Writing teenage fiction – it’s a funny old game. If you hit the right notes, fortune and glory shall be yours. More probably, you’ll cock it up completely, because after all, who really understands teenagers except other teenagers. But there is one thing on your side – all children read up. So while the 16 year olds you think you’re writing for may not read you, 12 year olds will. 10 year olds read Louise Rennison and Seventeen. 8 year olds read (past tense, probably) Judy Blume. If you want a 17 year old reader the worst thing you can do is write something ‘targeted’ at him.
I use ‘him’ because I’ve just read Doing It, Melvin Burgess’s novel about teenage boys and sex. Try as I might, I can’t imagine this book speaking to a teenage boy (or girl for that matter). I can imagine them reading it, because after all it’s fairly explicit hur hur. But is anyone really going to feel that, yes, these are my problems, and the terrible burden of my hormones has been lightened by being understood?
Junk (Burgess’s equally controversial 1997 novel) was a very good book about heroin addiction, escapism, first love, and music, amongst other things. It had an important message and it conveyed it through a good story. Doing It is so determined to tackle the taboos surrounding teenage sex that not much else gets a look in. I felt exhausted by the end, as the four main characters lurched from one sex crisis to the next. There are other things going on – one boy’s parents are splitting up, so they appear in some detail, but all the other families, classmates etc are vague ciphers. And as for authenticity, let’s just say I can’t imagine a streetwise 14 year old exclaiming “I told him the most monstrous pack of lies!”
But Burgess is very successful, so someone out there is reading. And he does ‘get it’ in a way… He certainly conveys what sex education has for the most part woefully failed to, that sex has insanely complicated emotions attached to it and you can’t avoid them, that there are double standards, that no means no but it can also mean ‘I don’t know’ (a tricky one that in a world of potential rapist hysteria), that we have brains as well as genitals and we have to listen to both but it’s ok if the brain goes quiet sometimes…
But if I’d read this book when I was 15 I don’t think I would have appreciated those insights. I would have thought “hm this isn’t much cop, I’ll just go and read Wuthering Heights and then rifle through mum’s dirty books later.” And I turned out just fine.