Sunday, 15 August 2010

Violence in YA fiction: to hold back or not?

I'm currently reading Robert Cormier's classic The Chocolate War. It's a YA book that's stood the test of time. In a poll of most loved YA books held in March 2010, it came in at number 61 - not bad for a book first published in 1974. And according to Wikipedia, it also came 3rd on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.

The edition I'm reading includes an introduction by Cormier, where he talks about the reasons why it was rejected by 7 major publishers before being finally accepted in 1973: "Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers of the 1970s would find difficult to accept. Too violent." Considering its top 3 appearance on the ALA's recent banned/challenged list, clearly many adults are still challenged by the story: violence, sex and drug use are most cited as reasons why it should be banned or restricted. But its ongoing popularity proves that teens connect with the book. 

In her recent essay Narrative as Nourishment, literary theorist Ellen Spolsky discusses Paul Hernadi's argument that "...the creation and consumption of fictional narratives provide evolutionary advantages to a group, preparing them to anticipate challenges they may some day face by familiarizing their young with a range of hypothetical scenarios." Spolsky goes onto discuss how common themes in narratives can point to problems that artists and society are struggling with, however, while the narratives can't always provide answers or solutions they can nonetheless help us deal with them.

Cormier doesn't hold back on the violence in his book, which is one of the reasons it is challenged. But the honesty in Cormier's writing, which he held onto despite the many rejections received from publishers, is probably what appeals to his teen audience. By writing honestly about issues bullying and violence, Cormier both validates the experiences of teens and refuses to patronise them by taking the story through to its inevitable and confronting (unhappy) ending. And taking into account Hernadi's theory, Cormier's narrative may help teen readers work out how to deal with similar situations in their own lives; while Spolsky's views suggest that even if the narrative doesn't point to a solution it may help readers cope with experiences of bullying or violence.

I had a discussion with my supervisor earlier in the week about the depiction of violence in my own writing. She asked if I felt I was holding back, and I admitted that yes, probably I was. But now I know I have no excuse. As a writer one of my main responsibilities is to be true to the story and treat my future readers with respect by writing honestly. And if one day I can get my book simultaneously in the most popular and most banned lists, I'll know I've done really well.