Thursday, February 13, 2014
I read an excellent book this week called SEX & VIOLENCE by Carrie Mesrobian. This debut was nominated for YALSA's Morris award along with a couple of others that I have read and loved (IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS) or intend on buying (hello, CHARM & STRANGE). For me, the Morris nominations have been my personal reading rec's. In the past, I've read and loved HOLD STILL, GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, UNDER THE MESQUITE, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, FLASH BURNOUT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, GRACELING and HOLD ME CLOSER, NECROMANCER. The list could go on, but I'll stop there. The thing is, I've never been disappointed by a Morris nominee.

So when SEX & VIOLENCE was released in the UK, I snapped it up knowing it was "my kind of book." And now, having finished, I have thoughts.

This book is not going to be for everyone.  The title should tell you something; it's not meant to shock.  What I mean by this disclaimer is that some readers will take personal beliefs and experiences and impose them on this story. They will make judgements. I mean, hey, that's okay, how can you not?  Some teens might read the book and see that it doesn't reflect their lives and put it back down. Perfectly legit. But there are others, like myself, who will see themselves, the people they knew growing up, the thoughts and emotions of a small blip of time during adolescence...and it will feel like a sort of relief.  Somebody got it.

Now, I didn't grow up in all sorts of places or end up in Minnesota. I didn't take a bath in a lake every night because taking a shower brought back a traumatic experience. I certainly didn't get laid like Evan, the main character, manages to do. Or even get invited to parties. But I had other vices. I had other fears. I had loneliness. I had bitterness towards my parents (and also fierce love). I wanted, longed for things.  I read obsessively and explored places I wasn't allowed to go.  I lived in a place with sex and violence all around me.  Somehow, someway, it didn't touch me.  But I saw it.  I felt it.  Denying it exists is one way to escape fear so do what you have to do. 

When discussing this book with Ingrid, Stephanie and Kristan, and the issues it brings up (like so many before it and many to come after), I mentioned that the author was having a take-down online about readers making assumptions about her as a writer and what is depicted in her story.  Because we're also writers, we pay attention to these sort of exchanges.  We've learned this: if someone doesn't get it, whatever.  Don't engage. 

But it's so hard not to say something when the EXACT thing certain readers rail against is the EXACT thing you're trying to show--messed up behaviour leads to messed up lives--and they're focusing on how messed up everything is.  Again, don't engage.  Educate:

There's this expectation when writing for teens that along with it comes this "responsibility" or "opportunity" to deliver a moral message.  And you authors out there can tell a moral story with a message, but don't expect me to take much away from it.  That kind of stuff gets left behind at picture books.  And the BEST picture books are the ones that don't do this either because it's such a cheap form of storytelling.  Kids aren't fooled.

The purpose of fiction is not to be instructive, but to illuminate.  (Seriously, I will never say another genius thing again in my whole life.  This is my moment).

When a book says to you:  this is the world so what are you going to do about it?  You can deny or you can be resilient.  You can add to the dialogue or you can try to shut the conversation down.  But what better place to bring your fears than into the light?  Watch them bend, watch them dissolve.

by Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Source: Leaves of Grass (1892)


Kristan said...

Sarah, this post is positively brilliant!

"When a book says to you: this is the world so what are you going to do about it? You can deny or you can be resilient. You can add to the dialogue or you can try to shut the conversation down."

Yes, exactly. And while I think generally speaking it's still best for writers (and other artists) not to directly engage with detractors, I also think there's value in having discussions like the one Carrie Mesrobian started, about distinguishing between the art and the artist.

Also, I'm quite sure this is neither the first nor the last moment of genius that you've had. ;)

Emma said...

I think this is one of my favourite posts on We Heart YA! The issues of sensibility and authenticity in YA seem particularly relevant to the genre because of it being about teenagers. Authors sometimes seem to struggle between delivering some moral adage and also creating a realistic experience. I totally agree with your take on this one. Also love the twitter conversation!

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.



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The Bitter Kingdom
Wild Awake
The Raven Boys
Mind Games
Eleanor and Park
The Shattered Mountain
The Shadow Cats
Froi of the Exiles
Days of Blood & Starlight
Every Day
Jellicoe Road
Finnikin of the Rock
Guitar Notes
The Dead-Tossed Waves
The Crown of Embers
New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A Home
The Fault in Our Stars

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