Monday, 9 May 2011

The representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary YA fiction

* Hi Vanessa and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi Tracy
Who am I? Well it depends how I am feeling on the day as to whether I say ‘I am a writer and an academic’ or ‘an academic and a writer.’

I lecture in creative writing at both undergrad and post grad level at the University of Winchester, which has a great Creative Writing programme.

I love writing and have an MA in Writing for Children. It never occurred to me to write for children/teenagers until I went to University at Winchester which opened a huge number of doors for me and gave me a focus.

I’ve just submitted a creative writing PhD where I’ve been exploring the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary young adult fiction to see if there has been a perceived change in the way it is portrayed. And because it is a creative writing PhD I’ve written a YA novel called Ham & Jam as the main part of my thesis. Ham & Jam is the story of four teenagers in Normandy on a school trip who just can’t leave behind a young girl from Afghanistan who is being sold for sex. Despite the title of the PhD this is not a story which is driven by sex, drugs and alcohol instead it is about hope and the fact everyone is not what they seem at first.

Don’t get me wrong though, my PhD is not a ‘how to write about sex, drugs and alcohol’ job. Neither is it a diatribe saying these things should not be spoken about. It is more an exploration of how authors have previously dealt with it and consequently how I handled it in my own piece. And I certainly don’t intend to preach to any authors on the right way to write about these things. They have to find the level of detail that they are comfortable dealing with.

It is Melvin Burgess that stated that young adults can deal with anything as long as it is in context and I used his book Junk (1996) as the starting point for the research part of my thesis.  It was the first British YAF that dealt openly with drug use. Gemma starts by using cannabis but then both Gemma and Tar eventually end up using heroin. There was sex in it but it was implied and stayed discretely within the sleeping bag or happened elsewhere though the consequences were obvious with a teenage pregnancy.

For my thesis I looked at a selection of YA realist novels to see how the authors approached these issues. I believe there has been a perceived shift in the way drugs and sex have been used within stories. As I said above in Junk the first you know about the main characters using drugs is when they get stoned but if you then look at Bali Rai’s The Whisper the main focus of drug taking by a character is on cocaine whilst as a reader you are aware of heroin being sold.

Ecstasy is another drug that appears to be being used to first illustrate a character’s use of drugs as can be seen in Richard Milward’s Apples.

The implication of my research is that there has been a ‘normalisation’ in the portrayal of cannabis. For example in Jacqueline Wilson’s book Kiss one of her characters is talking about how her parents can’t be involved because they will be getting stoned. Cannabis now is often just briefly mentioned in a plot or will be used by adults rather than being the drug used to illustrates that a main character is now a drug user.

Heroin still remains the ultimate ‘no no’ and the representation of which has not changed at all. This is not a case of authors glamorising drug use, it is often portrayed negatively but it is a reaction to this perceived ‘normalisation’ that has also occurred in the media (think of programmes like Skins for example). Importantly, this ‘normalisation’ has not been reflected in reality. The current data for drug use within the UK by teenagers highlights that there has been a reduction.

As for sex, well that has very definitely come out from being implied in a sleeping bag. It has become far more graphic and detailed which I would suggest is no bad thing since many teenagers get their information about sex from the Internet and in particular porn sites. Fiction allows a more realistic approach to sex to be portrayed. In Junk, as already mentioned, the sex is implied and though there is prostitution this happens elsewhere and is undertaken in order to survive and maintain their drug habits.

Prostitution, however, is portrayed differently in both Judy Waite’s Game Girls and Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood where it is a means of enhancing their lifestyle rather than being forced into it in order to survive.

In the main any sexual activity is portrayed from the female perspective. I have only found Melvin Burgess’ Doing It and, more recently, Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry that have written about sex from a male perspective.

There has been a fair amount of debate on the reason why so few authors take the male perspective and some have suggested that it is difficult not to make it sound pornographic. In my opinion neither books can be accused of being pornographic though I know Anne Fine disagrees with me on that, with particular reference to Doing It, as she wrote an opinionated article on the book in The Guardian back in 2003.
(Melvin Burgess' response)

Interestingly the portrayal of alcohol has not changed at all. I have found no examples of binge drinking and it is rarely portrayed negatively for example in Joanna Kenrick’s Screwed there is a character who is described as ‘glowing with alcohol’.

It can also be portrayed as a panacea to life’s problems as in Richard Milward’s Apples where the main character very early on plans to get drunk in order to try and forget the cancer diagnosis her mother has just received. All perfectly normal reactions in our society for adults and some teenagers.

Nicola Morgan in her recent book Wasted, did take a different perspective and explored the issues of a drink being spiked. She and Tabitha Suzuma in her book Forbidden, also used alcohol in a different way by creating alcoholic parents who though present were in fact ‘absent’ as they were incapable.

( tall tales & short stories interview with Tabith Suzuma )

With all these issues I would never suggest avoid writing about them as what an author is doing is offering a reader the opportunity of a vicarious experience. It gives them a chance to read about these things in the privacy of their own room where there is no pressure from parents or peers.

I should point out that there are hundreds of books published every week and I tried to read as many as possible but that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss some.

I suppose the one thing my research did highlight for me is that there will always be a call for well written young adult fiction that challenges the perceived norms and deals with issues without patronising the reader. And yes, I confess, I would like to be one of those authors!

Vanessa blogs at:

Vanessa is the editor for Winchester University's 
International Journal for the Practice and Theories of Writing for Children and Children's Literature.



Tracy said...

From my own perspective, I'd just like to say thanks to Vanessa for bringing my attention to authors I didn't know about.
I've written a contemporary realist YA and have an idea for another YA project and it's always interesting to see how other authors handle 'difficult' subjects.
Thanks again

Nick Cross said...

Thanks Vanessa, that was a fascinating distillation of your research. After reading your status updates about it on Facebook it was great to find out what you've been working so hard on!

One area I'm interested in is the use and abuse of prescription drugs. Has there been much coverage in YA of this subject?


Tracy said...

Good question, Nick - an area often overlooked.
I'd love to hear about any book recommendations, good or bad, related to the issues covered in this post.

Candy Gourlay said...

I'd also love to get a distinction between Young Adult and Teen writing - or is there? I must say I salute authors who venture into this territory, which is rife with controversy. I wonder how the titles by British authors that Vanessa mentioned fared in the United States.

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you, Vanessa and Tracy. An excellent article, which introduced me to lots of new authors, too. I'm currently writing about 14 year olds, sex and pregnancy - and I'm not planning on hiding anyone inside any sleeping bags!

kathryn evans said...

very interesting post - thanks both - my crit group have pulled me up for focussing on alcohol and teens - it's not an issue in my current WIP, it's just a fact of life - I've found that most teens I know routinely drink, it's a major part of their social lives. Much easier these days too - dirt cheap and available every where....

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