Fiction for Teen-Agers

While I was working on my first novel for teen-agers, Jazz Country, several writer friends tried to dissuade me from the project. Writing for small children, I was instructed, can be an art. Consider Maurice Sendak. But to try deliberately to reach an audience from twelve to sixteen is at best a craft, and a craft of a distinctly low order. No serious writer would expend creative energy on such a self-limiting assignment. Any teen-ager really involved with literature as pleasure has reached into the adult shelves. What were you reading when you were in your teens? Thinking back to that far distant country, I remembered enthusiasms for Arthur Koestler, Dostoevsky, Thomas Wolfe, and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. See? Go write a novel, period, and if it’s worth their time, young readers will get to it too.
I was persuaded they were right, but I went ahead anyway. I had not tried fiction before, and I thought this might be a trial run for a novel for grown-ups to follow. One such, Call the Keeper, did follow, and another will be published next year, But I am also involved in a second novel for teen-agers, and now my serious writer friends are even more scornful than before. OK, now you know you can write adult fiction, or at least you know you can get it published. So why waste more time on child craft?
I had admitted to them that Jazz Country had indeed been diluted because of my preconceptions of what ought to be left out of books for 12 + (as the dust jackets identify their putative range). In the book, I’d explored some of the fierce ambiguities in current relations — or rather, widening distances — between blacks and whites; but the language of the novel would not have offended the most zealous inheritors of Anthony Comstock’s mission. Nor did the book deal with sex or drugs or anything else, except black nationalism, that might have alarmed the more insulated librarians.
Yet, diluted as it was, the book did reach what seemed to me a surprisingly large number of the young. Some wrote to me, and I met more in schools — ghetto, and white “advantaged.” My visits to those schools were hardly unqualified triumphs. Criticisms were sharp and frequent, both of me and of other writers of books for 12 +. There were many more hang-ups in being young, I was told repeatedly, than were even intimated in most of the books they’d seen.
I began to read what other writers in the field were doing and agreed with the young critics that little of relevance is being written about what it is to be young now. There are occasional works of fiction about the past, about other countries, about the riddling truths in fantasy which do attract and hold some young readers; but the challenge is to make contact with the sizable number of the young who seldom read anything for pleasure because they are not in it.
For the past two years, in addition to these school visits, I have been asking others of the young what they read and what they would like to see in books. I start at home, where there are two teen-agers who know, it sometimes seems, hundreds more. And during the research for various articles I do on education, I also bring up in conversations with adolescents the subject of reading. I have no statistics to bear out what has become an increasingly strong impression, but it seems to me that this generation of the young reads much less often outside school than mine did
Granted that Marshall McLuhan is given to stating his “probes,” as he calls his theories, in hyperbolic terms, but my casual research does bear out his contention that “television has created a huge gap between generations, between those who learned to read and write before TV, and those who came to TV first.” The TV generation, he asserts, wants “depth and involvement” because it is attuned to an outer environment “charged with messages.” Substantial sections of it are therefore in rebellion against the print-oriented ways of acquiring knowledge and pleasure. Or, if you like, pleasure through knowledge.
Of course there are exceptions, but most of the young I meet are more stimulated by television and by the pounding gestalt of tribal lyrics and electronics in the rock groups whose records they buy than they are by books. In ghetto classrooms, children who have been turned off reading — by teachers who have turned themselves off from the children — are bottomless repositories of radio commercials and song lyrics. The middle-class youngsters I see do their homework more or less, but once those books are shut, they generally prefer the record player and television set as ways of involvement.
Is it possible, then, to reach these children of McLuhan in that oldtime medium, the novel? I believe it is, because their primary concerns are only partially explored in the messages they get from their music and are diverted rather than probed on television. If a book is relevant to those concerns, not didactically, but in creating textures of experience which teen-agers can recognize as germane to their own, it can merit their attention.
