Thursday, August 19, 2010

Crime and Punishment = So Not YA

The most rewarding part of any presentation I give is the give-and-take with the audience, especially the Q&A afterward. Most of the questions are light-hearted and fun ("How long did it take you to write the book?" "Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?"). Often, the questioner will share an insight or personal experience. Sometimes, a question will make me stop and think, and dig deep for an answer.

And every once in a while, I get thrown for a loop.

Earlier this year, I was invited to give my Hepkitten presentation to an adult book club which had read my YA novel, Ten Cents a Dance. During the Q&A, a woman who wanted to be a YA author asked me why I'd ended the book the way I did. I wasn't sure what she meant, so I asked for clarification. She said that here I had a main character who had made bad decisions, disobeyed her mother, gotten herself into some pretty sketchy situations...and in the end, she comes through it all and goes on with her life! Where were the consequences for her actions?

But there were consequences, I replied. Because of her choices, the character severely damaged her relationship with her mother, which she now has to try to rebuild. She lost the trust of her sister. She lost her best friend. She realized that she threw away the last bit of her childhood, and that she can never, ever get it back. She can make amends, but she can never go back to the person she used to be.

Yes, the woman said, I realize all that. But why didn't you punish her more?

Punish her more? You mean like, because of what she did, her life is ruined forever?

Yes, the woman said. Like that. Don't you think that would be a better message for teens?

was the first thought that jumped to mind. Before I popped off with the easy answer, though, I asked myself: Why not?

I paused and gathered my thoughts, and I realized: It's because I believe in hope. Not just in life--I knew that about myself already--but in my writing. For my characters. And for my readers.

We all make bad decisions growing up. Some of us, worse than others. I believe that, if we're lucky, we can come through those choices--and their consequences--and be better for them. Wiser. I believe that we can redeem ourselves. That's why I ended that novel the way I did.

I don't think my answer satisfied the woman; I'm pretty sure she'd still vote for punishment and ruined lives. Still, though, I'm glad she asked the question, because it got me thinking about this in a way I hadn't before. It made me realize that pretty much all YA fiction--even the books that deal in the darkest, grimmest subjects, the books that get banned because adults think that teens shouldn't be allowed to read about hard issues--ends on a note of hope. Of growth. Of new and hard-earned wisdom.

Isn't that what coming of age is?


karen said...

Thank you Christine. I absolutely agree. I believe we all need hope... and forgiveness. Life is hard enough to figure out and try to get right at any age; and there are punishments galore already. How bleak life and literature would be without hope.

Walter Rowntree said...

Life sucks bad enough without all our books having terrible unredemptive resolutions. I think a little bit of sucky is OK, I mean you have to be a little realistic, right? There're some movies out there with horrible punishing endings. Requiem for a Dream comes to mind. Great movie, but OMG what a downer. Things can end badly without being a total downer, though. Dr. Strangelove ends with the world being destroyed, but somehow that was done in an upbeat, jocular manner. Maybe that lady wanted the ending to be horribly punishing to Ruby, but kept kind of jovial . Tricky.
fun post, thanks

Andrea said...

I think this woman has been listening to Dr. Laura too much(remember before the racist rant she authored a book called Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Screw Up Their Lives--or something like that). Anyway, your questioner has strange ideas about readers. If everybody was looking for punishment in stories (and believed in it), no books would have needed to be printed after the Bible. But most of us are looking for something else. You call it hope, and I agree.
You showed a lot of patience and class answering the way you did.

Sally Nemeth said...

Yup, yup, and yup. I think it says oddles about your questioner that she wanted Ruby punished in the end. Because even though Ruby does make some rotten choices, her initial impulse to do what she does comes from a very good place - she wants to make things better for her family. Punish her for that? I think NOT.

Melissa Marsh said...

Excellent answer, Christine. I think teenagers need the message of hope most desperately (as do we all), especially in this day and age.

Lisa Nowak said...

Wow. It sounds like this woman doesn't understand the YA market or teenagers at all.

Kristi said...

I'm so glad you posted about this, it's very interesting. Back before about 1960 the tradition in literature and in film was to have bad behavior punished within the story, usually in some heavy-handed way. Two examples that spring to mind are movies: One is the original "Ocean's 11," in which the thieves succeed in robbing the casino, but one of the thieves dies and the cash, secreted away in his coffin, is cremated with him. Sadly, all that awful singing went unpunished. Then there was the original "The Bad Seed," in which the Bad Seed is struck by lightning at the end.

I sometimes wish that we would see the same kind of thing in contemporary films and literature -- despicable behavior being punished indisputably. But we have to admit that that kind of thing doesn't reflect reality. Bad behavior has consequences, but rarely does it result in an "all or nothing" type of event. (The Tyler Clementi case is a notable and high-profile exception. One person is dead and others will have to live with their part in that for the rest of their lives.) In fact, writing a story in which something devastating occurs and everyone has to live with the consequences is both more realistic and provides a more useful lesson for the reader. Survival is more likely than not, but to make the effort to thrive and live fully rather than shut down and withdraw and wallow in misery is actually an important life skill, and should be modeled in art.

Thank you so much for mentioning this, it is food for thought.