Portraying not Condoning

Someone calling themselves Mony made this comment on my last post:

How can someone who so irresponsibly condones teenage pregnancy get on her high horse about other writers?

Now, obviously there are several logical problems with that statement. But they’re so obvious I won’t bother to address them. However, the comment does raise something that comes up A LOT for YA writers. The idea that if we write about something we approve of it.

Thus Holly Black and Ellen Hopkins in their searing acounts of teens using drugs are all for drugs, E. Lockhart approves of Broadway musicals, Chris Lynch approves of rape, and Stephanie Meyer approves of vampires. And, I, of course, having written of a teenager getting pregnant clearly think that’s a fabulous idea.

Except that I don’t. Nor do Holly Black or Ellen Hopkins condone drug use; Chris Lynch rape or Stephanie Meyers vampirism. (Though I suspect that E. Lockhart really does like Broadway musicals. Repent, Emily! It’s not too late.)

We’re writers. We write about people, things, worlds, situations, acts we don’t approve of all the time. There is an argument about the existence of God in one of my books. One of the characters believes and the other is an atheist. If the mere act of writing something means I believe it then I must be profoundly schizophrenic. A character of mine is brilliant at mathematics and loves it; I am not and I hate it. Another character hates all fruit and vegetables; I love them.

I am not my books. No author is. Not unless they’re writing autobiography and even then that’s only a part of their life and a part they’ve massaged to turn into a good story.

YA writers depict the lives of teenagers. Some teenagers take drugs, many have sex, some get pregnant, a few kill other people, and some themselves. These things happens in the real world. How does writing about them in a novel make us responsible for these activities or just as bizarre approving of them?

We YA writers try to write about teenagers as honestly as we can. Even when our books also features vampires and dragons and magic and Broadway musicals. It would be dishonest to leave out the parts of teen experience that some adults are uncomfortable with.

Many of my characters do things I disapprove of and make decisions I think are deeply unwise. But if they didn’t they wouldn’t be themselves and I wouldn’t have a story to tell. Without conflict there is no story. There’s a reason that dishonesty, misunderstandings, and villiany are so frequent in novels: They create conflict which creates story.

I see my duty of care in writing for people who are not yet adults like this:

  1. Entertain
  2. Do not condescend
  3. Be honest

That is what I set out to do in all my novels.


  1. Rebecca on #

    one of my characters just killed off another.

    i approve of murder!!

    *massive roll of the eyes and a resounding puh-leeeease*

    entertain, do not condescend, be honest

    yes. b/c writers who don’t follow these rules will not (usually) sell books. and for good damn reason.

  2. jenny d on #

    you have given away e.’s mysterious first name!

  3. Jonathan Shaw on #

    I often think what would happen to “Litle Red Riding Hood” under a stories-for-children-must-provide-only-positive-role models regime: a little girl took some stuff to her sick grandmother, end of story.

  4. Penni on #

    I hate judgements like this (ooh, how spooky that the preview types at the same time – it’s freaking me out) not least because they suggest teenagers are these blank empty stupid vessels who read something on face value and can’t comprehend context or nuance. Teenagers having sex is always complicated in literature or outside it and it’s rarely one thing or the other (eg good or bad, safe or dangerous) it’s usually textures of both – for adults too. If we didn’t write about it, then that doesn’t make it go the frick away. And if the only people who wrote about it were of the ‘Meggy had sex and then ended up dying violently and unhappily whilst being laughed at by her peers, meanwhile ellie didn’t have sex and won the local beauty pageant and the lottery – moral don’t have sex’ ilk then teenagers might grow up believing sex DOESN’T have consequences since for most of us it obviously doesn’t end that badly. Making informed choices about sex, drugs or buying a puppy means that you need a complex texture of experience to draw from, an honest and detailed reflection of the power of choices.

    But (and yes I know I’m being moderatly contradictory here, but I can if I wanna) it’s not actually a writer’s job to instil values in teenagers. God forbid. You think one book, one rocksong, one movie is going to have more power than the complex network of intersecting values and beliefs in which the individual resides (school, peers, family)? By crikey.

