Tuesday, December 29, 2009

life's just a nightmare; the truth about teens (or what you as a YA author need to know)

By a show of hands, how many of you bloggers are a Modern American (Eurpean?) Teenager?

By another show of hands, how many of you Modern American (European?) Teenagers have, say, written a book?

How many of you have showed it to other people? (namely: adults)

How many of you have been taken seriously?

Thought so.

This is situation we crazy kids often find ourselves in--we are simply not seen as intelligent, free-thinking human beings. We are shells, you see. Delicate flowers. We can't speak politics! We can't make our own decisions! We don't know what's best! Your just angstin' out, Dannie-girl! You don't know nothing.

But here's the thing: I do know something. I know a lot, in fact. I might go far enough to say I know more then you.

What makes me say this, you ask? Well, maybe it's because I'm the one tutoring you on how to put together a fold-in table. Or perhaps because it's me who can name all fifty states without looking at a map. Or that I know the difference between Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Maybe it's because I have been able to figure out sex, drugs, men, women, how to procure a fake driver's license, how to steal up to three DVDs at a time and tamper with report cards by sixth grade. MAYBE--and just maybe--I know more then you because you have allowed me to. You have allowed me to be so underestimated I am able to gain as much information as I need to, and you haven't the slightest idea because you still hold on to the idea that us teenagers are big slices of idiot pie.

And we're not. We're really, really not.

I will not tell you the exact reason behind this rant--I've never been one to point fingers--but I will give you this: whatever you, as an author, think in your head teengers behave as--erase it. You are most likely wrong. Even you there with the sixteen year old daughter who is just the sweetest thing. She is not. No body is, and just because they don't walk around with a lip ring and dragon tattoo on their ass does not make them angels.

I will assemble a list of tropes commonly found in the YA genre. I will add my commentary. You can either respond with vigor, telling me I know nothing and I don't know every teenager on the planet. Or, you could agree whole-heartedly. It is that kind of list.

Let's begin.

Mean Girls

despite the hilarity and cheap plot points this trope could offer a novel, it is simply inaccurate. There is no such thing as an A-Typical mean girl or social hierarchy. That probably stopped when Claire's started selling chains. There is too many branches and subgenres of the styles that existed in the eighties and nineties to even begin putting them in A, B and C groups.

We Are From the Underworld (because we can't have a credit card!)

Obviously, in our strain to be taken seriously and be treated more like adults, we become hormonal beasts with a taste for human flesh. I mean, duh.

Just kidding. We don't. We have many more important things to be throwing tantrums about. Such as the impending threat of poverty and disease. Give us a little credit, here.

Like, Omigod

I don't know anyone--and I live in a pretty shallow high school--who uses IM speak. Likewise, I know no one who's idea of a good time is looking through fashion magazines and swooning over Zac Efron. Again, this stems from the argument that kids are able to process deep thought without blowing a circuit.

Your So Cool, Mr. Johnson!

Here's the thing about teachers; they don't give a shit about what you have to say. Cynical? Perhaps, but most kids are. None of my teachers, in all my years of schooling, have once tried to be more then that--teachers. A person who's job is to messure my intelligence by a letter grade for a year and then pass me along to the next grade. This is, 99.9% percent of the time, what happens. The remaining 1% is made into a movie starring Morgan Freeman.

Lonely, so lonely!

I am not often lonely. And this is not because I have a group of people surrounding me at all times. It is simply because I do not require a large amount of friends around me to feel whole. I like to sit in my room sometimes with no one to talk to. I enjoy having time to myself. If I'm not invited to a super cool party, I do not mope in my bedroom all night wishing Bobby would call me. It doesn't happen.

And, perhaps most importantly...


Self-explanitory. I literally think about "cute boys" like, once a year. My friends and I do not spend our school days trolling the hallways for that cute senior who was totally giving me a look in English! Wanna know why? Because, in English, I was not looking for that cute senior's look. I was busy studying so I could pass the class so I could graduate so I could somehow procure a job in this highly competitive job market which, by the way, is plummeting as we speak.

Do I make myself clear?

So, those are my problems with YA fiction. What about you?


Jodie said...

