fall through the gaps and do what they like. But it does have some bad effects. If you are fifteen or sixteen and you want to read about people with sex lives, those people will have to be in their twenties or late teens at the earliest - no one writes for you. The whole entry into adult life is substantially unsupported by literature; which is bollocks as far as I'm concerned. So let's admit for starters - most of the controversy about my work is a paper tiger. People recognise the realities of everyday life, are concerned but not scared by the fact that there are few secrets from children these days, and recognise young people's ability to contextualise fiction on their own, without adults pointing out which conclusions are right and which are wrong. In fact, in a world more embedded in fictions than ever in the form not just of books but gaming, politics, film, TV, adverts, even education, kids are probably more able than their parents to appreciate the different ways stories are used.
The final lesson of Junk was this; that we massively underestimate our young people. We're so used to watching them struggle with Shakespeare and grunting at us when we ask them what sort of a day they had at school, we forget that in terms of their own culture they are extremely sophisticated and able to deal with concepts, particularly fictional concepts, with ease. Of course they struggle with Shakespeare - you have to spend years of study to pick up the references. Of course they struggle with Hardy and Dickens - the same thing is true. But if we take the trouble to speak directly to them on their terms of reference instead of ours, they stop waddling clumsily and become intellectually easy and graceful, just like they're supposed to be. We've been putting up hurdles when we should have been listening. Of course this isn't so easy for us oldsters, given that we aren't any more aware of their cultural references than they are with ours. But contemporary fiction is a common language. Kids have been practising it for years. It's a question of trust, and of making books interesting - surprise surprise!
Since Junk I've had a lot of fun and satisfaction identifying those areas that have been neglected, and trying to write books to fill them. The first of these after Junk was Bloodtide - an attempt to publish a book, as I said at the time, "with no educational value of any sort whatsoever." I should illuminate that remark. I'm not anti-school or anti-education in any way, and I'm very conscious of how important librarians are in a school context - as soon as you enter a school with a strong reading culture, you know there is a good librarian behind it - and a good reading culture makes a real difference to the quality of a school. The same is true of many teachers. But a true literature for young people is one they go out and buy for themselves. We're paid too much attention to that lucrative school's market, which has driven book sales to young people for years. Schools, like all institutions, are far more wary than individuals. The result has been an emphasis on the relationship between the book and the child in education, rather than the simple and genuine relationship between the reader and the text. The classroom brings a different kind of reading to the fore - sometimes critical, sometimes educational ("What do you think Gemma should have done, Katy?") - all good stuff; but it leaves behind the primary thing - that this book is yours, and tells you things that you perhaps never thought about, but that you recognise; that it's about you in some indefinable way. Once you have decided that young people can contextualise narrative in their own right, make a moral judgement on it in their own right, recognise the difference between story and real life in their own right and understand that it relates to their own lives in many more ways than simple example or advice, you can let go of any attempt to lecture them or help them get to the right ideas and simply tell your story. The feelings and ideas that arise out of it are there for the reader to exploit as and if they will. The context they already have.
Bloodtide, based on the Icelandic Volsunga saga, is probably my best work to date, and it raised barely a murmur in the press. If there was a controversy around it, it would have been because the book was violent, but it seems the objectors only complain about things that are enjoyable. Predictably, it was the most enjoyable activity of them all that caused the most fuss; sex.
Well, sex is great, isn't it? It's simultaneously filthy dirty and romantic, fun and deeply meaningful. It feels nice, tastes nice, looks both ugly and beautiful, it can be either obsessive or casual, can turn disgust into delight, it's absolutely hilarious and, of course, it's the source of the most meaningful relationships in our lives. When young people become sexual, we ought to throw them a big party, balloons, fireworks, everything. You've got sex - great! You're really going to enjoy this. But of course, it's not like that. It's all dire - first mechanics, then pregnancy, disease and emotional failure; fear before pleasure. We live in the age of the paedophile beast - it's every parent's worse nightmare, the worst crime in our statutes; these people are heretics and witches to us. So it's maybe not so surprising that we are so fearful when it comes to adolescents. Children with sex! It's all wrong I remembered what I used to get up to when I was in my teen years. At fourteen I had a girlfriend. We weren't sleeping together but we were doing all lot of other very nice things. It was great. We knew all about sex, from straight sex, to various positions, to oral sex and sodomy - you name it. We had a filthy sense of humour and nothing ever put any of us off it, to my knowledge. We were also self-conscious, nervous, grumpy and, as I realised as I wrote the book, really rather loveable, despite occasional cruelty.
Times had changed a great deal since Junk came out. Adult content on film, television and the radio had become even more prevalent. Teenage fiction was becoming more common - in 1997, my book was one of very few on the market for older teens. The age of cross-over fiction was upon us, and publishers were more wiling to take risks, on the grounds that books could sell across genre and age group, rather than having to rely on schools and libraries. Publishers had also discovered that with children's books as with adults, there is no such thing as bad publicity. My own books, despite the fuss, had always received more support than approbation, and a good deal of critical success, which also helped a very great deal. Even so, this was going to be a different business. What I wanted to write about was young male sexual culture - not always a pretty sight. There are plenty of people who genuinely dislike young men, and find them really rather revolting. Since feminism, female sexuality is celebrated, but the male version remains suspect. It's visual, often pornographic, touchy, but not anything like as touchy-feely, far more easily removed from the person and often extremely rude. Great! I found myself thinking a lot about the Woody Allen quote - "Is sex dirty? Yes, if you're doing it right." It's also tender and loving, attentive and generous - also great. It puts me in mind of one of those African fetish dolls. There's no shortage of people willing to sneer at young men for their clumsiness, their shyness, their lack of social skills and to attack them for their attitude to girls.
