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The ‘Issue’ with YA Fiction by Claire Hennessy

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing for Children & YA
claire hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Sometimes, as a writer, introducing yourself is a terrifying thing. You mightn’t know this, but people do presume published authors are psychic, that we can instantly access the answers to ‘would I heard of you?’ or ‘have you written anything I’d know?’ queries from people we’ve just met. As a writer for young people, there is also the dread of the almost-inevitable question: ‘have you ever thought about writing a real book?’

‘Real’ means for adults, of course. But as YA, or Young Adult, fiction becomes increasingly more a part of the general literary field rather than just some esoteric little sliver of the bookshop, other questions begin to creep their way into the familiar discourse.

‘How d’you manage the responsibility of writing for teenagers?’ or ‘How you handle all the issues?’ are now just as likely to be asked, and while it does mark a welcome acknowledgement that YA fiction is here to stay and not some passing trend, it’s also indicative of how focused it is on, well, The Issues.

There are a number of things that feed into our sense of books for teenagers as something that must be assessed first and foremost on their moral or philosophical benefits rather than their storytelling or characterisation or language (as we do with novels for adults). The first, I think, is that for many of us our teenage years were spent in English classes where the ‘theme’ of the novel or other literary work was our primary concern, and always presented as the main point of writing, the answer to a riddle. A novel is usually – and should be! – more complex than an Aesop’s Fable, with a more nuanced ‘message’ there (and it should be open for discussion – because novels are not manifestos). If we primarily associate teenage reading with decoding the ‘right’ moral, it’s no wonder we get anxious over YA novels.

The second is that others of us grew up in an era where ‘the problem novel’ was prevalent – the fictionalised account of a particular issue that would eventually lead the adolescent reader to the ‘right’ answer. It’s a mode of writing that has waned and waxed throughout the decades-long history of YA but has always been present. Even though the modern YA novel may seem more commercially-motivated than didactic, it’s important to remember the relatively recent surge of dystopian fiction – a field known for its overt political commentary. It is very easy to still associate the YA novel with An Important Message for its teen readers.

The third reason is that – like Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons – we are all increasingly wired to wail, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ There are countless horrors in the recent past to justify our concern for young people and our need as adults – whether we are parents, authors, librarians, booksellers, teachers, etc – to keep them safe. But really what we mean is ‘safe’, because there are horrors we cannot protect young people from, and explorations of the uglinesses of modern culture and life – Angie Thomas’s insight into racial tension in The Hate U Give, Amy Reed’s look at rape culture in The Nowhere Girls, Patrick Ness’s account of homophobia and harassment in Release, John Green’s take on OCD in Turtles All The Way Down, Sarah Crossan’s dramatizing of days as a death-row prisoner in Moonrise – are empowering rather than dangerous.

If you are a reader of YA – and of course you should be, if it’s what you’re writing, so that you understand the field (without pandering to it) – you’ll be conscious of the focus on Issues above all else. It can be overwhelming and intimidating for a number of reasons, not least because of how American-centric it is; despite the similarities among ‘Western’ nations there are still variations in how different privileges manifest and the power they have. As a writer you may well fear doing or saying ‘the wrong thing’, and as ‘the wrong thing’ is a constantly-moving target it is certainly a valid anxiety.

But as a writer you must remember that you are not offering up a slice of journalism, which purports to be ‘true’ – you are offering up something nuanced and messy and complicated. That’s what fiction is for – not for manifestos but for stories that illuminate issues but don’t preach about them or declare emphatically that this one way is the true way.

It’s difficult to keep this in mind if you’re a YA writer working on a book that has an ‘issue’ in it, so here’s a tip: accept that there will always be people who think your book is ‘problematic’. They may be on ‘your side’ in that they agree with on most issues but they will feel you haven’t done something perfectly, or they may simply be outraged that you’ve dared even mention a particular topic. They may come out of the woodwork when review copies of the book are released, or when the book is out properly, or months or years later. They may grumble about you in someone’s living-room or they may begin an internet hate campaign. But whichever path they choose, these are not the people you’re writing for – these are people you cannot please, at least not indefinitely. If it’s not this book, it’s the next, or the one after that – they’ll find a reason to find you ‘problematic’.

The readers you are writing for are the ones who can distinguish between narrator and author, between fictional plot and ideal political solution. (They mightn’t like the book either, but they won’t consign you to hell for writing it.) Keep these readers in mind. They want story. They don’t want you-the-author chiming in at every possible moment (though your first draft is likely to have lots of this – this is why editing is a good thing). They want a novel, because that’s what the packaging says: not a diatribe. There may be some overlap but ultimately you as the writer need to stop worrying about pleasing everyone and (do your research, obviously) write about whatever issues that the story calls for.

(c) Claire Hennessy

About Like Other Girls:

Here’s what Lauren knows: she’s not like other girls. She also knows it’s problematic to say that – what’s wrong with girls? She’s even fancied some in the past. But if you were stuck in St Agnes, her posh all-girls school, you’d feel like that too. Here everyone’s expected to be Perfect Young Ladies, it’s even a song in the painfully awful musical they’re putting on this year. And obviously said musical is directed by Lauren’s arch nemesis.

Under it all though, Lauren’s heart is bruised. Her boyfriend thinks she’s crazy and her best friend has issues of her own… so when Lauren realises she’s facing every teenage girl’s worst nightmare, she has nowhere to turn. Maybe she should just give in to everything. Be like other girls. That’s all so much easier … right?

Like Other Girls was shortlisted for the 2017 Irish Book Awards.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, reviewer & tea-drinker based in Dublin. Her most recent YA novel, Like Other Girls, is published by Hot Key Books; she also has a short story in The Broken Spiral, an anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

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