  5. Christopher Barzak on #

    Preach it, sister! I’m giving you amens over here in Youngstown.

  6. jaida on #

    Fah! “preach it, sister” has already been taken. So I must woefully stick to ditto. Or perhaps also, hear hear!

  7. cecil on #

    nicely said!


  8. hwalk on #

    when will people learn that the purpose of fiction is not some moral aim?

  9. holly black on #

    yes! do you know that i have gotten complaints that the goblins in spiderwick eat cats, claiming that i am condoning cat killing? as though even what the bad guys do, just by virtue of being in a book, is being promoted by the author.

  10. The Bibliophile on #

    Totally unrelated…emma volume 5 shipped to me today! can! not! wait! thanks for the great recommendation whenever you actually made it…

  11. Rebecca on #

    “I often think what would happen to “Litle Red Riding Hood” under a stories-for-children-must-provide-only-positive-role models regime: a little girl took some stuff to her sick grandmother, end of story.”

    that’s ain’t even the half of it. according to some philosopher dude, that whole story is about pedophiles and sex. see, that’s what the grimms really meant when they said the kid was “picking flowers.”

  12. Dawn on #

    I hardly know how to even respond to that comment.

    I really don’t.

    There are things that I’ve actually done in my life that I don’t condone, let’s not even start with my writing.

    I have lied in my life. Does that mean I believe that lies are okay? NO. I have hurt people in my life. Do I want people to go around hurting other people? Do I want to continue hurting other people? No.

    It takes an example from someone, somewhere to make a difference in a life. Why not in books?

  13. Dawn on #

    p.s. your preview feature really creeped me out at first. lol.

  14. Chris McLaren on #

    Your duty of care points 2 & 3 bring to mind this poem that I was just discussing with someone yesterday:


    Telling lies to the young is wrong.
    Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
    Telling them that God’s in his heaven
    and all’s well with the world is wrong.
    The young know what you mean. The young are people.
    Tell them the difficulties can’t be counted
    and let them see not only what will be
    but see with clarity these present times
    Say obstacles exist they must encounter,
    sorrow happens, hardship happens.
    The hell with it. Who never knew
    the price of happiness will not be happy.
    Forgive no error you recognize,
    it will repeat itself, increase,
    and afterwards our pupils
    will not forgive in us what we forgave.

    –Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

  15. janet on #

    It’s simpleminded to suggest that portraying is the same as condoning. But at the same time, the way in which something is portrayed (the way it’s described, the context, the consequences, the characters’ thoughts about it) does convey ideas and attitudes. I never thought for a second that you were “condoning” teen pregnancy, but there are a few things about Reason’s pregnancy that I found disturbing, not just as events but as possible positions on various controversial subjects (for example it being called “pregnancy” before the embryo could have implanted). Events may need to occur for the story to unfold, but they’re not value-neutral, they do contain opinions or attitudes that the writer may or may not mean to convey.

  16. orangedragonfly on #

    hmm. i guess then scott thinks we should all have some crazy surgery to make us perfect. and that cutting is a good idea.

    seriously, though, how boring would books be if everyone was polite and quiet and friendly and no one was ever rude or squabblish or angry or unthinking? a novel without any conflict is…well, very likely just a sentence!

  17. Nicholas Waller on #

    Why is the term of disapproval “teenage pregnancy” anyway? In most cultures the age of consent/marriage is somewhere in teendom; in the uk you can be the 19-year-old mother of a 3-year-old and still have ticked all the local formal legitimacy and respectability boxes.

    “Underage” pregnancy makes more sense as a term of disapproval, and even then the precise cut-off point is different in different places and times.

  18. Maggie on #

    Well said! 😀

  19. David Moles on #

    thank you, mony. until now, he opened and closed his mouth several times, but no sound came out was something I’d seen on the page but never experienced for myself.

  20. lili on #

    huh. i condone syphilis. yay me!

    i also condone falling in love with a giant white bear, which, although awfully romantic in a novel, might not work so well in reality.

    a journalist rang up the other day and asked a similar question (aren’t you people peddling pornography to kids by having sex in your books?). i replied that having sex and drugs and pregnancy (and syphilis. and giant white bears.) in books gives (young) people (all people) an opportunity to explore scary subjects without having to go out and, you know. do them.