Men, perhaps not in society at large but in fictions, often don't get a good deal these days. There's the action man, and, the cool dude and the oaf; not much else. On TV, the feisty woman - someone who's up for life, ready to take things on despite her various problems and difficulties - is a common theme. But the term is exclusively female. Not that many women would want to be feisty, but where is the feisty man on TV? So many TV men are overcome by their own weaknesses - from The Simpsons to Fraiser, to Sex in the City and Friends, it's the women who seem sorted. I wanted to do some psychological realism and show that young men aren't just blundering buffoons, teetering on the edge of sexual violence all the time, but sensitive as well as coarse, thoughtful as well as lustful, vulnerable as well as crude; and above all, irreverent and funny. For research, I went around all my friends and acquaintances and asked everyone I knew for their early knobby stories - everybody has one - and I came out with a great stack of tales, some crude, some pathetic, some funny, some charming, but all with something to say. Out of these, I assembled the events in Doing It around three lads I knew when I was younger.
Sex is one of those areas where people want a code of behaviour in common that goes far beyond the basic ones about violence and free will. There would be the Christian right wing, of course, but there would also be some feminist criticism as well, which I was far more concerned about. For one thing, as a young man in the seventies, nearly all my female friends and lovers at the time were feminists, many of them fiercely so. Once bitten, twice shy. But we still live in a male world in many ways and I was concerned with not actually saying something to the boys at the expense of girls. It had to be just right. The area that was obviously going to attract the flack was that filthy sense of humour. Smut is one of those things you either find funny or you don't. There were those who talked knowledgeably about how childish it all was - although let's face it, childishness is pretty essential in a sense of humour - but the main point of attack, and one I took seriously was this; was the book sexist, was it demeaning to girls? On one level this is obviously true. Some people found it offensive, and if you are offended you feel demeaned. But outrage isn't enough - Doing It was never going to be a school text, you don't have to read unless you chose to. For my part I feel that humour crosses a lot, although not all boundaries; and that as an act in itself it is not oppressive. Of course humour can be used to bully, if it is flaunted in the face of those who find it oppressive or used inappropriately; and of course it can be used by good and bad alike. But making jokes in private is our prerogative. Half the fun is that we know they're all wrong
When the book came out, there was a different kind of criticism from other sources, that the book didn't go far enough. Some people thought I was after writing something that explored the genuinely dark side of sexuality. Not at all; the idea was simply to show ordinary lads in all their warty glory, wanting as much sex as they could get but genuinely concerned not to do anyone down in the process. The big attack when it came was from an unexpected source. So far I'd had almost, if not quite, total support from inside children's books. Anne Fine, winner of almost every award from children's books going and the Children's Laureate of the day, did a full scale, full page savaging in the Guardian, since described as the most thorough hatchet job in the history of children's books. I was terrified when I heard about it. Anne has a reputation for going for the jugular and she certainly had in this case. According to her, the books was grubby, everyone associated with it ought to be ashamed of themselves, it would put girls off dating for life, it was demeaning not only to girls but to boys as well. It was also badly written, badly edited, objectionable in every conceivable way. Although Anne has stated since that she was only complaining about the book being published for young people, the real thrust of her argument was that it was sexist and demeaning, and possibly damaging to young readers. After reading the article, I was somewhat relieved. There didn't seem to be anything new here - there was no real intellectual back-up, no argument, except the feeling that this sort of thing was bad in itself. All the quotes, even taken out of context, were funny. Well, they made me laugh, anyway. By the time we had all the reactions back, it was apparent we'd got away with it. There were those who found it disturbing that a man my age should write something that would turn their children on, a few who agreed with Anne that it was sexist book, but by and large people, certainly most of those involved with children and young people, recognised Dino, Jonathon and Ben from real life, saw their sense of humour in the context of their fundamentally decent and fair behaviour towards their girlfriends, the airing of their uncertainties and foibles as fair. Ok, Jonathon was worried about being seen out with a fat girl but he knows he's an idiot for doing it; OK, Dino is so big headed he thinks he can walk all over people, partly because he's so arrogant, but also because other people's feeling are such a closed book to him - we all know people like that, don't we? The girl's in the book were not gone into in the same depth as the boys - but the book was about boys. I was relieved to see it accepted as an "up" book, something positive, delighted with how many people find this stuff as hilarious as I do. Talking about minge, tits and arse among your friends is no crime and does no one any harm. In fact, it's a bit of a larf. So long as you don't do it aggressively, as long as you find your bits equally hilarious - and who would deny that? - why not?
