I was inspired to write this post after I was listening to a recent Writingexcuses podcast featuring the very popular horror author, Darren Shan who as you might know wrote the Cirque de Freak series which is a horror series for a middle grade/YA audience along with a series of other adult and YA horror. Brandon Sanderson posed the question, “Is there anything you can’t do when writing horror for children? and Shan’s response was:
One thing I’ve found with my editors and publishers is sex. You can be as violent as you want. [I wrote a book called] Lord Loss and [there’s a scene where] a boy walks into a bedroom, his father’s hanging upside down from the ceiling and his head’s chopped off, his mother’s ripped to pieces, his sister’s been cut in two and a demon’s behind her back moving her hands like puppets and that was all acceptable.
It seems to be this growing trend or existing trend I suppose that the more grittier and violent a YA book is, especially SFF and horror, the more authentic it is. This was some of the praise for An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Laia exists in a world where you see violence around every corner and promises of rape at several points. It’s not the first YA book to do this although I have to admit I think An Ember in the Ashes is the more graphic than most other YA fantasies out there. This was only confirmed in the sequel, A Torch Against the Night. Tahir is definitely not afraid to chop off some heads and cut off some fingers. But usually a statement like that has been met with praise. But now I wonder, is it something to praise? In some ways, I attribute this trend to Game of Thrones. Now I’ve read the first book but haven’t read the rest nor have I seen the TV show. I don’t mind hearing spoilers so usually when my friends tell me about last night’s Game of Throne episode, they’re usually talking how violently this person was killed or how many people died this episode. I learned to equate, “that episode was so good” with it’s probably because something really violent happened. Everyone tells me not to get attached to the characters because they’ll die but the thing is I like getting attached to characters and honestly what’s the point if everyone dies? What’s the point of showing such an overtly violent world? I understand I’m really oversimplifying GoT, but I’m only talking specifically about the violence. I see the appeal of dark and gritty fantasy worlds and seeing characters pushed to their limits. It’s in fact, why the stakes feel so high in An Ember in the Ashes. but at the same time aren’t there other creative and interesting ways to develop a harsh world, a cruel character without just escalating a narrow definition of violence?
I’m currently reading Half the World by Joe Abercrombie and it kind of proves my point of the “narrow definition of violence” where a harsh world is depicted only through how violent (how many stabbings, killings, deaths) it is. Many reviewers have praised that the more violence there is, especially in YA, the more realistic it is. But it’s funny because the amount of violence portrayed versus the amount of sex portrayed doesn’t feel like it’s correlated at least in YA. In adult books, there seems to be a more equal balance between the two.
Darren Shan mentions that all that violence in that one particular scene of his book was allowed but what about sex? He elaborated that:
In my vampire series Cirque Du Freak, at one point there’s this process that vampires go through which I had called vampuberty and my publisher said no, you cannot say ‘vampuberty’, we must not mention anything that has any slight sexual connotation whatsoever.
I found that disheartening because that means it’s ok for kids to read about heads getting chopped off and people being cut in half but it’s not ok to mention puberty? A confusing but natural process that affects every kid at some point? Now my problem is not with how much violence is portrayed but the fact that such a triggering scene was assumed to be well handled by kids but things like puberty were supposedly “too adult” and must be kept in the dark like a bad secret. According to Shan, the reasoning behind the ban on vampuberty was because “teenage boys [didn’t] want to talk about sex or read about sex” which is an assumption that is laughable at best. I think it’s a shame to be honest, because this is a real opportunity to teach young boys (and girls) about something that is in reality, just very confusing and maybe something like that mentioned in a book would have helped them better understand it. Even in YA books with copious amounts of violence, the romances are, for the most part, conservative and chaste especially regarding the main character. Think of The Hunger Games trilogy where kids are literally killing each other to the death (Rue!) but the romance itself is almost too afraid to show itself. I cannot tell you how many times the main character “blushed” or how much they made puppy eyes at each other in YA. To be fair, it might have to do with the fact that violence is prevalent at any age but the concept of sex is relatively new to teenagers. By the way,
I’m mentioning this under the assumption that the more violent a world is, the more sex there should be although that theory is probably inaccurate. I’m merely pointing out the trend that it is perfectly acceptable to input more violence into a book but the amount of sex or even sexual connotation has stayed relatively the same. In the YA novel, Wither by Lauren Destefano, a man marries 3 girls including our main character. He proceeds to have sex with his other two wives (consensual if I remember) but the main character never does have sex with him or vice versa because that would just be distasteful wouldn’t it.
I suppose it also has to do with the fact that America is in reality a conservative country. I’ve heard of many libraries that ban books with consensual sex in them but allow books that have graphic rape in them (a lot of these books were for required reading) because that totally makes sense. Even in books like Divergent, sexual assault is more graphic than the actual romance. Let’s have high schoolers learn about rape but not about consenting and pleasurable sex between two people!
It obviously looks like I’m advocating for less violence and more sex in this post..lol..but my point is that maybe that the more violent a book is does not make it any more authentic and realistic and that sex should be more openly talked about because consensual sex is kind of important, ya know?
Let me know your thoughts on what I’ve discussed!