Friday, 5 August 2011

Walking along the edge, or crossing the line? By Bryony Pearce

There’s been a lot of talk recently about YA fiction and how it crosses the line into indecency, horror, or depressing darkness. 

These people have a tendency to throw all YA fiction into the same blackened basket, completely forgetting writers such as Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison et al. 

Us edge writers though, can’t really complain about being mis-filed. Our writing is … dark. 

When I was writing Angel’s Fury, I read some teen horror because I wanted to know how ‘far’ I could go.  After reading some Darren Shan and visibly paling, I realised that I didn’t have to worry about limits in terms of graphic violence.  Angel’s Fury has self-imposed limits in that area so I wouldn’t say it crosses that line. 

My original draft of Angel’s Fury has a racist character tormenting a little Jewish boy. I ultimately had to change his character into a generically annoying kid, because my publisher was concerned that I, the writer, and by association Egmont, the publisher, would appear anti-Semitic if I allowed my characters to behave in that way.  I had some solid reasons for making Freddie (who eventually became Lenny) Jewish, including a lovely circularity that readers of the book will understand, but he had to go. 

I also had to remove a number of swear-words. 

Perhaps interestingly, the parts of the book that the publisher was most concerned about were the holocaust sections (at one point my Nazi was “too evil”, but we couldn’t make him too sympathetic either) and the chapter where Lenny ends up ‘in the hole’, which was considered too frightening – there were apparently lots of internal discussions about whether or not I could keep it. 

Yet the parts of Angel’s Fury that I was most concerned about writing, were not the scary elements, but the religious ones.  I was worried that there might be objections to the liberties I took with Hindu, Christian and Jewish lore.  So far there haven’t been objections (that I’m aware of); in fact people have liked them. 

To me this shows two things. One, that publishers aren’t just blindly publishing ‘dark’ fiction, they are seriously considering how our writing will effect readers, whether it is too racist, too scary or too offensive and that, as a mother, is very comforting.  The other thing is that as a writer, I appear to lack an awareness of what will cause a problem and what won’t.  What I was worried about turned out to be a total non-issue and things I didn’t hesitate about writing, had to be cut. 

So what does this tell me?  That as writers, perhaps we just need to tell the story we need to tell and rely on our publishers to make sure that we continue to walk the edge rather than crossing the line.  

Especially as, so often nowadays, those lines seem to waver.


  1. What a fascinating post! I'm a little confused about the racist character that you had to change - was it because your publishers don't believe that anti-Semitism exists any more? And was it the little boy's Jewishness that you had to erase or the anti-Semitic character's?
    I'm also struggling with the idea that you could have created a Nazi character than was 'too evil' - more evil than reality? Surely not.
    I also had to change and remove a few swear words in my first book. For the second one I found different ways of saying what I wanted to.
    My biggest worry has been about the use of the word 'gay' as a generic incult. I hate it, but boys do it and it affects them, which is what I wanted to show. I did it, and no objections so far, but it still bothers me.

  2. I had to make the character non-Jewish, Keren. Perhaps interesting, my agent is Jewish and when he said he had no problem with the Jewish boy being bullied my publisher conceded that their real concern was actually with 'the people who would think that the Jewish community should take issue with it' i.e. the PC brigade.
    I too had problems with the Nazi being 'too evil' I remember a conversation where I facetiously suggested he rescue a bunny from peril! I had to take out a fair bit of the more menacing stuff (where he hums Lohengrin while he's hunting the surviving Jews through the corn field, for example) but there is actually a good reason for making the Nazi slightly less evil, which I won't give away, as it's a huge plot spoiler.
    I think swearing is a contentious issue, teens swear, like Navvies, some of them, but should we 'sink to that level' as writers? I generally found different ways of saying what I needed to as well and it worked well.

  3. Your post raises a lot of interesting issues, some of which Keren has commented on, so I won't add to that, although I had the same response. However I do feel that it is very difficult for writers to know how far is considered too far by publishers and it seems to me that this reaction differs so hugely between all the gatekeepers that is is impossible to second guess it. One of the most interesting questions I was asked about HIDDEN by a 14 year old boy, interviewing me for a newspaper was,"Do you think having a tortured Iraqi in a novel for young people is too harsh?" I was amazed when I think of all the dark stuff, both realistic and fantasy, that you can read in novels for children and teens today. At the end of the day, we have to write our novels and float them out there.
    Great post Bryony, many thanks.

  4. This is such an interesting post Bryony. To read the examples of what the publisher was uncomfortable with is illuminating. Also to read that the Iraqi man who has been tortured in Hidden was too harsh for the boy reporter. It seems to me that stories in the fantasy genre can get away with so much more as their detachment from reality provides a buffer to the reader (and publisher). However, the more realistic our writing and subjects, the much more uncomfortable it can be to read. It hits nerves, it may be considered 'too close to home' for comfort.

  5. Interesting.
    I would have said a proper Nazi indoctrinated persecutor would make the book seem LESS anti-semetic. It increases our empahty for the Jew. That it was just an annoying kid turns the persecuted Jew into a weaker character.
    What about the question of why did the German persecute the boy?
    Something I'm grappling with in my latest novel. I am really dealing with some strong Holocaust issues. So, far, nobody has asked me to sanitize the story.
    Have to confess, I've only read the first few pages of "Angel's Fury" (on the day I bought it at your signing in Formby and while I had a cup of tea before I went home) but so far so good. Really looking forward to reading the rest but have some duty reading to do first.