I do think it's interesting how if it were any other group people were writing about, an author who is not part of that group (say for example a straight man writing a book entirely populated by gay men) would be pulled up on every little detail. Whether they even had the right to tell that story would be questioned now (see masses of debate about whether people outside of a particular culture should write that culture's story/can do so convincingly and accurate) but that never applies to YA. I'm not suggesting adult authors should abandon YA (so many great authors I'm discovering this year, telling such diverse and genuine feeling stories), but I do think it would be really interesting to see if authors consult with teenagers, work with teenagers or if they're mostly basing their books on their own teen experiences (my own experiences already seem massively out of date and I left UK senior school what, 10 years ago?).

The whole boy crazy, hormone thing I think has quite a bit to do with the lack of diversity in publishing (although I so far think YA has more diversity than adult publishing currently) caused by stereotypical ideas of what will sell, based on stereotypical ideas about what girls like which still seem to be prevalent in every major marketing campaign. So authors writing that kind of character has a better chance of getting published and the alterna narratives have less chance. I really hope this is something readers can change with their capitalist book buying ways, by voting for the great different presentations of girls and women by paying for and enthusing about these kind of books. I quite enjoy a well done chick-lit, angst, boy crazy argh first love tale, but I do have a problem with how much of the market is given over to these stories (and again it seems to be an even bigger slice of the adult market). This is really a problem that crosses over into problems I have with the way women are presented in books, marketed to by publishers, treated in the world etc,etc this could really go on for ever so I'll leave you now.

K. A. Schloegel said...


You are definitely on to something here. But I'd disagree that the problem is whether or not the different examples you cite are truthful or factual. I'd say the problem is because these are all cliches.

Cliches suck.

They are like zombie cockroaches (un)born due to the laziness of their authors. When a writer can't immediately think of a new story to tell or a new way of saying something -- but wants to write something anyway -- out comes a cliche.

This is natural. This happens to everyone. The difference is when a decent writer can't immediately come up with a new way to say something he/she thinks about it, polishes, edits, rewrites, revises, thinks some more, whatever. But that takes time and energy -- more time and more energy than the writers of Mean Girls apparently had.

Dannie said...

K.A. Schloegel,

True, these are cliches, but they have become cliches because of adult writer's lack of knowledge about modern teens. If more then ten or so authors read one YA book in their entire lives and it has these factors in them, then they're are GOING to go their whole lives thinking that's how girls think. And it's not. And even though there probably are some teenagers who do behave this way (again, haven't met any of them), it is certainly not the whole, and I do not want to read about them.

Michelle Schusterman said...

Dannie - love this post. I wasn't like that as a teen either, all boy crazy and zomg. And I really don't remember my HS having the clearly defined cliques you see in movies like Mean Girls. (Okay, I haven't actually seen Mean Girls. But I'm taking your word for it.)

And if it makes you feel any better, adult writers who are unpublished don't really get taken seriously either. Or maybe that makes you feel worse. In which case, sorry. :)

Suzanne said...

What a great post! I hope the powers that be READ your post to learn what makes you YOU! Wouldn't it be nice not to be a stereotype because of your age!

Rhiannon Hart said...

There have been a lot of frustrating, silly books published this year. I can see why you're angry. I get angry too. I have been VERY angry this year about certain books for similar reasons that you cite. I have made it one of my resolutions not to read dumb books. I'm going to seek out intelligent YA and read that otherwise I'll just get depressed.

Something that's written intelligently without any boy-crazyness or dumb stereotypes, and by an author who isn't afraid to flex his considerable vocab and intelligence, is The Monstrumologist. It's an excellent antidote for dumb books.

Dumb books will always be with us though. And you know the reason why.

Donna said...

Where to start?

Cliches are not bad if used correctly. Cliches can be very, very good. They suck ass if they're used by a shitty writer that's too lazy to do anything creative with them.

The books that are out now are popular because someone, somewhere, can relate to them. Somewhere there's a lonely girl getting ragged on by some mean chicks. Somewhere there are teens that are a little more boy crazy then you. They strike a chord with someone. If they didn't, they'd fizzle out. You polarizing that none of these things are true is just as bad as these books saying they are.

