Thursday, November 25, 2010

self-destruction's kinda dumb. but if you do it well...

Points for identifying the lyrics in the title!

This is a train of thought that has been brewing in my head for quite a long time, so I'm not sure if it's coherent anymore. It's also based heavily on my own personal experiences/feelings, so I'm sure not everyone will agree with me, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Basically I have been reading YA (young adult) fiction for many many years, and throughout my teenage years (and before and after) and for a while I stopped because some stuff about it annoyed me. Here is my rant:

I remember when I was around 15 a friend recommended Sonya Hartnett's 'All My Dangerous Friends', about a girl starting university who goes out with a bad boy, falls in with the wrong crowd, steals, takes drugs and then leaves because she sees the dark side of it (in the form of the 'crowd's' violent retribution against a man who abuses one of their own). The basic plotline there feels a little familiar. It did to me then, I was thoroughly annoyed. An annoyance that I directed toward YA fiction in general over the next few years. I think in fact my reaction was stronger than was warranted, there is some good stuff in there, but we will get to that later.

The main problem for me as a teenager was that I was a quiet bookworm, far from dabbling in drugs or theft, and I had long resented the portrayal of kids and teenagers in the media/society. Teenagers are trouble, self-absorbed, with no thought for consequences or the wider world. By contrast I saw around me friends who were thoughtful and intelligent and generally trying to do their best. To my mind fiction aimed at teenagers was interested more in how adults perceived teenagers, in portraying 'us' as difficult, even to ourselves.

Now I know I am not everyone. I have read authors talking about how they write for the kids or teenagers who feel different, who are seen as trouble, that they want to write about the problems people face in a real way and not shy away from difficult subjects. So exploring these topics can be a good thing. But word to the writers out there- please try not to be didactic about it.

Didactic books in and of themselves can be annoying. But writing a book where the lesson is learnt through tragedy can have the unfortunate side effect of making the behaviour they're talking about more appealing. To summarize: saying that risk-taking behaviour is bad because it might hurt you ignores the point of 'risk-taking'. As a fairly well behaved teenager drug taking never seemed more appealing than when it offered the prospect of going down in a blaze of glory/fast living. I think the best YA books understand their audience, are relatable to, and are not too preachy. In a way I think 'All My Dangerous Friends' does well here, it says 'drugs are appealing, but they are not as glamorous or dangerous or edgy as you might think' (this is mostly taken from one scene, I don't think drugs were the main theme of the book). But then again the 'bad crowd' are wild and cool and slightly tragic, so they retain some of that appeal.

There is also the danger of going the other way, of mocking things rather than taking them too seriously. So for instance emos are famous for bad self-esteem, misery, feeling isolated and self-harm. People's reaction is to laugh at them and say self-harm is funny. Personally I don't think it sounds like a good idea to take a group of people who feel sad and misunderstood and further alienate them by saying the things they care about are stupid and their emotions are dumb. I think it's an extension of the way people often talk about teenagers- oh, you have teenage angst, that's a silly thing we all got over. Because knowing that other people are going/have gone through the same things IS helpful, but only if it's personal and shows some understanding of the other person. Just being dismissive is surely only going to fuel feelings of being misunderstood? Just because in hindsight your teenage angst seems ridiculous doesn't mean someone going through it will have the same perspective.

Sometimes it can be so easy to mock, but I know when I was miserable as a teenager that attitude would just bewilder me, because it didn't take away my problems or help me deal with them, it belittle me and made me feel my problems were not worthy of sharing. Better to have people talk about their problems, however stupid they sound, and feel like they have supportive people around to help, than to push them into isolation.

To sum up! Self-destruction can be appealing, even if it's shown as a warning. The best books relate and provoke thought, they don't try to cram a viewpoint down your throat. Be nice to sad people.


  1. I wish I could share some articulate and well thought out thoghts on this matter, but unfortunately, you have already summed up everything I wanted to say; I completely agree with everything you have said. Although I think it must be acknowledged that avoiding being dismissive of others' experiences of things which we overcame so long ago that they seem small is hard to avoid. Especially if you still feel silly or self-conscious for having felt that way yourself, it would be all too easy to take that out on someone else.
    Also, I know where your title is from, but since it was me who used to play that song all the time back in the day, I feel like I'm cheating and spoiling it for everyone if I say what it is. ;)

  2. Yes, I think that's very true. I wouldn't say that I have always been good at doing it myself.

    Also thanks :)

  3. You should put that on a t-shirt
    be nice to sad people
    get people walking around showing that.

    " can find heaven, if you can handle hell"
    The Whitlams, Following My Own Tracks

  4. Points for Jeremy!

    Maybe this wasn't a difficult question, I think you both got it. :)

  5. Anonymous1/12/10 22:49

    I remember having a rant when I was about 18 about all the times I was hearing complaints about "young people today". What a lot of dangerous layabouts we were. (The oldies were probably quite right.) The point is, we've all been here before. Every generation has. (Cicero: "O tempore, O mores!")

    So, cheer up: one day it will be your children who take up worrying new trends and think dangerous thoughts. Not that you shouldn't try to keep them on the right path, but it will happen. The thing about 'us' is that we are all 'us'.

  6. Yes, and I don't think I'm one of the teenagers any more, even if I can still claim to be a 'youth'.

    I guess it's good to recognise that we've all been through similar experiences, without being dismissive of other people.

  7. For the most part, I agree with you, and as a teenager, some of those 'issues books' really annoyed me. (That said, I always liked John Marsden, and he kind of led the charge of gritty YA books. Marsden in fact often said that he wrote the Tomorrow series because he was sick of people saying the kind of things about teenagers that you deplore, and so he wrote a book where teenage qualities - strong friendships, adaptability and resilience - could be seen as heroic.)

    However, since becoming a reviewer, I've begun to realise that these kinds of books can serve a wider purpose. Partly they give voice to the thousands of unlucky teenagers who do experience these things, giving those people courage and the words to understand what is happening to them. (I'm thinking here of the poem by Laurie Halse Anderson which is on my Livejournal blog on this subject.)

    But also, perhaps, they give teenagers like us - privileged, well-adjusted people - a broader, and hopefully more compassionate perspective.

    I think in all cases, context matters. Didactic books - not so great. Books which depict these themes for some purpose but leave the final conclusion up to the reader - great. Of course context is a subjective thing, though.

  8. Oh yeah, I loved the Tomorrow When the War Began books.

    I think you are absolutely right, it's hard to put my finger on what annoyed me so much as a teenager... The quality of the books? The way issues were addressed? Or was it just that they were things that were outside my experience? Not sure. I guess I can only agree that YA 'issues' books do some really important things, but some books do those things better than others.