Monday 6 July 2009

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Discussion: Do authors "assert authority over adolescent readers"?

When I was thinking about SiTL Month, and all the things I'm doing for it, I remembered that I bought a book last year for my Young Adult Fictions class, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature by Roberta Seelinga Trites, to use as a reference in my essay, and it has a whole chapter on Sex and Power. So I picked it up and started reading through it. I thought a few passages I came across could be good for discussion posts.

So without futher ado, the first excerpt:

"...adolescent literature is as often an ideological tool used to curb teenagers' libido as it is some sort of dipiction of what adolescents sexuality actually is. Adolescents certainly do not have one shared sexuality or even share common opinions about sexuality, but many YA novels seem to assume that the reader has a sexual naiveté in need of correction. Some YA novels seem more preoccupied with influencing how adolescent readers will behave when they are not reading than with describing human sexuality honestly. Such novels tend to be heavy handed in their moralism and demonstrate relatively clearly the effect of adult authors asserting authority over adolescent readers. Moreover, adolescent novels that deal with sex, whether they are obviously ideaological, usually contain within them some sort of power dynamic wherein the character's sexuality provides him or her with a locus of power. That power needs to be controlled before the narrative can achieve resolution."
(P 85, Trites, 2000)

So what do you think? Do authors try to dictate how teenagers should behave sexually? Or is Trites wrong, and they are actually describing human sexuality honest? What do you think of Trites thoughts?

Trites, R. S. 2000. Chapter 4 - "All of a sudden I came": Sex and Power in Adolescent Novels in Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.


  1. That's a really interesting quote and a fascinating discussion point.

    I'll try to comment more later, but just quickly for now: I can't think of any recent YA/teen novels that could be described as 'heavy-handed in their moralism'.

  2. @Luisa: yeah, I can't think of recent YA novels that are overly moral too. Maybe when the book was written in 2000 recent literature wasn't published yet?

    There are some sweet valley high-style novels that portray girls having sex as being skanks, and the protagonist or the character the reader is supposed to sympathise with isn't having sex or even entertaining any thoughts about the possibilities of it. But these things were published in the 80s-90s I think, and seemed to convey that one shouldn't have sex at all. (I have to read more YA!)

  3. Ha! I was just thinking about this this morning. I have to write a scene where hero character and a girl get together. They are clearly underage and yet for the first time, sex would be an option. There are three clear authorial choices:
    1. Pretend that sex doesn't exist and that it doesn't even occur to them (unrealistic but the safe path for books aimed at 10-14) (the commercially sound option)
    2. Have the characters raise the possibility and use the chance for a bit of authorial moralising, have them responsibly choose not to go too far, blah blah, because of the vulnerability of their situation. (perhaps the morally sound option)
    3. Write it ambiguously so that young readers may not realise they may have done the deed but older readers will guess that they may have. (perhaps the most 'realistic' option)

    I must admit I did instinctively want to take option 2. And yes, it did occur to me that people who write for teens have a responsibility to give moral guidance.
    In the end my editor will have a lot to say about this and I imagine it's going to be #1.

    Any suggestions?

  4. No suggestions from me I think, as I've read books that take all three options. A question though; why did you instinctively want to take option 2? For your readers, or because it fits your characters?

    I suppose that would be my suggestion, whatever option you do write, as long as it fits the characters and makes sense that they would do that, I don't see it being a problem.

    Thank you all for commenting!

  5. Why? Prob because I'm a moralising author!!! Also because I do think that at least one if not both of the characters would be afraid of sex in this situation, even though they might feel inclined to try. It's truer to have them discuss it and balk at the idea of underage, unprotected sex on a beach in a world where they don't know who to trust. It's a true discussion for the characters as well as one I'd like readers to see. I don't think it's too morally rigid to ask that young people at least talk about sex and the consequences before they engage in sexual acts.
    Either way, I can't see editor letting the subject even be discussed. I think they have to think about kissing and not much else...

  6. Reading that, it makes perfect sense to have them talk about it, I think it sounds like the right way to go. Correct me if I'm wrong, but middle grade novels are for 10-14 year olds? Talking about it responsibly at that age, I don't think that's too much. I think it would be a bit OTT for your editor to leave it out.

  7. I remember being shocked when my 6 year old cousin was assigned to read a text about where babies really come from that was especially blunt. I do agree though that it is important to discuss sex openly and honestly and not make it a secret taboo topic. Obviously 10-14 year olds are probably not coming across a lot of sex in literature, but you can bet they are hearing a lot of disinformation from peers and are fascinated by the topic whether they admit it or not. I'm definitely not for encouraging it or glamourizing it, but acknowledging that it IS a possibility rather than ignoring it seems like the more responsible approach to me.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Lenore! :) I agree with you after reading what you've just said :)

  9. Lenore, Jo, I think you're both right. But the prob is that even discussing it gets you into tricky territory. A boy sharing a room for with a girl he's been crazy about for ages and who seems to like him...there are are physical realities to that which can't be mentioned in a children's book. So, I'm afraid I'm prob going to have to dip out of that and distract the character with some problem pertaining to the adventure. Otherwise I have to describe him lying in his sheets, frustrated for hours, unable to sleep. Well, I'll see what I can get away with...but now I understand why most children's authors steer well clear...

  10. I've never read a book where an author has tried to tell me how to live my life. I would be annoyed if they did. Most books describe human sexuality honestly. It's not always simple and sometimes we make mistakes. Although somewhat influential, I believe it would take an excellent author to be able to create a book with a strong moral message and not come off as preachy. Authors do have powers to influence the public, but we can stop reading if we don't like what they have to say. So although authors are powerful, our free will is our biggest weapon. However, I don't think authors try to tell us how to live our lives. Some may show a characters progression and improvement when they've made better choices for themselves but none are a direct reference to us.

  11. I think that's a very good point, Kate! However - and I'll be going slightly off topic when it comes to books here - our free will, in some cases, goes out the window when it comes to peer pressure; we do what everyone else is doing, what we're "told to" by the people around us... in this case, could "preachy" books be the way forward? Still being "told what to do", but at least it's the right thing, rather than making mistakes? I'm not saying this is my point of view, just playing devil's advocate.

  12. I had to re-read what I wrote as I was falling asleep last night (it was late and I'd started work at 7 in the morning). There are always going to be people who are easily influenced. Preachy books may be helpful to these people. However, I think a lot of people will rebel against preachy books. As a teenager, you have to go to school, you are given rules, you are told what to do, (and in the UK what you have to wear at school) and your parents tell you what to do. This is why some people rebel, they don't want to be told what to do again. They want to relax and break the rules. I'm not encouraging this but as a teenager, I see the appeal of having a few drinks. That's my limit though. Others are more carefree, rightly or wrongly, and will break more rules. If you an admire an author, you may do what you think they are approving of. However, it's not like what someone you KNOW is telling you to do. You can put a book down and ignore them, you can't ignore someone talking directly to you.

  13. Great point, Kate! Thanks for sharing your opinion! :)