Today in honour of James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday I’m publishing my guest of honour speech from this year’s WisCon. WisCon is the longest-running feminist science fiction convention in the world. It’s an amazing con.
I’d like to thank you all for inviting me here and especially Tempest Bradford for taking such good care of me and being such a good friend. I’m honoured to be GoH along side Sofia Samatar and Nalo Hopkinson. Especially Nalo, who has been a long-term mentor of mine, even if she didn’t know it, and a wonderful friend. Thank you.
My life as a YA writer
I used to write respectable scholarly work on feminist science fiction for adults. I have two published tomes that attest to that fact. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth.
That work led me here twenty years ago to this feminist science fiction paradise. I love WisCon. I love youse all.
I used to be a WisCon hometown girl. I used to organise the academic track and then the readings track.
I once spent an entire WisCon weekend attempting to interview the wonderful Judith Merril, which involved much running after Judy in her extremely fast motorised wheel chair. I miss her.
I also miss my dear friend, Jenna A. Felice, who died far too young.
This convention is full of memories for me, happy and sad.
And humiliating. I once made a total fool of myself here in front of Ursula Le Guin. I’m blushing thinking about it. If I could go back in time to fix one of my fucks ups that’s the one. Not the one where I threw a glass of Guinness in an ex’s face, which also happened here.
I admit—and I wouldn’t have admitted it back then—I used to dream that one day I’d be a guest of honour here. But then in 2003 I sold a novel and had the following conversation multiple times here at WisCon:
ME: I sold a novel! To Penguin! Three novels, actually!
Them: Wow. That’s fantastic! Fantasy or science fiction? Will you be working with Ginjer Buchanan?
Me: Fantasy. No.
Them: What’s your book about?
Me: A teenager who discovers a door that’s a portal between Sydney and New York and that magic is real and totally fucked up.
Them: A teenager? As in teen fiction?
Me: Yup. They call it YA these days. As in Young Adult.
Them: Teenagers? Young Adult? Wow. Is that the time? I must dash.
Folks who’d been following my work for years apologetically confided that they would not be reading my novels.
It stung more than a little. Especially as it meant my dream of one day being Queen of WisCon aka GoH was now gone. I looked over the list of past guests to double check yup none of them wrote only YA. Most of them wrote no YA at all.
Yes, sure, Ursula wrote A Wizard of Earthsea and Tehanu but she also wrote The Left Hand of Darkness among many other classics of real science fiction and fantasy so it’s all good.
WisCon still hasn’t had a GoH who is mostly known for their YA. Tamora Pierce has never been a Guest of Honour here. Shocking, I know.
Even I have those two non-YA books, which, I suspect are a big part of why I’m guest of honour today. Hey, I’ll take it! My two scholarly books are not who I am now, I will never write more, but I’m still proud of them.
Adults Hate Teens
Turns out it wasn’t just the SFF crowd who aren’t fans of YA. (Though I suspect that SFF folk have particularly painful memories of being a teen and being oppressed by other teens.) I heard the following a lot: “Teens are awful. Being a teen was awful. Why on Earth would you write about them?” Often accompanied by visible shuddering.
It was starting to dawn on me that the horrified reaction to my writing Young Adult had little to do with the books and a whole lot to do with lack of interest in, as well as fear and hatred of, teenagers. Much as dislike of Romance is often more about misogyny than the books themselves.
It’s a mystery to me how I failed to notice that many adults hate teens. I’d certainly been aware of it when I was a teen. But somehow I forgot.
I also realised that adults hating teen wasn’t just a personal thing it was also a societal thing. There are, in fact, laws against teenagers in many jurisdictions. There are stores and even whole malls that won’t let teens in unsupervised by adults.
Why? I wondered. Why do we hate teens so much. I mean sure some of them are arseholes but so are some adults. What’s going on?
I started reading up on teenagers. (Brace yourself specialist historians for some pretty reductive, cringe-inducing history.)
What is a teenager?
When did the teenage years become a social category in the West, that sits in between childhood and adulthood?
To be clear adolescence, the biological stage, involving puberty and growth spurts and the rewiring of brains, has been a known thing for ages. The word adolescence is first used in English, borrowed from the French, in 1425. Meanwhile the word “teen age” doesn’t appear until 1921 with a space between teen and age and quote marks like tongs around it. Teen-ager in 1941. Teen-agedness in 1952 and teenaged in 1953. All of this is not to prove that I can use the OED like a fiend but that “teenage” and it’s variation are not even a century old yet!
