Changing the Subject: On Darkness--Sarah Porter

I'm not going to try to address this month's topic, because inspiration isn't really what's been on my mind of late, and because I think any genuine answer I could give would be inclusive to the point of being nonsensical. (Um, everything! Ever! Did you see how after the ice storm a few weeks back, that layer of ice on the snow made it look just like unbaked meringue? Dude.)

I've been thinking a lot more about issues of darkness in fiction, and about the author's responsibility to his or her readers, especially in the case of YA. I'll admit this train of thought has been provoked by some of the responses to Lost Voices. Some readers get perplexed or even upset, because the book is rated as suitable for ages twelve and up and is clearly meant primarily for young-teen readers. On the other hand, they view its content as "inappropriate" for kids that age. After all, it contains one attempted rape, a suicide, references to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and a whole lot of murder. The implication seems to be that it was irresponsible of me to address these subjects in a book for fairly young kids. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but I did in fact write Lost Voices with a sense of acute responsibility for how it might impact vulnerable adolescents. For the first time in my writing life, I had an ideal reader in mind: a lonely, angry, smart, creative, twelve or thirteen-year-old misfit girl, struggling with questions of what it means to be human. I had no idea then of how much the YA readership is composed of adults.

I just didn't see my responsibility as being to protect that ideal reader from an awareness of how dark human life can be. I've been a freelance teacher of creative writing for several years, leading workshops in various public schools. Creative writing is an especially fascinating subject to teach because of how much insight it provides into the psyches of your students. I recently taught a sixth grade short story workshop in the Bronx. My students were mostly eleven years old, though a few were still just ten: officially too young to be reading Lost Voices. Their (fantastic) short stories addressed subjects including extortion and violence; suicide, which was featured in about one story out of every ten; romantic relationships with a distinctly abusive or even sadomasochistic cast (in one story, the jilted boyfriend kills the girl's dog in front of her; in another a mermaid is kept captive by a brutal human lover.) There were stories written from the point of view of demonic forces, and one memorable narrative from the point of view of Jack the Ripper that included some colorful references to necrophilia. Oh, and there was a whole lot of murder. There was no rape in the sixth grade stories, but by seventh grade that becomes common in kids' fiction, too.

Why would I feel the need to protect kids from an awareness of that human darkness with which they are perfectly familiar already, which haunts their imaginations and in some cases their lives?

Instead I felt responsible to be as honest as I could about the ways of getting through the darkness. Young teens are often in the process of confronting the worst aspects of humanity, and of struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a part of a species that perpetrates cruelty so routinely. Only by regarding that horror directly can they begin to withstand it. If we accept the horror, then we can start thinking about how to deal with it, and how to shape ourselves and our lives in relation to the darkness both within and without. I was aware that my protagonist Luce's choices would inevitably form a kind of directive, in a way that they never would if this was a book for adults.

Even in an utterly fantastical book about a tribe of killer mermaids, I felt responsible for preserving a certain moral and emotional realism, and for respecting just how difficult it can be to navigate the darkness of our existence.

So Luce finds moral courage far, far more difficult to attain than physical courage, and indeed spends the whole book struggling with the need to stand up to her friends. (I think most of us would find it vastly easier to, say, race out under gunfire to rescue a wounded comrade, than to stand up to our comrades over the treatment of any enemy prisoner, even though the former is objectively much more dangerous. Social ostracism is a more potent threat than death.)

So Luce has no special abilities except the ones she earns through independent thinking and determined practice. Her attempted way through the darkness requires creativity, a bit of rebelliousness, and persistence, as it is likely to do in real life.

So her struggle requires the development of inner resources, and even correct choices come at a great cost.

And, as I finish the second volume in the trilogy and start the third, I still feel the need to avoid presenting anything as easy, including (spoiler alert) romantic love. I feel a bit concerned about the effect all the paranormal romances out there might have on teen girls: just as people worry that a generation of boys heavily exposed to porn may be unable to desire girls who don't present themselves as perfect objects, I sometimes wonder if we'll have a generation of girls who can't recognize or accept romantic love from boys without superpowers, boys who are merely human, or boys who don't profess their eagerness to come back from the dead out of utter devotion.


  1. I love this post so much I want to kiss it.

    It bothers me that books that deal with heavy, messy but very real human issues are often seen as not appropriate for teens. As you eloquently were able to demonstrate from exaamples of your students own writing, they're aware of it and filtering it and dealing with it every day.

    "Protecting" young adults from books just doesn't cut it for me because I'm a total realist about what they see and do on their own school grounds.

    Fiction is a safe place to explore these scary subjects as your students are showing you with their words.

    Bravo. I have put LOST VOICES at the top of my to read pile!!!

  2. Oh, thank you, Janet! It's wonderful to get such a warm, insightful response.

    I'm totally with you. And, I mean do we really want to teach kids that the mature way to deal with these issues is denial? That our problems are so overwhelming that the best solution is to whitewash them?

  3. Hey Jennifer, you're very welcome. Thanks for reading!

  4. Sarah, I read a blog post once by a teenage girl on why boys should be more like Edward Cullen...and that kind of frightened me. Boys are boys, lumps and all, and it's unrealistic (and unfair) to expect them to be supernaturally wonderful while girls are allowed to be "ordinary".

    Additionally, I'd have to agree with you and Janet about protecting children. I'd far rather have my daughter read about something in a book than experience it before she's prepared...and books can help her learn and prepare.

  5. Hi Trish,

    Yeah, what worries me about it is that I have met guys in my life who come on as over-the-top romantic as Edward Cullen types--and they were either stalkers or manipulators. In either case, to be avoided rather than idealized. But if I were fourteen, I'm pretty sure I'd buy into the myth without question.

    Thanks for the great comment!

  6. Loved your post!! Keep writing for the teenage demographics. I, too, have experienced negative comments from adult readers about the content in my book, but I wouldn't change a thing. Teenagers like to know they aren't alone and if that comes from a story which can guide them on the right path so be it.

    Trish, as for the paranormal, vampire, etc. - I personally read the books, enjoyed them and then thought about what a read. It scared the hell out of me when I realized Edward Cullen was controlling and obsessive - someone I'd never want my daughters to hook up with. Funny thing, I've read several books written by the authors on this blog and I found myself hoping for my daughters to meet some of those male characters.

  7. Thanks, Kathy! I really love teenagers, or I wouldn't write for them--but I admit I'm looking forward to going back to adult fiction, at least for a while, after this trilogy is done.

  8. I really, really think we worry too much about the influence of fiction on young people. They're not stupid.

  9. Hey Vonny,

    I know I took fiction as a source of serious information when I was a teenager--and I wasn't stupid either, just impressionable, with limited avenues for learning about the world. For example, I was convinced (by Judy Blume's Forever) that if you told a guy you were a virgin, he would instantly and respectfully back off. Not an accurate perception, but I went out into the world with it. Not knocking Judy Blume, but I think the question is more complex than just smart vs. stupid.


  10. I definitely agree that the issue is complicated.

    I'm curious, did you believe everything you read in novels? Or just the boy/girl stuff?

    I read a lot of fantasy as a child, so it would have been a stretch to believe it was real.

  11. P.S. I re-read my post above, and it sounds snotty. Sorry about that. I didn't mean it to be. I was seriously just trying to understand. :)


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