Monday, May 30, 2011

Sex, Drugs and YA

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers on the following books: “Swoon” by Nina Malkin, “Evermore” by Alyson Noel, “Valiant” by Holly Black, “Hush, Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick, “Speak”, “Wintergirls” and “Twisted” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott and “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. Proceed at your own risk.

The biggest irony of YA – you write about teens, but you’re not allowed to write for teens. I already talked about this at length in my Morals, Values and other Capitalizations piece, and my opinion stays the same: If you stuff your children in grown-up clothes and encumber them with your grown-up expectations, you have no right to get indignant if a YA book contains the f-bomb, or if two teens engage into something more than chaste hand-holding.

But let us ignore the sex topic for now. Instead, let’s take a look at other things that make YA books “edgy”. More specifically, I’d like to talk about how alcoholism, drugs, bullying and other similar are being treated in YA books.

Last month, I read Nina Malkin’s “Swoon”, and while I loved the story, I kept going back to that part: The heroine and her cousin talk about sex, and her cousin compares it to doing coke – the first line was amazing, but every one after that was chasing the feeling of the first. Now, she’s not a drug addict in the book, but I wondered: is that plausible? I mean, that’s what they tell us at school, right – one is all it takes. It got me thinking about the times when I read a book where heroes get high, but then seemingly walk it off without that many consequences, and I wondered why it contradicts what we were taught about drugs.

To bring up another example, I’d like to talk about a book I personally detest more than any other one in the YA Paranormal genre. Now, I usually don’t hate on books – I might not like them, but it’s never personal. But “Evermore”, in my eyes, is worse than any other book I’ve read of this genre. Worse than “Twilight”. Worse than “Hush, Hush”. Worse than “Wings” and “Fallen” and “Halo”. This book represents all that is wrong with this genre – from the stalking hero, through the useless friends, to the whitewashed, privileged heroine who can’t even pick her nose without help. What enrages me most, though, is that after the heroine finally breaks up with her stalker boyfriend, she turns into an alcoholic.

This is wrong on so many levels, not just because it highlights how codependent Ever’s relationship is, but also because it is completely redundant. At least Bella’s jumping off cliffs moved the plot, such as it was, forward. Ever’s alcoholism doesn’t really make an impact on the plot, and after a few pages, she completely shrugs it off like it’s nothing and drives over to a party to save her friends. There are hardly any repercussions for her actions, and she doesn’t seem to suffer the consequences from her addiction.

Perhaps I am not fair, since I haven’t read any of the sequels and don’t know if this problem resurfaces, but let’s face it: Alcoholism is a serious affliction. Forget the physical repercussions – there is a good reason why most people turn to the bottle, and that reason often persists even after you get over the physical need. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and the fact that Ever barely considers the consequences of her actions on her family and friends pretty much told me everything I needed to know about her character.

This is something which comes up every once in a while when I read books – a problem like alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment and child abuse are just thrown into the story without having any greater significance to the plot other than just being there. It’s the same in “Swoon”. It’s the same in “Valiant” by Holly Black, where protagonist Valerie gets addicted to a faerie drug dubbed ‘Nevermore’, but gets over it pretty quickly. Actually, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for “Valiant”, not least because I quite enjoyed that book and because I think it was well thought of, even if it lacked in execution.

To a much higher degree, we have this problem in Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush”, where Patch, the designated love interest, repeatedly threatens and sexually harasses Nora, our protagonist. Many reviewers have commented on the deplorable way Patch treats Nora and how his behavior perpetuates rape culture, but to me (at least at first), this faucet of his character didn’t invest me emotionally. One of the downsides of reading too much Paranormal YA is that after a while all books look the same to you; I’d seen the cover and read the synopsis – I’d gotten the gist of the story. Since Patch was obviously the hero, I didn’t believe for a minute that his behavior was NOT disguising underlying attraction or that Nora was in actual danger, and I don’t think I’m the only reader who was tricked into liking the book by this false sense of security that surrounds the whole genre. No matter how dark and grimy things get, you always know that everything is going to be fine.

