Monday, September 27, 2010

Too Close to the Edge?

By Julie Daines

There has been a lot of talk lately about “edgy” young-adult literature.  Read the blurbs about what many agents are looking for and it will include the word “edgy.”  Manuscripts are rejected because they aren’t “edgy” enough.

Edgy is generally defined as books that push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.  One definition said that there are no forbidden subjects in edgy young-adult fiction, but they are “written with sensitivity and care, not gratuitously.”

Critics opposed to edgy YA argue that the novels encourage destructive or immoral behavior.  Those in favor claim that fictional portrayal of teens successfully addressing difficult situations and confronting social issues helps readers deal with real-life challenges.

I looked up an agent’s list of edgy books, and one that caught my eye was about a teenage girl who falls in love with a boy from her apartment building.  The girl’s feelings for the boy become confused when she discovers that he is actually a girl who has had a sex change.

Is that edgy?  Is it gratuitous?  Or does it help teens confront real-life challenges?  How many teens will really have to face that kind of situation?

Another recent book is written entirely in text message lingo and deals with a group of teenage girls who discuss boys, gossip, sex, clothes and getting drunk.  A book geared for grades 8-10.

One reader left her comment regarding this book on Amazon:  “This book offends me and makes me ashamed to be a teenage girl…is this what people think we’re like?  AHHH.  No.”

Are we underestimating our youth when we push edgy too far?  Are we selling the rising generation short when we appeal to the lowest common denominator?

Many books that were once considered too edgy are now taught in our schools.  Lord of the Flies, The Outsiders, and Speak.  What’s the difference?  What makes these books worthy of study?

What is the boundary between “edgy” and “trashy”?  Where is the line for taboo subject matter?  Do we compromise ourselves as authors when we cross those lines simply for the chance to make money or get our work published?

All teens deal with challenges, heartache, and a huge range of deep, serious, emotional issues.  It seems to me that books that actually do help them cope with these “real-life challenges” are uplifting, not gratuitous, and carry a message of safety and hope.  They stretch the teenage mind into a positive, new way of thinking that inspires them to want to be better, lifts them up rather than pulling them down, and does not simply shock and tantalize the senses.

What do you think? 


Scott said...

The problem for me is that edgy is so hard to define, and the definition changes by local. What's edgy in a place like New York, where the decisions are made, often go too far in a place like Utah. In fact, it's even more granular than that. There's a big difference between what is edgy between SLC and Utah Co.

Furthermore, different regions have different issues. New York's urban issues are different than San Francisco's or Seattle's, and L.A. is, usually, off in a world of its own.

I have a couple YA kids who very much prefer edgy books to "safe" books. But they spent much of their lives in and around San Francisco, and seem a little scary to some of our Orem neighbors, although they fit right in in a more urban environment.

With all that in mind, I think there's something to be said for edgy books, whatever that means. Many YA readers (I mean readers in that age group) have artistic sensibilities, and it's often the edgier works that appeal to the youthful blossoming of that 18-25 version of artistic sensibility, the bistro-and-cafe crowd who don't yet find Holden Caulfield to be a whiny punk who needs to get over himself. In fact, many young people are drawn to Holden because they are similar in the way they see themselves and their place in the world as they move out of their teens and into the unexpectedly restrictive world of a adulthood where they don't yet fit in, and in hope they never will.

Countless classics have come out of this struggle to get a grip on this foreign world of adulthood where you have to function among the establishment, but when you're also struggling not to become part of it. It's these books that push against the limits that become classics. No surprise that these are the books that college students read, or are made to read. They are exactly in the age group I'm going on and on about.

Edgy books are the ones that explore issues and injustices of the day. They often seem extreme because they are shining a spotlight on an issue. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an edgy YA book in its day, and is still too "dangerous" for some people.

Many artists hit their peak around 24 (think Orson Welles and Brian Wilson), when brashness and disillusionment with the restrictions of adulthood push them out of the box and they try to blaze new trails. "Safe" books don't appeal to their blossoming intellects or the experimentation that's often a part of that age group's natural attempts to move away from the restrictive parental home and into a world they want to make their own. They don't want kids' book that don't stretch them, and they certainly don't want the popular fiction of the adult establishment, so they find outlets for thought and differentness in books and movies and music that push the limits.

Anyway, this comment had practically turned into a blog post of its own. Bottom line for me is, anything that keeps young people reading is a good thing. We forget in Utah how different the rest of the country is (especially in the populous areas where the highest book sales are). If young adults (real young adults) don't find books that engage their minds and appeal to their sense of who they are (or at least think they are) at that age, they'll stop reading.

Give the kids who want them their edgier books. There will always be less edgy books for the kids who prefer them. How many safe sci-fi books are there for every Brave New World? And how many of those last as long?

That's enough of that. Didn't mean for the comment to become longer than the original post.

Julie Daines said...

I totally get that there is a vast difference between teens in different areas. And I'm not suggesting that Happy Valley standards apply across the board. But are gratuitous, graphic sex scenes in an edgy YA book ok for the inner-city kids but not the sheltered suburban ones? I'm just asking...

Tiffany Dominguez said...

It shocked me to hear at a writer's conference this past summer, "There are no rules for YA anymore".

Teens have a lot to deal with, and in our society, have a LOT of tools to take them out of their daily lives; such as video games, tv shows, and online chat/facebooking/twitter sites.

Perhaps that's the reason so many kids are flocking to the "edgy", because its "real". But that's the problem--I think it's the "real" editors, publishers, and movie makers are trying to sell us on. Yes, these situations do happen. Maybe reading about them will make it more likely that it'll happen to the reader, or see a situation where none existed.