One such book, written by a seventeen-year-old girl from Tulsa, is SUSAN HINTON’S THE OUTSIDERS (Viking, $3.95). Any teen-ager, no matter what some of his textbooks say, knows that this is decidedly not a classless society, and The Outsiders examines the social and physical warfare between a group of slum youngsters, “the greasers,” and the progeny of the upper middle class in Tulsa, “the Socs.” Miss Hinton, with an astute ear and a lively sense of the restless rhythms of the young, also explores the tenacious loyalties on both sides of the class divide. Her plot is factitious at times, but the book has been widely read among heterogeneous sections of the young because it stimulates their own feelings and questionings about class and differing life-styles.
Another book which will, I think, have a long active life in libraries in diverse neighborhoods is PAULA Fox’s HOW MANY MILES TO BABYLON? (David White, $3.95). This one is marked 10 +, but it transcends any such confines. Miss Fox is an authentic novelist who can project herself into the mind of a ten-year-old black boy in Brooklyn with an unsentimental but deeply affecting understanding of what it is to be alone though loved, frightened though reasonably brave. Unlike most fiction for the young which is set in the ghetto, the book is not in the least homiletic. The boy, James, is himself, not a précis of sociological studies. And the ghetto is seen through him:
He walked quickly. He was afraid of this street — the old brown houses were all shut up, boards nailed across the doors, windows all broken and nothing to see behind the windows except the dark rooms that always looked like night. There were piles of things on the street in front of the houses but each day there was a little less. The baby carriage he had seen last Friday was gone. The old stove was still there. Too big to carry, he guessed. Where had the people gone? One day he had seen a man up on one of the stoops kicking at the boarded-up door. “My things, my things . . .” he had cried.
I mention only two books because this is not intended as a survey of actuality writing for children. So much is not being written about that I prefer to focus on what is missing. To many children, for one example, school is a place of fear. In a sophomore class in a New York high school which is not known to be rigidly academic, a boy bites his lip to keep from crying because he has received a 67 in a math test. Will he be able to get into a “good” college if this keeps up? And if he doesn’t, what will become of him? Is he already a failure?
A high school girl writes to the New York Times Sunday magazine:
I’m wasting these years of preparation. I’m not learning what I want to learn. . . . I don’t care about the feudal system. I want to know about life. I want to think and read. . . .
My life is a whirlpool. I’m caught up in it, but I’m not conscious of it. I’m what you call living, but somehow I can’t find life. Days go by in an instant. I feel nothing accomplished in that instant. So maybe I got an A on that composition I worked on for three hours, but when I get it back I find it means nothing. It’s a letter you use to keep me going.
Every day I come in well prepared. Yet I dread every class; my stomach tightens and I sir tense. I drink coffee morning, noon and night. At night, after my homework, I lie in bed and wonder if I’ve really done it all. Is there something I’ve forgotten?
. . . I wonder what I’m doing here. I feel phony. . . . You wonder about juvenile delinquents. If I ever become one, I’ll tell you why it will be. I feel cramped. I feel like I’m locked in a coffin and can’t move or breathe. There’s no air or light. All I see is blackness and I’ve got to burst. Sometimes I feel maybe something will come along. Something has to or I’m not worth anything. My life is worth nothing. It’s enclosed in a few buildings. . . . (t goes no further.
And yet this far from uncommon sense of suffocation throughout tlie long years in which the young are “prepared” is muted, if it is present at all, in fiction about school life.
Outside school, there are anxieties and moral conundrums endemic to today’s youth which are only glancingly acknowledged in books about them. For a young man near draft age, what is courage in America in 1967? Does the state have the right to make him kill, and be killed, in a distant war which many in this country, including perhaps his parents, oppose? Is it cowardly of him to stay in college as long as he can? Is it cowardly or courageous to resist the draft or to apply for exemption as a conscientious; objector? Is it the war he’s against or the possibility of his death in it? These are central, agonizing questions and should quicken and complicate the imaginations of those who write fiction for the young. But so far as I know, no novel about this dilemma exists.