It's true that every subsequent generation knows more than the last. I wasn't born into the internet. I had to learn it the hard way. The generation that doesn't know a life without it is going to have a lot easier time understanding, grasping and working it than someone like myself (I believe we're about 10 years apart) or someone older. That's only natural. And it's not that you're smarter than a fifth grader. That's a misnomer. As you age, your education becomes very finite and pigeon-holed. You lose the generalized education that you get through grade school and at the start of college when you start specializing. Your brain can only hold so much information. So while you may know the difference between Dickens and Darwin (for the record, I do too but for argument's sake), can you successfully underwrite a commercial insurance policy that provides accurate coverage without exposing yourself to an E&O claim? Somehow I doubt it. It doesn't mean I'm dumb and it doesn't mean you're dumb. It just means we just have different information readily available in our brains.

What you forget is that all of these YA writers were once teens. Teen issues at their cores, transcend generations. Bullies and crushes and succeeding pressure were there 50 years ago just as they're there now. While some YA authors take the ass/u/me route when it comes to nailing the personalities of the youth of today on the head, a lot more do their research. Sure, things might be dramatized within the books for effect but take the overblown away and that situation still exists somewhere. Most authors draw from experience, remember.

And you, too, will grow to be just like us. You say you won't now but you'll blink and you'll be ten years older and looking at the generation behind you going, WTF is wrong with you? It's inevitable. Every generation has gripes with the one following on their heels. It's unavoidable because it'll just be knee-jerk when you do it. And then you'll go OH NO!

I'd also like to say you might be reading the wrong books, too. Most of the YA I read,while it has small does of what you list, is nothing as exacerbated as what you're making it appear. Ok, I wanted to burn my copy of Alphas. But everything else has has normal teens, normal speech, normal lives. There's always that bitch/jock in school. There's always that loner. There's always that boy-crazy girl. Just because none of these describe you, they describe someone, a teen, somewhere.

Dannie said...

Donna--I get where your coming from, I do, but you have to understand--I know that at some point I will be in my parents shoes, trying to understand my teenagers but failing miserably. I get that, and so does every other kid my age. That's not the problem. The problem is that I am constantly encountering people who write about cliches--the bad kind--that are no longer relavent. And, yeah, there may be some kid somewhere who is a "bitch/jock", but that's not my issue either. It's that authors make it so that it's the so and so cliques or the such and such posse. THAT'S my problem.

Also, I never said these didn't describe *me*. Yes, they don't describe me, but not specifically. This is simply from my observations of my school which I believe to be a pretty normal one. And, yes, we are taught a much wider expanse of things then you adult people do (but that's more from our own world experiences, but that's a rant for another day). I can tell you think I'm being a wise-ass teen who thinks they know everything, and there's probably very little I could do to change your mind about that. But please keep in mind--I think (THINK) it is more likely that someone who is sixteen would be able to tell you more about sixteen year olds then someone who used to be sixteen back in the day.

K. A. Schloegel said...

Donna, I agree with you about cliches -- but would say that if used correctly, they are no longer really cliches, but a new way to think about a reoccurring theme.

Jenn (Books At Midnight) said...

Definitely agree with you. I don't see many books that contain all of the above-mentioned aspects, but they're all things that bug me about a book. I'm a teen, and I can guarantee that our school, yes, has a social hierarchy, but it's nowhere near as exaggerated as in Mean Girls. And, yes, we want that hot senior to look over at us, but I could seriously care less when I'm trying to learn how to pass that AP test in the spring.

On the subject of these being cliches, I think that though they're not honest portrayals of high school today, all those aspects still make for an interesting read if you can work them the right way. What I don't believe is that these aspects, even if used correctly, are anything other than cliches. Because, face it, I'm pretty sure that's what my parents think I, and many of my fellow classmates, do all day: text, stare at cute guys, etc. And because of that, I don't think these aspects are going to go away anytime soon - though I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I'll admit it, the traditional shy girl/hot guy thing works for me, and that kind of fluffy read is the break I need once in a while. On the other hand, I definitely recommend NOT using a majority of these aspects in one book, because I can guarantee that's a book I'll be skipping.

