Last year, I talked about a study that shows how great writing can make the reader turn fiction into reality—transporting them into the main character’s story and feeling as though it was his own. I’ve certainly experienced this, and I love it. It inspires me to want to write my stories that well.
It also sparked some thoughts that I chose not to share last year, when I wrote that first post. I'm not exactly sure why, perhaps because last year was insanely busy and I had limited time to respond to what could potentially be a controversial post. I haven't been able to shake these thoughts, though, and I'm also looking to start my year off right. So, I'm sharing. :)
Over the years, many writers and readers have mused on how much accountability should be placed on the writer. Responses to this stretch widely across the spectrum. Some say that since fiction isn't real, the reader shouldn't take any of it seriously. Some say that all accountability is on the reader, because the writer is only one person and can't possibly see his/her story how everyone else sees it. Others say that writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they intentionally (or unintentionally) send.
To those who think fiction shouldn't be taken seriously, I say *PSHAW*. If we don't take fiction seriously, then it has no meaning. Just because a fictional story never happened doesn't make it meaningless. In fact, I find lots of meaning in fiction because the author created everything for a purpose, and it's my job as a reader to discover those purposes. That always gets my brain thinking, and that's pretty much always a good thing...
For those who think the onus is on the reader, well, I think that's partially true. The reader is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. And, the writer *is* only one person and therefore limited. However, there are ways around that. That's where critique partners and beta readers come into play. They provide additional perspectives, which can give the author a wealth of information. It's easy to dismiss one person's feedback as 'oh, well, he just didn't quite get it.' While that may be true, chances are that he won't be the only person to think this, and it could earn you unfavorable reviews. It's in your best interest to listen to him, figure out where and how he got off track, and then fix it so that future readers don't have the same issue.
As for those who say writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they send, well, this study on a reader's 'experience-taking' makes a good argument for it. It's kind of saying that great writing requires great responsibility.
According to this study, experience-taking works when the reader solidly identifies with the main character. Which is what should happen! It’s why we write fiction, right? Well, it’s why I write fiction. And I want to write the most believable, relatable characters I can because then my readers will identify with them and enjoy the story. Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology, says "Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways." Which is great! But...what if the change isn't meaningful or beneficial? What if it's hurtful?
I could rant for hours on the hot-jerk-boyfriend that’s prevalent in YA stories today, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’m going to make one observation about one scenario that scares me:
An author writes an amazing story, in which a good person is partnered with a rotten significant other. Then, that rotten person suddenly changes and becomes a good person. I can't count how many times I've seen this formula in YA stories... And teen girls are devouring them. Is it enough to just be happy that they're reading? I'm not so sure.
For readers in the throes of experience-taking, I think this is a recipe for disaster. These readers are taking on a character's experiences as their own, and, according to Ms. Libby, are making conscious or unconscious decisions based on them. Which means they will be stuck in an unhealthy relationship, believing on some level that the rotten significant other will suddenly change. I won't say that's impossible, because it could happen. But it's *highly* unlikely. And this will begin the pattern of lousy relationships because they will be looking for a person that doesn't exist. That scares the crap out of me, and I don't think our teens (boys or girls) deserve that.
So, there's my thoughts. Feel free to share your own.
To be clear, I don't think that tough subjects should be bypassed in YA fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact. Books are a safe arena for broaching these subjects, and not addressing them does a disservice to teens. They are quite capable of taking these things on and dealing with them in effective ways, and don't deserve 'dumbed down' books that pretend all is hunky dory with the world. What I take issue with is putting rose-colored glasses on the story, and then giving it a fairy-tale ending. I think our teens deserve much more than that.