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Month In Review (May 2013)

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On Novels That Are For-Teens-By-Accident, by Bernard Beckett

At some time during my education, somewhere between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, the establishment decided I had outgrown teen fiction and was ready for real, grown-up writing. In fact, they were only half right. I was indeed a little past The Outsiders, much as I had adored it a few years earlier. I was at the stage of developing an appreciation of abstract ideas and I was beginning to shift my conception of adults: from people who must be opposed, doubted and undermined, to people who, in at least a few cases, might be able to teach me a thing or two. I was ready, therefore, for something a little more sophisticated than the standard Young Adult (YA) fare. But they were half wrong too, in that leaving early-stage adolescence behind does not automatically catapult one into the mental and emotional state of a forty three year old female English Literature teacher. The leap from YA to Wuthering Heights and Sons and Lovers was an ill conceived one, all but guaranteed to turn a very great pleasure into a chore.

So, where else might they have turned? Perhaps to my very favourite YA novels, those which I think of as YA-by-accident. These are novels that were written with an adult audience in mind, and as a consequence are free of any of the instinctive talking down and oversimplifying that dogs the genre. And yet, simply because of the nature of the type of story the author is trying to tell, they are of the teen world: they speak directly to its concerns, curiosities and aspirations. Because they are accidental (I think it would be foolish to set out to deliberately write such a book) they are also fairly rare. Three of my favourites are The Catcher in the Rye (the book that casts the shadow in which the rest of us labour), Sydney Bridge Upside Down (a classic New Zealand title) and, in the interests of trans-Tasman balance, Tim Winton’s superb Breath.

I’ll use Breath to illustrate my point, which is the way some novels perfectly inhabit the adolescent twilight. When I first read Breath, I remember being filled with English-teacher excitement. I began to imagine it unfolding in the classroom – small town claustrophobia, mateship, pushing against physical limits, sexual awakening, elegant but simple prose and a sense of escalation driving the narrative. None of the ingredients required for a teen novel were missing. Yet, on another level, it isn’t a teen novel at all. Or rather it isn’t just a teen novel. It’s not just that it veers into the world of auto-erotic asphyxiation - although for a school teacher there’s a certain caution light flashing at this point – it’s also that the story is delivered to us by an adult narrator, who is unashamedly viewing his coming of age through the lens of later experience.

This device, or rather perspective, is what allows the writing to achieve a level of beauty that wouldn’t be available to the authentic teenage voice. It’s not just in the way the landscape is so carefully brought to life, it’s also in the wonderful, wise re-interpretations of childish experience. Winton writes “I couldn’t have put it into words as a boy, but I later understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful.” Here he is explicit: an adult writing as an adult can say things and understand things that the younger narrator can’t. So he has licence to move into what is for me the most striking passage in the whole book; a concise, wonderfully weighted examination of manhood, that succeeds in placing all that is to follow in a poetic context.

As a sixteen year old boy, I wish I’d had access to writing like this, writing that both inhabited my world and then led me by the hand beyond it. A story that, by the very fact it wasn’t aimed at me, treated me with unusual respect. It is the occasion of the unnoticed child, listening in to the adult conversation, and for once hearing talk of something that interests them.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Teen Fiction: A Definition? by Bernard Beckett

Mostly, I write teen fiction. It’s often referred to as YA (for Young Adult), which isn’t a label I love. Calling a teenager a young adult strikes me as patronising, in the way that calling a forty year old an ‘old teenager’ would be. Nomenclature aside, I’m often asked what makes a book YA, and beneath this question there sits a curious and unnecessary concern. The assumption seems to be that this is a difficult thing to define (it is) and that this difficulty poses some sort of a problem (it doesn’t).

Essentially, defining is the art of lumping. Some vehicles we add to the pile of things we call cars, others trucks and so forth. My two and half year old boys have, over the last twelve months, got the hang of this. The first part of language to develop is naming, which goes hand in hand with the foundational intellectual skill of comparing and categorising.

Almost always, we can find examples which are very easy to put in a pile, and examples which are vexing. Even something as simple as colour throws up this problem. It is mostly very easy to distinguish a red object from an orange one, but at the boundary we find examples of reddish orangey things that don’t fall comfortably into either pile. (If you’ve ever looked at a rainbow and tried to identify the indigo/violet boundary, you’ll have seen a particularly striking example of fuzzy boundaries. In fact, any sane person would have stuck with six colours, red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple, but Isaac Newton, believing seven to be a more auspicious number, insisted on an extra boundary).

So, we know what cars are and we know what red is, even though it is impossible to precisely define either. Yet, we don’t get too worked up by this difficulty. Interviews with people who design, fix or race cars don’t return with boring monotony to the question ‘yes, but what makes a car a car?’ Mostly cars have four wheels, but not always. Mostly they have combustion engines, but not always. Mostly they have two rows of seats, but not always. Mostly they have an engine at the front, but not always. Mostly they have a roof, but not always. You get the idea.

Any attempt to define YA literature will surely encounter the same flavour of mostliness. Mostly YA fiction centers around characters who are themselves teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will be read primarily by teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will deal with those concerns that typify the teenage psychology (but not always). Mostly the author will have written it with a teenage audience in mind (but not always). And of course, mostly we’ll know it when we see it (but not always).

For me, writing for teenagers and writing for adults are very different processes. First, there’s the issue of assumed knowledge. If I’m writing for an adult, I can assume a store of experience that I can’t when writing for a teenager. An adult is much more likely to have experienced being a parent for example, being married, or having worked in a full time job. A different range of images and associations are therefore available. It’s not that we can’t write about these things for teens, but we should anticipate a different response, purely because of the reader’s frame of reference.

Second is assumed interest. Consider a story centered about a man in his seventies, with failing health, looking back over his life and wondering why he was never able to stay close to the people he loved. I find that a pretty interesting concept, but automatically assume a teenage audience won’t. Different stages of life tend to support different fascinations. Having sex for the first time is a more likely focus for a teen novel than an adult one (but not always, On Chesil Beach is an excellent counter-example). Every story I’ve ever written for teens has at heart involved the teenager confronting for the first time a complexity in the world that they’d previously had no sense of: a complexity demanding a response that is neither easy nor obvious. It’s not true that all teen novels must confront this question, but it’s what I’m personally drawn to writing about.

Third, there’s the end user to consider. Just as all car owners have different needs, and this defines the limits of what we might mean by the word car, so too the readers of teen fiction are anything but homogenous. The ten year old reading teen fiction for the first time is a very different beast from the seventeen year old just looking for something that is neither juvenile nor centred about an aspiring author’s mid-life crisis. The introverted, living-my-life-through-books teen, is after something quite different from the sometimes-read-when-there’s-nothing-else-to-do-or-people-make-me’s target. Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were (and, as with those who choose to teach, the backgrounds of those who choose to write tend to cluster about a false norm).

Finally, and most positively, there’s a sense of possibility, of freshness and urgency, that defines the teenage audience, and in a perfect world this will infect the writing. The very best writing for children manages to capture that magical aspect of childhood that the adult reader instinctively understands is lost to them, and makes the reading of such books a bittersweet experience. So too, the finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing (and the teen reader with a sense of celebration). YA fiction should exist not because there’s a market for it, but because it can tell stories that no other genre can. If we can’t make that true, then we have no business writing it.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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