Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Authorial Responsibility

Maven Carrie RyanI'm a YA writer, and one discussion that seems to be continual in YA circles is sex in YA books. There's one such discussion going on here. It feels a little funny to bring this up here since most of us are romance novelists (with lots of sex!). But then a friend of mine and another YA author raised a question that I really found interesting (goes beyond just the questions of sex).

She asked if as writers for teens we have a responsibility to our readers (and their parents). I'm paraphrasing here and probably twisting her question, but essentially it comes down to whether we have a responsibility as authors to show the consequences of certain actions. I think it's actually a question that can apply to all writers: do we have a responsibility for the message that's in our books? Is it important that our readers get the "right" message?

Of course, this predisposes that there *is* a "right" message. One person's take on sex before marriage can be vastly different from someone else's take. And sex is always a hot topic. But what about something else that most people would agree on... is it important that murderers are always caught and punished? Should liars never profit? Should the drug user or alcoholic spiral downward?

And do you think this is something that applies to all authors or just to YA authors particularly? What are y'all's thoughts on authorial responsibility? Does/should it exist?


Gillian Layne said...


The responsibility lies with the reader, who, please God, hopefully has a working head on her shoulders by the time she's reading YA, and the parents, who should be flipping through a few of their daughter's books in order to see what she's reading. (from the mom of three girls, who doesn't censor their reading once they hit thirteen but does keep an eye on it.)

Erica Ridley said...

Is it important that murderers are always caught and punished? Should liars never profit? Should the drug user or alcoholic spiral downward?

Dexter. Catch Me If You Can. House.

At least for adult books, I say the only message your book should convey is the one you meant for your story to tell. Maybe you believe nice guys finish first. Maybe you believe nice guys finish last. Maybe you believe cheaters never win. Maybe you believe that's the only way to win. And so on. I think the book needs to be true to the story and to the characters first and foremost, not to some concept of "telling a message". Most likely there is a message, intentional or not, but I do not believe it should be bound by external expectations of current societal mores, etc.

I feel the same way about YA books. But children's books... well, I admit that for children's books, I'm kinda pro showing consequences for actions, if only b/c they haven't seen enough of the world to know how it (allegedly) works. Urgh, does that make me hypocritical?

Kelly Krysten said...

I'm with Gillian, the responsibility lies with the reader. The author can't be expected to cater to everyone's needs. Nothing would ever get written if they tried, because what different people deem as acceptable is, well, different for everyone.
I also agree with Erica that in the case of Children's books it is different.
Great topic! It really makes one think.

Amie Stuart said...

You know I got to hear PC Cast talk recently (her and daughter Kristin co-write YA's which I LURVE). Anyway she brought this up--and made a valid point in that it's not just about spicing up a book (if you chose to put sex in your YA book) for her.

It's about showing what drove a teenager to have sex and the emotional consequences/fallout. Not the yelling from mom and dad, not the pregnancy but what's on the inside. It's all the underlying stuff that she thought should be important-and I agree.

Keep in mind she teaches HS students and had a lot to say about the state of our teenagers.

I'm not sure I explained that well.

But as to the general question of author responsibility...my current heroes are hired killers--hitmen! And there is a death on the page! Who am I to say. I think Dexter is a GREAT example btw *ggg*

Amy Addison said...

Your responsibility as author is to write the story the way it's meant to be written.

End of story.

I write YA, too. I'm the mother of a teenager, with another kid heading toward teendom in a few years. The idea that, as writers, we are moral gatekeepers is insane.

Touchy subjects can open a conversation between parent and child and get children thinking. I don't censor my children's reading, but I do keep up on WHAT they're reading so we can discuss it. And sometimes, the trickier the subject, the more we delve into things like theme and structure and the "WHY" of certain parts of the books, which sparks them to keep thinking about things in the book.

Good literature does more than simply entertain (though that in itself is a fine result), it starts a thought process in the reader.

It helps broaden a reader's experience and see potential consequences of certain actions. Especially if they identify with the main character deeply.

How is that bad?

Marnee Jo said...

I think as a parent that it will become important during the YA years to open a dialogue about literature. Teens need to have a jumping board to talk about issues and books are more rich and varied a jumping board than TV, I say.