  21. Diana on #

    Hear hear, Justine!

    I have also received comments of this nature and they baffle me. If my characters were perfect and made no mistakes, there would be no story.

  22. Kelly on #

    The comment does not baffle me (though I don’t agree with it). Adults are socially expected to be mentors and provide a good example. This is only one of the ironies of life that the young see through, some even before their teens (don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t have sex outside of marriage say the same people who smoke, drink, and have sex outside of marriage 🙂

    Some people aren’t as good at adhering to the societal rules as they are at looking for other’s perceived lapses (something about a mote and an eye and a log or something is tickling my memory).

    As a writer, I know that when I’m most honest, I’m going to make some others uncomfortable (and that’s going to make them want to find a way to make it my fault, so they can bury the discomfort and go back to the way they were).

    I’ve learned to cherish being made uncomfortable by things I read (by about age 9 I think). I’ve also learned that not everyone is willing to go there. Such is the price of seeing my book on the shelf. I’ll pay it any time.


  23. janet on #

    So, am I the only one who was bothered by the fact that none of the characters even fleetingly considered the idea that Reason could have an abortion? Because I have to admit that bothered me a lot.

  24. Justine on #

    Janet: Reason comes from a family where you’re incredibly lucky to make it to 25 or 30. A family where having children young is the standard if you’re to have children at all. Both her mother and her grandmother had a child at fifteen. It’s a family where your chances of having a longer life go up if you have children because you can take their magic. In those circumstances it does not strike me as odd that abortion was not even considered.

  25. janet on #

    Reason comes from a family where you’re incredibly lucky to make it to 25 or 30. A family where having children young is the standard if you’re to have children at all.

    Even under those circumstances, at age 15, it would seem to me that she would think about it. After all, there’s nothing written that she must have children someday. At age 15, a lot of people, confronted with “do it now or not at all” would say “then I won’t.” Or at least think about it.

    And what about Tom, JT, or Danny? Why wouldn’t it occur to any of them, especially when Tom and JT think that Old Man Cansino impregnated Reason? And by the end of the book, the strong motivation to have a baby as early as possible no longer exists.

    I understand why she gets pregnant, and why her mother and grandmother got pregnant early; and I understand why, for the story to work, she has to have the baby. But I would have been happier if there had been some acknowledgement that this was a deliberate choice, that she had the choice.

    Sorry to be so critical about this, because I loved the books otherwise.

  26. Justine on #

    Janet: Reason didn’t know about abortion so it would never have occurred to her. Remember her upbringing was very sheltered. She was essentially homeschooled by a mother who left school in 9th grade. There’s a vast deal about the world that Reason has simply never heard of including abortion.

    For many teenagers world-wide with those kinds of limited circumstances abortion simply isn’t an option.

    As for Danny and Jay-Tee they’re both devout Catholics.

    I’m sorry the books didn’t fit your expectations on this subject but there was no way I could have brought the option of abortion in without breaking the books. It is not part of the family world view.

    I cannot fulfill every reader’s expectations.

  27. Justine on #

    Chris McLaren: Thanks so much for posting that extraordinary poem. If I’d known about it that’s what I would’ve posted in place of my rant above.

  28. Veronica on #

    It seems to me that this attitude (which I come across a lot as a teacher, not even a writer, of children’s lit) is part and parcel of people being unable or unwilling to live with any degree of complexity, especially as regards art. So, if you portray something–no matter how you portray it, the mere fact that you acknowledge something’s existence and don’t immediately punish that character terribly–means that you condone it; if children/teenagers/adults read about something, they will automatically think that it’s a good thing and go out and do it, because they have no ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality (oddly enough, the people who say this sort of thing never provide a list of their own favorite movies or books; one suspects that they might actually–gasp–enjoy fantasizing about things that they would never actually do); and writers never actually make things up–all writing is based on experience. So Lewis Carroll took drugs, or had hallucinatory migraines, because otherwise, how could he have come up with all that stuff about Alice growing big and shrinking? It’s not like he could have just imagined it.