Underneath Anne's whole article is that same nasty sneer I remember from when I was small - " How revolting. Aren't you a dirty little boy?" - the same attitude which was exactly what made me want to write the thing in the first place. I think of this as a kind of bullying. It really is the sort of thing young lads can do without, and it says a very great deal about social and personal awareness that Anne had apparently managed to get so far in life writing for children without being aware how common this kind of humour is; the little darlings didn't want to offend her and protected her from it. Doing It is an attempt to look honestly and affectionately at teenage male sexual culture - not at everyone's, but not at a small, misogynist, bunch of future rapists, either. This stuff is widespread. Some of it might shock you if you don't share their sense of humour, but regardless, the real heart of a novel isn't just in the people in it, or even their behaviour; it's between the lines. I was obviously on the side of those boys but I think anyone without a specific moralist agenda would understand that neither is the book anti-women. A novel isn't a educational tract, but all my books do have an ethical side to them - of course, that's part of all our lives.
There is a contemporary ethical debate about young people and sexuality, but it isn't about rules and regulations, or what age you do this and that, or how often. It's about the nature of sexual experience and sexual responsibility of course, but also about the nature of irresponsibility and risk-taking in the context of the kind of lives that people are living, or will live. I addressed those issues in an earlier book, Lady; My Life as a bitch, in which a young girl, off the rails in her life, gets turned into a dog and has chance to taste both an unrestricted sensual life, and a chance to look at being a person from the outside. There's so much written about doing the right thing for young people, and really very little about taking risky. Naughty but nice, as Salmon Rushdie pointed out. Go on - you know you want to. With Junk, I was writing a book not for those who say no to drugs, but for those who say yes; with Lady, I was writing a book to those who say yes to sex. Needless to say, that one got a rough ride from the moralists as well.
Anne did have one genuine point to make, however - about the marketing of books like this. Teenage fiction has grown up out of children's fiction, and books like mine don't sit happily with Peter Rabbit. Because book shops are divided into children's and adult sections, buying a book makes a statement about who you are; and if you're a teenager you might very well prefer to go to the adult part of the bookshop, certainly with the paucity of stuff still being published for you. Doing It, in fact, is being published in paperback as an adult book. I'm happy with that - I think more teenagers will find their way to it there than on the Young Adult shelves, and I would hope that the market for this sort of thing, as with music and film, would be from about fourteen to almost thirty. We'll see. This is a market that is still finding its feet. I was once photographed in Paris, while doing some publicity for Galimard over there, by an elderly man - I forget his name, I regret to say - who was proud at having photographed many novelists and writers in his life - Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoire, to name just two. "I like to photograph novelists," he told me. "They are the humanists."
I think this is true. Writing about people makes you engage with people. The real reason people object to these books isn't simply because they talk explicitly about areas they find objectionable, it's because they are about understanding things they find objectionable. To date I haven't actually written anything that understands the viewpoint of anyone genuinely bad - nearly all my monsters to date have their hearts in the right place, sooner or later - but I would happily do this, too. Teenagers are perfectly at home with that kind of fiction. I don't think understanding is a cure-all; there are plenty of people who will happily stab you to death however much you sympathise with them - but there is a fundamental ethical difference between those of us who believe in understanding and tolerance and those who believe in specific moral solutions and life styles. It is not us who are the bullies, who are unable to trust or allow things to grow. Sympathy for the devil doesn't mean you don't fight him, but I'd rather know how he ticks than take the risk of lumping the Dinos, Bens and Jonathons of this world in the same basket. That's why I write these kind of books.
Teenagers are in a better position than most people to say yes to some of the more risky things life has to offer. That might be a bit scary, but it is life they're saying yes to, and when some blobhead turns up and tries to force them to say no instead - well, it makes me want to write a book for them. As far as the future of fiction for young adults is concerned, things look a lot rosier than they did a decade ago. Publishers are investing a great deal in cross-over fiction - books that have a market with adults as well as children, and teenage fiction certainly comes within this range. But it's a fragile thing. Teenagers still have no voice; they only have their spending power. Many schools are still running scared of the bullies and although there are centres of real excellent here and there, in general they cannot be relied upon to address personal concerns. The best hope we have to create a reading culture and a genuine literature for young adults - to write books they want to read - edgy, dangerous, forceful, thought provoking, funny - all sorts. And definitely, non-educational. They get enough at that at school. I suspect and hope that people will stop writing issue-led books. I think of them myself more as brooms to sweep away the mess before you get down to the real thing, and although I am best known for my two social-realism attempts, Junk and Doing It, they aren't typical of my work. Sex, drugs and rock and roll will much more likely be incorporated in stories rather than dealt with head on. With any luck, books for teenagers will become more commonplace, more embedded in literature in general and, like movies and films, part of our normal cultural life.
Is teen publishing a marketing ploy? Do other forms of media have more relevance to the lives of young people? Do teenagers read teen fiction?
Melvin Burgess, Carnegie Medal winner for his teen novel, Junk, explores.
