Sunday, January 20, 2008

THE EDGE FACTOR

Edgy. I hear it a lot and yet, there is no clear line between what constitutes an edgy story or a mainstream one. Is it sex? Violence? An attitude?

Sometimes it’s a title. I once posted a query for a book titled, SEXKITTENS. Oops. Apparently, that is not an acceptable title for YA. Apparently, people felt that I was trying to corrupt the minds of teens with my tale of various sexcapades. They gathered this just from the title.

In actuality, the title referred to the nickname of the Wildcat’s cheerleading squad. And rival teams used the nickname as an insult. Only my MC embraced the name because it took away the power to humiliate them. (She saw it on Oprah) But this is beside the point.

What I’d like to ask: Where is your edge? We all have different opinions about what is appropriate in a YA novel. Is it okay to have sex in a YA book? What if the MC doesn’t like it, does that make it more acceptable? Is it the attitude in which the more mature topics are approached that can make it edgy?

I know this topic tends to spur on debate, so have it.

Where is your edge?

-Suzanne Young

19 comments:

bethany said...

Hey Suz,

This is something I wonder about all the time. I read lots of YA so I have a fuzzy idea of what the boundaries are. But I have a crazy fear that someone who thinks Little House on the Prairie is contemporary YA, and Handcuffs is going to really upset that type of reader.

more in a bit....

bethany said...

I'll share the rules that I live by.

1. Realitic fiction (even YA) should reflect reality not what you want reality to be like.
2. Young Adults can handle just about anything. The only difference is that because of their years they may not have as much life experience.
3. Because of the life experience thing, you might, as the writer decide to pull back. Or you might not- it's kind of an artistic (and in the end an editorial) decision.
4. Do not under ANY circumstance talk down to your audience.
5. Do not under ANY circumstance preach at anybody.
6. The "lessons" that people should learn from literature are lesson about deep thinking and about patterns and human nature and life. Not about whether or not you should sleep with a cute guy. No author can tell you that.

:) :) Then end.

SuzanneYoung said...

Bethany, you are so dead-on. You've seriously pointed out all the things that I would have loved to articulate.

Personally, I just try to be real when I write. Like for my type of characters,(And this is just for mine) a kiss on the cheek at the end of the book would not be a satisfying ending.(no pun intended)

The response I give when someone tells me, "I would never buy my daughter one of your books" IS "If you're still picking out your daughter's books, she too young to read my stuff." ;)

bethany said...

An ex-coworker emailed me and asked if I thought her daughter could read my book. And I still haven't answered because though I feel confident that said daughter has read edgier things, she's a smart girl, this "edgy story is by someone she knows and who was once her teacher. So in the end I'm probably just going to tell her that my book is labelled 14 and up and let her make the decision.

Sage said...

Very interesting. I'm not a big edgy YA person (just 'cuz I haven't read a lot of it), but I had friends in high school who were reading adult romance novels. If teens want to read about sex (or drugs, or anything else that may be considered edgy), they're going to find it somewhere, whether it's available in YA or not.

And I totally agree with Bethany's rules.

Jordan said...

That is fantastic, Bethany. I totally agree. The one rule I adhere to as a writer is "never patronize the audience."

Then, of course, that's what this is all about--the audience.

YA is an audience: usually 14 and up, as I see it labeled on certain books. It's aimed at people in that particular stage of life, people who by nature question everything, are searching for the meaning of their lives, themselves, the world.

When I think of "edgy," I think of all the things in life people in general don't like to talk about--sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And, since YA is about the audience, people worry about what place these things have in the lives of people age 14 and up.

Well, seems to me these things are big parts of a lot of young people's lives. There's no denying that. If you can't see that, you just don't know the society we live in.

I guess it comes down to art, for me, since I consider fiction something of an art: does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Do these things portrayed in YA novels really happen like that, or is it all a pack of lies and are YA authors simply perpetuating acts the more gentle of readers find disgusting?

People are going to do what they are going to do and literature isn't going to stop them.

That said, I do think that, as with anything a writer puts into their novels, edgier elements should have their place, their purpose, a larger reason to be included in the story other than "that's just what people do."

People make regular trips to the bathroom. That doesn't mean I want all the grisly details. Jack Bauer didn't sleep or shit in 24 for a reason--it's just pointless and boring.

BUT if going to the bathroom plays an important roll in the story being told--if kids having sex, or taking drugs, or beating the crap out of other kids plays an important roll in the story being told--then by all means, include it. Although I have my personal moral standards that I, as a private individual, try to adhere by, I do not agree with censorship along these lines. Akira Kurosawa defines an artist as this: to never avert your eyes.

Just please. Make it worth it. You want to be on the banned books list for a good reason, not just because you thought it was cool for Cindy and Tom to get frisky in chapter seven.

Art doesn't preach, art doesn't censor. Art just is.

bethany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bethany said...

Sorry, I had to fix a couple of typos....

I love everything you guys are saying. And I have a comment related to what Suzanne said originally and Sage's comment about teens reading adult romance.

Adult romance is fantasy. I mean, it always has a happy ending, when was the last time you got that guarantee when you went on a date? And romance-genre sex tends to be idealized.