There are the complex temptations and fears about sex in a time of an alleged sexual revolution. Increasingly, virginity has to be justified, but stubbornly it is by far more girls than the rhetoric of the young would indicate. Where is the line between love and being used? If sex is so natural an act, why do so many doubts and guilts persist? What of the small but growing number of parents who are advising adolescent daughters on the most effective ways of avoiding pregnancy? Do I wish my parents were like that, and if I don’t, what is it I’m afraid of? Them or me? And for young males, “making out” in sex is becoming as insistent a pressure as keeping grades high. And if you don’t “make out,” what’s wrong with you? Are you already a failure in that too?
What of the failures of adults? Remarkably absent from most fiction for the young is any real density of perception of the ways in which they look at and react to the adults with whom they live. The corroded marriages; the chronic, dreary lies; the business “deals” and income-tax inventions; the squabbles about money; the smallness of “grown-up” satisfactions. I know of no fiction for the young that convincingly digs into the effects of the high incidence of divorce on shifting families; that perpetual stranger in the house, the stepfather; the varieties of ambivalent obligations to the real but outside father; the half brothers and half sisters who have to be coped with. Contemporary American family life is full of broken and loose ends, but where are the books about it in which teen-agers can recognize mazes similar to their own?
The list of missed opportunities to involve the young in fiction about them also includes the microcosm of the hippie. Hippies not only are increasing in numbers, but their methods of encapsulation fascinate more and more of those who do not make the leap into inner space. At least not yet. What are those islands like? There are perils as well as arcane adventures in these enclaves as traffic in pot and drugs becomes big business not to be left entirely to amateur free-cnterprisers. What happens to some of the ingenuous runaways to these Casbahs of the flower people? What is there to do between inner trips? How organic are the extended communities? What are the frictions inside them? The Haight-Ashbury hippies held a “funeral of the Hippies,” heralding the “birth of the Free People.” But what does that mean? Are they now, as they say, really free of concern about the future? How free can you be? And what arc their relations with the smoldering unfree blacks and Puerto Ricans in the neighborhoods in which they camp?
And as for books for and about young blacks and Puerto Ricans themselves, so far nonfiction has been far more resonant of where they’re at than most novels concerning the underclass. Go Tell It on the Mountain and Invisible Man will last as literature; but the ghettos have changed, and there is nothing yet in fiction, for teen-agers or adults, that gets to the molten core of the rising pride in blackness among ghetto youth, the new directions of machismo, the thrust to build new nations within this nation, and the splintering frustrations which are baleful corollaries of that thrust.
Having projected some of the possibilities in fiction for the young, I am left with the question of whether writing for teen-agers need be self-limiting. There is no reason it has to be if the writer can free himself of his own structures concerning what books for 12 ought to leave out in terms of language and subject matter. That means — and my serious writer friends were correct — writing a novel, period. The conflict then will not be inside the writer but between him and certain librarians and certain editors in the juvenile departments of publishing houses — at this stage, probably most librarians and most editors of books for the young. If they resist language and themes which the writer knows are essential if his book is to be real to the young, then he will find out if he has indeed written a novel, period. For if he has, it will interest adult readers too and can be published as part of the adult trade list. Adolescents will find the book if it speaks to them.
In one junior high school I visited, a librarian took me into her office and cautioned me not to be “too free and outspoken” with the youngsters f was about to meet. “They can absorb only so much,” she said. “They have to grow into what life is all about. And 1 should tell you, they’re not very sophisticated. They don’t read much, or well.” For the next two hours, I was hit with a barrage of questions, opinions, and counterarguments about sex, pot, race, capitalism, Vietnam, religion, violence, nonviolence, revolution, black power. I’ve rarely been involved in so sustainedly intense an exchange of views, and at the end I was exhausted because they had forced me to look much harder at the consistency of some of my own convictions than I had for some time.
The librarian was unhappy at a number of turns the conversation had taken, and after a peremptory good-bye, she stalked off. “Hey,” one of the younger children said as I started to leave, “have you dug this?” He pulled from his pocket a beat-up paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.