Teenagers as a social category, that could be studied, marketed to, and blamed for society’s ills, didn’t exist until last century. In the West you were a child and then you were an adult working, depending on your time period, on the farm, on your back, in the mills, in the navy, in factories, in the streets, in someone else’s home.
If you were born a slave there was no childhood. The richer you were the longer you could be a child.
The spread of education and schools beyond the wealthy, caused lengthened childhood. This was reflected in legislation. For example in Britain the workday for eleven to eighteen year-olds was shortened to 12 hours in 1833. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929.
All of these changes are deeply connected to the shift from agrarian society to capitalism and the related shift from extended family to nuclear family and the emergence of white supremacy and advertising and psychopathy and . . . MANY THINGS.
In the 1930s we get teenagers. Bobbysoxers and teen hysteria. By the 1950s Hollywood is churning out movies about this newly invented menace to society—Rebel Without A Cause (1955) being the most famous and one of the few with actual teenagers in it although James Dean was 23, Natalie Wood was 16, Sal Mineo 15, and Dennis Hopper 18. The Wild One (1952) was one of the most ludicrous and starred the twenty-eight year old Marlon Brando. You keep being you, Hollywood.
Moral panics about teenagers and what they like began almost as soon as there were teenagers. There were panics about flappers and bobbysoxers and their obsession with that ne’er do well Frank Sinatra. Then there was the freak out about rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley in the 50s. The 1960s was nothing but a moral panic: drugs! Hippies! Teenaged druggy hippies! Psychedelia! Then there was skateboards, heavy metal, rap music, satanism, file sharing, hoodies, video games, MySpace, Snapchat. Many of which were restricted or banned because teens liked them.
Teens apparently are the worst. We do everything we can to control them and keep them away from us.
Adults Love Teens
Teens are also the best, inhabiting this fabulous parallel universe where they are the top earning models in the world, the stars of many movies and TV shows (albeit mostly played by actors who are no longer teens). When popular culture isn’t portraying them as out of control monsters, it’s showing them leading carefree happy times of exploration and freedom, menstruating blue ink for the very first time, buying cool fashions, making music, hanging out with other beautiful, perfect-skinned teens at diners, malls and clubs.
Without teenagers consuming them fashions and movies and video games—and books—rarely take off.
Adults Love YA
Teens have made YA the second most profitable fiction category in the USA—after romance. Twelve years ago I mostly had to explain what YA is. These days not so much. Some of those folks who were bewildered as to why anyone would write YA back then, now read it, and some of them even write it. YA advances are, on average, higher than those for SFF writers.
Most of the top-selling SFF books in the USA are YA, not adult. Many YA books sell millions of copies all over the world. Not my YA books, alas. Can’t have everything.
YA, of course, could not be this huge if only teens were reading it. The Hunger Games trilogy sold far more copies in the USA than there are teenagers. Adults are reading YA in huge numbers. Adults are making YA super profitable for publishers.
But it was teens that started the YA explosion. They were the ones who pushed the Harry Potter, then Twilight, then Hunger Games series on their parents and teachers and other adults in their lives. Pretty much every mega-hit YA book starts out that way.
You’d think the shared bond of loving books would diminish the hatred and suspicion of teenagers and the things they like.
You’d be wrong.
There’s now a whole genre of op ed pieces about how YA is destroying the minds of the adults foolish enough to read it, turning them into blithering, infantalised ninkompoops who will never grow up. At the same time we YA writers are also corrupting the teens who read our books. Multi-tasking!
We YA writers are purveyors of soul-destroying darkness and filth, who lead teens away from reading joy-filled, life-affirming texts like Hamlet, Macbeth, The Scarlett Letter, Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby, which all feature on lists of books most commonly taught in US high schools.
YA books have joined the long list of things teens like that must be banned and/or set on fire. Do we legislate against what teens like because we envy their unwrinkled skin and carefree existence?
Problem is outside the imaginary teen utopias of popular culture teens have little freedom.
One of the most consistent complaints about my books from teen readers is that they’re unrealistic. Not because of the magic, or the fairies or the zombies or the vampires. No, teens consider my books unrealistic because my characters walk to school by themselves, because characters in my books have time with their friends unsupervised by adults.
Teens right now, especially in the USA, are the most surveilled generation ever.
I could go into more detail but read Danah Boyd‘s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens published by Yale University Press but also available online for free. She demonstrates this fact in exhaustive and depressing detail and concludes that teens spend so much time online because that is pretty much the only space left where they can hang out with their friends unsupervised.
