The Boundary Between Censorship, Discretion, and Speaking Out in Young Adult Fiction
I often receive queries and manuscripts with high concept plots, fantastic stakes, and incredible voice. I find myself anxious to dive into the pages, and when I request a full manuscript from a fantastic query, you can bet that I’m refreshing my inbox until the manuscript arrives. These are some of my favorite moments as an Agent. I love finding a brilliant project from within the endless slush pile of queries. They tend to be rare moments, but any manuscript I request is a manuscript I am excited to read.
Recently, I’ve found myself reading back to back manuscripts where profanity, intimacy, teen drinking, and drug use seem to be written into the plot for the sake of appealing to a commercial audience, rather than speaking in a voice true to the genre, readership, or character. These concepts within the plot do nothing to move the plot forward. They aren’t adding to character development, conflict, or resolution. They are there just to be there. This is specifically the case in Young Adult fiction; I’m not referencing Romance or Adult genres. While profanity, boundary pushing behaviors, and sexual discovery are seen as “normal” aspects of teenage years, adding them to the plot of a story for the sake of having them can do more harm than good.
Genres, especially young adult, should be emotional, relatable, gritty and at times controversial. They should break into subjects which might be hard for the author to write about. These are the subjects which teens are dealing with in the real world. I love dark books filled with emotional tension, complicated romances, and relatable characters. However, what makes me cringe when reading a manuscript is when things such as profanity, intimacy, and overall bad behavior is so prevalent on the page that it slows down the story.
There is a fine line between censorship in Young Adult, and discretion. How much is too much, and what makes a manuscript too squeaky clean? I’m 100% in support of books that bring to light an issue, problem, and offer a character who challenges the issue in order to find a solution. We’ve seen a great change within the publishing industry during the last five years. Authors are writing books which challenge us to think about these issues and recognize that they exist. On the other side of the spectrum, I feel that there also need to be books within the Young Adult fiction which offer readers censorship and discretion, but also tackle difficult subjects. Is it impossible to have a book dealing with racial, gender, or sexual segregation, but without the extreme use of profanity on the majority of pages?
As a Christian, I want to read about these issues, but at the same time I also want to avoid being distracted by pages overwhelmed with profanity. Is the use of profanity in every day language common? Yes, absolutely. But I often find that manuscripts force profanity within a character voice for the sake of having it there. Does it make your character stand out more? Does it make your manuscript more appealing or grittier?
What I'm Looking For
What I would love to find in the young adult genre is a balance between controversial or dark subject matter, but with language censorship, or closed-door intimacy between romantically linked characters. Does this mean that I only want to read “clean” fiction? No. However, what I don’t want to keep having is a manuscript concept that I LOVE overrun by unnecessary content.
Give me stakes, conflict, tension, and storylines which challenge me to think about problems and issues facing our teens. Break my heart—stomp on it with a golf shoe if you must. But break my heart with your story, voice, dialogue, and characters, and not with content that makes me afraid to turn the page. Use your character’s voice and actions to provoke thought and change, but don’t fill them with so much profanity that their voice loses purpose and instead sounds like a broken record of words that would make your grandmother smack you with a wooden spoon.
I don’t think Young Adult should be censored or “clean” per say, but I would love to find stories which offer the reader discretion.