YA on the other hand is often very honest. And YA authors have made it clear over the years that sometimes sex can be awkward or uncomfortable or you know, a steering wheel gets in the way, or whatever. Sometimes people have regrets (and this is true of everything in life and not just sex).

So in a weird way, it almost seems like YA authors are always talking about bad sex. And yet, teens keep taking part in this act, so they must be getting something out of it. You know?

So, yes, I do think it's more acceptable if your characters don't like it or if they have regrets. Because you can go, oh see this is realistic, and you don't have to justify your morals and such.

In a society where giving teens contraceptives is equal to giving them permission to have sex (and check some of the debates on sex ed if you're wondering what I'm talking about), I think I can see how some people would be really uncomfortable with portraying teens in a relationship with fulfilling and enjoyable sex.

So, in portraying teenage sexuality we walk the line between the constraints of the genre (being honest), the constraints of society and the story itself.

AmandaKMorgan said...

Okay. I don't know if you guys have seen Clueless (I LOVE THAT MOVIE!) but when this topic arises, I always think of Cher.

Anyway, Cher gives this speech in Debate class about violence in the media, and it goes something like this:

"Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there's no need to take it out of shows that need it for entertainment value!"

And she's right. Who wants to watch a show that isn't real? All hail old chick flicks. ;-)

courtney said...

Hi, YAs YAs! This blog is fantastic (& congrats on all the great interviews you've got lined up--I'm looking forward to reading them). Great topic, Suz.

The thing about edgy is it's such a subjective term, generally one that encompasses the more taboo topics mentioned in the comments above mine. The problem with edgy is people often mistake it for gratuitous/shock-factor writing, which it definitely isn't (that's not edgy at all, that's lame).

I feel edgy is less about topic and more about tone. Robert Cormier's novels are a great example of this. The have never been blatant or gratuitous in their subject matter (which have ranged from sex, violence, murder, bullying), but they're honest, unflinching and painfully frank at times. Edgy is honesty. Not sugar-coating, condescending and patronizing authorial voice or heavy-handed moralizing at the expense of your characters or their choices. Being brave enough to trust your readers enough to drawn their own conclusions.

So ultimately, edgy, to me, is giving the readers the questions but not necessarily giving them the answer, no matter what the topic matter is. That's where I HOPE my own edge is, but I guess only time will tell on that one. :)

Jordan said...

I'm glad you mentioned Robert Cormier--he's probably my favorite YA "edgy" author, because the topics his stories focus on tend to be so universal. I swear, when I read I am the Cheese for the first time, when I got to that last page, I turned around and read the whole thing again, because it makes you wonder, makes you think...who's to say my life isn't one big sham?

I tend not to identify with a lot of edgy YA. I don't smoke, drink, or party, and I choose to remain abstinent. Maybe that's why I haven't gotten into a lot of "edge."

Those things tend to have a very narrow focus, being personal in nature. I'd be curious to see them written from a more universal standpoint. To make something so personal so all-encompassing. I wonder if it's even possible.

Haha wondering if something's possible usually means I'm gonna end up trying, eventually!

Jordan said...

Oh, and Courtney--to pose the questions rather than give the answers. That is most splendid, and I think I might steal it! :D That completely describes how I view literature.

althrasher said...

My response is going to be a bit like Jordan's, I think. I'm not impressed by the "edgy" that's all about sex, because that's what all teenagers do. It isn't, any more than every college student goes and gets drunk every night. I don't participate in any of those things.

That said, I don't mind reading books where people do those things. Writing, in my opinion, has to be about the characters. If you have a character that's going to go drink all the time, I would rather read that then forcing a punk rocker into church. I care about characters being real.

I really don't give a damn if it's "edgy" or not.

I hope that makes sense. If not I'll try to clarify (and sorry if this was a bit of a tangent!)

courtney said...

Jordan, steal away! :)

Vanessa Concannon said...

Edgy for edgy's sake doesn't impress me at all. Prep felt edgy just to be edgy, and I never finished it once it started going down that route.

My YA isn't particularly edgy. It deals with sex, yeah, but it isn't pushing any envelopes. It doesn't need to.

Like others have said, realism is paramount. Don't condescend to the reader because you don't trust his judgment.

Catherine said...

Thins is, how do you know something is edgy for edgy's sake?


This is not a sarky question, btw, I really want to know - what's that trigger moment where you go "oh, please..." and hurl the book across the room?

SuzanneYoung said...

Thanks Catherine, that was my question too. I wanted to know where people's line was.

And for the record, none of my books have sex to be edgy. I've been told they're edgy because they have sex. Hm. The chicken or the egg?

courtney said...

catherine, when I think edgy for edgy's sake, I think sensationalism and the glamourization of excess basically. Not true edginess at all. A few book series come to mind that I'll refrain from naming.

Vanessa Concannon said...

"...Sensationalism and the glamourization of excess basically. Not true edginess at all."

I think you really nailed it. When the edgy content doesn't have any relevance to character or plot, when it's self-indulgence on the author's part designed to push the envelope...it doesn't feel real. It feels forced. Exposed.