Do YA novels have a responsibility to educate their audience (my answer is…”Kind of?”)

Everyone, please welcome Rahul Kanakia to Rich in Color! Rahul’s book, Enter Title Here, came out last week. Today Rahul explores his views of what novels are meant to do and what kind of responsibilities authors have to themselves at their readers.

titleWhen we talk about diversity in young adult literature, there’s often a strong strain of, “Teens need to see this” or “Teens should know this.” And to be honest it makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s only my background in the academic creative writing world—a place where politics is eschewed—but I was taught that novels shouldn’t strive to instruct. Novels aren’t about teaching lessons; they’re about uncovering and highlighting life’s complexities.

This year, I read a number of queer YA novels (I’m bisexual), and even now, in the year 2016, so many of them fell into the same pattern. Youth knows they’re queer. Youth hides the truth for fear of ostracism. Truth comes out. Youth is ostracized. But youth learns to believe in themselves and accept their difference, and then they are rewarded.

Which, obviously, is not a universal experience. There’s a reason why LGBT homelessness is so high. It’s because when kids come out to their families, they’re not infrequently tossed onto the street.

But I understand why we write these books. It’s because we have so much compassion, not for kids, necessarily, but for our younger selves. We know now, as adults, that you really do need to believe in yourself. And we know that if you open your heart to love and acceptance, then you will find it. And we wish, that as kids, we hadn’t been so afraid.

So when we write, we face a continual temptation to stack the deck and to make things out to be easier than they are.

And I’m the same. My debut is about a high school overachiever, Reshma, who is desperate to get into Stanford. Reshma is efficient and ruthless, and she doesn’t care about friends or boyfriends or, really, any sort of human relationship.

One subplot in the book concerns Reshma’s abuse of Adderall in order to study. This is a drug that a shockingly large number of people, including many of my friends, have used on occasion in order to enhance their academic performance. And most of them suffer few ill consequences. But am I really gonna write a book in which a teen abuses prescription amphetamines without issues? No.

And what I wrote in my book isn’t incorrect. Adderall is highly addictive and very dangerous. I, and several friends of mine, have had some pretty negative experiences with it. And I wouldn’t advise any teen to use it.

But…there’s also a complexity there. It is possible for a person to use it without negative consequences. That’s a complexity that I ignored in writing my novel. And although as a result the book is something I am more comfortable with, I’m not sure it’s actually a better book.

I don’t know the solution here. Because I also don’t believe that novels are simply about telling the truth. They’re not. If they were, nobody could with any seriousness write a story about love triumphing over all or about a lone hero defeating a terrible evil. Novels are about more than physical and social reality. They’re also about creating a fictional landscape that corresponds in some way to an emotional landscape.

Even though they’re meant for consumption by strangers, the writing of novels is a really personal thing. I think in some ways it becomes easier to accept these compromises when we stop thinking about our responsibility to our teen audience and start thinking about our responsibility to ourselves. I don’t want to read a novel where you can cheerfully take study drugs with no problem. Although I know that is the reality for some people, it’s not my reality, and it’s not the reality that I want to create in my fiction.

But it’s still an uneasy balance, and I think writers need to continually ask themselves how truthful they’re being, and, if the answer is “Not 100%”, then they have to think about the ways in which they’re lying, and whether they’re truly comfortable with those lies.

Rahul KanakiaYou can check out my book on Amazon, B&N, Indiebound, and Goodreads. And if you’re interested in me personally, you can visit my Website, Blog, or Twitter.