Teen fiction is a hybrid beast, springing as it does from children's fiction yet addressing increasingly adult issues. When I started writing some 15 years ago, I was told my books were teenage fiction, but in school I was asked to speak to 11 and 12-year-olds. For years I don't think I ever even saw a teenager. It quickly became obvious that the concept of teenage fiction was in many ways a fiction itself, used in much the same way that the 9 o'clock watershed used to be used by broadcasters. Everybody in the industry was perfectly well aware that teenage books were read mainly by 11 and 12-year-olds - but they weren't actually for children that young - Heaven's no! Of course they might be read by children as young as 11 or even younger. If parents gave permission to their children, who were the publishers to complain?
The result was that any book addressing the more adult areas of teenage life was labeled as a teenage book yet marketed at 11-year-olds. Complaints were thus neatly by-passed, and since 11-year-olds were flattered to think they were reading above their age - they weren't - the teenage labeling worked as a marketing ploy as well as placating the moral right.
Marketing to teenagers
Teenagers represent a strange group in terms of market. They have no vote, no voice, yet practically every adult group with any hope or vision of the future wants them in their pocket.As a result there is a continual battle being fought over their heads as to what sort of values they should be inculcated with, and of course, what sort of fictions they should hear, see and read. But we live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-value society, in an age where television, radio, the press and the internet have rendered the secrets adults may wish to keep from children impossible to hide. They know what we get up, and by the time they reach their teenage years they will almost certainly have had, or soon will be having, the chance to try it all out for themselves. Our best hope is to help them become fleet of mind, understanding, tolerant and above all, able to make decisions for themselves. That last clause, of course, is not popular amongst adults who are convinced they know best. Young people are sometimes going to make bad decisions. Worse - sometimes they're going to make bad decisions on purpose. But at least they know what they're letting themselves in for.
The tolerant view holds sway by and large, at home; but at school children are in a very different world of censorship and caution. They will likely have seen their first 18 film with mum and dad in front of the TV before they are ten and snuck in to see it in the cinema by the time they're 15. It would be impossible to show them such films at most schools. They will have discussed drugs with their friends, not in terms of how bad it all is, but in terms of are they going to try them, and if so what sort and under what circumstances? There again, all teenagers will be practicing sex by the time they leave school - many of them with no one else in the room, it's true, but still - imagine the sort of fuss if the details they understand in their daily lives were presented to them in a film for 12 or 15-year-olds.
In other words, the real questions, ethical and practical, are actively avoided in most schools. Young people have to leave their real level of sophistication and understanding behind them every Monday morning. Teenagers in their own element are graceful, fluent, quick, clever and sophisticated. At school they are all rendered down into dummies.
Surely it can only be a good thing to address young people in a way that they understand and with which they feel comfortable. Films, music and other media all do this, but books have lagged behind. Fifteen years ago, there were almost no books for fifteen and above. Why? The industry answer used to be that kids of that age read adult books. So they did - so they still do. But adult books aren't about being 16. The real answer is that we have been scared into silence by right wing bullies. Aidan Chambers used to be about the only writer to challenge this - perhaps Robert Cormier as well. Things are better today; teenage fiction is slowly growing up, but it's still not supplying its audience with enough of what they want.
One effect of marketing books for young people so much through schools has been an over-emphasis on the 'issue' book. There are some stout defenders of these kind of books and rightly so - many of the very best novels are set in areas of social tension. But the discomfort people feel about 'issue' books is also justified. In some ways, the problem is bad writing - books that twist life to suit an educational purpose fool no one. But a more insidious effect has been what I'd like to call educationalism - the idea that a book is somehow better because it is useful in socialising young people. Novels don't need this gloss. They are a fundamentally humanist form, focusing as they do on the inner workings of people as individuals in relationships and in society.
Novels are all about relating and understanding. The primary relationship in written fiction is between the reader and the text - not between the class and the teacher. Reading is best done alone, in the privacy of your own imagination. You pick and choose what you like, what you don't like, you decide what to take away and what you want to drop. Perhaps the most special feeling you can get from a book is that feeling of recognition. Most people reading this article will recognise the kind of book I mean - one that speaks directly to you about things that involve you, that matter to you. Such books may be issue books, or fantasy or a real life drama; what they have in common is that they speak to the heart. When you read it, you know it's yours, not because it's going to make you into a better citizen, but because it makes you more yourself.
An intensely personal fiction
Teenage years are life changing and often dangerous. No one can predict how they are going to end, only that everything will be different. It's a time when people take the greatest risks and are most open to new ways of behaving. A fiction for people in their teens should be dangerous, thrilling, intoxicating, experimental, daring - but above all intensely personal. It shouldn't be telling you what coast you want to end up on, it should be encouraging you to launch off and get there.
My own experiences in this field have taught me one thing above everything else - that this is an age group that it is almost impossible to overestimate. When Junk was published back in 1997, everyone thought there was a good chance it would languish on the shelves. Teenagers read adult books and schools and libraries wouldn't dare buy it for fear of the moral right. And of course that group howled in objection, right on cue; but in fact, the book was welcomed with open arms by almost everyone else - drug educators, teachers and young readers alike. It taught me that teenagers will read books so long as they are the right books. There are more such books these days, some even winning major literary prizes. But the pool of such books and authors is still surprisingly small.
