Monday, May 10, 2010

Beating the dragon

The New York Times recently posted a piece that’s either very perceptive or blindingly obvious about the recent proliferation of bad or absent parents in young-adult fiction. (You can read it here.) The upshot is that YA fiction has recently turned up with a veritable swarm of adults who range from missing or merely negligent to full-on abusive or so helpless that their kids are doing the parenting. There’s a bit of hand-wringing over this, and it reminded me of my very first reader snit over the portrayal of parents in my own writing.

The reader having the snit was my father.

I was about seventeen, and I had been getting fan mail from readers for two years and my parents were beginning to realize that I might be serious about this writing thing. (For the record, I hadn’t realized it—I tried rather hard to have any career but writing until I found myself in grad school and unable to find any other kind of work. Really, it’s lucky that I love writing more than any other job in the world.) I refused to let my parents read my work at the time, for what I thought was a very good reason—I believed it was terrible. Even as a child, I had judged my writing by the most adult standard possible. I used to tell my English teachers, “Don’t tell me my writing’s good for a twelve-year-old. Tell me if it’s good. If you read it in a bookstore, would you buy it?” (I realize now what a terrible thing that is to say to a teacher, and I hereby apologize to all the teachers I caused to fear for my sanity—and no, I don’t know why I was so fixated on writing at an adult level when I insisted I didn’t want to be a professional writer. Maybe I was trying to master it and get it out of my system?) And while I was willing to burden my friends with my childish efforts at storytelling, I wouldn’t dream of bothering the two very busy adults in my life with such frivolity. Bad enough they insisted on going to my school plays. Besides, Mom didn’t read much for pleasure and Dad stuck strictly to nonfiction and murder mysteries, so what point was there in sharing my superhero adventures with them? They didn’t enjoy the genre even when it was done well.

This all seemed very logical to me, and it apparently convinced my father that I was hiding something. He pulled me aside one day and told me that I was, by God, going to put his name on my e-mail distribution list because “your mother thinks you’re writing pornography, and that’s why you don’t want us to see it.” I rolled my eyes and added him to the list, deeply annoyed. I thought that once he noticed my stories were nothing but juvenile humor, superheroic slap-fights, and adolescent attempts at emotional depth, he’d leave me alone and probably stop reading them altogether.

Stop laughing. Everybody’s allowed to be stupid at seventeen. It’s in the rules somewhere.

A few weeks later, he called me into his office and sat me down for a stern talking-to. Why, he wanted to know, were Rae’s parents absent from the story? Trevor was an orphan, and most of the other teenage characters were orphans, runaways, or the products of such nasty home lives that they were blasé about deceiving their parents and guardians about what they did all night on the city’s rooftops. Only Rae seemed to come from a stable nuclear family, and yet her folks barely got a sentence in any given chapter. Was I trying to make some veiled statement about my own family?

I rolled my eyes again. (I was a champion eye-roller.) The answer seemed obvious to me, but Dad kept pestering until I finally said, "It’s because I don’t want to write about parents. DUH!”

And I didn’t. I still don’t, really—at least, not normal, well-adjusted parents. My relationship with my own parents has always been complex, and I frankly didn’t want anyone trying to read anything into that relationship based on my writing—so I left them out. It seemed the best way to protect my privacy, and besides, what kind of parents would support their offspring’s desire to throw themselves off rooftops anyway? I’ll tell you what kind—the bad kind! Any good parents in my stories had to be lied to and excluded, or they’d stop all the interesting parts of the story from happening.

YA literature now, of course, overflows with bad parents. Is it because it’s natural for teenagers to see their parents as enemies and obstacles? I don’t remember seeing mine that way (well, except when they thought I was writing porn). My folks’ greatest offense while I was in high school was my father’s unconscionable decision to have a heart attack on a business trip three days before the school production of Our Town opened with me in a leading role. And frankly, I hated that production so much that I was glad Mom had to fly out of town to be with him. I was an orphan on opening night, and I liked it that way. Likewise, my friends all had pretty good relationships with their folks, although a couple of parents really lost it when we went off to college.

Perhaps there’s something about being a teenager that makes you want bad parents if you don’t have them—it’s part of having the kind of romantic, adventurous life you don’t have time for between a mountain of homework and a 24-7 activity schedule. It was kind of fun to have all my friends fussing over me when I was an opening-night orphan, though it probably would have been less fun if Dad had actually been in danger rather than just unable to board an aircraft.

