Teenagers are too often seen as a problem or a commercial opportunity. ‘Citizenship’ aims to inculcate responsibilities but can it also give teens a sense of the Other? And in a world controlled by adults, including the teen fiction arena, could teens be given their voice? James Watson explores.
Julia Eccleshare’s article in Books for Keeps (January 2002) highlights the problematics of writing and publishing ‘teen books’. It has often been stated that teenagers are a lost generation; not lost once, like Bo Peep’s sheep, but somehow lost permanently. They are neither children nor adults and when they seem to achieve profile, it’s either as a problem or a consumerist opportunity.
Yet the teenage years are hugely formative. It is a period of aspiration, searching, sharing, opportunity, setback, advance, temporary retrenchment. Like all transitory states, it is also volatile – sometimes extremely so, for reasons which are very often outside the young person’s power of control.
Everyone involved with young people works to and from their position as developing individuals; people en route, meeting the familiar challenges of rites of passage. As well as writing for young adults, I have taught this age group for many years, in addition to helping bring up three of them – and I still make no claim to understand them sufficiently to predict their responses or their attitudes. One can guess at their peer culture but, as an adult, never really join it. Ultimately, though, we share the same world; and sooner or later we will share the same perceptions of it.
A sense of disillusionment?
Looking around them at the state of this world, its savage inequalities of wealth and opportunity, teenagers could well be forgiven for feeling a profound sense of disillusionment; and the more of the world teenagers see – beyond that of sex, clothes and celebrity – the more they might ask questions and search for answers.
Those who prejudge teenagers, usually on scant evidence, fear that they are so wrapped up in their own personal odysseys that they lack interest in, and concern about issues which do not touch them directly. I do not believe this. On the contrary, young adults are capable of empathy and commitment, though the avenues for showing these are limited.
They are still governed, in practically every aspect of their lives, by rules made by adults; people who ‘know best’. It is good to see, then, the BBC planning broadcasting channels directed at children and teenagers; but who’ll be manning those channels – teenagers? Unlikely. Yet today, in schools and colleges, young people as never before have access to the kind of equipment and studios which enable them to be their own broadcasters. Many are as familiar with producing media texts of one kind or another as they are with computers and mobile phones.
Giving teens their voice
I doubt whether it will happen, but surely a channel for teenagers should be, at least in part, run by them? They should be given their voice; that and their vision of the world deserve to be expressed in the public arena without the potentially stifling (and sometimes patronising) control of adults, however professional. Educational requirements ought perhaps be more closely tailored to citizen entitlements. In such circumstances it might at last happen that young readers produce, and participate in, their own programmes about teen fiction. And how about teen book of the month, read by a teenager; or dramatisations of teen stories with teen directors and actors? Heady thoughts.
The challenge of citizenship
Young people require to be challenged; they relish being stretched intellectually and emotionally. They resent being talked down to or their abilities and potential underestimated. A critically important aspect of the challenge of citizenship is, in my view, learning how to treasure things other than commodities; how to disengage from the preoccupation with the here and now within the context of one’s own aspirations and lifestyle; how, in brief, to engage with Other, whoever that is perceived to be.
‘Other’ may be teenagers across the globe – the peers of UK young adults in Afghanistan, Africa, Indonesia or Palestine, facing challenges similar to, but also sometimes altogether different from those facing the British teenager. Yet in global terms, what are the role models for any of them, east or west?
We all know how boring politics are seen to be by the younger generation, because the field is defined largely by the actors in it – politicians who, it would seem, are incapable of giving a straight answer to any question; who are seen to make promises they have little intention of keeping, who opt for spin in order to conceal unpleasant truths – and anyway, they are so ‘old’ and ‘past it’.
Fictional role models
In their place as role models, what do teenagers have? In real life – celebrities; fame the measure of value, good looks the key to success. It is all very western, very consumerised and exceedingly conformist, despite the relentless emphasis on individuality. Thankfully, when we scrutinise the canon of literature written for young adults we encounter role models aplenty – vulnerable, yes, wrong-doing, sometimes, thrashing about in confusion, often, but ultimately, for the most part, survivors; young people working out their own project of self, developing a personal script or schema which helps them come to terms with themselves and the world around them.