Is all YA like that? No, of course not. Pick up any novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. “Speak” is about the aftermath of rape. “Wintergirls” describes the heroine’s journey through anorexia. “Twisted” is about a boy who wants to fit in, but can’t, and constantly has to fight anger and depression. In essence, all of those are ‘issue’ books, but the subject matter is always handled with respect and intelligence, in a way that suggests the author understands just what she’s writing about and doesn’t just use it as a plot device in her novel.

Another example of a YA which knows what it’s doing is “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott, a truly terrifying novel that sent me hiding under the covers with my thumb in my mouth. Seriously: Don’t go reading this if you’re depressed, it will not help your case.

The difference between those two kinds of novels I just described lies in the kind of problems these are. According to Les Edgerton, author of “Hooked”, there are two kinds of problems – a story-worthy one and a surface one. A novel’s plot is made up of many small surface problems, which the protagonist overcomes in his quest to deal with the story-worthy problem. What “Swoon” and “Evermore” do with their ‘edgy’ issues is make them handy plot devices, or surface problems at best, with little or no impact to the characters’ lives.

Compare this to “Wintergirls”, where Lia’s descend into anorexia is shown in such a visceral way that the reader gets pulled into her head. Anderson writes it in such a way that it literally shows how Lia is constantly correcting herself, suppressing her desires, silencing her reason. Or “Living Dead Girl”, where Elizabeth Scott shows the complete deterioration of Alice’s morals, and brings her to the point where she would do anything, and I mean anything, to escape.

“Living Dead Girl” makes an impact because it holds up a mirror to the reader and shows them just what can happen to your soul when you’re thrust into a living hell. On the other hand, having characters who can shrug off alcoholism or shoot lines without repercussions isn’t edgy. If anything, it’s lazy writing. It shows you’d rather have your protagonist do something edgy for a few pages, thus adding some shock value to the novel, than exploring their character and how their actions affect them. As readers, we ask ourselves: “Ok, that happened. So what?”

I’m not saying that all protagonists in YA should be straight edge, clean cut, happy-go-lucky, perfectly adjusted SWASPs. Quite the contrary – the more complex the characters, the better is a novel for me. But don’t just throw in addictions for the sake of it – show us how they affect the characters, and how they react. This is essentially why we read stories – to get a glimpse from another person’s reality and see how they live through it.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? How edgy would you like your YA to be? Do you think there's a line between realism and gratuism? And, for that matter, do you think every book with a teen protagonist should be labeled as YA? Do you think the label "Young Adult" signifies the rating of the book (like PG, PG-13), or the intended audience?


  1. I think if you're going to throw alcoholism into a story then you handle it with the sensitivity and honesty it deserves. Alyson Noel chickened out and used it as a throwaway plot device for added drama when the story was getting dull. Not only was it terrible writing, it was irresponsible and insulting, not to mention pretty laughable. If nothing else, it served to show just how terrible a character Ever is - if she's not latching onto a man like a limpet shell, she's completely dependent on something else, willing to throw herself down a path of addiction and depression just for some guy. Y'know, a protagonist a gal can relate to! I see no reason why a YA can't cover a very real issue like alcoholism but don't just use it for shock value or lazy storytelling., that's pathetic.

  2. Another
    example of a YA which knows what it’s doing is “Living Dead Girl” by
    Elizabeth Scott, a truly terrifying novel that sent me hiding under the
    covers with my thumb in my mouth. Seriously: Don’t go reading this if
    you’re depressed, it will not help your case.

    I warned you, didn't I?

    Anyone, complete agreement. I had the same reaction when I watched an episode Glee. Alcoholism isn't a joke. It's very serious. And ditto what Ceilidh said.

  3. Yes, yes you did. But what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and I think I needed to read more than books about sparkly vampires and feminist manifestos.