    These are people who, extrapolating from their own paucity of imagination, decide that everybody else is just like them and has no imagination, and it’s a profound insult to the very concept of art and the work of artists.

  29. Veronica on #

    Oh, and I should add that while I am of course nowhere near your league, that because of some sympathetic portrayals, I obviously condone severe mental illness and heroin addiction. Also, blowing up houses.

  30. Gabrielle on #

    I think the honesty past is the most important. When you have a story, you’ve got to just tell it, not edit the more “edgy” parts out.
    Besides, I think editing these tougher things, trying to prevent the teens from doing them, has the total opposite effect. When they’re well informed, there’s much less risk that they’ll fall into the trap. And anyway, most of the time the characters who do things, well, that you wouldn’t recommend, don’t get away skipping and smiling.

  31. Lauren on #

    The only job of a writer is to tell the truth as she sees it. If it makes some readers uncomfortable, then it was worth writing. If it makes the the writer uncomfortable, better yet.

  32. janet on #

    As for Danny and Jay-Tee they’re both devout Catholics.

    In the U.S., Catholics have quite a high abortion rate — higher than average. It’s amazing how great the gap between belief and practice can be.

    I cannot fulfill every reader’s expectations.

    Of course you can’t, and I hope you don’t think I’m asking you to. And in fact, that’s kind of my point. You didn’t include the entire universe of teen pregnancy in the book; there’s no way you could do that even if you wanted to. Someone else writing about a similar situation would portray a different subset of the universe, and that would give the reader a different view of teen pregnancy.

    All I’m saying is that you are a writer, not a camera. So while “portraying” is most definitely not the same as “condoning,” what you put in your books, and what you leave out, isn’t value-neutral either.

  33. maureen on #

    I still think justine is very naughty. today she taunted me for three hours with her iphone.

  34. Rebecca on #

    oh bloody hell. justine has got an iphone too. her and the rest of the universe.

  35. Sophisticated Writer on #

    Great post, Justine. I mean even in real life, we’re far from perfect. If everything were right and we had flawless characters, tell me, where’s the story? 🙂

  36. Justine on #

    Janet: Sure I’m not a camera. But I’m also not much like the majority of my characters and wouldn’t make many of the decisions they make. But, yeah, my Catholic characters were based on the Catholics I’ve known who were profoundly opposed to abortion. I am not.

    I can’t control how people respond to what I write. And I’m glad of it. But I’m not much interested in defending it either. Mostly because it’s incredibly hard to explain how story shapes so much of what we do and that, in fact, we often can’t really explain why the events unfold in our novels the way they do. They just do.

    And, yeah, it’s totally impossible to encapsulate the whole universe of anything. Because novels are short and the world is huge. There’s always going to be something missing and some readers disappointed or pissed off.

    Rebecca: Never believe a word Maureen says. She is such a liar!

  37. hillary! on #

    Soo creepy…
    Well yeah, that thought about abortion being totally against a persons upbringing is totally true! Even after a person has decided that the religion that their parents brought them up with is not for them there are certain things that they can’t help but have strong feelings towards like premarital sex and abortions. I didn’t even know what an abortion was until my 15 year old cousin called me crying because her mother had forced her to. I was 14! already in high school. So it makes sense that Danny, JT and Reason all responded the way they did.

  38. Diana on #

    I’m usually one to question why characters don’t bring up abortion in such cases (a lot of romance novels where it’s never even reflected upon) but it didn’t bother me at all in the MorM books, because of the reasons Justine mentioned, and also because of the magic which so changed the way that Reason experienced her pregnancy. It wasn’t normal — it was magic. She knew she was pregnant INSTANTLY, and it happened part and parcel with the changes that came from Old Man Cansino. She wasn’t just pregnant — she was pregnant with magic’s child.

    that’s how it worked in my head, anyway.

  39. Rebecca on #

    “She is such a liar!”

    says the person who just put up 394875345 suspiciously iphone-like pictures of maureen. 😉

    i feel your pain, maureen. one of my friends has got one of those evil little contraptions too.

