Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Morals, Values, and Other Capitalizations

by: Katya of Readers United

Do you know what movie stars, writers and Big Brother participants have in common?

People think that being a writer is a sweet job. You don’t need a fancy university degree to improve your chances of getting a job. You don’t have to deal with the cutthroat jungle of the water cooler or suck up to your boss. You don’t have to shower, dress, or even get out of bed to work. You write what your heart desires, get free copies of your favorite books and people pay you tons.

That, as they say, is the gingerbread house that is presented to the public. Nobody talks about the taxes you have to pay or the lack of health insurance, the difficulties of the publishing process and the pressure you’re under. And nobody ever mentions the fact that you are suddenly deprived of your right of privacy.

Especially if you’re writing for teenagers.

The concept that writers are self-employed is pretty accurate – once you get published, you’re a one-man enterprise, a branch of the almighty publishing industry, and as such you are expected to project a certain public image. Suddenly, you have hundreds of online friends, the comments on your blog quadruple, and your inbox floods. Your books are analyzed and scrutinized and not everyone is pleased with their findings. You’re standing in a minefield and you have to tread carefully, or else get your foot blown off.

Very often books get grilled for their abhorrent underlying themes. However, some people tend to take this analysis even further – they tend to mistake the author’s own personal values with the ones of his or her characters.

I find this ridiculous for two main reasons: One, there is more than one character in a book and their morals might, and should be, conflicting. Authors might relate to a character, just as their readers, but just because there is a promiscuous protagonist in a book doesn’t mean that the writer advocates undiscriminating sex. Such a statement, if voiced, can be considered libelous and could lead to legal repercussions.

The second reason is that it’s not really the author’s job to draw up moral lessons from their stories. Like everything connected to the enterprise, it’s considered correct to assume as neutral a position as possible and leave the reader to interpret the story in his or her own way. After all, there are as many stories as there are people, and it would be statistically impossible to write one that everyone would relate to.

Shannon Hale wrote on her blog a series of posts that relate to the topic of morals in stories and the author’s influence. In one of them, several YA writers comment on the issue, and it is truly a varied, broad topic, but one of the main ideas is this: Stories are meant to reflect reality, nothing more and nothing less. While a writer’s moral compass influences their writing in some way, their job is to tell their characters’ truths.

Some types of fiction require a lot more world building than others, which sometimes means that you have to come up with entire new sets of world values. Vinaya wrote in her post Testing Positive: On Teen Sexuality and Mixed Messages how sex positive messages are more frequent in contemporary YA than in paranormal YA, for instance.

“Contemporary fiction writers must deal with society as it is. Paranormal authors have the freedom to tweak their worlds to fit their notion of how it ought to be.”

She remarks on how writers of paranormal YA tend to make up these relationships based on dated, degrading morals and how this affects the readers. I myself don’t think that the writers shouldn’t do that, but I am surprised that of all the ways you can build your characters, we encounter the same stereotypes over and over again. Sometimes I feel like writers, in their desire to be politically correct, make their stories so unrealistic that it’s impossible to relate to them.

Which leads me to the biggest controversy of how Young Adult fiction is perceived: On one hand, people sneer at it and dismiss its cultural and literal value as subpar. On the other, they jump down the author’s throats if they don’t convey the right messages because the intended audience is considered to be more emotionally vulnerable.

There is a good difference between realistic story and one that gives you nothing. Let’s take “Story of a Girl” by Sarah Zarr – it’s a book that deals directly with teen sexuality. The protagonist, Deanna, has sex at thirteen and is caught by her father. This could have easily descended into a soliloquy on how premarital sex is bad, how you shouldn’t give yourself away, how this will ruin your life and all that other stuff that will cause a nation-wide knee jerk reaction in your audience. Instead, the story is delivered with a delicacy and intelligence that is as touching as it is rare.

Good portrayals of reality aren’t limited to contemporary YA. Sarah Rees Brenann’s “The Demon’s Lexicon” is a story of demons, magic and blood sacrifices, but it’s also treating ideas which are not so far away from us than it seems. Love plays a key part in the book, but it’s the familial kind, the one that you don’t see portrayed often in YA, but one you can relate to every day of the week.

On the other hand, let’s take “Torment” by Lauren Kate – a book that also deals with love, but on a whole different level. Unlike “The Demon’s Lexicon”, the romance plays a central part in the novel, and since the two characters got together in the previous book, that doesn’t provide much tension for the plot. What happens is that the book consists mostly of these two people skirting around their problems, fighting, making up, and generally being obsessed with one another.

Out of those three books, “Torment” is the one I find hardest to relate to. Yes, I do realize that men cannot fly. Frankly, if I were subjected to one of the romantic flights described in that book, I’d tell my boyfriend to do me a favor and let me hit the pavement. Maybe I’m weird, but I do not spend my days trying to pick between three amazing guys vying for my attention and lamenting every second I spend without a boyfriend. I don’t find it romantic to have a guy drag me away from my friends whenever I have fun without him.

I’d never dream to say that Lauren Kate was trying to give some sort of message through this book. However, I still relate better to the things in “Story of a Girl” and “The Demon’s Lexicon”. Loneliness, love, feelings of inadequacy – those are things I experience every day, and I naturally lean towards stories that reflect them.

