Friday, January 27, 2012

Open Minds

By Russel D McLean (aged 31 and-a-half physically, but still only about 18 in his own head)

The other day I had the fortune of bumping into Alex Scarrow (Not to be confused with Simon Scarrow although I believe they are brothers). Scarrow is the author several adult thrillers, but where he has found real success is in writing for the YA/Teen market. He’s not one of those who jumped a bandwagon (I’m becoming increasingly annoyed with the cynical practice of writing younger versions of established adult protagonists or giving them an unexpected nephew etc and just writing the same book with slightly different linguistic tics) but seems to have been genuinely been excited by the prospect of writing for that market. In the same way that the brilliant Kevin Wignall has whole heartedly thrown himself into becoming KJ Wignall (and in doing so has charmed all the children’s booksellers that I know even if they’ve never met him).
I have no particular plans to write a YA novel (although I have an idea noodling around that I think would be great fun to write) but writing for that age group seems to be intensely more satisfying than writing for adults for one very simple reason:

Young people are not conservative.

What does that mean? It means that younger readers are open to new styles and opposing views. It means that they can get excited by story and not worry about whether it fits genre expectations (or that it doesn’t). It means that they seem to care more about whether the story actually grabs them than whether they think the story will. It’s not about what they expect. It’s about what they actually get.

I have a rule in my reading: it’s that I try to demand the same things I do now from a book as a writer that I did when I was a reader. In fact when I read a book, even if it’s for review or if it’s to check a section or two out for a close friend, then I do it with my reader head on first. Why?

One established author once told me they found it difficult to read books with the same joy they once did because “everything changes when you’re published”. Really? Does it? I don’t see why and I don’t see how. What made you a good writer was being a good reader (we’ll get to why you have to read to write another day - - that’s another issue that’s been banging around my noggin of late) and if you lose one you lose the other. Because in the end who are we writing for but readers?

In the same way I don’t see why we have to demand a dreary predictability in our reading as we get older. Sure, we can deal with more adult themes and ideas than when we’re younger and our own views might be less black and white (although I suspect in many cases its actually more so). What essentially changes about us in those years that we can’t get past what we expect? What makes us conservative and builds up these tiny little prejudices in our reading mind?

I won’t read crime.

I won’t read literature.

I won’t read non-fiction.

I won’t read horror.

We tell ourselves little stories as to why we won’t read these specific kinds of books. But the truth is that we don’t always have a reason and that we’re missing out on some great books by closing off parts of our minds to the experiences outside of narrow genre limitations.

Younger readers don’t have these pre-conceptions. And as such writers often feel freed up to do things with genre and storytelling they would never otherwise be able to get away with.

And it’s clear that adult readers feel trapped, too, judging by the numbers of them going straight to YA literature and the amount of crossover works that have appeared in recent years (Boy In The Striped Pyjamas would have been hailed as too depressing if it was an adult book as would Before I Die, while of course Harry Potter is seen as safe fantasy because it was written for kids, as ostensibly was Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy). In the end, I think adult readers, publishers and writers need to find their inner YA reader again and create adult books that deal with issues, that aren’t afraid to take chances with convention and that can shock, excite and surprise. Books that are written not for demographics but for the author’s inner reader, that ask the reader to put aside their own prejudices and take a chance at seeing the world through very different eyes. In short, we need to forget that we’re supposed to have learned everything by the time we become adults and accept that the joy of reading we has as YA and child readers – the joy of discovering new ways of thinking, new ways of engaging and new points of view we might never have otherwise come across – isn’t something we necessarily need to jettison. Life doesn’t stop when we become adults. We do not become set in stone. We should still be open to new ideas and entertainments that are greater than mere distraction through the familiar.

We should remember and foster our inner young adult. Even when writing and reading adult fiction.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Excellent points, all. I hadn't thought about it quite the same way, but I find the books I often like least are those without humor or any form of whimsy or cleverness in them. It can be dark humor, it can be goofy humor, so long as either is appropriate to the situation. It occurs to me as I read your post that the reason I'm like this may be my inner young adult wants to be entertained. My outer middle-aged adult wants more than just entertainment; he wants all the other things writers look for. But the kid is still in there, so writers who think their story is nest told through unrelenting dreariness are not going to be able to count on me as a sale.