The BS column: Teenage wasteland/ What to read before you get old

(This is a longer version of this week’s Speaking Volumes column, carried in the Business Standard, September 1, 2009)

Teenagers watch movies and play online games, but they don’t read any more. Today’s children aren’t interested in books. Familiar complaints, often voiced in “readers are an endangered species” arguments, but they miss two crucial points.

Most literate cultures lose readers in the teenage years. Though most teens continue to be highly connected to reading, narrative and textuality—through Twitter, social media networks, graphic novels and comics, films, and new technospeak argots, they seem to move away from books.

In India, we could hardly complain that teenagers don’t read any more, if we had so little to offer them to read. But there’s been a sharp shift over just the last few years, though, with writers like Siddharth Sharma (The Grasshopper’s Run, which blends action adventure and contemporary history), Shazia Omar (Like a Diamond in the Sky–crossover fiction) and others joining writers like fantasy veteran Samit Basu, who has considerable crossover appeal, or Paro Anand and Anshumani Rudra, whose writings increasingly appeal to teens.

This week, four publishing insiders share their views on the young adult writing scene in India: Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India; Sayoni Basu, Publishing Director, Scholastic India; Anita Roy, Commissioning Editor, Zubaan Books; and Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Editorial Director, Puffin Books.

Is there a growing demand for young adult fiction?

Sayoni Basu (Scholastic): There’s a very definite age group between the Enid Blytons, Nancy Drew and the Sidney Sheldons! To an extent, the classics fill that gap, but that gets quite boring. Young adults—roughly between the ages of 14-18, have their own interests and issues–first love, growing up, career choices–which few children’s or adult novels deal with. So they’re looking for reading that’s greater in complexity and ideas than a children’s book–but that’s still not quite about marriage or jobs or suchlike.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh (Puffin): Young readers want books that are written for them and that feature their thinking; Puffin is actively looking to commission original fiction for this segment.

Anita Roy (Zubaan): There is undoubtedly both a need and a demand for YA Fiction – you only have to look at the sales for this sector to know that it’s healthy and growing. The growth has been a relatively recent phenomenon – previously you just had “adult” and “children’s” literature: the huge commercial success of writers like J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Stephanie Jordan has been due, in no small measure, to the fact that their series have been read by adults as well as kids. They have pioneered the term “cross-over fiction.” If you’re a pessimist, you might put this down to the fact that adults are less inclined to read serious, grown-up, ‘high’ literature in the modern day, and see this as a kind of ‘dumbing down’ of literary tastes. If you’re an optimist, you could see this – as I’m more inclined to do – as the fact that really good writers are telling really gripping stories which appeal to readers regardless of their age.

Thomas Abraham (Hachette): We’re seeing a huge sales spurt in this category, but that’s fuelled by one or two series—Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series, the House of Night series. These are huge phenomena worldwide, but the rest of the category is as dead as it always was. We have a whole imprint that caters to YA with top notch writers in it like Jordan and Scott Card, but these don’t sell at all. So one is faced with the old problem that once teenagers cross the 15+ threshold (with rare exceptions), we seem to lose them where leisure reading is concerned (to parties, internet, hangouts, TV?). A lot come back when they are early 20s mainly for non-fiction that ‘must be read’ (read career advancement reading which will include some trade reading too that will stand them in good stead in interviews), but this at one level is the biggest demographic challenge being faced today by the Indian trade publishing industry. Children’s writing is seeing a sort of resurgence, but unless we have initiatives to get the teen segment reading for pleasure, this whole young populace that we’re rolling out in economic surveys (50% of India is below the age of 30 etc) will be a non-reading population even if it is a literate one.

What does this age group want to read? And what challenges do Indian writers face?

Sayoni: Parents are still uncomfortable with the idea that their children might be interested in knowing about sex or relationships. I find it quite interesting that some school teachers have no problems with Mills and Boon but do with Judy Bloom. I think the 12 to 18 year-old has any many diverse interests as an adult. So a similar range of genres, and perhaps themes and treatments that are more relevant to their lives. Also stories which relate to their lives or stories with protagonists of a similar age group.

