Speculative Fiction Festival,
NSW Writers Centre #LoveOzYA
It was quite a line up. The NSWWC Festival was a star-studded event with big names in Australian speculative fiction making up every panel. The Young Adult panel was a prime example as we were treated to the collective literary wisdom of Marianne de Pierres, Garth Nix, Richard Harland, Isobelle Carmody and Amie Kaufman.
Richard was the host and he began by introducing the panel and their impressive credentials. He posed a number of questions and each panel member responded. There was plenty to absorb, so what follows is an attempt to capture as much of the excellent advice and insight that poured forth in the session as possible. I’ve done a lot of paraphrasing and it’s not in strict chronological order, as I’ve tried to group similar topics together.
I’ve used the writers first names hereafter, for brevity and because I don’t want to sound like a British boarding school teacher by using just surnames. This isn’t the place for Harry Potter role play. Though… no, no, it’s not.
Everything that follows is gleaned from my notes and memory along with excellent tweets from numerous sources. I’ve also added links and comments, just because I can.
Why is YA so popular, particularly with adults?
This question was thrown at Marianne first. Her response was that it allows those of us past adolescence to revisit that time in our lives, perhaps before life has become difficult or complex, to re-imagine our youth or what our lives could have been like if it had gone in a different direction. YA stories are often about identity, and so they appeal whether we’re in the process of finding our own identity or re-examining it. Young adults are also good bullshit detectors, so authenticity of voice is crucial, and that is inherently appealing in a story.
YA has won the industry’s attention, said Garth, but we can overthink its popularity. He stressed that people shouldn’t get hung up on categories. Books put on YA shelves provide strong, clear stories with interesting characters, so naturally people other than teenagers are going to want to read them. “Story is king.” The best books always have multiple layers of meaning that can be appreciated at different stages, and can be revisited with a new perspective at a later age.
Richard pointed out that literature has always been full of young characters going through change. (I thought of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Tom Brown, Jane Eyre and Holden Caulfield.) “It’s an interesting time of life. Your impressions are stronger than at any other time.” The emphasis on YA in recent years is more about the way books are marketed. The writers came back to marketing a little further on.
“No wonder YA is so popular,” said Isobelle. “Who wants to be an adult when we see what adults have done to our world?” She told us of the 20 year old MP in the UK she watched on Youtube the previous night.
Mhairi Black’s maiden House of Commons speech
This young woman had made her think a lot about YA books. Adults have made such a mess of the world and those in positions of power are behaving in such juvenile ways that there is a yearning, in both young people and those older, to return to ideals that seem far from being lived out in the real world. We crave a clearer sense of values which YA provides, as its characters strive to work out who they are in the world.
Basic motivations are also something that drive Isobelle, striving to understand why people do what they do. She thinks about what famous people were like in their formative years. What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like in school? Was he different to the other kids? What about others who grow up to be shining examples or do horrific things? What formed them? YA resonates with adults because it holds the seeds of who you become.
Isobelle is drawn to adolescent POV because they are characters who are growing, changing, becoming, but the core within doesn’t leave the child’s perspective behind. “Inside you is every age you’ve ever been – they don’t die or go away!” If the writing is good enough, it will resurrect the 12 year old inside of you.
Amie reminded us that YA is the literature of transformation, “and we’re all going through transformations, all the time”. Everyone, can identify with YA stories. Good stories are about change, so YA stories are inherently appealing. She said that in her teens she was working out who she was, then in her twenties she felt like she was already supposed to have worked it out. She found YA stories still spoke strongly to her then, and perhaps the YA appeal is about exploring who we are no matter our age.
Then Amie discussed how she has found it difficult being told someone doesn’t read fiction because they “don’t read something they can’t learn from”. After the gasps and incredulous laughter died down, from panel and audience alike, Amie said what we all know; in fiction we walk in others shoes, and learn so much about other people and the world that we could never understand from non-fiction.
Can Reading Fiction Improve Empathy? (PsychCentral)
Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic?