We in the West have a strangely traumatic view of teenagers - the fact that our official strategies for them differ so radically from our private ones confirms this. Fear of those self-appointed, self-righteous protectors of the nation's morals still dominates at many levels and to a great extent, prevents us from moving forward to a real debate about what a true literature for teenagers should provide. The only way this can be done is to produce books that young people want to read - that they will want to buy for themselves. Authors need to leave education to educators. Just looking at the reality of things is always enough.
*This article is based on Melvin Burgess's keynote speech delivered at the Turning Point Conference on the state of young adult fiction in
(This artticle first appeared in the TES.)
As some people will be aware, I've been working for the past few years on a "Knobby book for boys" - a boy/girl book for boys, something that I feel is peculiarly missing in the world today. Having spent so long in the filthy but tender maw that is male personality, I've had a lot of time to speculate on the way men and boys are portrayed in ficton in general. Here we again, World Book Day is coming up, and instead of congratulating ourselves on how wonderful books are, and how good it is to read anything at all (as if the mere acting of passing your eyes over a printed page is benefitial, like eating fruit), perhaps it would be interesting to cast an eye over some of the oddiities of the fictional world we have created today. First though, a couple of words: feisty and sassy. You know the sort. They have their problems, at work, at home, with relatinships. They are flawed in many ways - but somehow they make it through. They're sharp, witty, and they're fighters, but most of all, they're female. Can you even begin to imagine a feisty or sassy man? Somehow, we're just too vapid to qualify. Actually, you probably don't know any feisty women either - most of the women I know who are even vaguely like that would kick me up the arse if I told them they were so. These terms are almost exculsively ficitonal. Now, I'm not a great fan of the idea of role models in fiction, but I do think that the nature and variety of character types in books, on TV and film, does say something about the way we perceive ourselves, and lets face it, men are fools. In the average advertisment on the telly, the clued up woman and the idiotic man is a cliché already. Men Behaving Baddly is really Men Behaving Like Twats - being bad is much more fun than that, believe me. In Fraiser, Friends, The Simpsons, themen are idiots. It's truel that more films have male heros than femail ones, but character isn't really an issue there so much as levels of violence. On screen or on the page, where have the real men gone? - and I don't mean the muscle-bound types. Like, most writers, if we're honest, many of the characters I use in my books aren't actualy drawn from life at all. Most ficitonal characters come from other ficitonal characters, sometimes to the extent that tjhey are nothing but a bag of tricks used to create effects, rather than any sort of real facimilie at all. On the only two occasions when I have drawn my characters directly from life, I've had to do it not just in terms of individuals, but in terms of groups. In other words, in real life, relationship is just as important as character. The two books are Junk, which was based around a group of heroin users I used to know in Bristol, and Doing It, out in May of this year, based on a group of boys I used to know. Doing It was undoubtedly the one where I had to think hadrdest about real the life characters, and I've come to think that the main reason for that is, that I was dealing with boys. Gender role's in fiction - who gets the best deal? Where is the real work to be done? I think it's undoubtedly for the boys. I remember when I first started writing, one of the tricks I used was to start a character out as a male on, then change gender half way through. It gave an added depth, and helped me avoid female steriotypes. Perhaps I was being a paranoid? Maybe - you have to rmemeber I was a young man in the seventies and most of my female friends were avoid and in some cases ferociou9s feminists. Nowadays, l've started to do the sme thin in reverse, in order to create more rounded male characters. There are strong male characters, of course, particularly in movies. |Once again they are almost purely fictinal and don't exist all that much in real life, outside of the army, anyway. Tough, strong, hard guys - they haven't actually changed much in the past fifty years. Role modelas they ain't. I'm not saying theat there aren't any ficiontal male characters who manage this difficult modern world, making mistakes that don't turn them into beasts or fools, compassionately and intelignelty and with imagination - just that it's far easier to see women dong the same thing. What's admirable in a man has changed a great deal in the past forty years or so. Many qualitites that were once admirable are now seen as foolish or stupid. I think it's time that writers began to make a concious effort to look into real life to find the character types
Bad reviews are always hurtful - no one wants to think that their book is no good. That's especially so when you're accused of treating your readers with disrespect and all the more so when those readers are children. Normally, I make a point of not replying - readers can make up their own minds - but Ms Stone's one in this issue of BFK is different because it's an editorial.
Stone seems to be making a number of different criticisms. One, that it's bad a book. I've always made it a point not to defend my work on the grounds of how good it is - that would be asking for it. I've written some poor books in my time - Robbers on the Road isn't my best; neither is it my worst. All I'll say here is that other reviewers have held other opinions of it. (The Times 11/09/02.) Her original argument in the piece was that some publishers will refuse to edit big names for fear of causing offence, thus allowing rubbish on the market just because the name will sell. Obviously, the worse my book, the more valid her argument, and if she'd stuck simply to saying that the book was poor, I would have remained silent. It's the accusation of sadomasochism and dumping on children that I feel need answering.
