Missing the Point…before any reader ever can

If you haven’t already, go read this fantastic post by author Sarah Ockler about how the NYT Book Review of two recent YA novels completely missed the point.  Sarah’s post eloquently discusses the reviewer’s misunderstanding of the purpose and intent of YA literature, and why it dooms her review. (And really, if you haven’t read the post, go read it. Then come back. I’ll wait).

I won't repeat Sarah's points. But I’d add to Sarah’s analysis that it wasn’t just that the reviewer doesn’t appreciate YA literature or had a misunderstanding of its purpose. The issue I have is that this reviewer was reviewing YA lit for the NYT Book Review at all. If this review was published in a parenting magazine or blog geared toward parents, then maybe it would be clear that the reviewer was coming to the review of these two books from the perspective of offering advice to parents on choosing message-books for their children.

But when it appears in the NYT Sunday Book Review, it implies a review from the perspective of reviewing the literary quality of the book, written by someone with expertise in the specific field of literature. But this review was written by someone who appears to misunderstand, and dismiss, YA literature.  The reviewer actually stated in the review, “Moreover, the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message.” That, right there, defines the problem with the review.  As Sarah stated so well in her post, “The need to tell a good story trumps all else in fiction.”

But this review and Sarah’s post reminded me of a topic I’ve been meaning to blog about – and that came up recently at the tail end of a twitter chat.  Because it’s not just some parents and reviewers who make the mistake of focusing on message and moral example before story and character – some writers do it to. And many writers do it at one time or another.

While I think we as writers should be conscious of our audience, and what messages readers may take from our stories, I think we can also take this too much to heart – and we ourselves can make the same mistake the reviewer made.

I call it “judging your characters,” and it should be avoided.

We as writers should allow our characters to make the choices and even the mistakes that it is within the character’s nature and experiences to make – fueled by the character’s life experiences, desires, motivations and moralities – not our own, or even what we wish teens’ everywhere to be.  And then allow our characters to experience the natural consequences of those choices, even when the natural consequences aren’t all that negative – or even negative at all.

For a novel to really resonate, compelling characters must make the choices that it is in that character’s experiences and nature to make, take actions in keeping with the character's motivations and desires and morality, and the story should flow to an organic conclusion.

Gone are the days where every YA novel had to be a moral compass, pointing readers in the direction of virtue.  And for good reason.  Those moral compass messages often made for bad books.

It’s great when a strong and powerful message can be interpreted from the compelling characters and story of a good YA novel. But if we as the writers set out with that message in mind, and then force our characters to act contrary to their experiences and nature to make the message happen, the book will likely fall flat – like a movie with a re-imagined, homogenized, tacked on ending because the first one didn’t test well with audiences.

It’s ok to allow your characters to make bad choices, to engage in risky behaviors, and even to enjoy those bad choices and risky behaviors, if that’s what is organic to the book and the story and the characters.

Not every teen who has sex ends up pregnant, diseased or even remorseful.  Not every teen who tries drugs ends up an addict. Not every teen who…does whatever stupid thing teens do ends up with some horrible consequences.  And the teen in your book doesn’t have to either.  Your teen character should be a flawed and layered and realistic person – not a poster child or even necessarily a role model.

If it’s organic to the story and to the character for him or her to have negative consequences, to get in trouble, sure, go there.  And if you can show the anxieties and fears and possibilities for bad outcomes during the course of the story, great. But in my experience, readers often learn more from the what ifs of the situation – from the page-turning anxiety the reader feels for the characters while the characters are in the midst of the story – than from any heavy-handed message.

And a book that is boring, that has message above a compelling story, that is inhabited by cardboard cut out role models or examples of disasters?  Well, readers learn very little from a book like that, since it reads as completely false and irrelevant to their lives, assuming they even bother to finish it.

Not every book is for every reader. And parents with impressionable teens who do not have the analytical capacity or maturity to be analytical readers, to view stories for their layers, more than as a roadmap, may need to screen their teen’s books – or better yet, read along with and discuss the books with their teens.

But when we as writers start judging our characters and overly worrying about the bad examples they may be setting, and force them into inorganic positions or unrealistic choices, I think we are at risk of making the same mistake the reviewer made – placing message above story, role model above compelling characters, and missing the point of the story.  And if we miss the point, there is no chance the reader will ever see it.

By E.M. Kokie

Author of young adult fiction, including PERSONAL EFFECTS (Candlewick, 2012) and RADICAL (Candlewick Press, Fall 2016). Often opinionated. Sometimes Sarcastic.

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