Either way, great post! And I know that, as a teen, I generalize right back at adults - stereotypes about teens, not tech savvy. However, I also know that those generalizations are NOT true to each individual, and there is not a single author I would point out for containing the aspects mentioned in your post. So don't take this as a personal attack! And again, I can only speak for myself, but I read books that contain these cliches not because I can relate to them (which I seriously, seriously doubt most teens out there can do), but because they provide a fantasy for me to escape to every once in a while.

MissAttitude said...

*raises hand* As a non-European teenage blogger (woot, woot diversity!), I still feel the exact same way. And I'll also add that I'm tired of people having 'crazy loud, 'ghetto' Black friends' who aren't the mc and are just thrown in for comedic relief and nothing else. I'm tired of seeing so few books that represent the modern-day world for teenagers. If you go in any bookstore YA section the majority of books you see will have white people on the covers and while I read those, I want to see more books with Asians, Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans on the cover (the few times a book is about a person of color the cover doesn't usually have them on there or it's hard to tell. ex: She's So Money-thought the mc was white based on the cover). Grrr.

I completely agree, the Clique ish serieses drives me crazy. I've NEVER heard anyone in my hs use IM speak in conversations, unless we're imitating something ridiculous. And not everyone is that boy crazy. Some are; I have friends who wouldn't know what to do with themselve if they didn't have boyfriends, but they are a select few. While, I wouldn't say I only think about a cute guy once a year,(in fact it is more than that) by not really during school. I'm more likely to think about when I'm at a party, or if I'm REALLY bored in school, but it's not that often because I usually focus on schoolwork and my friends.

As stated by Donna and K.A. A cliche used correctly, becomes different and original and then it's ok, it's fine and add something fresh and much-needed to YA. There are some great YA books out there, but there are also too many that continue to use the same old sterotypes and cliche formulas.

Fantastic post! i'm a new follower :)

Kristen said...

"Likewise, I know no one who's idea of a good time is looking through fashion magazines and swooning over Zac Efron."

That's because that's what we middle aged moms consider a nice poolside activity. ;-)

I understand your frustration with the cliches and the poorly written pseudo-teen characters you find in much of YA literature these days but I have to say that this sort of thing is by no means confined to YA novels. It is rife in any kind of writing. That's why a book shines so brightly when it rises above to fray, be it because of the writing, the originality of plot or character, or simply because it is the entire package. Publishing is driven by money. They are a for-profit business and what we as consumers (of YA and adult literature) have told them is that we are perfectly willing to continue reading exaggerated tropes, pervasive cliches (which, in all fairness, became cliches for a reason--that being that there is a kernel of truth to them in certain instances), and misrepresentations. Not only do we read and buy them but, dare I say, some people quite enjoy them. So, despite the agony of having to wade through the dross, I think you'll have to continue. Just be super grateful when you find the one in a hundred that does everything so much better we are conditioned to expect and be sure to shout your glee from the rooftops so others looking for quality can rejoice with you.

Donna said...

Dannie, I totally don't doubt you at all. And of course a 16 year old can tell me more about teens today (as of right this second, trends, hot, not, etc.) than someone who was 16 ten years ago. The issues haven't changes but the surroundings have.

I'm still trying to figure out what it is you're angry about, though. From what you said in your comment, "It's that authors make it so that it's the so and so cliques or the such and such posse." Are you saying that it's the authors that are making these things come to fruition, or forcing them on us? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Like it's ALWAYS the cheerleaders that are bitches but hot and wanted, in one way or another, by the entire school (for the love of god, WHY?)? Such insistent pigeon-holing, right? Sorry, my brain's fried at the moment and I feel all dur dur dur so if I'm not making sense, just smile, nod and perhaps feed me a cookie.

The last book I read with a cheerleader was Dead is the New Black and it's the head cheerleader that's the most popular, all the girls want to be her, all the boys want to do her, blah blah blah, but she's a twat to everyone. ENOUGH! How appealing can a snappy bitch really be to other people? Cheerleaders in my school were near the BOTTOM of the social ladder and were often blamed for the football players' suckage. Some variety really would be nice. Someone NOT vying to be a cheerleader or get the football player (and not the fake ones that say they don't want it but somehow get into the circle and like it despite the fact that Head Cheer Twat is a rancid, petty bitch) would be awesome. It's a cliche that's getting terribly old.