For those who haven't read the book the offending scenes involve a boy, Francis, who has lost his parents and has to live with his uncle. Francis is an early middle class snob, with pretensions to aristocracy inherited from his father - pretentions which his uncle doesn't share. Francis is forced to attend the local grammer school, which he considers much beneath him and makes himself something of a hero among the other boys by repeatedly provoking the schoolmaster, Japes, to beat him. There are two points I'd like to make, both of which concern the mis-application of psychological theory. If I can allow myself a little bitch, I'd like to point out that Rosemary is currently studying for her MSc in psychology, suggest that she isn't the first over-zealous student to misapply her discipline and wonder idly if she hasn't recently been going over a module about the effects of violence on children ? Well, maybe. There are problems about applying modern theory of this sort to the past. History has been going on a long time; it don't always work.
When I was researching for Robbers, one of the first things that struck me was the violent treatment of children. They were beaten at home and at school almost as a matter of course. Did this treatment leave them severely damaged? I'd love to see a university that did a course in the historical application of psychology, but I think it would be a difficult venture. Today, of course, abuse of children is the great crime, the bogeyman of the age, and I'd be first in line trying to get Japes not only sacked but hopefully prosecuted for his actions. But times change, and psychology with them. It may be that the entire Elizabethan population consisted of the abused and the abusers - but they certainly wouldn't have viewed it like that.
Actually, the question, How did Tudor children feel about their treatment is an interesting one, but, surprisingly, considering the amount of source material we have from the period, it's one we shall never know the answer to. The great subjective source of the period is of course Shakespeare. Sitting here, I can't think of a single decent portrait of a child in the entire body of his work. Please don't say Juliet - I know she was only fourteen, but child she ain't. He is typical of his time. Fictionally, it isn't a question of re-creation, but remodelling. I was reminded not of the severely damaged victims who star in current TV dramas, but partly of the scarrification and other ordeals other societies subject young people too; and in particular, the stories I heard from my brother and other boys of my own generation who went to schools that used the cane enthusiastically. Those boys did compare stripes, and it was often a matter of bravery and face, rather than shame and guilt. Not always - but often enough. An argument for the return of corporal punishment? No. An interesting angle on how times were different then? I should say so.
Reading over what I've written, it sounds as though I spent a good deal of time trying to re-create some sort of psychological portrait of the children in my story. As Rosemary pointed out, that is certainly not the case in this book, and with that judgement that she would have been better leaving her text book firmly shut. For this purpose, you could say there are two types of character in fiction. One extreme would be a character out of, say, Thomas Hardy or DH Lawence; at the other would be Tom and Jerry, or Itchy and Scratchy. You could have some fun (but only some, because there's always much more to fictional characterisation than human psychology) analyse Bathshebe Evergreen or Giles Winterbourne from a psychological viewpoint, but any discussion on Tom as a cannibalistic psychopath has obvious shortcomings.
Shakespeare, since we're dealing with the Tudors, dealt with both types, with say, Hamlet at one end and Sir Toby Belch at the other. Falstaff is a fine example of a well drawn cartoon character, mainly comic, but with a good dose of pathos and bathos and cruelty built in. And how unfairly Henry treats him in the end, when, having been provided with years of fun, he disingenuously dumps his cartoom companion for the terrible crime of not being real enough.
And Will and Francis, of course, are not real either. I belong to the camp who heaved a sigh of regret when Dennis' dad hung up his slipper. Goodbye forever to golden lines, like, "I'll supply the X's, you supply the oh's." (with an X on Dennis's bum, after an episode involving noughts and crosses.) Belying the reality of such cruel treatment? I don't think so. I don't pretend that Will and Francis, or Mr Japes, are quite in the Dennis the Menace category, but you take my point. The characters are more than merely comic, I hope, but the psychology is that of entertainment and interest between page and reader, not within the characters. It may or may not be a valid point of criticism that I contented myself here with drawing comparisons with, rather than entering into, the world of the Tudors, but it really is just plain silly to try and analyse them as if there were real. It's a book, Rosemary. There's no blood, no pain, no grief, because there's no child.
There's a simple test to apply with all such accusations, to try and determine if it is the reviewer or children who are likely to be disturbed. Will this book actually disturb children in any damaging way? Almost invariably, someone has forgotten to take the children into account. I had another look at the offending passages, and as usual, it's safe to say that except in the must particular of cases the answer is undoubtedly no. Children, unlike Ms Stone, have an excellent eye for what is real and what is not.
In Australia they call it crossover fiction. In the USA, it's Young Adult. Over here we call it teenage fiction. Like the time of life it deals with it, it is difficult to classify and awkward to talk about. It seems to be out to deliberately shock. It has an obsessive and unhealthy preoccupation with the dark side of life and with forbidden fruits, which it often communicates in an over-serious manner, when you just know that all the time it's sniggering about bums and tits behind your back. It's embarrassing to have around. What the hell is it going to do next?
Aiden Chambers winning the LA Carnegie Medal, our most prestigious children's literary award, for his book, Postcards From No-Man's Land, is confirmation of the fascination the awards have with this kind of fiction. Tim Bowler won it with River Boy a couple of years ago, a book about death. I won it for Junk, a book about heroin addiction and prostitution. Anne Fine won the Whitbread a few years ago for The Tulip Touch, a book about a highly disturbed and possibly abused young girl who ends up committing arson. Surely young people want to read more cheerful stuff. Whatever happened to Swallows and Amazons?
