Last year young adult (YA) author, Dianne Touchell, released her contemporary debut Creepy & Maud. It’s a suburban love story about a girl with Trichotillomania (a compulsive urge to pull out one’s own hair), and the unnamed next-door-neighbor boy with a slight case of Haphephobia (a fear of touching and being touched), who watches and woos her with literary quotes he holds up in his bedroom window. The two fall in love amidst their parents’ neighbouring warfare.
I loved it; from the unusual voyeuristic romance and parents at each other’s throats, to the protagonists who revelled in being on the fringe and embraced weirdness rather than trying to grow up and out of it.
So I was shocked when I heard that Touchell had a run-in with a literary festival (which shall remain unnamed) over the content of the book. When her appearance at the festival became dependent upon not presenting Creepy & Maud, she chose to withdraw from the line-up.
I was angered by the censorship of this dark and fearless YA book. So I asked Dianne what it’s like to write for young people, but be censored by adults.
Here are her thoughts on the matter.
I believe the decision to modify the conditions of my presenting at the Festival was made without malice. I believe it was a decision made in a moment of panic by an organiser inundated with deadlines and pressure and with little support. I also believe that a conversation between me and the Festival organiser could have prevented the whole palaver. But her fear met my indignation and there was no recovery.
Can you see things from the Festival/Gatekeeper perspective?
I was a bookseller myself for many years. I was a sort of gatekeeper for the gatekeeper. I filtered titles for school librarians, leaving some great books out of approval boxes because I had a brief to fulfill. I was entrusted by some clients to recommend books that “wouldn’t get anyone into trouble”. I made some fear decisions I now regret. I had a choice and I erred on the side of caution every single time, even if it went against my own personal beliefs. Suddenly I found myself on the other side of the gate.
Should YA writers even attempt to appease the gatekeepers?
When you write for young adults, you don’t write with the book buyers in mind. You don’t even write with the audience in mind. As soon as you start filtering your work through the expectations of a reader or gatekeeper it all becomes rather self-conscious and sedate. But then your work is being read by a publisher who knows, bottom line, that the market for YA is schools. Part of any critical reading of a YA manuscript has to be “How many schools will refuse to stock this.” I understand that reality.
The oft-made claim is that young adult books are too dark, too depressing, too [insert latest scare-campaign]. What do you think about this, as a young adult writer?
There is an opinion that YA is becoming darker–I think it is becoming more reflective. I’ve read those YA books that want to teach something–the ones that pick an issue and resolve it and have the voice of a moral omniscient whispering in the background. I’ve enjoyed some of them. But I personally don’t want to teach young adults anything. I believe we’re at a stage where rather than force feeding them information based on the delusion that things are either black or white, decisions good or bad, and negative consequences permanently character defining, we should be encouraging critical thinking and compassion. In order to get someone to think, to engage, a little bit of discomfort never goes astray. Life is uncomfortable for many young adults. However as a bookseller I was very aware that some institutions have a fear of reflecting this discomfort, as if reading about someone else’s struggles will intensify those of the reader. Believing that reading about an abortion, for example, will make young girls all run out and get an abortion, is as specious as blaming Marilyn Manson for the Columbine shooting.
The problem with gatekeepers is their own agendas, discuss.
There is also the question of “appropriateness”, which I find spurious, and this is always tied to the personal taste of the YA book buyer or school policy. Everything is appropriate as long as the subject matter and reader are treated with respect, and as long as nothing is gratuitous.
I have made some adults uncomfortable with the love story I’ve written, I suspect because it deals with mental illness and emotional trauma and the apathy, or inability, of the adults in some kids lives to intercede before they develop their own slightly more self-destructive coping mechanisms. The initial fear of the Festival organiser, as it was put to me, was that parents like to see themselves in a certain way and prefer to have themselves reflected in their children’s reading material in that way. The Festival was thinking about a backlash that would never have happened. The parents in Creepy & Maude are reflected through the observations of their children. I never implied that these observations were reliable. We all look at the world through the filter of our own pain, confusion and belief.
What has been the aftermath, for you?
I don’t want the situation I found myself in to be used to hurt the Festival organisers, or the Festival. I would like to see their acknowledgement of having made the mistake recognised. I’d like to explore the relationship between author and gatekeeper, because it is a censorious one and it need not be. How often does this sort of thing happen and we just don’t hear about it?
Creepy & Maud was this year shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Older Readers award.
Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.