Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

The only responsibility of a young adult author is to tell a good story

Teenagers are easy to influence. Their plastic minds are wide open to suggestion from just about any source, except for their parents or other authority figures. Popular culture seems to play a particularly large role in shaping their behaviour.

In the literary world, this has led to a great deal of introspection on the part of young adult authors. They are inclined to wonder just how much influence they have through their books and whether they should be more careful with the material they write about. It’s a debate that has been around for centuries.

In 1774 Goethe published a novel entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther. This cheerful tome ends with the eponymous protagonist shooting himself in the head. One hesitates to use the term “went viral” in connection with the 18th century, but there’s no doubt that Young Werther’s example caught on, leading to a veritable rash of young men shooting themselves in the head in imitation of their literary hero. Some European countries actually banned the book in order to put a stop to these copycat tendencies.

Sociologists have since coined the term “The Werther Effect” to refer to an outbreak of suicides in response to a cultural trend.

It is well-known that the media in many countries have strict, self-imposed guidelines for reporting on suicides, which usually entails keeping details to a minimum. Many are also careful about reporting on self-destructive behaviours such as eating disorders and self-mutilation. When it was discovered that teenagers were turning to articles about anorexia for inspiration – or “thinspiration”, as it is known in the Pro-Ana community – most magazines opted to cut down drastically on their use of detail and images.

There is no doubt that popular culture influences teenage behaviour to some extent, although the exact nature of that influence is impossible to determine. All we know for sure is that it is not a simple cause and effect.

Young adult authors have frequently argued about the need to destigmatise certain issues by lifting them out of the realm of taboo. They point out that difficult topics should be dealt with openly, and that pretending something does not exist is not the most responsible way of dealing with it.

Another argument is that the pages of a book provide a safe space within which teenagers can explore the consequences of certain actions. A book like The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No by Tracy Engelbrecht, for example, could be of interest to a teenager contemplating underage sex. Or it could provide comfort for a girl who finds herself already pregnant and wondering what the future holds.

If one assumes that young adult novels do have some influence over teenage behaviour — if only in providing a forum for exploring consequences — does it follow that authors have a moral responsibility toward their young audiences? Should they be modelling responsible behaviour to their readers?

Anyone who genuinely remembers being a teenage reader would immediately answer in the negative.

Teenagers, and indeed most children, have an uncanny ability to detect when they are being preached at, and their reaction to such preaching is almost always resentment. Nothing kills a book faster for a teen than the awareness that some adult agenda lies behind it.

The vast majority of young adult authors are indeed adults, but the best of them are those who remember the deeply anarchic streak that comes with the teenage years, along with a profound distaste for adult moralising.

Of course, individual authors will continue to make decisions about what to include in their novels, and what to leave out. In this they will be dictated to by their own consciences or by pragmatic considerations. Lily Herne, the mother-and-daughter writing team behind the popular Mall Rats series of young adult novels set in a post-zombie-apocalypse Cape Town, took the decision not to include any swearing in their novels. This could well have been influenced by the practical consideration that swearing in young adult novels has a hard time getting past the gatekeepers of teenage fiction, such as school librarians.

In the end, the only real responsibility young authors have is to tell a good story. Like readers of any age, teenagers respond best to a gripping tale, well told. Authors who want to succeed in the genre should concentrate on honing their storytelling abilities, and keep their moralising tendencies well in check.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Should local writers always set their books in South Africa?
  • Local erotic fiction goes global
  • Putting our fiction on the map
    • greatgodpan

      dont you find that it is a modern day “fad” for everyone (not only teenagers) to have some kind of social cause that they are advocating?…….these causes range from the spca to worldwide revolution……….many of these causes that they push amount to them being agitators which do more harm than good………the ocean will never be pacific if everyone is constantly driving a tsunami through it…………..

    • Rory Short

      I appreciate writings which reflect a genuine truth or truths and always have done so ever since I began to be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in written material. I would think the same holds true for every generation.

    • Momma Cyndi

      My son is dyslexic – as is most of my family. He hated reading when he started school because it was torture. We had a tradition of reading in our house so it wasn’t books that were the problem, it was just having to read them himself.

      After doing many of the things that were advised, and not having any success with any of them, I decided to do what seemed to work in our family – just read for the story. When he was about 7, I got a book called ‘Little Otto” from the library and we read every day. Me sliding a finger along and both of us reading together. We’d then plot out Little Otto’s journey along a map and discuss it at length after the ‘reading session’. Being a South African based book, and us having been in some of the places mentioned, it was a fun and epic journey for all of us.

      Long story short (pardon the pun), he discovered a love of the story – as opposed to reading. He is now an avid reader (even though he still can’t spell to save his life).

      Just write something that is a story worth the time to read. As we have seen with the bedazzled vampires (which are an affront to anyone who has ever had any taste) the ability to write a story that resonates with characters that are believable is the key. Get them hooked on reading and they will probably read some decent literature at some stage – even if it is by accident 😛

    • greatgodpan

      i agree with you momma cyndi…i think that the emphasis on reading gets far too little attention in our modern society……education is nothing but reading……you can learn just about everything just but reading…..also diverse reading creates a depth and a diversity of understanding that enables you to think out of the box …..infact it enables you to hold two (or more) totally opposed view points on the same subject at the same time……now that is perception and perception is the key to wisdom……..