The preoccupation with the dark side of life is not as universal as some people like to think. Phillip Pullman and David Almond, two other Carnegie winners of recent years, both write books that have won a very wide age range of readership without plunging anyone into despair. Although Almond's book, Skellig, has death hovering in the wings, it is the angels rather than the devil who win the day. Perhaps it simply helps to focus the mind, especially the minds of journalists, when children's books are talking openly about sex, violence and drugs, but it is also true that books dealing with these subjects tend to have more meat on their bones. Chamber's book, for example, explores themes of homosexuality, euthanasia, war, adultery and lust, but alongside love, art, friendship, and self discovery. No one writes an article about those latter themes, but they are just as much a part of the book, and precisely what make it such a rounded, and meaty read. Naturally awards, particularly the more literary ones, are going to look with interest at books that take on so much, and carry it off so successfully.
Teenage fiction is an area that has developed out of recognition in recent years. I can't recall any books written specifically for me when I was that age. Now the range of books increases every year - another reason why so many good writers are attracted to the age group. It is one area where you can still set the pace. For a writer, it's like opening a door in a house and finding it full of unwrapped presents. Who could resist it? And who could resist going straight for the ones with, DO NOT OPEN! written boldly on the front?
Books occupy a very curious position as far as teenagers are concerned. Although there is no censorship for books for any age group, they have lagged behind the other media in the kind of material they present to young people. The film industry, the music industry, computer games, magazines, comics - they all know very well about the youth market. There is an age group of about fourteen to twenty five that is extremely profitable for everyone. It is this market that is now belatedly opening up, and no one quite knows how to go about it, even on the most basic level, like, where do you display the books, in the children's, or the adults section? The answer, since children are both teenagers and adults, is probably both.
We are caught between hypocrisy and honesty, unlike, say the film industry, which knows very well how many school-goers watch such films as Trainspotting or Terminator (both of which have school age kids in them) but get round it by leaving it all up to parents. Everyone knows that people aged fifteen or sixteen and younger get to see 18+ movies. If they can't sneak in to the cinema, they wait for the video or catch it on TV. They play 18+ computer games. Ask any group of fourteen year olds about the material they have access to, and you'll be in no doubt that the censor is a guide that is largely ignored by children and parents alike. Young people can eavesdrop at will; we let them hear almost anything at any age. Several times I have been challenged on radio or TV about the material in my books, sometimes with truly shocking quotes, broadcast at a time of day when children of any age can hear it, without any apparent sense of irony from the journalists involved.
What is different about these books is this; that they address teenagers directly. Its not a question of overhearing information aimed at twenty-somethings, or playing violent computer games at age twelve when it has 18+ printed on the box, or reading reminisces about some old bloke's first sexual experiences back in the sixties. It's here and now, people your age doing these things today. We have always found it hard talking honestly to teenagers about the things teenagers do, and they have found it difficult talking to us. That's fair enough. You don't want to discuss what you do with your girl or boy friend with your mum (or do you - "How far does she let you go, then, Dave?) But at least you can read about it now, in books that may be deadly serious, or totally playful. The choice is yours. Teenage fiction has just about grown up; hopefully it will never quite make it. It is about young people reading books and recognizing themselves. I want people to be able to pick up one of my books and think - I know this stuff and I know these people; this is mine.
Do you remember the youth culture? Many of its practitioners are too old to be called youths any more and the whole thing has passed into the mainstream. It's difficult to pin down, but you know the sort of thing - futuristic films, loud music, graphic mags, computer games, lazy days, love, dance, drugs and books.
Books? Who said that? Of course books are part of that culture - but not if you're at school. Children are far too young for youth culture, which is really only suitable for adults. Why is it, when you look at the small but growing body of novels that are being written for teenagers, that so few of them borrow the images and themes from that hugely popular world? Where is the crossover between books and other media?
Teenagers as a group consume entertainment - often narrative entertainment - by the barrel load, and the kind of thing they choose for themselves in film, magazines, gaming, music and TV, come largely from that cultural area. Who can blame them? It's so rich - sexy, loud, violent, ironic and cruel, but also beautiful, dreamy and intense. Schools have an obvious problem with this kind of thing. Things are worse than ever right now, with government treating books as a mere aid to acquiring reading skills rather than something in their own right, but the fact that schools are educational institutions does give them a certain bias in their buying power - one reason why books for teenagers have been so slow to take on the experience of other media. Without the support of schools it's quite possible that children's books would decline into one of those arts which can't survive without grants, like modern dance and poetry.
Fortunately, books are such a great teaching aid that we're likely to carry on for a good while with their support, but in the end, the survival of novels for young people lies with readers wanting to read. That means kids buying books because they want to, and the fact is, the actual free market among children for books is horribly small. Count the children in the bookshop. Almost no one writes for them for money - most do it either out of love or because we do what we do, like your mad aunt who wears her fur coat all the time, even on a hot day in the kitchen frying sausages. We can't help it.
