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A Generation of True Writers

Lili Wilkinson

Lili Wilkinson on why teenagers today are the first generation of true readers.

We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.

—inscription on 6000 year old Egyptian tomb


Kids today are not the same as when we were young. They are a generation of true writers and readers, and they’re using books to save the world.

The good news is that they are better read, more socially aware, more computer literate and more literate in general, than any other generation of young people preceding them. They have access to the Internet in some form or another — in Australia the digital divide has all but been erased. They have iPads and iPhones and PSPs and Ps3s and Xboxes and Nintendo Wii and Facebook. They are a lucky generation, with boundless opportunities open to them.

On the other hand, they are facing the most competitive university entrance market ever, and if they get in they will have to pay the highest fees. Those who choose to use the HELP system to pay for their education will face the highest rates of indexing, so it will take them even longer to pay back their loan. These kids are also growing up during one of the most difficult economic climates we’ve seen in the last half-century. Unemployment will be an issue for them. Global warming will be an issue for them. And so will the negotiation of the minefield of our new digital world, of digital rights management, intellectual property and copyright. These kids don’t remember dialup Internet, and they don’t remember a time before the GST. They’re are growing up in a time when we are closer to the future of Bladerunner and the second Back to the Future film, than we are to the time when those movies were released.

Teenagers today are the first generation of true writers. Text is their primary mode of communication — whether it be text messages, IMing or Facebook. When I was a teenager, I’d spend hours at school with my friends, followed by hours at home on the phone. Nothing much has changed, except instead of lying on the bed, getting a sore neck from holding the phone between shoulder and ear, today’s teens are peering at screens, fingers flying over keyboards.

Teenagers construct their identity through text and image. They are constantly describing and redefining themselves on their Facebook pages. Their most intimate of social interactions — flirting, falling in love, breaking hearts, lying, confessing, planning, announcing — are conducted using the written word. I think it’s important here to avoid a value judgment — it’s easy to say ‘text messages are facile and teens can’t spell’, and that may be true. I’m not saying that all teens are great writers, or even good ones (although there are certainly some very talented young people out there). But they are writers, nonetheless. And with writing, naturally, comes reading.

Teenagers are reading? Really?

Yes.

Young people read more, and more widely, than any other generation gone before. They read all sorts of things — newspapers, magazines, comics, graphic novels and websites.

But books. Do they read books?

Yes.

In the US last year, overall sales of fiction dropped about 10%. But sales of children’s and young adult fiction rose 14%. Bookshops are closing down unprofitable music and DVD sections and replacing them with sprawling Young Adult sections. Of the top 10 bestselling titles in Australia last year, in all genres, six of them were Young Adult. Sure, four of those were by Stephenie Meyer, but I never said that what they were reading was any good. Nor do I think it has to be.

There is an assumption that everything a child does must have some kind of educational benefit. They can’t watch a TV show or read a novel unless they’re learning something. I’d argue that any kind of interaction with narrative or media is an educational experience, whether it’s a biography of Shakespeare, or an episode of The Biggest Loser. But that’s not the point. Goosebumps creator RL Stine once said that ‘kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value’, and he was right.

David Fickling has published writers including Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass/NorthernLights) and Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time), but he started out publishing Goosebumps. And although he has moved on to bigger and better things, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Fickling calls these books — Goosebumps, The Babysitter’s Club, Star Wars novelisations — readermakers. They’re easy books, accessible books. They’re like the white bread equivalent of books — light, insubstantial, and without much dietary fibre.

But if you’re a young person, and you’re a bit scared of this whole Reading thing because you don’t really get it, and everyone keeps telling you what a Big Deal it is, a readermaker can be a great thing. Because you pick it up. It’s easy to get into. The story rips along. Before you know it, you’ve finished. You read a whole book. A whole entire book. And it was fun. So you read another one. This reading thing is easy! And because you’re breezing along, you’re a reading ninja, you think about picking up something a bit longer. Something a bit harder. And your love of reading has begun.