(Psychology Today, neurobiological emphasis)
Richard pointed out that imagination in itself it incredibly valuable. Einstein, for example, developed his theories of relativity through his ability to imagine. The stimulation of imagination is one of the most important things we can cultivate in our children and young people, and society in general.
Richard found the labelling of speculative fiction as ‘escapist’ fiction, using it as ‘dirty word’, offensive.
“The Life and Times of Harry Houdini,” muttered Garth. Pardon? Oh, escapist fiction.
Besides, Richard insisted, what’s wrong with escapism anyway? What’s wrong with games? We learn from games and ‘escapist’ things too. Play is essential for children. Adolescents and adults need to play too.
What Neil Gaiman was told when he asked why China is encouraging science fiction in its population.
Isobel also believes the craving for idealism and clearer values is also a driving factor in the popularity of speculative fiction.
The writers had varying responses to people who liked to tell them they “don’t like fantasy”. Garth: “I don’t like you, either.” (Most popular response.) All agreed that a lot of bias still exists about ‘genre’ fiction. Isobelle thinks many other writers would create great stories if they weren’t afraid of ‘genre’. Garth again re genre bias: “I don’t breathe often but when I do I choose air.”
Being categorized as YA
All the writers agreed that the story came first, rather than writing to a category or age group. Richard reiterated that coming-of-age stories have been around for a very long time, but now they’re being collated and called YA for marketing purposes.
YA stands for “Yes, Awesome!” according to Garth. He considers, though, that age targets or genre categories aren’t inescapable ghettos but places booksellers and librarians situate a book that will be most likely to connect with its initial target audience, from which it will, hopefully, spread out to the rest of your potential readership. He quoted Schuster of Simon & Schuster, who said, “The most dangerous disease for a publisher is a hardening of the categories.” He also advised that writers of YA should make sure potential agents and publishers are interested in YA and have experience and expertise in it, as opposed to only being interested in its selling potential.
Don’t let categories determine what you write or what you read. Amie advises we should all read across genres & age groups as a matter of course, as we’ll learn from other genres, whether crime, romance, thriller, literary, or whatever. There will be aspects of all of them that will improve your own writing.
Sex, Drugs and Violence in YA
Concerning sex and drug use in one of Marianne’s books, she was told by an overseas publisher that “teenagers weren’t interested” in those things. (???)
Amie noted that when she was in high school, the John Marsden books in the library would always fall open at certain well-worn pages. (That makes more sense.)
“People forget the ‘adult’ in Young Adult,” Garth said in relation to gatekeeping in YA, and many don’t discern between Children’s and YA. These aren’t books for kids. If those things are part of your story, you should use them to tell the story.
One of the writers (Amie?) had an overseas editor ask about sex scenes in a book, and was concerned that one occurred. When she explained the scene was one of violence, there was no problem. All agreed how bizarre the value system is, to accept a scene of violent sex in preference over consensual, pleasurable sex.
Garth was proud when one of his books was banned due in the U.S. It was due to coarse language, strangely citing many words that didn’t occur in the book. He advises, though, that the forces who come out to bat for challenged books are usually more powerful than those who try to ban them.
He then advised that if you’re going use swearing in your book, don’t make it on the first page, as that seemed to be the trouble with his book. Amie helpfully informed us that it won’t be a problem if you can postpone it until after the first 50 pages. It seems the automated scanning for such things stops at page 50. I’m wondering if all authors start using this information, will the scanning algorithm be changed to random pages? There has to be a librarian joke in that, but I’d better not go there …
Isobelle: “I have to admit, one of my proudest moments was having one of my books burned.” It was a European town which she later visited. Ah, fandom.
My quote award goes to Garth Nix, who provided so many succinct quotes over the day, for this:
Many thanks to Festival Director Cat Sparks for an excellent day, and the staff of the NSW Writers Centre for all their work. Thanks also to all the tweeters who captured so much of the wisdom of the day, especially Tehani Wessely who storified the day’s tweets, which you can find here.
If I’ve left things out or made any mistakes, please add them in the comments.
Marianne de Pierres
NSW Writers Centre