My own books cover a wide age range, but a lot of my work is for teenagers, and there you have to be maddest of all. I get a lot of support from schools, but I do feel that each time I try something which uses "youth" imagery, I loose a few friends. Junk, my book on drug culture, was OK: young readers liked the feel of the book, the authentic voice and the straight talking; educators felt they could use it as a resource. It had a purpose. But my latest book, Bloodtide, which deliberately uses the imagery and themes of other media that seem to be attractive to young people, has been a lot more problematical.
Bloodtide has produced both the best and worst reviews I've ever had - partly depending, I suspect, on the age of the reviewer. Many schools are very nervous of it. People have told me they don't see the point. I have been warned.
I have some sympathy on this issue. Nine times out of ten, people aren't worried about kids but about parents. Someone might complain. In fact, someone almost certainly will complain. The book is violent, sexy, bloodthirsty, futuristic and dramatic - tailor made for the age group, despite a clamor of voices claiming that these very things make it an "adult" book. But the feedback I get from young readers is excellent. Those who like it really do love it.
The tension is between books that schools feel they can justify and - well, and what? There are almost no books written for teenagers that they can take home in the happy knowledge that their parents will both let them read them and feel uncomfortable about it. We can't afford to turn our backs on the lessons of other media and I honestly believe that the market for books for people of this age is so small because of the limited range written for them. Like most authors, I will not be able to carry on writing unless schools support my books.
Writing books that schools feel happy with is the sensible option - at least I know the market is there. Writing books that borrow style and imagery from other media isn't going to make my life any easier, no mater how literary the work is. But, being mad, I expect I'll do it anyway.
So the Famous Five are getting updated. Zenith Entertainment, who did a more traditional version of the Blyton classics a few years ago, want to do a contemporary Five for the new millennium. Same characters, but that's about all. New stories, and presumably new haircuts, new shoes and, who knows, new body piercings as well. Alcopops instead of ginger beer? Drug dealers instead of smugglers? Five go Clubbing? Hasn't it already been done by the Comic Strip?
But what for? The usual statement in Blyton's favor is that she gets kids reading and she is, in fact, a reading course all on her own, from Noddy to the Secret Seven. Tens of thousands of us have learned to love reading with her help and still do so today, despite the fact that she is so desperately dated. Countless adults feel gratitude to her for that, and there's no reason to suppose, judging by the shelf space she occupies, that tomorrow's adults will feel any different. You can see why Zenith want to make her young again. How nice if the goose that lays the Golden egg could be made to live forever.
It's a favorite game amongst writers and publishers to ponder what on earth it is that makes Blyton's appeal so strong. It's not easy to understand. The usual Eng. Lit. snobbery actually conceals a real failure of criticism to get to terms with the lasting appeal of this kind of book. The characters are cut outs, the plots predictable. Her prose style is utterly vile - sorry, but it's true. She's not even all that well loved; but she is so well read. We all read her and she's inside us and will stay with us forever, however much we may wish we were filled instead with, say Joyce or the Book of Psalms.
The questions Zenith will be asking themselves are, what stays in, what goes out, what gets added on? How reproducible is it? On this point, things may well look bright for them. Very few people remember any details from Blyton. You never hear conversations of the ... "Do you remember the bit where ?" kind. You're more likely to remember the cover than any particular plot item. Maybe that's part of the charm.
There are formulaic elements in her work that are certainly translatable. Get rid of the grown ups, line up a group of children of varying gender and ages to provide someone for everyone to relate to. Finally - and this is what makes Blyton the writer she is - every minute has a hook, and every hook makes a catch. Are the Five going to get to go on holiday after all? Whose face was that at the window of the deserted house? Is George going to get better in time for the outing? It might even be as simple as, what's for tea? But there's one hook swallowed and another baited every page. You forget them as soon as you've read them, but they keep the pages turning.
With a clever writer, all this can be done. Plot, place, even style can be changed. But period? There's a vital element that lies right at the heart of her work that no amount of ingenuity will replace: nostalgia. Nostalgia is an odd word to use in regard to children, but nostalgic they certainly are, and sentimental. If they're not, a page or two of Blyton will teach them how it's done. Books like these were never contemporary. Over fifty years ago, George Orwell pointed out that the world of Jeeves and Wooster hadn't actually existed for almost all of Wodehouse's working life, if ever. The whole point about this type of fiction is that it occurs in the past. The future isn't made of polished steel by accident, it's like that because its scary. It's full of strangers. You die in it. It has horrendous, life threatening illnesses and accidents, one of which you will not survive. The same is true of the present. Every breath is different, you never know if you're going to finish it.
But the past is friendly. You've known it all your life. It's so well upholstered, so comfortable, so easy. Even situations which drive most of us mad, like Boarding School and families, look rosy in hindsight. Ratty and Moley, Jennings and Derbyshire, Winker Watson, and of course Enid Blyton - none of them ever happened now. I suspect that the present will have the same effect on George and Ju and the rest as sunlight does on the vampire - they'll suddenly start aging, turn to dust and die before our eyes. Zenith could try preserving her a little longer by pickling her not in the present but in the recent past. Nowhere too precise or local - somewhere in north London, perhaps, or the mid west, if they have an eye on the export market. Personally though, I hope they fail. It's bad enough having the Blessed Enid staring out of yesterday at us from yards and yards of bookshop shelves without having her rise up from the dead to take over the present as well.