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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Sex, YA and Cory Doctorow

November 18th, 2009 at 23:53

I was reading Locus Magazine this morning over my porridge and nag-the-child-into-getting-through-morning-chores ritual. There were many pleasant aspects of it, not least the fact that I have caught up enough with my [info] lastshortstory reading that I was able to have a dialogue with the short story columns (yes this does mean reading bits I agree/disagree with aloud).

But it was Cory Doctorow’s column (also available online) that caught my eye. Cory’s column is usually about platforms rather than content – copyright issues, freeware, publishing, new media, that whole Doctorow grab-bag of goodies. This month, though, it’s very much about content: it’s about the complaints he has received about his YA novel Little Brother, and specifically the complaints about the 17-year-old protagonist having sex. Not, he takes pains to point out, that the book is remotely sexually explicit:

I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it’s prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.

Young Adult fiction fascinates me, largely because it has formed a good three quarters of my novel-reading material for the last several years. There are a whole lot of interesting meta-stories that go along with YA fiction and publishing – the hip, popular authors who blog and tweet and tour and all seem to be friends with each other like a colossal literary sitcom, the enthusiastic teens and their responses to the books, and then… there are the parents.

I feel rather as if there should have been ominous chords at that point.

It seems like you can’t turn around in the blogosphere these days without some kind of drama or protest or scandal about what teenagers are reading, and what certain people would like to prevent them from reading.

I’m pretty sure it’s a win when teenagers are reading at all, right?

Sure, there are dangerous books in the world. By all accounts (I haven’t read it yet), Little Brother comes down on the side of dangerous books for teens, dealing with lots of controversial ideas and themes. But is it still really that controversial to depict two seventeen-year-olds in a loving, long-term (by teenage standards) relationship having sex? Especially if that sex takes place off stage, with no graphic description.

It seems, though, that no matter what pains YA writers take to be responsible in the writing of scenes depicting sex or other disapprove-worthy behaviour, there are always complainers who would prefer that those scenes not be written at all – indeed, that the topics be completely left out of any books intended to be read by teens.

The recent Lauren Myracle-Scholastic started with the mega-company asking that Lauren edit the fact that one of her 10 yr old protagonists had two moms, and the protest only died down when they decided to distribute her book anyway – but only to middle school audiences, not to the age group the book was meant for. Before that there was the British newspaper reaction to Margo’s admittedly difficult novel Tender Morsels, declaring that even older teenagers should be sheltered from such concepts as rape and incest, regardless of how tastefully said themes were depicted in a work of literature. There have been many more examples, for as long as this YA boom has been around. People – and not just parents – seem determined to try and control what teens read, as if books somehow are going to be their main source of troubling themes and information in the current age of new media.

Possibly I’ve said all this before. But the thing that gets me is that – if it’s the fact of sex, or drugs, or underage drinking, or whatever, that gets the anti-book brigade into such a flap, then it doesn’t actually matter whether the authors deal with said issues responsibly. In Cory Doctorow’s column he said that all the complaints about Little Brother boiled down to one question “Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don’t you punish them for doing this?”

Hmm. Is that why all those horror movies tended to kill off the teenage girls right after they had sex? Suddenly it all seems so clear. The important thing is to punish them fictional characters for making parentally-disapproved choices. Yep, that’s going to drag the teens away from their mobile phones and back into the libraries, now isn’t it?

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2 Responses to “Sex, YA and Cory Doctorow”

  1. Kaia Says:

    i feel vaguely silly commenting ot pretty much every post you make here, but damn it, why shouldn’t I?

    The very first sex scenes I read was from the Clan of the Cave Bear books. I was eleven. And um, my parents may have disapproved, but I still snuck the books from the bookcase when they weren’t looking (having many siblings help in this aspect). This is what children do.

    I personally do not understand why conservative parents are so up in arms about this, because come on. What would you rather have your children and/or teenagers read? Option one, reasonably non graphic sex, a lot of the time even “off stage” and only mentioned in passing, written with teenagers and their curiousity in mind? Or, option two, sex scenes in books for adults, often graphic in nature and sometimes with awesome (and when I say awsome I mean pretty damn bad) ideals like the one I started out with, with a man so well-endowed that he’s never met a woman who he can fit inside of (yes, seriously) until… dun-dun-dun, he meets the protag of this particular book?

    Um. Yeah. I’m not kidding about that part.

    *steps off soap box*

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Whoa, that does sound bad :D I read my first sex scenes in, hmm, Walter Tevis novels, I think, borrowed from my dad – The Hustler and The Queen’s Gambit.

    It’s a very good point – at least in YA novels there’s a higher chance that the authors have thought about presenting sex & sexual themes in a responsible way, and are more likely to do so in such a way that the kids who aren’t ready to read about that stuff yet can judge that for themselves before they get anything too, ahem, ‘in your face.’

    Of course the people who complain are not complaining about the way sex is presented, they don’t want their children reading about the EXISTENCE of sex or other darker issues until they’re… thirty?

    Lauren Myracle did an interesting feature on her blog a while back where she chatted with a parent who had been trying to ban one of her books from a school library (for mention of things like blowjobs, though only in a theoretical way) and she put her case across well – it’s the first time I’ve actually been in sympathy with a book banner. One of her points was that with school libraries, kids have access to books without their parents knowing.

    But I still don’t agree with her, because once kids get to their teens, quite frankly, they deserve some privacy. And if they worst they get up to is reading some books their parents feel are age-inappropriate, that’s a pretty healthy form of rebellion compared to what they could be getting up to.

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