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When Characters Say F#!@

The recurring motif in the Colorado Teen Literature Conference I attended this weekend was censorship.  Young adult author, Chris Crutcher, was the keynote speaker, and his books are frequently challenged, as you'll see if you visit his website.

For those who don't know, teen literature isn't what it used to be (if it ever was).  Some of the books that win the awards, and the books the kids want to read, are filled with every adult theme, and very adult handling of those themes.  Graphic language, sexual situations and violence are not automatically taken out of these books.  What that means, of course, is that some teen titles are firmly in the middle of the culture war.  On one side are the kids, writers, librarians, critics, readers and parents who argue that teens know graphic language, are having sex and their world can be violent, so literature that artificially cuts those elements out of stories are hypocritical: that a primary purpose of literature is to tell the truth.  No one is served by literature that lies, goes the argument.

On the other side are the kids, writers, librarians, critics, readers and parents who argue a multitude of things, including that some elements of life are not proper for public discussion, that not all young readers experience the same world, that descriptions of sex, violence and the use of graphic language promote all three (while simultaneously desensitizing readers and contributing to the coarsening of the culture).  Others argue that children need protection or shelter from these parts of life until they are mature enough to handle it, and another group argues that literature that contains these items are immoral.

I think I summarized closely enough there.

I was attracted to the argument because my work is read by young adults.  Although I don't specifically write for a young adult audience, my protagonists are sometimes teenagers.  Also, as I've said to several people, I've been a high school teacher for so long that my sensibilities are often PG13 at worst.

The question was asked of several of the writers at the conference if they ever self censor.  Most said no,  but I'm not sure how much I believed them.  I know I self censor.  When I proposed possible stories for my first collection, Strangers and Beggars, I included a story that was clearly "R" rated.  It had some graphic sex in it.  Patrick Swenson at Fairwood Press liked that story, but I had second thoughts about it.  I wanted to be able to have my own book in our high school library.  It probably wouldn't have been able to go in with that story, so we took it out.

There is a sex scene in Summer of the Apocalypse, which I think is integral to the telling of the story, but I was very aware of my potential teen readership and the idea that the book might have a school library attraction if I didn't make that scene too graphic.  In the first draft, it was too graphic, in my opinion, so I rewrote it to make it more critic-friendly.  There may be objections to its existence in its current form (because for some people any sex is inappropriate), although I have heard none yet, but I'm sure there would have been some in its first form.

So, the question is, where do the rest of you stand on self censorship.  Is it all truth or nothing?  Is it something in between?  Does a writer who holds back somehow compromise his soul?

(Here's a P.S. to this post.  I read this comment to my 14 year old and talked to him about it.  We both agreed that a story written honestly about teen life, at least some teens' lives, would not be readable in middle schools or high schools.  So I asked him, doesn't that mean that the literature about those teens then wouldn't be the truth?  and he said, "People don't want the truth.  They want entertainment.")
 

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
csinman
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:43 am (UTC)
As wee as I am, my teen years aren't far behind me, and I vividly remember that the books that touched me the most deeply were those dealing with themes I saw in the world but hadn't yet experienced--sex, violence, death. I was pretty sheltered, which meant my only exposure to those dark or serious themes was through film, video games, comic books and literature.

When I write something I think young adults should read, I don't censor what goes in, but how I present it. If there's violence, I spend a little time focusing on how the main character can avoid it or defend themselves; if there's sex, I choose words that encourage themes of safety and trust. Some of my nieces, nephews and cousins are teenagers now, and I do want them to be able to read my work. I wouldn't feel comfortable telling my sister I had just shown her son a book where the main characters had unprotected sex after knowing one another for a few days.

I'm not published, so maybe my stance will change when I'm confronted with the idea of thousands of kids reading my work instead of just a handful I know personally. But at the moment, I think it's most important to treat adult content in a responsible manner. If responsibility means omitting it, fine; if it just means careful word choices and a shorter chapter than you would have written for adults, that's cool too. Discretion is the easiest editing I've ever done. :)
jimvanpelt
Apr. 16th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
The sticky words in this discussion are "responsible" and "discretion." They mean different things to different people. I get the heebie jeebies every time one of the hot topics is a part of what we're reading in class.
csinman
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
Subjectivity never bothers me, and people must continually remind me that there's another option. Haha!

