Monday, September 27, 2010

Do we write for ourselves, our audience, or our generation?

Hannah Moskowitz had a thought-provoking post some weeks back at her blog about whether the YA community has gotten too insular...I don't agree with all of it, but I gotta love Hannah for getting me thinking. I love a good juicy blog discussion.

One of the sub-discussions that popped up was whether we should, or do, write for ourselves or for our audience.

So, I was just reading a book of interviews with children's writers from the library (AuthorTalk). The book came out in 2000 and I think the bulk of the writers were born in the 1930s. I mean, obviously if you're going to be one of the few selected for interviews in a book representative of the genre, you're going to be somewhat of a classic in your own time, so these aren't whippersnappers like me. (That may have been the first time in my life I used the word "whippersnappers", and I have to say, I never noticed what a fun cadence that word has.)

A recurring theme I noticed with these writers is that when they were young, they didn't see a lot of books about kids like them, whether it was because of race, or class, or because they lived in a big city, or whatever. These writers, and others like them, shaped the next generation of children's literature, the stuff I read as a kid in the 80s, where lots of kids lived in New York or Boston, and there were Jewish kids and black kids, and kids with really down-to-earth lives, money troubles, divorce, etc.

Of course, since I grew up with those books on the shelves, AND old books like Betsy-Tacy and Emily of New Moon and My Father's Dragon and Doctor Dolittle, it all blended together with little sense of How Far We'd Come, and meanwhile, I wondered where the books I wanted to read were. Like, why were fantasy books always set in pseudo-Medieval England? Why were they incredibly lacking in influence from other cultures or time periods? Why were disabled characters always either aggravatingly cheerful or just plain aggravating with a big fat lesson at the end? And we won't even get started on race. I mean, sure, books about other races existed in the mainstream, which was an improvement, but they were awfully pigeonholed...we still have this problem, but it gets better with the years. And gay characters? I didn't even know what gay WAS until I was like...nine or ten. This seems unbelievable now, and yeah, my childhood was SORT of isolated, but I did read teen magazines from the time I was nine and I recall no mention of gay teens at that point. (When I did find out, it wasn't from books or magazines either, btw, it was a documentary on PBS, probably about AIDS.)

I won't lie that one of my motivations in writing was to write books with the things I perceived to be missing from the stuff available, to reflect the world as I saw it, even in a fantasy novel. I was writing, in part, for my generation, the kid I was and the kids my friends were.

And, in fact, diversity was certainly not my only aim. One thing I desperately wanted to read about was HOT BOYS. I had trouble with that as a preteen and young teen because I liked skinny, artsy, sensitive boys who had angsty pasts and maybe some conflict but were still reasonably good guys, whereas most romance stories, whether for YA or adults, seemed to run more toward jocks and alpha males or bad boys. When anime came along, it blew my little mind because apparently Asian cultures and I agree on boys. Anime and manga are rife with the kind of boys I like. But I still dreamed of writing about them myself, in books.

Now, of course, I'm an adult and there is a new generation reading these books that I and others have written, and I've noticed there are other writers tackling very similar types of themes, characters and settings to the ones I always wanted to read. I can't help but think a lot of the current crop of new writers was born in the 70s and 80s and they must have thought some awfully similar things growing up. No doubt, the kids reading our books are seeing something missing. I don't know know what it will be yet. So, do I always write for my audience? I do listen to readers, but let's face it: probably not. But whatever the gap is, it's for them to fill, in the next decade or two or three. In the meantime, enjoy the relative hot boy diversity.


  1. “One thing I desperately wanted to read about was HOT BOYS.”

    Can I hear a big, fat, resounding “YES!!!!!” to that statement? Because I definitely, 100% agree!! Watching mainstream television and Hollywood movies these days is so frustrating precisely for this reason—a distinct lack of pretty boys! After reading MUG and Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” trilogy, I definitely agree that we are (finally!) making some bishounen progress on the literary front. But yes—American media, why are you so slow to catch up?? What ugly alpha male-loving mover-and-shaker is causing the media from keeping bishounen and cute emo boys out of the media’s eye? Thanks in part to the influence of anime/manga (I imagine), youtube is rife with homemade videos of today’s fluffy-haired high school boys, so it’s obviously not some genetic pre-disposition of the young American male toward ugly jock-ness that keeps our media bishounen-free. What gives, Hollywood??? It’s time to be fair to your young female audiences—more bishounen in the media!!!

    Phew! Okay, got that out of my system.

    But yes, as you said, I’ve heard a lot of writers saying that they write because they haven’t been able to find something much/anything written about something that they would like to see, be it heroes that they can fully identify with or plots/ideas that are not popularly explored in the mainstream. I’m not sure what it is about being born in the 70’s and 80’s that causes some of the authors in our generation to wish for intelligent, capable heroines and softer, sweeter male love interests (David Bowie and Pat Benetar filling our earliest, formative subconscious thoughts, perhaps? ;P Or a rebellion against Disney’s old-fashioned “ideal man” and “ideal woman” tropes? (a strong presence in our early teen years because of their 2nd Golden Age)), but I have to say, I’m glad for it. It was a long time coming~

  2. Hahaaa! I love the theory that it was thanks to rock stars. Yes, I'm sure David Bowie (and various pretty-boy new wave stars) may have influenced young minds...although not mine, I'm afraid, since we didn't have MTV and I saw Labyrinth quite late in life... *sigh* I think Elfquest comics was one of the big watersheds for me...of course, Wendy Pini was in turn influenced by manga.

    And hey, plenty of women like buff athletic men, and that's fine, but I'm glad there is getting to be more of a variety now. (Po from Graceling was another favorite for me...)

  3. Diverse hot boys--awesome! :)

    I think what I find lacking is regional diversity. I know, Hollywood is in California and publishing is in New York, so it makes sense that most movies are set in southern CA and most books are in NYC. But um, I don't live there! And you know, kids live in a LOT of places, not just NYC. What about kids who don't go to boarding schools or live in brownstones? What about (*looks out the window*) kids who help out with the spud harvest in Idaho? What about magic in the Ozarks? What about the Kansas prairie? Wait. Frank Baum covered that one. :) But like, no one in books lives in windy, rocky, deserty Albuquerque. Why can't those people have adventures, too?

  4. That is a good point, Rose... That's kind of similar to one of my pet peeves about western-based fantasy. I want to see more stories set on other continents but I also want to see more fantasy based on like, France, or Germany, or Norway, know, not England. We get a few Viking stories and some Russian things and Irish fairies and that's mostly it for Europe.