There’s this terrible thing that adults say when they see kids reading commercial fiction. At least they’re reading something. Can you imagine anything more condescending? More insulting? US reading guru Patrick Jones suggests a comparison with the following scenario: Imagine you introduce your new husband to an old friend, and they raise their eyebrows, give you a sympathetic smile and say ‘well, at least you married someone’. We should be respecting the reading choices our children make. If you know a teenager who is reading Twilight, and you think it’s a thinly-veiled piece of anti-feminist ultra-conservative-Christian fan-fiction, then don’t tell her that what she’s reading is rubbish. First of all, read it yourself before you pass judgement. Ask her why she likes it. Talk to her about the bits that make you uncomfortable, and ask her opinions. You’ll be surprised, I promise.

Not to say that all YA books are readermakers. There is some heartachingly beautiful, complex writing out there for young people. Just pick up anything by Margo Lanagan or Ursula Dubosarsky. The brilliance and beauty of YA is that it spans every genre or level of complexity.

An article in the New York Times last year profiled Nadia, a teenager who struggles to engage with books. She read a book about the Holocaust that she enjoyed, but couldn’t get into the fantasy novel that her mother bought her. The article sadly states that ‘Nadia never became a big reader’. It then goes on to detail her obsession with Japanese manga comics and online fan-fiction, which she both reads and writes.

Is reading online the same as reading books? Does it have the same positive effects? Dana Gioia, chairman of the US National Endowment for the Arts, thinks not: ‘Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,’ he says, ‘they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.’

Well, maybe not. But I don’t think anyone’s suggesting one should replace the other. Spending time online isn’t a substitute for reading novels, but neither is watching TV, or getting plenty of exercise, or eating leafy vegetables. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do any of those things.

Nadia sounds like a big reader to me.

She sounds like someone who loves stories so much, consuming them isn’t enough. She wants to spend more time with her favourite characters. She wants to push them into new situations, beyond the ones they experience in the canonical world of the original text.

Every time Nadia reads or writes or watches or hears a story, it deepens her understanding of the way narrative works. And this understanding of story, of the mechanics of story, makes her love stories even more. It’s like breathing in. And when she writes a story, or a blog post, or draws a comic, or tells someone a vivid anecdote about that thing her little brother did with the cat and the jar of peanut butter, then she’s breathing out. Everyone who loves stories does this.

In my work with insideadog.com.au, the State Library of Victoria’s website for teens about books, we found that young people didn’t want to just review books. They wanted to engage with them, in creative and collaborative ways. We started an award called the Inkys Creative Reading Prize that encouraged teens to make a creative response to a book they loved. One teenager wrote an orchestral score to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Another made a charm-bracelet, each charm representing a different aspect of Twilight. Video trailers, hand-stitched book covers, costume designs, book-themed cakes, stories, poems, music and illustration have all been submitted. The response each year is overwhelming and inspiring.

And here’s where it gets really exciting. Teenagers who love books are saving the world.

If a book (especially a YA book) is popular, it’s probable there are online activities involving it, whether they be forum-style discussions, fan-fiction, fan-art, video or craft. But there are literary communities springing up online that have loftier purposes — working with charities and activisim-based organisations to try and make the world a better place.

This link between fandom and social activism isn’t guaranteed. YA Author and activist John Green comments that he hasn’t seen any activism-focussed fandom surrounding the Twilight novels, commenting that ‘this may be because of the values in the books or because some lack of momentum within the community, but I don’t think it’s a universal or even very common phenomenon’. He sees literature as a kind of conduit — a space where people with shared sensibilities can come together to discuss and address the issues they identify as being important.

Green is one of the founding members of YouTube-based community Nerdfighters. He explains:

Nerdfighters are not about you and me. Nerdfighters are about a made of awesome book, made by a woman in Australia, going to a made of awesome baby in the United States. Nerdfighters are about raising money and awareness for important causes. Nerdfighters are about building a supportive community of friends… in my pants. Nerdfighters are about stupid beautiful projects and making each other laugh and think with T-shirts and pocket protectors and rants about the situation in Pakistan which sucks right now. In the contemporary world where things fall apart and the center cannot hold you have to imagine a community where there is no center… A lot of life is about doing things that don’t suck with people who don’t suck.

