Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Authenticity & Memorability

     


          Editors and agents at writers' conferences always say that teen protagonists should sound like teens in YA literature, not like adults speaking through teenage characters. I have edited a few YA fiction manuscripts for fellow authors, and have written notes in the margins such as: "Adult sensibility--revise," "Heavy-handed--kids don't talk this way," "Intrusive narrator!," and "How old is she supposed to be?" I sometimes wonder, when YA characters speak like adults, with hindsight-colored voices, whether the author has actually listened to any recent conversations between teens--as opposed to simply talking TO teens.  (NOTE: Teens talk differently to adults than they do to other teens.)

          Leading my writing workshops for teens and hanging out (as invisibly as possible) with my teenage kids and their friends have done more to hone the authenticity of my teenage characters' voices than reading books like _____ (fill in your own title), by authors who think they know teens because they were teens and have strong memories. That's not to say that I don't "mis-hear" my own teenage characters at times, and have to revise their dialogues or narrative voices. I do, often. All YA writers have to know that they don't necessarily get the voices right in the early drafts.

          But that knowledge frustrates me when I read a YA book that obviously needed revision for the sake of authenticity, and somehow managed to get published with passages of dialogue that sound like actors, playing teenagers, while doing a table-read of a script before production. I read such books as if I were a director, at that same table read, redirecting the players to deliver their lines more like teenagers--with more pauses between their instantly delivered, perfect analogies and literary allusions; with fewer polysyllabic words that betray the author's word-crafting behind the scenes, like the Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain; and with more uncertainty, since teenagers rarely feel sure of themselves and their reactions to others. I love beautiful dialogue as much as any reader; however, I have to believe that I'm hearing it through the mouth of its alleged speakers.

          Recently, one of my teenage students gushed to me about a book she adored, one which I didn't adore, because the allegedly adolescent characters seemed to have incredibly sophisticated, unnaturally poetic, college-lit-major kinds of voices--in short, they sounded to me like puppets for the author more than real teenagers. Even their literary and art-related allusions gave them away as impostors, in my mind. The student concluded her speech by asking me, "Have you read it yet?"

          I nodded. "And I liked it, but not as much as you did, apparently."

          "Whaaat? Really? Why not?" She looked like a deflating balloon.

          "Well, don't get me wrong. I appreciated the story and the characters were interesting. They just didn't sound like teenagers to me, and that's why I didn't love it. I would have loved the book if they were college students in their 20's; then they would have seemed real to me. Their dialogue didn't sound like any teenagers I know. And I know some pretty smart teenagers!" I winked, indicating that she was one of those smart teenagers.

          "Aw, seriously? I LOVED the dialogue!" She frowned. "Gosh, me and my friends talk like that!" 

          I smiled, but politely repressed my laugh. No, you don't.  I let a shrug be my reply. I wondered whether I, as an adult and a writer, not only speak differently than a teenager, but also read differently.

          Maybe teens are willing to overlook realism because they like characters who talk the way they wish they could talk--or the way they think they do talk?

          Maybe the adult readers who adored the same book simply have no recent experience with teens to contradict the discussions they read in this same book, and just assume, "Well, they're really smart kids, I guess." Or: "That's how we talked as teens." Or maybe they just wish that all teens were that brilliant and quick-witted!

         Maybe the publishers and reviewers who rave about the book follow the TV model of shows like "Glee" and "Pretty Little Liars," in which clearly adult actors play high schoolers and the viewers just accept the incongruity as "artistic license?" Or maybe the book was actually written with 20-something-year-old characters, but then the marketing department pointed out that the audience would be much larger if the characters' ages fit the YA model? (I would find that explanation most soothing to my confused author self, albeit still frustrating.)

          I ASK YOU, MY DEAR READERS: Does authenticity in characters' voices matter to you? Do the identities of the ones uttering poetic prose matter less than the memorability of their lines?