  4.  Did you review that one for the Sparkle Project?

  5. I did:

  6. Reading that about Evermore.. wow, I'm glad I couldn't finish the first book because that's just.. well.. too freaking ridiculous. Whenever people discuss "issue" books, I always recommend Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert, because she doesn't try to make it "a book about issues" it's, as you said, "author understands just what she’s writing about and doesn’t just use it as a plot device in her novel." And wow, Living Dead Girl stayed with me for weeks, such a powerful novel. great post!

  7. You made a lot of really great points! And I agree that often, YA authors skim over these issues because they want the book to seem "edgy" and "relatable" to teens, but instead of actually discussing the topic, they throw out these tiny grains of nothing that only confuse the reader. For example, it's one thing to have a character drink alcohol once at a party, but it's another thing for the character to make alcohol a part of their lifestyle or even become addicted to it. These are both big things in life, whether it's the decision to drink or whether it's your succumbing to an addiction. Neither should be taken lightly. And I know you didn't mention sex, but that's my big gripe with sex in YA. It's thrown in there like it's nothing, like it's not a huge deal for a character to lose his/her virginity. That's a huge part of growing up! But authors just make it a plot point, like they're checking all their boxes, crossing their t's and dotting their i's. And the paranormal genre is the WORST about this! You know, the only book I've ever read that dealt with drugs in a manner that I thought was tasteful and realistic was Elise Alen's POPULAZZI. The MC smokes pot one time, has a horrible reaction, and then decides it's not for her. But there was an actual discussion about it - refreshing! hah

  8. "Since Patch was obviously the hero, I didn’t believe for a minute that his behavior was NOT disguising underlying attraction"For me, it didn't matter. Underlying attraction or not, he was still bullying Nora, scaring her and constantly putting her down. No amount of underlying attraction could justify that sort of behavior, and the fact that the heroine was still attracted by his good looks, despite the constant mistreatment made me hate this book like no other. But then, I haven't read Evermore."Ever’s alcoholism
    doesn’t really make an impact on the plot, and after a few pages, she
    completely shrugs it off like it’s nothing"So... yeah. I don't know long this could have lasted in "book time", but alcoholism takes time to establish. Having a drink every other day for a couple of weeks is not enough to develop a physical dependency, so there's no withdrawal syndrome when the person finally decides to kick the habit. It is quite possible to turn to the bottle for comfort after a particularly painful experience, and give up drinking after some time when the pain dulls and the worst is over (granted - some people don't take this detour and plough straight ahead into a full blown addiction). What really bugs me is introducing a potentially sensitive subject into a YA novel, and then completely shrugging it off. Yes, I've seen people who developed a taste for liquor after bad break ups, and then got back on track without much drama-llama, but it always, always had some sort of consequences (like a family member calling them out on their problem). A book is much trickier than real life in that respect: it needs to have everything in its proper place, with all the elements contributing to the story. If an author introduces a weighty subject, such as this, and then drops it like a hot potato, her readers might wonder why the heck did she bother including such a complex issue in the first place.

  9. Well, I'm not entirely sure, but Ever starts drinking steadily after a weekend where her friend introduces her to vodka. Then, on the next Monday (I think), she gets herself a week's suspencion, which is right before the Winter holiday. She then spends the time before December 21st lying around in her room all day and drinking steadily (no kidding). On the 21st, she drinks so much she passes out, then wakes up, sees an image that might as well be a hallucination, and immediately grabs her coat and goes off to drive over to a canyon party (reckless? pffft!).

    While it's possible that she didn't become an alcoholic for that time period, she had her reasons to turn to the bottle. Reasons she doesn't adress. Moreover, even after her aunt scolds her, grounds her and saves her from being expelled, Ever just steals some alcohol and slinks off to her room to get drunk, not caring about the consequences. Her complete lack of regard for herself and others isn't endearing. If anything, her drinking seems cartoonish and comical, never serious, which can be offensive.

