Margaret Clark reflects on how the book world has responded to the challenge of an age-group which is notoriously difficult to define and publish for.
Asked to reflect on The Bodley Head’s publishing for teenagers, I was amazed to realize what changes there had been in the last 20 years – and not only in the publishing world. The late 1960s were a time of protest and liberation: alongside the student unrest were the start of the Women’s Movement, the lowering of the franchise age to 18, the growing sexual freedom that followed the development of the contraceptive pill. No wonder that in the rather earnest, enclosed world of children’s books the arrival from America in 1969 of Paul Zindel’s subversive and dynamic novel The Pigman -‘dialogue that comes from a machine gun’ as one critic described it – caused us to sit up and think hard before publishing it as just another ‘book for older children’. What was so refreshing about the way the book was written was its freedom from any literary constraint, the interspersed messages and diagrams apparently written by the characters, though obviously it was most carefully constructed. Many years later, it still seems – as Steve Bowles pointed out in Books for Keeps – that American writers have the edge on their British counterparts when it comes to communicating directly with teenagers through fiction. Witness the success of the Pan Horizon list, in which American authors (Barbara Wersba, Judy Blume, M E Kerr) predominate.
We published The Pigman under an imprint that now sounds very pompous and patronising, Books for New Adults – but at the time it seemed like an appropriate equivalent to the flourishing YA (Young Adult) genre which was already a recognized part of the American publishing scene. We used this label in the beginning to ensure that our books for the older age-group weren’t overlooked by the libraries where there was a strict division between Children’s (readers drifting away about 10) and Adults’ (readers arriving about 16).
But what began as a matter of exigency turned into an important part of our publishing when the fan letters started to pour in for Paul Zindel and the manuscripts flooded in for Bodley Head New Adults. Most were imitation Zindel; those from America were ‘problem’ novels (it was said there was no problem unknown to the American adolescent); but the rest were distinguished by the passion with which they were written. For it was either a concern for a particular issue of the time or the desire to recreate their own adolescence that inspired these writers. In 1970 young Australians were still being conscripted by ballot for service in Vietnam, and J M Couper wrote in fury his novel The Thundering Good Today in protest at this ‘lottery in lives’. In 1974 a Swedish novel Mia considered the plight of a schoolgirl of 17 who feared she might be pregnant and could find no clear guidance to the ethics of abortion – its availability was not in doubt. The fact that this book was written by a grandmother of strong feminist views earned it a full-blown article in the Observer. We had many comments from librarians that the great value of the book was in providing a starting point for discussions between daughters and parents. Interestingly, though the book has long since gone out of print, PLR figures show over 5,000 borrowings in 1986.
Throughout the 1970s reviewers seemed reluctant to admit that there was such a thing as a teenage novel: Elaine Moss gave a notable speech in 1973 on the adult-eration of children’s books, and at meetings of teachers and librarians it was the subject of endless discussion. Now, in the 1980s, teenage fiction has become both acceptable and – dare I say? – profitable, for both authors and publishers. The arguments we took up so earnestly in the 1970s about whether good readers should be left to progress naturally from C S Lewis to Kafka while the less able moved from Enid Blyton to Hammond Innes have given way to accountants’ cold-blooded study of Demographics. As Jonathan Raban, in his wickedly accurate analysis of the current publishing scene, pointed out: `If you publish books designed for 10-14 year-olds, you are on to a reliably good thing if there was a baby boom between 1974 and 1978.’ Now everyone is pursuing the authors for this age-group (though few can agree whether it is 10-14, 12-15, or 13-19), and the competition is concentrated on the fight for shelf-space in the bookshops, for review space in the press, for the limited institutional funds, for the less limited teenagers’ pocket money.
At The Bodley Head, knowing that our chief customers were in the schools and libraries, we deliberately changed the format of our teenage books from hardback to paperback in 1980, partly to answer the demand for paperback and partly to keep the published price within bounds. We dropped the NA imprint, substituting a laboriously descriptive title, Bodley Head Paperback Originals. Now the line between mass-market (i.e. large print-run) paperbacks and trade (i.e. smaller print-run) paperbacks is becoming blurred; that is, there’s no noticeable difference in appearance between reprints of novels with an established sales track record in Puffin Plus (£1.95), Corgi’s Freeway (£1.95), Methuen’s Teens (£1.95), and the original fiction produced in Deutsch’s Adlib series (£3.50), Virago Upstarts (£2.95), Women’s Press Livewires (£2.95 and Bodley Head Paperback Originals (£3.95). What no one seems to know is who is buying the books. The adults for the library shelf or the teenagers for themselves? Market research is what we all lack.
That’s the publisher’s problem. What of the authors? Of course, in this area of publishing adults are continually questioning what subjects are allowable and what language permissible in books for readers so near in literal age to childhood. In 1971 we agonized for days over what to do about a four-letter word Paul Zindel had used in I Never Loved Your Mind: oddly, we were most concerned about the imprecise way in which he had applied it to a person rather than an act. In the end we substituted a word he suggested with tongue in cheek – knowing that few readers outside the US would recognize it as possibly even more obscene. Today, authors are less willing to compromise, and it is the editor who has to remind them of librarian or teacher facing attack from outraged, over-protective parent. Recently, doing just this, I was rebuked by an author who wrote: ‘From my own experience, most English teachers welcome relevant language and subject-matter.’ And I am reminded of a psychotherapist, writing in the early 1970s, who reassured us with these words: ‘I think one reason for the present degradation of sexuality, on the one hand, and the sentimentalising of it, on the other, is the present debasement of English and the poverty of teaching literature. If adolescents were helped to clothe their feelings, longings and anxieties in appropriate language of their own, or to discover it in the writings of others, they would be less vulnerable to the retarding effects of some film and television programmes, and to the perversions of pornography.’
As to subject matter, I think many authors have been alarmed by the implications of Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill. All authors of books for teenagers are as concerned now, as they have always been, about what their novels are telling their readers about human behaviour and its effect on others. Perhaps, in 1988, attitudes are more tolerant and less hysterical than they were 20 years ago: perhaps the advent of AIDS alongside the revelations about child abuse have made us all more cautious in including details of sexual behaviour but more understanding about what young people may already know and have kept secret. At The Bodley Head last year we did turn down a novel about AIDS, but our reason was that we didn’t judge it a good novel. Equally, we have respected an author’s expressed intention to introduce two lesbian characters into a novel where a scene depends for its effect on their presence. We don’t believe in censorship but we are very conscious of the influence – even in this non-reading age – one work of fiction can have on one reader.
Our list of teenage novels for 1988 includes a collection of short stories by Jan Mark called Enough is too much already. The stories are told completely in dialogue, by three friends who bounce opinions, useless information, banter and jokes off one another. In its energy and wit, it seems to me the perfect English equivalent of that blast of American humour which blew into The Bodley Head office 20 years ago.
Margaret Clark joined The Bodley Head in 1961 having started her career in publishing with Penguin Books, where – after working for a time as secretary to Allen Lane – she became an editorial dogsbody and worked with Eleanor Graham on the Puffin list in its early days. She has been in charge of The Bodley Head children’s department since 1972. In September she retires as Children’s Editorial Director and will be succeeded by Rona Selby. Margaret’s skill and talent as an editor will be missed by the children’s book world as will her personal charm, tact and commitment.