Through various projects, Nerdfighters have helped to get Democrat Daniel Biss elected to the state legislature in Illinois in a formerly Republican district; have purchased clean drinking water for villages in rural Bangladesh and Haiti; and have loaned over $100,000 through microfinancing organization kiva.org to mostly female entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The Nerdfighters community is not solely focused on activism. Their creative output is varied, incorporating music, fiction, video, art, education, craft and many kinds of play, including amusing challenges, punishments, pranking and games. Green explains that he and his brother decided early on that the community needed a kind of mission statement or purpose, something that was broad enough that members could take it in whichever direction they chose, but neologistic and therefore specific to their community. They settled on ‘decreasing WorldSuck’. The Nerdfighters project is dedicated to creating spaces that foster mutual respect, intellectual and philosophical thought, linguistic play and a fundamental desire to make the world a better place.

There’s also an online fan club called the Harry Potter Alliance (thehpa.org). It spans a network of over a million people, many of whom are teenagers. The HPA identify the ‘real world Dark Arts’ — genocide, famine, homophobia, bullying, illiteracy — and they ask the question, ‘What would Dumbledore do?’. And then they do it. Last year the HPA sent five cargo planes of aid and supplies to earthquake victims in Haiti. They donated 88,000 books all over the world and won a $250,000 giving competition to run a literacy campaign. They stage free ‘wizard rock’ concerts with bands like Harry and the Potters and The Moaning Myrtles, in order to get young adults in the US to enroll to vote.

But what about the kids who are too young to vote? In 2008, an online community of teenagers and YA authors sprang up, headed by US author Maureen Johnson. The community, calling itself YA for Obama, discussed strategies for young people to get involved in the democratic process, despite being legally excluded from it. Literary luminaries such as Scott Westerfeld, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare and Judy Blume wrote essays breaking down policies and finding the points that were relevant to young people. The teenage members ran letter-writing campaigns, helped the elderly and infirm reach polling places on election day, and door-knocked themselves silly. (In all fairness, there was a YA for McCain website as well, but it only had six members, and no authors.)

In a 2010 TED talk, game designer Jane McGonical outlined her theory of how video games might change the world. She explained that when you play a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) such as World of Warcraft, you are immediately trusted with a mission that’s perfectly matched to your current abilities within the game. Every challenge is achievable, and you are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who will trust and help you achieve your ‘epic win’. The problem is, people feel like they’re not as good in the real world. She elaborates:

‘Good’ as in motivated to do something that matters, inspired to collaborate and cooperate… Gamers are super-empowered, hopeful individuals. These are people who believe that they are individually capable of changing the world. And the only problem is that they believe that they are capable of changing virtual worlds and not the real world.

This is particularly applicable to teenagers. Restricted by their age and low disposable income, teens are excluded from democratic process and political debate, at the same time as being labeled as apathetic. It explains why novels like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are so popular with teens — both books follow the journey of a disempowered protagonist, who seizes control from an oppressive adultcentric regime.

The pleasure and empowerment that McGonical describes is also experienced when we are immersed in fiction. And if reading a book can be compared to playing a single-person video game, then engaging in literary fandom is the equivalent of playing World of Warcraft. Except instead of slaying virtual dragons, these young people are embarking on adventures with real-life, world-changing consequences.

Young people have always cared about the written word. I know I wasn’t alone in writing endless reams of bad poetry, and copying down song lyrics to blu-tack to my bedroom wall. I passed notes, scribbled on desks, wrote diary entries and letters. Young people are the inventors of slang — they love to play with language and push it in unexpected directions.

But teens today are not the same as we were, because the world isn’t the same. In the past, the best access a teenager would have had to words was their school library. The average school library holds about ten thousand books, with an average total of 600 million words. Google Analyst Peter Norvig estimated in 2007 that the Internet contained 100 trillion words — a figure which, statistically, has probably doubled over the past four years. And those 200 trillion words are available to everyone with a computer, or with access to a school or public library. Young people are the custodians and the primary users of the written word. Some of them are using it to change the world. Others say ZOMG U R HOT LOL. But that’s okay. Just as young people have the right to read trashy books, they also have the right to cover the Internet in trashy words. There’s plenty of room.


Lili Wilkinson is the author of five YA novels, including Scatterheart, Pink, and A Pocketful of Eyes. She managed insideadog.com.au at the State Library of Victoria from 2006-2011, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.


© Lili Wilkinson

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