In any case, I believe some authors get published simply because the content is "edgy" and not because they're necessarily good writers. I'm beginning to hate the term "edgy" because it's becoming synonomous, in my mind, with the shock factor in books, and not good, solid story writing.

Scott said...

I don't like the term "edgy" either, although I used it a bunch of times. To me, it implies a kind of hipper-than-thou attitude that can be very irritating.

But whatever you call it, it's hard to define. Art often challenges norms (and also opens the door for crap to masquerade as art--we've all known people who don't write all that great, try to be edgy, and won't take criticism because they are aiming for High Art).

Many (most?) of the enduring classics were criticized in their day for being shocking or, like both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and many of Twain's other writings, too low-class for serious consideration by the literati. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Morrison and just about anything else that's considered a classic have content that, for people who don't like, may seem unnecessary and gratuitous.

I'm not arguing in favor of "no rules." (I'm not arguing at all, really, but it's an interesting and important topic.) Some books push boundaries to shock. Others push them to expand minds and art. Usually, you can tell which is which, although if it's something you're sensitive to, it might be more difficult to separate the two. History has shown that it often takes time to separate the art from the trash. It has also shown that, more often than not, the works that are self-conscious in their attempts to be art that pushes the boundaries are the ones that fail, while the ones that are down-to-earth and tell good stories survive.

Scott said...

By the way, thanks, Julie, for bringing up an interesting and difficult topic. It's important that we think about these things and understand the issues and how we feel about them so we can make our own choices as writers and readers.

This blog has been very good at instructing and entertaining, and occasionally there's a post like this one that makes us think and consider where we stand and why.

This is why I hang out around this blog. People who don't are really missing out.

Lining the clouds with silver said...

I agree that no matter what the subject matter, it's not "edgy" or "trashy" if it's presented in a mature manner that leaves the reader feeling inspired, hopeful, and safe.

PS - Julie, the verification word is nautpu... trying to decide how that helps me make my life decisions.

Yamile said...

I agree with all of you. Edgy for the sake of shocking comes across as trashy. When the certain "edgy" topic is in the story for a reason, it doesn't bother me. Recently, I was reading a book by a very popular, "clean," author. In this story though, there were many words or situations that seemed contrived. Maybe the author thought that to be hip he had to include them?
Edgy is such a subjective term, but it's everywhere now. Too edgy, not too edgy... What's an author to do?
Thanks for posting about this, Julie, and all the others for such level of discussion.

Paul West said...

I wrote about this on my blog. I don't know if any of you agree with my ideas, but they are what I think on this subject.

Come check my blog and let me know what you think.

Danielle said...


Jenn Wilks said...

Someone already said something to this effect, but the problem with a concept like "edgy" is that once a book is written that is on the "edge" of what's acceptable, then the next book has to go one step farther, or they're not on the edge anymore. I personally think that's the recipe for a train wreck.

The biggest piece of the puzzle that matters to me, though, is whether the edginess is written in a gratuitous way or not. One book can be way more edgy in subject matter than another, and I'll still prefer it because they don't describe every gory detail. In fact, some books that aren't even "edgy" per say really cross the line, and others that are very edgy in content matter, I feel okay about.

Another piece is what the protagonist does with this edgy situation. I'm not saying at all that a writer should write a book with a "the moral of the story" idea, but in the background, it always comes through - and if the character grows, learns, changes, overcomes, etc. through the course of the book, I can accept it a lot more than if the reader is left to just wallow in this edgy lake and finally drown in it.

And I just have to agree with you about the sex change book. I think sometimes authors are trying to come up with the absolute edgiest thing that could happen to sell books, not because they really feel strongly about the story.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. :o)

Paul West said...

I just added some more to my blog about edgy YA. Come see my posts at

Wonders of Weird said...

Here's the problem with ANYONE making that assessment -- "too close to the edge." It doesn't take into account the kids who are LIVING too close to the edge, and the fact that they are sitting in classrooms all over America right next to the "protected" children who have parents making such one sided judgments.

I am interested in what they have to say, and I respect that individual parents may have preferences for THEIR kids. But NO ONE has the right to make that decision for ALL kids -- for other people's kids. NO ONE. If you censor the lives of troubled kids by censoring books that reflect their troubled lives (or lives like theirs), you are telling those troubled kids their stories or too ugly to be heard. You are telling kids who need help most not to dare ASK for help. You are censoring real kids in real trouble, along with the realistic books.

If you don't want your kids to read a book, say so. But DO NOT CENSOR BOOKS OTHER KIDS NEED. And do not censor the stories you need to tell.

It's that simple, regardless of geography.

Kelly Milner Halls

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Kelly, one comment above mine, that was well said.
I totally agree.
I was one of those kids who lived on the edge and who would have benefitted from books that talked about the edge.
I think they would have helped me avoid some of the self-destructive decisions I ultimately made.

Alas, the best I could put my hands on back then was Nancy Drew and The Hobbit.

I don't think my 13 year old needs edgy books yet, but if the point comes that she thinks she needs to read them, I'll be glad they're available -- because even though I've done my best to protect her and to give her only good things, the real world exists out there. And unfortunately she has already seen some ugly stuff.
The kind of stuff covered in those "edgy" books.
The kind of stuff most people don't talk about.
I trust her judgment -- but I also trust that she needs to be independent from me, and she needs to explore the world, and books can help her do it in a safe way.

On the other hand, I often read to be entertained. Rape and serial killing are, to me, not entertaining (though to my distress both seem ubiquitous on TV cop shows).
Books that deal with such issues in a thoughtful way can straddle nonfiction -- many of these books are not being read as entertainment or as how-tos, but instead as therapy.
If any book helps a kid, I say it should be allowed.