In the process of matching the project of self with experience, real or mediated, the young adult encounters certain values (other than fame, success and wealth): justice, fair play, equality, tolerance; and the realisation of such values through character and action. Real-world problems have to be addressed through intelligence, imagination (sometimes cunning) but invariably through decision and action; otherwise, all of us, young adults and older adults, will have to learn to live with injustice, unfair play, inequality and intolerance.
The Labour government plans to insert a citizenship requirement into schools education. This may turn out to be a good idea or flop like a lead balloon, but clearly in the highest echelons of social control, there is concern: are our young people switched off from their civic duty of understanding the why, where, what and how of the exercise of power in our community, and sometimes its abuse, nationally and globally?
Education, education, education?
Some will say, and with a degree of justification, pontificating about duties and obligations on the part of the power elite is a hypocrisy too far. But who will take up the slack? Where indeed will issues of justice etc. be debated, examined, deconstructed; how might necessary commitments to a better world be nurtured?
The pat answer is education, education, education; but if education is chiefly defined as training, training and training, and if the measure of that education is a set of league tables in a culture of blame, and within a system in which partnerships between schools and commerce are deemed to be a virtue – what then? We have a right to fear that even education is in danger of being commodified. Thank god most headteachers and teachers understand this danger and will resist the incipient privatisation of a public treasure.
Literature may not be the answer, either, but it is undoubtedly a likely contributor, at least by articulating questions that recognise issues exist; for stories allow for the exploration of experience, yet free of risk (at least of the physical sort). That a fictional narrative might disturb, upset, fill a reader with dismay or even despair, is of course a ‘risk’ but there are few who will fail to recognise the difference between mediated and lived trauma; and as I say, young people search for, and can cope with, such challenges.
What we are converging on here is – the serious. If life has become just a laugh, if as some gloomy commentators believe, society – western society at least – is entertaining itself to death, what price the serious? Yet there are still plenty of good tales for young readers of all ages which can be put under the heading of ‘serious’; and this certainly does not mean that stories, so described, are worthy but dull. On the contrary, the serious usually invites danger, and danger can make for a thrilling narrative.
Even so, the serious treats the reader as wishing to probe beyond entertainment to discovery and understanding. Through the characters in stories, and the actions they are involved in, young readers encounter experiences that make them think and feel – and sometimes act – differently. Only the real, or the semblance of the real, does this in the terms I have described. I am not just talking about ‘real life’ on the streets of Birmingham or Glasgow, but of events and places that extend – literally – reader horizons. True, the best literature may be about us, in our own contexts; yet more and more our context is shared by other peoples, other races.
Citizens of the world
So few novels written elsewhere in other languages seem to warrant translation and publishing here. For example, how many teenage book winners of the Buxtehuder Bulle Prize – a prestigious annual German award for teen novels – have been published here or in the States? Yet these have been judged of outstanding merit by panels of readers made up of 50% of teenage judges; books celebrated not only for their literary merit, but their serious and challenging perspectives on the world.
We need to recognise rather more than we have done in the past that the teen reader is a citizen of the world, for good or ill, a cosmopolite rather than merely a localite. The teen book should recognise this fact, and in responding to it, embrace it as well as celebrate it.
There is, of course, nothing of the lone voice about the sentiments expressed here. Readers of Books for Keeps need only turn to the Editorial of the January edition in which Rosemary Stones makes her own plea for the ‘serious’ when, in referring to the depiction of Muslims, she talks of ‘a pressing need for books which challenge distorted and negative images’.
Children’s book editors and publishers may still be dazzled by the blinding light of that Holy Grail, Harry Potter; and orders from above may insist, ‘At all costs, seek a successor to Golden Harry’; but the wiser ones among them will remember to keep faith with the serious, for the benefit of those young people with an appetite for something beyond magic and wishful thinking.
James Watson is the author of several novels for young readers, including The Freedom Tree, Talking in Whispers, No Surrender, Ticket to Prague and Justice of the Dagger. In line with the ‘cosmopolite’ perspectives he mentions here, the books are set in Spain, Chile, Angola, Eastern Europe and East Timor. He can be contacted on the following e-mail: James.Watson4@btinternet.com