The idea of being in charge of a class dealing with a hot topic gives me the heebie jeebies too. I wonder how many of the authors of hot topics for young adults are comfortable having those same issues brought up in person. Teachers are braver than me, anyway.
ladislaw
Apr. 16th, 2007 05:10 am (UTC)
Great post, Jim. I think some of the people defending "the truth," however, are being disingenuous. It's like Mel Gibson saying of the crucifixion, "that's how it was." Well, no. There's realism in film and fiction, but that's not the same as being "real." Film and fiction use devices that are artificial to give readers a sense that something is real. Writers are always choosing what facts and perspectives to present, as a film director uses light, sound, music, and angle to portray a scene. So let's begin with the honest truth that these are all fictional constructs, and thus subject to manipulation, both artful and artless, chosen and accidental.

YA writers have made choices about pushing the envelope and about how exactly they'll do it. (It's a marketing choice. Most of this is not fine work, so elevating these writers as if they're thoughtful craftspeople doesn't do justice to the situation. Also, the Library Journal, for one, source of book reviews for librarians, makes a conscious choice to not mention graphic language and scenes in their reviews. They police, but in the opposite direction of the way we usually think of it: they police their reactions, intentionally prohibiting thoughts that might portray the thinking of the American Library Association as "conservative."

In addition, so many works are produced that fall under the label of "problem novel." Do kids really want these? Do children with divorced parents want to read "divorced parent fiction"? YA lit is conservative in its own way, using something you and I think of as an artform in order to "guide" kids or "show them the awful truth" or some such thing. This is a polemical tendency, but the only axe it has to grind is the notion that readers might have sensitivities and sensibilities or might be able to navigate fiction the way generations did before them.

I trace a lot of this back to Robert Cormier, an early purveyor of shock-YA fiction. The kind of violence (which I think implied some homophobia or suppressed homoeroticism on his part) in his books suggested a writer who took pleasure in the suffering of his characters. (Again, see Gibson.) Did Cormier get at "truth"? No, but he sold people on the idea that he did. Perhaps your son is right, but kids' views are often shaped by the sales job adult corporations have done: get a phone, IM everyone, buy stuff, watch what we tell you, listen to music that degrades women. Kids may think they're getting a view of some deeper truth, but they're just seeing something else that's been packaged for them, something *adults* did to pander to children.

I'd be interested in hearing more of your thoughts. I understand completely what you're saying about the kinds of things you bring into the classroom and to which you will expose the children in your charge.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:03 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you brought of Cormier, an author who I have a tough time reading. He's brutally honest (or just brutal).

I may end up doing another couple of posts on this subject if there is interest. Certainly I'm interested.

The irony of normal, everyday teen experience not being "classroom safe" strikes me continuously, though. An attentive walk down our hallway during passing period features dozens of conversations that would immediately be censored if they were portrayed in a short story that I was teaching in the classroom. That's a very, very basic disconnect between the lives of the students and the literature about their lives.
clarentine
Apr. 16th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
(prompted by your music selection)

I remember when my son first realized what was really happening in the Kinks' song Lola. He was in 9th grade. His reaction is not what I'm pointing at, though; the fact is, he was mentally mature enough at the age of 14 to understand the song is about a transvestite. He's an average kid, watches TV, listens to pop music, attended a public school (no more; graduated now, yay!), so I believe I can be forgiven for using him as a standard against which to judge the ability of the average kid to comprehend the sensitive subjects of sex and blue language.

I guess my position on the use of R-rated topics in YA material depends on what the purpose of the material is. Entertainment, sure; few teens are going to read, in their free time, material that isn’t entertaining. But what else is the book doing – what is its goal? The use of sensitive subject matter should be determined by the purpose of the book and the meshing of that sensitive material with the themes of the book. That’s where I draw the line in my own (unpublished, but with aspirations) fiction...and if I’m true to that vision, no, I don’t self-censor. If the theme and purpose of the work requires a sex scene, or violence, or foul language, then so be it.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Since my children have become a part of the public school system, I look at the issue much more intently than I did before I had children. One of my big issues is parents who want to control MY kid's reading. The middle school last year had a big fuss because my son's English teacher game them Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." A parent sent e-mails to all the parents, trying to raise enough indignation to fire the teacher. It really upset me that one parent's agenda could possibly limit my child's experience. The teacher wasn't fired, thank goodness, but it's gone the other way in other schools.

