May 11, 2014

Slice of PIE: “Teenagers Don’t Know That!”

The above is a quote I heard at a con I attended about a year ago. If I asked you to guess about the demographics of the group in the room at the time – in fact the demographic of the entire base of fans there – my guess is that you would hit the nail on the head.

Is there any wonder that (based ONLY on what I’ve seen at the handful of cons I’ve attended) there are few teenagers who are real science fiction fans? There was ONE teen in the audience of the group. He didn't say anything -- which doesn't surprise me -- but everyone else that heard that statement let it go unremarked.

Myself included.

Why didn’t I speak out? Why didn’t I point out that not only do teens know more than they let on, they know more than most adults do.
Extreme prejudice, that's why.
That’s right, most adults will assure you that teenagers don’t know about mortgages, leasing a car, charging limitless debt on credit cards then taking out another credit card to pay off the other ones, taking expensive trips to apparently “exotic” places that are really well-executed stage shows, having children, having a “real job”, working a full-time salaried position, owing money to The Bank, having REAL problems...they don’t (I conclude) know about the IMPORTANT stuff.

But if there is one thing I have learned in my 31 years of teaching and 4 years of counseling it's that teenagers know a lot more than people give them credit for. They also perceive more than many adults do because the world is still a new place for them. There are challenges for them. There is a future for them – despite what adults writing dreary, hopeless dystopian novels have done to crush adolescent hope.

While I don’t remember the exact context of the discussion, in my notes, it appears after Jack McDevitt said, “Millions of miles with no artificial lights – this was where the impossible might happen.” He was referencing the time he spent in Pembina, North Dakota. Concurrently, I noted that the group made observations about why HARRY POTTER worked, how SF&F deals with aging – and how we deal with women and aging, asking ourselves what we are trying to do as authors, and how to balance populations of characters (racially, gender wise, and as regards sexual orientation) in our stories.

IF I were to put all of this together, trying to squeeze it into a general world-view expressed by the elders at the session, then I might come up with something like this: teenagers don’t know what made HARRY POTTER work, they know nothing about aging and gender differences in aging perceptions, and they don’t notice diversity in populations in writing. They also don’t know about mortgages, leasing, credit cards, expensive trips, “real jobs”, salaries, owing LOTS of money, and having REAL problems. You know. The important things.
So when it comes to knowing what science fiction might mean to them, "Teenagers don't know that!" The implied coda is, "But WE do!"

But my observation is that they do. And we're not hitting it.
"But YA science fiction is POPULAR RIGHT NOW!"
Adults are abandoning “adult” science fiction because it isn’t speaking to them and YA is speaking down to them. I’ve heard the protests many times. I’ve heard how adults are so proud of how relevant THE HUNGER GAMES, UGLIES, HARRY POTTER, GONE, and all the other books are and how there’s a renaissance in YA. All the pride comes from old people. I’m pretty sure it’s not coming from young adults, just like I’m pretty sure teenagers know more than old people give them credit for.

Tangent but related: I have a freshly minted five-year post teenager who said, “The reason we don’t use Face Book anymore is because people your age are using it. We don’t use it the same way.”

In 2012, Publisher’s Weekly reported that 55% of the consumers of young adult novels “aren’t all that young”. In 2013, The Bowker study found that “84% of YA books were purchased by consumers 18 or older”. ( Adults are reading YAs.
For me, that’s not the issue. The issue is that like Face Book and blue jeans, once again adults have coopted a good thing intended for teenagers.


Because adults write the books, so adults resonate with the books – and it’s clear in our society that YAs are second-class citizens and that “Teenagers don’t know that!” Don't know what? Don't know what's GOOD for them? Don't know that YA science fiction is "for them"?
Perhaps it’s time for someone to stand up for teens.
Perhaps it’s time I took a stand. Perhaps I should stand up for teens...Maybe ask THEM what they want to read!

Any YA want to tell me what you WANT to read as it relates to science fiction?


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