CM said...

Should the drug user or alcoholic spiral downward?

God, no. What a terrible message to send kids--"once you do drugs, you can never reclaim your life." Personally, if one is going to care about "message," that message--that drugs, once done, make you a bad person without any control who must then continue to do drugs until you are homeless and hit rock bottom--sucks.

People make mistakes. Murderers and liars and drug users are not always bad people; they are people who have done bad things.

Bad things have consequences. Those consequences need not be catastrophic. Dealing with consequences is what life is about.

Darcy Burke said...

Aw crap, I have to send a message? ;-) Great examples, Maven E. Well said re: consequences, CM. Hopefully I'm presenting a portrait of a person (character) that makes choices true to themselves whether "right," "wrong," "stupid," or what-not. I am not writing a self-help book. At least not right now.

Carrie Ryan said...

I'm loving all the responses. For the record, I don't think that YA authors need to watch what message they're sending. I think some do, and that's great! Some don't, and that's also great! I do think a story has to be true to the story it's telling and that's most important.

JenWriter said...

I don't think the story needs to be modified in order to get the right message across to teens. Besides, who is to say what the right message is?

I believe that if the story calls for sex, profanity, booze or what have you, then it shouldn't be censored just because the readership is seen as YA. I also don't think it should be in there just to be in there.

The most important thing is to tell the story as honestly as you can.

Jackie Barbosa said...

Just adding my voice to the chorus, really. I don't believe YA authors should pull their punches or subvert their storylines to appease some folks' sense of morality.

Beyond that, I have to admit that I was reading adult romances (with plenty of sex, lol) well before I achieved the age of majority, and I don't think it harmed me in the least. To the contrary, I suspect those stories made me a lot choosier than I might otherwise have been, if you know what I mean ;).

La Belle Americaine said...

I'm someone who read YA novels extensively until I just so happened to discover romance novels when I was 18. I think there's a balance as a YA writer. I view the Gossip Girl series with horror even though I grew up on Dawson's Creek and other WB shows that did feature sex, because the way it is portrayed is way too adult for its 15-17 yr old characters--and for the readers.

I read Forever and other "scandalous" teen fiction from the 80s and 90s, but sex was handled from the perspective of a teenager--the curiosity, the confusion, the exhilaration, etcetera. Not the pseudo-"Sex and the City" way that a lot of teenagers and pre-teens are absorbing today.

I think I'm retreading a bit here, but I don't feel that sex shouldn't be a part of YA novels, but I feel that too many authors are writing sex in a way that makes kids expect to be able to treat sex with the (I hope) emotional maturity/thought process of an adult.

lacey kaye said...

I read the 70s and 80s books, too, and I thought they were totally stupid an outdated. I'm not necessarily for corrupting the youth, but I think they do a fair amount of corrupting themselves and if we discount that to push our parental mores then we risk alienating the very people we want to reach. A classic example is the "Drugs are bad, mmkay?" speech. The fact is, lots of kids will know kids who know drugs are fun. MOST people who experiment will never know an ill consequence. When we insist on spreading a message that can be so easily disproven, we become unreliable sources of information. I'm all for telling the story in a form that is realistic and true to the book. Anything else becomes propaganda, and who wants to spend their time and money on that?

Amie Stuart said...

>>I also don't think it should be in there just to be in there.


Jackie like you i was reading adult material at 12 and 13--HELLO VC Andrews INCEST and my mom let me read it, along with Sidney Sheldon and Jaquelaine Susann (sp?) and all kinds of smutty stuff LOL

Amanda said...

VC Andrews, that brings back memories. I read Clan of the Cave Bear and the rest of the books when I was in 5th grade. I will say that books do leave an impression on teenagers. I had to get past the lust=love thing and the fact that my first love wasn't necessarily my best love. Romance novels factored into those ideas, not that they were bad ideas just wrong applied to me. Sex has consequences, emotional and physical. In my mind that should be part of the story whether it's during the sex, before or after.

But it really doesn't matter what I think when it comes to other people's books. The idea, the spark and the process is the author's to handle. The author is the one who needs to decide what to include and what works with their story. Responsibility should be to tell the best story possible.

Manuscript Mavens

Manuscript Mavens