How far is too far?
I ask myself this question after being questioned myself, about the subject matter I choose to explore Creepy & Maud. After being questioned by someone I thought would simply celebrate the fact that I was being published. After being questioned by someone who shrunk into themselves even further when I mentioned what I was working on now.
So, how far is too far in the YA genre? I’m not talking about the superficial stuff such as: how often can I use the word “fuck”?; can my characters do a line of cocaine?; can my characters have sex?; can my characters be raped?; can my characters hold up a bottle shop, collide with another car during the get-away, kill an innocent in the other vehicle, blah blah blah?... Ironically all of this seems kosher. Pick an issue, get the moral in, and make sure the didactic conclusion satisfies the expectations of every adult who reads it.
But what if you write without the filter of “will-the-adult-audience-be-comfortable-with-this?” What if you lost that filter somewhere in your own young adulthood...in a gay nightclub...on a school night...in a borrowed bra...getting drunk when your mum thinks you’re at a study sleepover with responsible adults supervising? (I’m just saying, you know, that that could happen...) And what if you never re-claimed that filter?
I’m not talking about shock for shock’s sake. Plenty of things that have been labeled “confronting and authentic” have left me going “Ewwwww”. Nor am I advocating personal irresponsibility. However when ‘responsible’ becomes cipher for bowdlerization, I get a bit itchy. We underestimate our young adults. I’m guilty of it myself. I had the most ungenerous thoughts about the gang of obnoxious criminals-in-waiting harassing elderly shoppers at my local recently. But what if those young men had been cut off at the pass with books which asked, with genuine interest: “What is your secret life?” We can go there in picture books for Christ’s sake; what’s the big deal when we’re using words with more than two syllables? Could uncensored, won’t-make-grown-ups-comfortable literature have made a difference? (Of course it’s too late for those little illiterate wankers...)
I once heard Noni Hazlehurst in interview about her time on Play School. She said it was one of the hardest gigs she ever did because kids have the greatest bullshit detectors on the planet. If they suspect you are patronizing them, they immediately tune out. We lose out bullshit detectors as adults – our bullshit detectors are lost within the stupor of political correctness, civility, doubt in ourselves, hesitation to offend, and desperation to please.
I love the YA genre because the audience isn’t cooked yet. They think they are, but they’re not. There is so much fervor, faith, ire and conviction in our young adults, and I want to grab them there, where they are. I don’t want to teach them anything. I want to hold a mirror up. There are so many exquisite YA writers doing this: Scott Gardner, Melina Marchetta, Julia Lawrinson, Nick Earls, Sonya Hartnett, and of course Margo Lanagan - where and when do people get the time and audacity to be offended by anything written with heed and poise when there are things like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey out there...
I want young adults to know that everyone feels like they’re not good enough; that everyone makes colossal mistakes; that everyone regrets something ; that doing something monstrous doesn’t make you a monster; and that fully-cooked adult human beings often behave in really fucked up ways too. So I take all of that uncooked stuff still in me and find that even in its tempered form it is still offensive to some people? Reality is often the most offensive thing, isn’t it?
“Mum and Dad started fighting around the time Dad trimmed his pubes. I wasn’t supposed to know that but I heard it all. It seems Dad had never been much into the whole grooming thing down there throughout the marriage, so Mum found his sudden desire to mow the lawn, so to speak, somewhat suspicious. Rightly so, I reckon. Dad made out Mum was paranoid and said he didn’t chuck a wobbly when Mum shaved her pits, so what’s the problem? Mum reminded Dad about the time Dave down the street wanted to borrow Dad’s chainsaw and how Dad had spent two hours cleaning and oiling it for him first. Dad had never been much into his chainsaw until he found someone else wanted to use it.”
- Creepy & Maud ( Fremantle Press, 2012)
Offended? I hope so.