I hate the idea that a school can be pushed around by its most reactionary and extreme parents.
clarentine
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:10 pm (UTC)
I hate the idea that a school can be pushed around by its most reactionary and extreme parents.

Absolutely. I hate bullies.
jhetley
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:02 pm (UTC)
I've never aimed any of my writing at the YA audience. Or _any_ audience, for that matter, which is one reason why the manuscript of SIGNATURES is still floating from publisher to publisher -- that one has a couple of racists in it, true to the characters but not . . . comfortable.

That said, I'm an old fart and got a bit queasy when some reviewers recommended, say, SUMMER COUNTRY, with explicit sex and violence and a foul-mouthed heroine, to the YA audience.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:12 pm (UTC)
Hi, Jim. Thanks for the note. The argument is a tough one. One person's "explicit sex" is another person's "integral portrayal of the truth" (or something like that). Sex, violence and language are the hot button issues for sure!

Violence, by the way, is an odd and distant third subject in the list. A description of thousands of soldiers dying in battle will hardly ever lift an eyebrow, but let a character say F#!@ just before he dies, and some folks are out of their seats hollering that the book should be off the shelves. (of course, if the violence involves teens, then the ante is raised--on one level it seems a weird set of circumstances that will raise some readers' ire)
ladislaw
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:21 pm (UTC)
For Cormier, I'd vote for "brutal." I don't think he's honest at all. I think of his work as more like pornography.

The situation at my school may be somewhat different. It's a private school, and teachers are free to choose what they want. But the high school doesn't use YA fiction; it entirely uses adult literature, so there's less of that pandering.

As for what's done in class as opposed to in the hall: There's the issue of public discourse and sensibility to the common good in the classroom. (And actually, as we're a Pre-K to 12 school, we monitor hallway behavior a lot, and enforce it by reminding students about the younger kids in their midst and the nature of our "community."

This is interesting. Let's keep thinking.
ladislaw
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)
Also: Middle school is a different world. I teach 8th grade; my wife is, in a public district, the middle school librarian. She's got to consider that she has fifth graders hunting for books. I do have to keep in mind the potential "bully parent," though it's not so bad a task to have to double-think each choice, keeping in mind potential sensibilities.

But for high school: I think there has to be an assumption that kids want to read adult materials, so all bets are off. The teacher's role can also be to help children navigate their way through mature materials, helping them gain comfort in discussing these things. I'm more concerned about movies and tv, as I think images of violence or graphic, pointless sex contribute to a coarsening of the sensibilities in a way that reading (non-pornographic) materials wouldn't.
mojave_wolf
Apr. 19th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
There are *lots* of ways to view this, but two are foremost in my brain (yeah, I'm a couple of days behind on my f-list):

(1) If I was a teacher, I would probably self-censor somewhat simply out of fear of being fired (even w/tenure, I suspect many people in many areas would view a graphic sex scene, esp 'tween teens, as adequate cause), and possibly also to avoid wondering if giggling kids were giggling cause my novel had just come out; plus, honestly, even if not a teacher, if the graphic-ness isn't essential to the story/thematic elements, and it's gonna make a big difference in exposure, I would limit it for that.

(2) I avoided YA material like the plague when I was a teen or even late pre-teen, and mostly read things intended for adults. Some things I read only because of the sex scenes. I found Phil Farmer's "Image of the Beast" on the bookstore shelves when I was 11 and promptly bought it, along w/my first collection of HP Lovecraft stories. My mom flipped out at the name "Lovecraft" so much that she missed the cover of "Beast", and only looked inside the acceptable book. (and this, truly, wasn't even a conscious strategy on my part, pure lucky coincidence). While many things in my life may have warped or scarred me in some fashion, IotB was not one of them. (tho the Lovecraft scared the hell out of me and gave me nightmares)(which of course caused me to buy more HP!).
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 12:01 pm (UTC)
The teacher who writes and publishes challengable material is at particular risk, I would think. I worry about that myself. Although most of what I write would be appropriate in a high school classroom, some of it isn't. I have this nightmare where I'm called up to the principal's office where an angry parent, a couple of school board members and a lynching committee are gathered to talk to me about a story I wrote. Brrrr!

It sounds like you were like most high schoolers who don't read novels that look specifically YA. They're reading adult material.
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