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Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels, by Bernard Beckett

I’m currently working on the third book of what I like to think of as a metaphysical trilogy. The first, Genesis, focussed on the mystery of consciousness, the second, August, on free will, and the last, my current novel Lullaby, is exploring death. All three are an attempt to both examine the metaphors we use to describe the self, particularly in a world where religious metaphors are not the common currency they once were. They’re also explicit attempts, through story, to introduce philosophy to the teenage reader.

So, why should we expect the teenage audience, or indeed anybody, to be interested in philosophy? Considering the teenager first, I would argue that the late teens is precisely the time in life where you are most likely to be excited by the essential contestability of knowledge. Part of the teenage experience is the realisation that the simple world of reliable authority figures and protectors is behind you, and ahead lies a mess that you alone will have to navigate. That’s both tremendously exciting, there’s a sense of freedom and possibility, and terrifying – two of the more easily accessed emotions during adolescence. One of the most tantalising thoughts you can be exposed to during this phase is the possibility that absolutely everything you have ever been taught or told about the world is quite wrong. What if nobody else is really conscious in the way you are? What if other people experience colours differently than you do? What if the rules of the universe were always going to change tomorrow morning? What if somebody was able to predict your every move in advance? What if you’re really just a brain in a vat? What if there’s no you at all, and the continuous self is an illusion?

The first thing philosophy does is allow you to question the foundations of your most certain knowledge, and the enduring appeal of The Matrix amongst teens is evidence enough that there is something highly attractive about this process for the younger mind. I think this is because it mirrors the personal reshaping that is going on, and also because it allows a tremendously important chain of thinking to emerge. If nobody knows anything for sure, then the people who tell me how the world is might be wrong, which means I have permission to consider the world anew, and reach my own conclusions, permission, in short, to enter adulthood.

Of course, the dalliance with the more extreme versions of scepticism is short lived. Very quickly we realise we must put down our foundations in the swampy ground of knowledge and get on with the business of living. Yes, technically is might be true that as of tomorrow morning being hit by a bus will no longer hurt, but to base one’s beliefs about the world upon this possibility appears to be insane. So perhaps all philosophy is, in the end, of no real practical use, beyond its fleeting appeal to the adolescent mind.

That’s a popular view, and one that I would argue is clearly wrong. Part of the reason I’ve included philosophical abstractions in my novels is that I love the idea of the adolescent reader forming a longer lasting attachment to the subject. Here is not the place to defend the worth of philosophy to the adult mind in full. Suffice, I hope, to point out that philosophy is something we all do, all the time. We use observation and reason to build models about our world. To ignore the theoretical framework of these assumptions is not to avoid philosophy, it’s just to do philosophy very badly. This failure matters most, I think, when we find ourselves in contact with those who starting assumptions are very different from our own, perhaps because of a different upbringing, or a different set of religious beliefs. If we don’t understand the premises upon which our own beliefs are based, then there is the very real danger of believing it’s fact all the way down. Now, two groups of people, holding opposing views and being unable to properly interrogate the root of that difference, strikes me as a very dangerous situation, and one that’s worth avoiding.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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GenesisAugustRed CliffNo Alarms     Deadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)The Door of No ReturnThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett

When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.

So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).

There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers - I think, for instance, of John Green - have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.

Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.

Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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AugustGenesisNo AlarmsRed Cliff     SparkGirl, StolenKeeping Corner

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Are Teen Novels Literature? by Bernard Beckett

To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store.  From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? We ask this self-consciously, perhaps defensively, worried that somewhere out there real writers are looking down their noses at us, or worse still, not looking at us at all. Such paranoia is not without fuel. Consider the way our work is treated in schools. It is not uncommon for a senior student to be told that a certain book isn’t ‘challenging enough’ to warrant their attention. The subtext is clear. Some books are light relief, a form of entertainment and nothing more, while others have a more worthy purpose. Real books dig beneath the surface, expose us to thoughts and feelings that would have otherwise eluded us, they expand our horizons, add colour to our palette. And, as a helpful short cut, genre fiction, be it romance, crime, fantasy or YA, is lumped together in the diverting-but-shallow category. But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Actually, in terms of YA, I think the filter works pretty well. I certainly wouldn’t argue that teen fiction can’t be great literature (I have my favourite counter-examples), but I would argue that mostly it isn’t. What’s more, I think this is perfectly predictable, and shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of failing on behalf of the YA writer. Indeed, a case might be made that the opposite is true – teen fiction authors self-consciously attempting to create great literature would be doing their readers a grave disservice.

