No Forum for Teenage Fiction
The Children’s Publicity Manager at my publishers, Transworld, is in despair at the lack of review space given to teenage fiction. The worst offenders are teenage magazines – few ever mention books, thus by default promoting the image that books aren’t cool. This is particularly depressing for publishers who work hard at attracting teenage readers. Transworld have an excellent 10-16 catalogue which has combed their backlists; the choice of SF, Adventure, War, Mysteries, Contemporary Issues, Fantasy, Poetry, Humour, etc. includes many writers who would be surprised to find themselves on a teenage list: Isaac Asimov, Christabel Beilenburg, Stan Barstow, Joanna Trollope. Yet only one listed book – I Was a Teenage Worrier – briefly caught the teen magazine editor’s eye. No interest was shown in the rest. I rang a few editors to ask why books were ignored.
Just Seventeen, leader of the field with 300,000 readers aged 14-15, told me there was ‘no celebrity spin-off’ so it wasn’t worth their while financially to review books. The assistant editor, Sarah Bailey, said: ‘We know our readers would rather read articles about celebrities, about popular culture, than book reviews.’ When I tackled her about the powerful effect of a short, but regular, corner of a page devoted to books near the other regular reviews of video, films and pop music, her reply was that there was ‘no hope of a change in our editorial policy’. But they do print a short piece of original fiction each week. A crumb of comfort.
‘Celebrity-led’ was a phrase that kept cropping up. A staff writer at Fast Forward, aimed at 12-13 year-olds, used it almost apologetically, and admitted that nothing was done or would be done for teenage fiction beyond occasional competitions which resulted in free give-aways of books. It’s clear that literature is viewed by those who put together teenage magazines as something to be ignored. ‘There’s no demand for it.’ Precisely, because the teenage culture they peddle is geared to a TV/pop music/cult-clothing world with financial spin-offs built in. Sex, celebrities, more sex, agony columns, and appearance – and that’s it. No demand for anything else is created.
What about coverage on radio, on television? I could only think of occasional items on Live and Kicking and Treasure Islands. Anna Home, Head of BBC TV Children’s Programmes, agrees there is a lack of a forum: ‘Children’s television programmes only get reviewed if the reviewer happens to have flu. We feel very strongly that in broadcasting terms there’s a gap between the end of Children’s Programmes and the begining of so-called Youth Programmes, i.e. the age range 13-15. At various times I’ve tried to fill this gap but it’s very difficult as people are not prepared to release funds for such a relatively small age group.’
Sally Avens, Head of Children’s Drama on BBC’s Radio 4, also admitted not enough was done, particularly since the demise of Radio 5. She was sure the demand was there, but with only a 30-minute broadcast from Radio 4 on Sundays aimed at 10-13 year-olds, it’s not going to be met. She made an interesting point, that there was a class issue behind the lack of interest shown by teenage magazines. They bend over backwards to attract the largest possible readership and avoid anything remotely middle class (‘only middle class parents are seen to be concerned about their teenage children’s reading’). This is class prejudice with a vengeance, and those who suffer its most serious effects are the 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds. Their vulnerability, poised as they are in inchoate rebellion against childhood and adulthood, between both and part of neither, makes them easy prey. They lose the habit of reading because it isn’t cool, isn’t ‘sexy’. They could easily keep it or acquire it for the same reason.
If all was well in the general national press, this wouldn’t matter so much, but reviewers, and reviews, of books for teenagers hardly exist. A reviewer will tuck in a few encouraging sentences about a crop of teenage books twice a year if we’re lucky. Space given to book reviews has shrunk everywhere, but that given to books for teenagers seems to have shrunk the most. If a school librarian doesn’t happen to promote a new book, it disappears without trace.
The press is only interested in negative reports – that teenagers are not interested in books, no longer read, have appallingly low reading ages, etc. Yet there’s a whole thirsty market out there, longing for guidance and not getting it. The Book Trust in Scotland recently brought out a list for teenagers called Radical Reading. Lindsey Fraser, the Executive Director, says ‘We were completely taken aback by the demand.’ They had to seek funding for a reprint and have now distributed 90,000 copies of Radical Reading and are bringing out a summer issue as well. If only the national press backed up these enlightened efforts by proper reviewing of new books, parents and teachers would get guidance too.
So, if the early teens aren’t helped by their own magazines and television programmes to find a good book to read, and their parents get no guidance from regular general reviewing about what to buy for this notoriously difficult age range, is it surprising that publishers and writers alike despair of the media? And is it surprising that teenagers rapidly lose the habit of reading at leisure and for pleasure?
Peggy Woodford’s latest book for Transworld is Blood and Mortar (0 552 52774 2, £2.99). She once worked for BBC TV and has been an English teacher, but now, when she isn’t writing, she helps her eldest daughter run a business.