What does this all lead to? It’s not the author’s job to moralize the story, and it is wrong to mistake an author’s personal values with those of his or her characters. However, the more you look at the new crop of popular paranormal Young Adult books, the more you notice characters acting according to some unwritten code for morality – chaste, chivalric love that is as alien to readers as is the Black Plague. Fear not, it is for a good reason - surely that kind of world building will appease the moral crusaders.

But the more I think about this, the more I ask myself, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to want characters like that? There are children out there who have to take kindergarten entrance exams. Little girls teeter on high heels and appear in catalogues as models as if they’re playing some perverse mutation of dress-up. The media is only too glad to raise a hype over some child performer or another, focusing on how extraordinary it is for someone so young to be so successful and raising the bar for everyone else. Heel, jump, roll over, grow up!

Is it really right to coddle teenagers and treat them like they’re three when kindergarteners are selling their childhoods in order to be adults? Why jump down an author’s throat for touching on gritty subjects when society obliterates innocence at its root?

And, most important – should a story really be confined to one genre, one age group alone? Do the lessons you learn as a teenager stop working as soon as you turn twenty? Should a story be read only by girls because it has no action? Are books about gay characters not fit to be read by heterosexuals? Aren’t some truths valid for everyone, be they black or white or Asian or Hispanic?

There’s something universal to every story, no matter how hated or weird it is. As writers, shouldn't we report it? As readers, shouldn't we discover it?


  1. Great post, Katya. And I'm referenced, too! *jumps for joy*.

    But I wonder how plausible the argument is that writers are morally or value-neutral when it comes to portraying their characters, especially their MCs and protagonists. Any writer worth his/her salt puts a considerable amount of themselves into their work. It's literally like giving birth to a child; you can't take a step back and say, yeah, my egg made this baby, but I'm not responsible for whatever of my traits it may have! Personally, I'm a feminist and pro-LGBT rights. So I could never create a hero/heroine who was homophobic or patriarchal; as a writer, you need to understand your character's ideas and motivations; how could I do that with a character I don't identify with at all? I have no hesitation in admitting that my main characters are a reflection of my values, morals and ideals; they are not (I hope) self-inserts, but they ARE people I would like, and want to hang out with if they were real.

    I'm not saying that someone who creates a character who falls in love with, say, a zombie, is themselves a necrophiliac; but I would say that someone who writes a pro-abstinence book is probably an advocate of abstinence. The first is a plot device; the second is an actual moral value. Too many people tend to confuse the two.

  2. @Vinaya True that. But a character is a character and his story must be his own, not the authors'. Sometimes authors step away from their comfort circle. I doubt L. K. Hamilton would advertise polygamy, for example.

  3. I've created very sexist characters before, but I don't think I'm sexist. On
    the other hand, I've had to delete racist characters because I got sick of
    writing them.

  4. I think you have to remember what it was like before you fell in love. I, for one, was convinced that all-consuming love was how it was supposed to be, ever since I was young. (The Sailor Moon obsession didn't help). That's how it's portrayed, in fairy tales, in books, in movies, in tv shows. Did I prefer that kind of story over those harsh realistic romances that were out there? Hell yeah! Those other ones didn't sound like love. They sounded painful, and the characters couldn't possibly be in love, because they weren't willing to die for each other. Because every waking moment wasn't spent thinking about each other.

    I'll admit, my first love was all-consuming because that's how I thought it was supposed to be. It was a disaster, and I learnt my lesson, but what else can you expect from someone who was raised on such ideals?

    I know now what love is supposed to be. Teenagers don't. You might not think it's right, but they are more than likely going to choose stories with this idealistic love over the real stuff, because it's their preferred dream. Am I going to stop them? No. But am I going to write the type of love found in modern YA paranormals? Hell no.

  5. I'm a teenager and I don't think love is supposed to be all consuming.
    Don't put this on teens. Adults have this same fantasy of all
    consuming love as well. Twimoms made Twilight big along with the teen

    I don't think it's restricted to an age group--maybe a personality
    type. I can't stand sappy romances myself. It isn't my preferred dream
    and all of my friends don't like it either.

    I agree with the rest of your post, but not in the context that you
    presented it. Like with John Scalzi's article on teen writing
    sucking--well you can't put all teens in the same boat.

  6. Acutally, I agree with Tamara to some extent - I for one didn't know what love is like until I hit 18, and even then I think it was more of a crush than all consuming passion. Not to generalize, but this is the kind of knowledge you need years of experience (or at least a mile of pages read) to realize.

    As a reader, I need to relate to characters to like the book, and that's why I find some romances a little dated. I admit that this wasn't always the case. There were times I didn't like the romances I strive to read now, and yet with time I grew to understand them better.

    As a teenager, I went (and still am going through) many, many phases in which I find new things, new interests, and sometimes even switch allegiances. I find the experience to be beneficial, because it allows me to discover things at my own pace. My reading (and music) tastes are all over the place, but it's a place I have found for myself.

    So, while I do like the fantasies of perfect, all consuming love, they're not real, and that's not what I want to read. I think it's better to try and reflect reality.