The Space-Time Continuum: “Dammit, Jim, I’m a storyteller, not a social worker!”

My latest “Space-Time Continuum” column from the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild‘s newsletter Freelance


Cod-Liver-KidThis column I want to return to the World Fantasy Convention held in Toronto last November…and a panel that rubbed me the wrong way.

Entitled “The Changing Face of YA Fantasy,” the panel was described this way: “Fantasy works for young adult readers have changed over the years, perhaps even more than their counterparts for adults. The themes tackled are more cutting-edge; a wider variety of cultures is explored; locations are often more realistic, more gritty and urban, than in the past; a more diverse cast of characters is brought into play; and the heroines and heroes are perhaps more realistic than their predecessors. Our panel will discuss the popularity of YA fantasy, its changing face, and its future.”

The panelists were authors Tone Milazzo, Laura Anne Gilman, Hiromi Goto, Morgan Keyes and Amanda Sun.

They began with a discussion of whether YA fantasy is getting “too dark.” The counter to that concern seemed to be that a) the “darkness” in young adult fiction is simply a reflection of the darkness of the real world and b) anyway, the darkness is good for YA readers.

“Any genre has to look at what’s happening outside us,” said Goto. “It’s been a scary time, and the literature is going to reflect that…these books are teaching kids it’s okay to be afraid.”

She noted that “there’s so much violence in children’s lives already in terms of games culture. A lot of it is graphic and gratuitous. As a writer and a parent I find it really important to sort out the context of violence within the narrative, not just splash and gore, but what is the context, the relationship of the violence between the characters, how can the character negotiate it.”

Gilman said, “The fear always seems to they’re not ready to handle this, they don’t have the tools. My argument is always that the book is the tool…most fantasy is proactive even in the worst-case scenario; it helps them deal with the reality outside. Even if they’re not succeeding they’re doing something.”

Sun said, “These issues are issues they have, these are things they’re dealing with.”

The panel continued in that mode: the ways in which swearing, sex, race and other hot-button topics are dealt with in YA fiction were all discussed in terms of being good for the readers.

It’s not that I disagree with that. It’s true, I’m sure, that books help young readers deal with problems and I know it’s true more for some readers than others, and I’m really glad it’s true, and it’s an important function of YA books, and blah, blah, blah…but what I kept hearing, underneath all that, was “Swallow your medicine like a good little boy.”

Why did I feel like pushing back against this oh-so-worthwhile discussion of how oh-so-worthwhile YA books are? I think it goes back to a lecture one of my junior high teachers gave me when I couldn’t remember the author of a book I’d enjoyed: it was important to remember the author’s name, he (or possibly she; I don’t remember the teacher, just the lecture!) said, because otherwise I was “just reading for escape.”

As if that were a bad thing!

Even the panelists in Toronto would probably say “escape” is a good thing, a doorway into a better world than the oh-so-terrible real world. But you know what? Escape is a good thing even if you don’t really have anything you need to escape from. Entertainment is a worthwhile goal in its own right.

I’m as good as any author at talking about the oh-so-important issues in my books. But the truth is, I’m not writing novels to help readers deal with their problems. I’m writing out of the sheer joy I get from creating worlds and entertaining readers.

It’s very nice if readers put down one of my books and think, “I feel so much better about my own problems now that I’ve seen that character deal with theirs,” but all I really want them to think is, “What a terrific story.”

I am not a pharmacist, a counselor, a psychologist or a social worker. I am a storyteller. I tell stories set in the past, present and future, in worlds that exist, could exist, and can and do exist only in my mind. I write stories that span the space-time continuum, and I welcome readers along for the ride.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a high enough calling right there.


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