Sudeshna: We’re looking at books that are based on the reality around us today—relationships, friends, peer issues–or at highly popular fantasy adventure books. Suchitra Krishnamoorthi’s Swapnalok Society series, for instance, are set in a residential society in Mumbai and follow the trials of a group of children 12 years and over. Faces in the Water by Ranjit Lal, set in modern Delhi, offers a surreal take on female infanticide.

Anita: Basically, good writing. Sounds simplistic, but it’s the only answer I can really come up with. Stories which capture the imagination, and don’t talk down to the reader; strong characters, gripping plots, books which reflect young lives and are not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. There has been much hand-wringing in the West about the very dark and difficult books which feature on today’s YA lists – The chair of judges and the Guardian’s children’s books editor Julia Eccleshare says of this year’s Guardian Children’s Book Prize: “This longlist shows there is absolutely no subject which children’s authors aren’t willing to tackle… there is nothing which is not capable of being dealt with in a children’s book.”
Indian writers, I feel, too often hamper their own creativity by deciding what ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be written about for children. And publishers, too, prejudge what will get past the “gatekeepers” – librarians, teachers, parents – which can lead to erring on the side of the ‘safe’. I see signs that in the next few years, however, we’ll see more and more writers and publishers taking risks – and those leading to a healthy crop of Indian books for young adults which challenge, delight, disturb, entertain and provoke. The field is wide open right now, and the next few years are going to be exciting!

Thomas: Vampire and paranormal romance fiction has obviously sunk its teeth in! Abroad, this category offers perspectives on growing up and discussions on major political and social themes. We have, for instance, Arjun Rao’s Third Best coming out, a gritty, almost hard boiled look at life within a residential school that we will market to teens. Unfortunately, the top teen bestsellers would probably still be the guides to SAT, and IIT-JEE etc. Leisure reading needs to catch up.

Recommendations, aside from books already mentioned: Ranjit Lal: The Battle for Number 19, Paro Anand’s Weed and No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, Kavita Daswani: A Girl Named Indie, Michaela Clarke: The City of Jewels, Siddhartha Sarma: The Grasshopper’s Run, Subhadra Sen Gupta: Double Click, Arun Krishnan: The Loudest Firecracker (disclaimer–this was commissioned and published by Tranquebar, my former publishing house) and the works of writers like Samit Basu, Payal Dhar, Sarnath Banerji, Amruta Patil.





3 responses to “The BS column: Teenage wasteland/ What to read before you get old”

  1. Space Bar Avatar

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  2. Anil Menon Avatar

    Interesting and informative piece. Thanks. From the expert comments, the situation seems to be that we have a relatively small population of readers with limited access to a small population of writers. It's the exact opposite of Chris Anderson assumed to derive his "long tail" in (Amazon's) book sales: a large consumer population with easy access to a great many choices. The standard solutions usually call for increasing the number of readers and/or building better distribution networks. Another solution might be to create more writers. In the past, it used to be that writers began as addicted readers. But the situation seems to have flipped. Readers are recovering writers. Kids seem to be discovering what they like to read by writing their way into various communities. It could be that getting a kid to write a murder mystery, SF short story or fantasy piece will commit them– if the marketing chaps are to be believed– to those genres as well. In short, more children's workshops, more POD-antholgies by kids, more writing competitions on cereal boxes… anything to get them writing to standards. Traditionally, publishing houses have excelled as gatekeepers. The idea is to expand this function, not by building more walls, but by punching a lot more gates into the wall.

  3. subhadra Avatar

    hey thanks for including Double Click! Well the four loonies are on to another lark soon. You know what the problem is in India? We are still uncomfortable with teens – all the rebelliousness and in your face sexuality – most writers refuse to handle that. Teens are hard to write about, being sort of adult but also wierdly childish at the same time. Also a 13 year old and a 17 year old are from different planets, so you have to decide which teen you are pitching your story to. Writers have to talk to them and listen before they write for them. I really recommend writing teen books, you laugh a lot coming up with ghastly, politically incorrect stuff. Another book I liked, Rupa Gulab's Piece of the old Blockhead. It actually had parents who felt real and not cliches. And ignore all those complaints about teenagers not reading, they do. Some of the them, especially the boys think it uncool to admit it. subhadra

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