To make this case, first it’s necessary to establish that the notion of literature is itself meaningful. Some argue that the very term is nothing but a code word for elitism: a small, culturally self-referencing clique, define literature against their own tastes, needs and prejudices, and then impose this definition upon a bewildered public, primarily as a means of exclusion. The bored schoolboy struggling through Passage to India on a hot afternoon might have some sympathy for this view. However, I think it’s too easy a dismissal. When I consider the books I have read, some simply passed the time in a pleasant manner: entertaining, intriguing, manipulating me, spinning stories. Others did something else. They deepened my understanding of the human experience. There were moments of clarity, of insight, indeed wisdom. Now of course this is an individual response, what counts as insightful will depend upon the state of the reader’s current model of the world (whereas an adult reader might treat The Da Vinci Code as a bit of escapist fun, a twelve year old reader might be ‘blown away by the ideas’). Furthermore, many books that aspire to insight, expose us only to the limitations of the author’s world, and are almost unreadable. The definition of literature is always going to be slippery with subjectivism, but I’m not sure we should do away with it altogether.  Some reading experiences are intellectually richer than others, just as some writing is poetic, while in other cases it’s purely functional. To deny that some books are primarily in the business of entertaining, while others strive to create art, seems to miss something important.

But to say it makes sense to speak of literature, is only to build half a case. Why should we expect literature to respect genre boundaries? Why shouldn’t we expect to find beautiful, wise writing in teen fiction or romcoms? The answer, I think, is that it is tremendously difficult to serve two masters. If you want to construct a thriller, then the primary goal must be to, well, thrill. And, at the point where we accept the thriller challenge, we are faced with psychological constraints, and these  constraints in turn determine the way our story will be built. We are thrilled when the character we care for is in jeopardy, when all appears lost, when every move only makes things worse, and all the while the deadly clock ticks on. The more our righteous indignation is fired, the more intense the thrill. It’s not just that our guy is running away, it’s that our guy is essentially good, and the folk he’s running away from aren’t.  We yearn for his survival both on an empathetic, and a theological level. So immediately, we can see that moral ambiguity has a tendency to work against the thriller element. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that challenges our sense of the world, asks us to view our circumstances from a new perspective. Here then, we see the demands of literature and entertainment pulling in opposite directions. There are ways around this, of course, and the freakishly gifted writer will find them, producing both compelling narratives and deeply challenging works. For most of us though, what we’ll produce is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Like the thriller, the teen novel has its own imperatives (although as the readers reach the older end of the spectrum, this is less the case, and it’s here the chances of finding genuine literature improve). One of the great joys of being a teenager is the intensity with which one lives, an intensity that is never matched. To love a new song at fifteen is to love it in a way no functional adult can reach for.  So too it goes for fearing rejection, anticipating glory, or surfing the crest of a hormonal wave. Life is full of fresh first times, the existing template is tantalisingly inadequate, and the ride is at once terrifying, thrilling, elevating, and crushing; a mess of confusion and contradictions. Teenagers are in the business of trying out their new toys: their new bodies, their new intellectual capacities, their new level of access to adult society. They are fearsome advocates, gobsmacking risk takers, both loyal and fickle, tribal and fiercely independent. They don’t seek ambiguity, but rather clash. Their instinct isn’t for contemplation, it’s for engagement. These are the fast food years. One doesn’t linger and savour; one consumes, in great, joyous mouthfuls. And this wonderful creation, the modern teen, is the master the YA writer must serve.

This unique audience provides us with special opportunities, along with a peculiar set of constraints. It is the nature of these constraints, I would argue, that mean that the work we produce often isn’t literature. There are exceptions of course; glorious, inspiring exceptions, that simultaneously provoke jealousy and ambition. For the rest of us, with our stories to tell, engaging the audience is a lofty enough goal.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustNo AlarmsLester     Prison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerJohnny Tremain

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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