But mostly I think the choice is a matter of narrative convenience. Good parents try to protect their children from dangerous adventures for as long as possible. Mine were more laissez-faire than most—I was allowed to ride my bike down a busy street or play in the flood-control channel or feed my lunch to stray animals as long as I didn’t get seriously hurt—but I do think they would have eventually noticed if I’d started showing up with bruises or climbing out my bedroom window at midnight. If Rae’s parents were around enough to notice she was constantly getting injured or running off at all hours to spend time with a scruffy teenage runaway, they’d ground her until she was eligible for Social Security. And what good is a book like that?

Masks, like most YA books, is at least partly a coming-of-age story, a tale of characters making the transition from carefree childhood to adult responsibilities—or, in Rae’s and Trevor’s cases, from childhood responsibilities to adult responsibilities. That means disconnecting from the mothership for a while and finding out who you are when nobody’s looking over your shoulder. Trevor began making that transition when he was six years old and realized that, no matter how unfair it was, he was the only person who could keep Jude out of the morgue and himself out of foster care. Rae took her first step on that journey at age eight, when she found out what happens when there are no adults around to look out for you. By the time they meet, they are doing the jobs of adult heroes because there are no adult heroes around to do them. Partly, that’s narrative necessity—would adult superheroes willingly leave the world in the hands of a pair of powerless wannabes too young to vote?—and partly it’s because of a truth of adolescence that most parents prefer not to acknowledge.

Namely, that here there be dragons.

Before my high school graduation, every single teenager I knew had run into at least one situation that most adults would consider above a kid’s pay grade. Sometimes it was the sudden death of a classmate. Sometimes it was addiction or abuse. Sometimes it was a relationship gone horribly wrong. Sometimes it was an act of God, like an earthquake or a flood with terrible consequences. Sometimes it was a seemingly ordinary day that just went bad, and there was nothing to do but stop the bleeding, pick up the pieces, and wait for the cops, the paramedics, or the coroner to arrive.

I lived in one of the good neighborhoods, but by the time I graduated I or my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances had seen grim death by cancer and car wreck; abuse by parents, employers, and loved ones; two chronic medical conditions that could kill their sufferers at any time; a little light terrorism; a near-fatal eating disorder; assorted hijinks with drugs, alcohol, and sexual stupidity; a nice range of mental illness; and enough fires and other disasters to fill a season of daytime TV. We were, for the most part, the lucky ones, the “good kids” who kept our noses clean, studied hard in a good school, stayed out of gangs and off drugs, and tried to make something of ourselves. It didn’t stop us from walking down the wrong street or opening the wrong door. I think we still have video somewhere of one of us helping to amputate a guy’s leg with a saw. Life happens.

Parents usually aren’t there for that. Sometimes they show up at the ER later, but they’re not there when you have to make a choice that will set the course for the rest of your life. That falls to you. The most important test you take is the one whose date isn’t on the calendar. That’s what happens in Masks--the world needs saving, and the grown-ups aren’t there. I love reading science fiction, a genre whose authors believe they can prepare us for the future if they just tell enough interesting stories about it. That’s what I try to do in Masks. I know my readers will have to face those unexpected crises, if they haven’t already, and they’ll face some of them alone. I want them ready. Rae and Trevor hear screaming, and run toward it. I don’t expect my readers to do the same—but I want them to think about what they’ll do before the screaming actually starts.

The great Victorian author G.K. Chesterton was once asked whether he thought children should have fairy tales read to them, since they were full of darkness and violence and monsters and they ultimately weren’t “true”. His reply was memorable: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Is it so wrong to hand St. George a sword?

1 comment:

  1. I've always been a big fan of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. They were the first books that started me down the road of my current love of reading. (Terry Brooks' "The Sword of Shannara" to be exact.) YA fiction is STILL a favorite of mine. Luckily, now I can use my daughters as an excuse to avoid the raised eyebrows of the librarians when I check those books out.

    That being said, I have to be honest that as a reader and a father, I hadn't notice the subpar or lack of parenting in current YA lit. I'm not sure what that says about me. I notice quasi and overt religious/spiritual issues with which I may or may not agree. I notice sexual and violent situations that make me consider whether this is something I should recommend to my daughters. But I don't notice the parenting. Maybe I'm not worried about seeing a role model in the lit. Maybe I'm not looking for YA lit to help my daughters appreciate me. Or maybe, just maybe, you're awfully close to exactly right. Close parent/child relationships don't allow youthful characters to deal with the conflict as "hands on" as the storyline needs, as the characters need.

    The wise Mr. Chesterton is correct, as he so often still is, even posthumously: Children may already be dealing with dragons. If not, they soon will be. They need to believe that dragons can be stolen from, hidden from and even shot down with a single arrow. Children need to believe that they themselves can even shoot the arrow.