  10. Oh wow. Thanks for elaborating... this is much more disturbing then I thought. Drinking heavily at parties or crying into a pint after work/school is one thing, but... lying around all day, doing nothing but drinking smacks of clinical depression. In which case, the alcohol dependence looming on the horizon is probably not the biggest issue the person might have right now. And shaking it off, just like that, to go to a PARTY of all things? Not to mention the fact that after drinking herself unconscious, Ever would probably feel too sick to even walk downstairs, and wouldn't be in any condition to drive a car. The author fails at research, common sense and pretty much everything.

    (sorry for the messed up quotes above - Book Lantern doesn't really agree with my ancient browser)

  11. I love a novel that addresses an issue well, such as Living Dead Girl or anything by Halse Anderson. But I can also really appreciate a novel that doesn't make everything into a big issue. I like a story when a teen has some kind of sex for the first time and their life isn't different afterwards. Or when someone tries alcohol or drugs or dating a different kind of person and the result isn't devastating or some great epiphany, and they move on. Most of the things young adults try do not have lasting consequences, and I appreciate it when an author lets some things slide by.

  12. It truly is powerful, and I recently discovered more and more aspects of it.

    I may actually get around to writing the review of it!

  13.  "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" also handled drugs realistically, I think. And "Sister Mischief" by Laura Goode (highly recommended).

  14. Yeah, but there's a difference between trying pot and deciding it's not for you and snorting cocaine enough times to make metaphors about chasing the first line and then going off your seperate ways. Same is with alcohol - Ever drinks steadily for a whole week. That's not having a few beers at a party. I'm not even sure it's realistic.

    I'm all about MC's experimenting and discovering new sides of life through experience, but when it comes to a bona fide addiction, authors can't just drop the issue after a few pages.

  15. I like to have different things in different books, but on the whole a realistic teenage experience is more interesting to me.  Which doesn't mean that sex/drugs/etc is mandatory for a teen story, but could merely mean an awareness that such things happen, though not necessarily in this story.

    Teflon characters (all the bad things slide off them) can be irritating if handled badly, but the sex/drugs/etc experience is not a universal, one-note thing.  Not everyone who takes drugs is immediately addicted.  Not everyone who spends a month soaking their sorrows in alcohol is an alcoholic.  Not everyone's first time is the besttimeever (indeed, I thought anecdotally that it was supposed to be the opposite).  There are a range of reactions to all these experiences, from the people who really can "quit when they want to", to those who embark on an inexorable slide from that first puff of marijuana to complete degradation.  From the bestfirsttimeever to the embarrassing awkwardness of wheredoIhowdoI, with accompanying cruel and unusual sound effects.

    [Too be really honest, I'm such a plot bunny that so long as I find the story interesting, chances are good I won't even notice the teflon level.]

  16. "Not everyone's first time is the besttimeever (indeed, I thought anecdotally that it was supposed to be the opposite)."

    Well, I know a grand total of two people who admitted to having had a great first time. The rest was more like: "Eh... it got better".
    But, still - the first time is such a big staple in our contemporary culture, that it's difficult to imagine a teenager who wouldn't be hyped up about it. It doesn't matter if the experience was good, or bad, or if they decided not to do it after all - they would still give it some thought. If the character is indifferent to the issue, the author should probably explain why they're indifferent. If they brush it off with a simple: "went to a party, did it for the first time, felt nothing special, came home, had supper" it probably happens for a reason - maybe the person is emotionally detached like whoa, or maybe they're glossing over the event, because they were disappointed by the experience.

  17. Just for clarification, are we talking about sex or about drugs?

  18. Sex. Definitely sex.

    In my first language, whenever people refer to their "first time" without specifying what was it exactly that they were doing for the first time, it is always implied that they are talking about their first sexual experience. Sorry for being so vague!

    ... and now I discovered that the passage I quoted in my reply is gone, because I cannot find it anywhere on the page. I don't know what happened, because I definitely didn't make it up and now I feel sort of silly.

  19. Sorry, I edited because I'd been wordy, and must have caught you in a reply.  You're surely right that most everyone (not extremely drunk at the time) approaches their first time as , if not a major event, at least a milestone.
    Your example above would work as a great character hook for me.  If I read a book starting with that I'd definitely want to know why she felt nothing. :)