Dannie said...

YES, that's exactly what I mean by "Mean Girls"--like those bitches who no one likes yet they worked their way into such a position of power and it makes NO SENSE. When I was a girl in seventh grade, rapidley approaching high school, that's the image I had in my head and I do not like books that make life seem that way.

Hugh Howey said...

I just discovered this blog by following you over from YA Book Queen. I just had to commend you on a wonderful post. I couldn't agree more and I wish every YA writer would come take a gander.

As a burgeoning YA author, I'm doing everything I can to help buck these trends by writing characters and situations nobody else is exploring. I'm doing this primarily as a disgruntled reader, creating those books that I wish were already out there for me to pick up. Problem is: those other books sell because nobody takes a chance on anything new, or anything that lacks a huge marketing campaign. It's an ugly cycle that feeds on itself.

When I was in high school, I felt like an adult. In some ways, I felt smarter and more together than I do now. The brick walls of that place were squeezing me in. I wanted to learn as much as I could; I felt held back by the pace of everything; I just wanted to get out there and start living my life, exploring the confines of my own skin.

Somehow, adults forget how much they knew when they were younger. Maybe it's a poor memory, but more likely it's something unconsciously sinister. Most people have unhealthy esteem issues. They need to put other people down in order to raise themselves up. Equating age and wisdom gives everyone an easy superpower for doing this ... because we're all gonna get old, right? It hardly takes any effort.

That frustrated me as a youth: "You're young. Wait til you get older, then you'll know better." And it frustrates me as an adult that all the other kids who turned red and shot smoke out their ears when they heard this phrase are now my age, and repeating the same mantra. Like hazed freshmen that turn into senior bullies, perpetuating an ineffectual, wrong, and cruel trend.

I learn more from YA sites than I do from the New York Times Book Review. Yeah, I read both. I've never once read a thing in the latter that made me want to write the editor. And yet, here I am. You know?

Lenore said...

I do get tired of silly high school plots, but there IS some really great YA out there right now. Much better than when I was 16, I assure you.

Alexia561 said...

Wow, what an interesting discussion this turned out to be!

Have to agree that sterotypes and cliches can be annoying, but they exist in every genre, not just YA.

When I was in 6th grade, I wanted to read about Elizabeth I and the Greek gods, not Judy Blume. So I went out and found the authors that spoke to me about the subjects I was interested in, and didn't settle for the books I was "supposed" to read.

It's already been mentioned more than once, but publishing is a business and there is a market for this stereotypical dreg or they wouldn't keep being published. As an intelligent young woman, it is up to you to find the books that appeal to you and bypass the dreck.

And BTW, in my high school, the cheerleaders were the most popular girls, had nary a brain in their heads, were Mean Girls, and they dated football players! OMG! ;)

La Coccinelle said...

The problem with all these "problems" is that you can't really generalize. I didn't encounter cliques of "mean girls", but I know of kids who are encountering them now (in elementary school, no less!). When I was a teen, fashion magazines and drooling over hot guys was a fun activity (to be fair, though, I'm talking 13 here... not 17). Some people do mope when they're not asked to a party or a dance (or, in my case, when the guy decides he has something better to do).

I find the teacher thing really sad, though. Maybe my experience was unusual, but I can remember two teachers in high school who were awesome. I don't think anybody didn't like them. Both treated us like intelligent human beings; in return, we respected them (there were very few discipline issues in those classes). It's too bad not every kid can have that sort of teacher at least once. But it does happen.

hmsgofita said...

Wow. Excellent post. It's now been 11 years since I was in high school...but I remember thinking the same thing about high school movies...clicks like that or at least that extreme don't exist...and now that I've been reading more YA fiction I can't believe how inundated the market has become with just that horrible cliches about teenagers. Not all, but most...I head to Walmart and most of the teen fiction is all about paranormal romance. Everyone is jumping on the Twilight band wagon and it's frustrating. So way to stand up and speak out. Hopefully budding YA authors will tune in and take a hint.

MissAttitude is right about how little diversity we have in teen fiction. Most of the covers do only show white people.

That would be a great reading challenge to only read nonwhite authors.

Glad I stopped by...you started a wonderful discussion!

Template by:
Free Blog Templates