Who Gets to be a Teen?
Teens live in a dystopia, which may have a thing or two to do with how popular dystopias tend to be with teens. Even when publishing declares the dystopia to be dead.
But some teens’ dystopias are a lot worse than other teens’ dystopias.
One of my first big book events was in the Bronx in NYC. Students from economically disadvantaged high schools were given a free book. They got to choose either my Magic or Madness or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. We stood up on a stage in front of several hundred teens of colour and told them about our books and writing and they asked questions.
It rapidly became apparent that the majority of the students had chosen my book even though Scott’s book had sold vastly more copies. At the end we did a signing. I asked why they chose my book. Most students gave the same answer: “Because the girl on the cover seemed like she might look like me.”
They wanted to see themselves.
One of the PoV characters in Magic or Madness is an Hispanic teenager from the Bronx. Back then there weren’t many YAs with a character like that. Back then the vast majority of YA books had white teens on the cover. The same is true today.
When you google image “teenager” the images are overwhelmingly of white teens. Where are the black teens? The Asian teens? The Native American teens? The Hispanic teens?
Last year roughly 80% of YA was about white teens and written and published by white adults. And of that that 20% that isn’t about whites most of it is also written by whites. Whites like me writing from the point of view of Indigenous, Hispanic, African and Asian-American teens. (My figures come from The Children’s Cooperative Book Center, which is located right here in Madison, Wisconsin. They do an annual breakdown of the books it receives by race. They keep track of the race of the authors/illustrators as well as the main characters. In 2015 the majority of YA and children’s books with main characters who were African-American or Native American were written by white authors. The majority of books about Asian and Pacific Americans and Latinos were actually written by those peoples. However, those books made up fewer than 7% of all books.)
I have been told over and over again by teens of colour how much it means to them to read about teens like them. To see faces like theirs on the covers of books. But they’re even more excited when they turn to the author photo and see someone who looks like them.
Why does this matter?
It matters because books and movies and tv teach us to understand other people. They teach us to recognise who counts as a human being.
When our popular culture only shows a small percentage of the population being represented as three dimensional human beings we’re being taught that those who don’t fit that image don’t count.
What’s at stake?
Disparaging YA as inferior because it’s about and for teenagers matters because what’s at stake here is who counts as human.
What those op eds and laws that corral teens are saying is that teenagers don’t count. Yet being a teenager does afford some privileges. However, those privileges are not afforded to all teens.
White teens are less likely to be arrested than teens of colour, and when they are arrested they’re less likely to be charged, and when charged they are less likely to be convicted, and when convicted they are more likely to be given lenient sentences.
White teens are far less likely to be tried as adults. That’s right, the coveted adult category is bestowed on teens of colour most often when tried before the law so they can face harsher penalties.
Eighteen year old Michael Brown was called a monster and a demon with superhuman strength by adult cops. Meanwhile white young adults up into their twenties still get to be boys when accused of wrongdoing. Especially when accused of rape: “He was just a boy. He didn’t know what he was doing. He deserves another chance. We can’t let this one little mistake ruin his life.”
All too often that “little mistake” is another human being.
I’ve focussed on race today but the privilege of that “real” teen, the one who gets to make mistakes, rests not just on his race and sex, but on his heterosexuality, his ablebodiedness, his neurotypicalness, his Christianity, his cisgenderedness, his economic privilege, and all too often, his athletic prowess.
We here at WisCon pride ourselves on our work towards social justice. We use science fiction and fantasy as a lens on the world. As does SFF YA.
This historically new stage of life—teenagers—which is the matter of YA, not just its supposed audience–is a nexus for a lot of the things we do and discuss here—social justice work around identity: race and class and gender and sexuality and religion and politics and surveillance and so on. The Black Lives Matter movement has a large teen contingent, who were there from the beginning in Ferguson.
Loads of recent SFF YA has been grappling directly with these issues. Read last year’s GoH, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug. Or Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. Or D. J. Older’s Shadowshaper. Or . . . I could go on all day.
I’ve been rereading Octavia Butler lately, who has been a huge influence not just on adult SFF, but on YA, and on some of the writers I just mentioned, as well as on me. I was reminded yet again, that so much of Butler’s work is explicitly about power imbalances, about privilege, and who wields it. Guess who else understands a lot about how power imbalances work?
And that’s one of the many reasons that they matter.