  40. janet on #

    I may be guilty of beating a dead horse here, but I wasn’t able to get the computer yesterday because I was chasing a toddler around, and there are a couple more things I wanted to say.

    I finally realized what really bothered me about this conversation, and that is that the arguemnt “I’m just telling a story, not trying to make a moral or political statement through my characters, and I’m not responsible for how people interpret my work” is so often used by writers to excuse racist, sexist, and other bigoted stereotypes in their work. Obviously, this is not, repeat not, what Justine is doing here, but after all, it’s possible for something to be literally true but misleading, or to be literally true but to reinforce an unfortunate stereotype or a particular political narrative. Does that make sense?

    And I also want to say to hillary! that I agree with you that a person’s upbringing stays with them whether they want it to or not. But at the same time, my experience is that people do things they believe to be morally wrong all the time. Most people believe, for example, that cheating on your spouse is wrong, but it’s extremely common. When people go against their own values, they may feel guilty about it, or, more often, they figure out a way to justify it (“I got carried away, and it won’t happen again,” “It’s okay for me to steal from my boss because he doesn’t pay me enough”). People imagine doing things they think are wrong even more often — for example, I believe that revenge is immoral and destructive, but I regularly have spectacular revenge fantasies. So just because people think that something is wrong doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cross their minds, especially in moments of stress or trauma.

    Okay, I think that horse is dead now….

  41. Matthew on #

    I skimmed through the dialogue here, and what came to mind was a discussion that ensued in a class in Boston on literature by African-American women. We discussed Toni Morisson’s rather tragic book, The Bluest Eye. I put forth my idea that someone of Morisson’s caliber intelligence knew what she was doing and that there was a conscious intention behind her creation of a girl who fantasized that she had blue eyes and blond hair and eventually went crazy. I figured Morisson was creating a text that served to heal something, or tweak out a belief system, or force the reader to examine themselves and come to a higher place through the rather grotesque creation of a human basically wishing they were something else to the point she went crazy. The teacher admonished me for my assumptions, and asked me to locate in the text itself, which is the only artifact, proof of this healing intention. The text tells the story of a girl with brown skin wishing she had pink skin; with brown eyes wishing she had blue eyes. And in this text the girl went crazy. Morisson had the 1934 film, Imitation of Life in mind with her character Pecola (in the film, the character’s name was Peola). I had a turning point in that moment in that, as a writer, I realized that the most noble aims are not always what a story is. Telling the story of a young girl who gets pregnant can be a morality tale, can be a clear depiction of all the ways it is bad and will harm the life of that person, and ultimately be meant as a warning sign in the road to the young reader. But what if the person who freaks out that the text is condoning teen pregnancy is the extremist, and what the story actually does (I have not read it and am responding merely to the threads here with my own thoughts) is express the experience. For the girl who is too young and Does Not get pregnant, perhaps this text will serve as a warning. For the the girl too young who Does get pregnant, might the text serve as guide? And what if neither aim is the true purpose of the text? What if the chief aim of the text is to simply tell the story of a character and what she undergoes, and the clearer and more to life the story the better it is. Not for any moral reason, but because it is simply a better story. Morisson wrote a story that I wanted to be a morality tale, and I wanted to find the deeper teaching, the masterful way this author wrote about a girl hating herself and going crazy. But it is a story about that, and what it feels like to hate oneself and go crazy. it does not condone it; it does not resist that event. It tells the story of it. Like great art, we then have that text telling that story, and there is then a story about that event. Perhaps the conclusion of this text is: tell the darkest, or harshest tales of reality, and let the text have its own life. Nothing to be angry about, but I do salute the stories that push the boundaries and express life in a manner I haven’t heard before.

  42. Matthew on #

    I would just add, that the effect of the Bluest eye on me, was not to make me feel that certain people were a certain way; that one behavior is something in me I want to try (her father in the story was abusive); instead, I had a detailed and all too real experience of behavior, and it was lived out in the text with me as witness, and the effects of the behavior were seen, in an other, but experienced first hand in an inescapable way. The experiences exist there in the text for me, and lived out to a completion, so they don’t have life in my life.

Comments are closed.