In honor of the launch of Short Fuse Publishing’s new Teen Fuse imprint, award-winning author Douglas Rees, whose four teen historical novels are the initial titles for Teen Fuse, shares his thoughts on the relevance and marketability of historical fiction written from the teen perspective.
WHOSE HISTORY? WHICH FICTION?
Teens, Tale-Telling and the Past
By Douglas Rees
It’s a given in publishing now: Adults read historical fiction, middle-graders read historical fiction, teenagers don’t.
Certainly in my work as a YA librarian, I see the end results of this belief. The new books that come into my branch seem to be either yet another volume in a dark fantasy series, or contemporary stories, chiefly about boyfriends, girlfriends or frenemies.
To some extent this is nothing new. I can recall, from early in my career, a flowchart (remember flowcharts?) that showed you how to write the YA novel of the late eighties. Depending on the flow you went with, you ended up with one of four stories. True enough at the time, but since then YA has moved into the niche abandoned by traditional publishers when they gave up on their midlist authors beginning in the late ‘60’s. Writers like Francesca Lia Block, Brent Hartinger and John Green blew up the flowchart and turned YA into the most vital, and most profitable, branch of publishing. You can do anything in YA stylistically, it seems, but you still can’t get historical published.
If it’s true that teens won’t read historical fiction, and yet are going to turn into adults who, presumably, will, we need to ask ourselves why this is so. The easy answer is that teens are too self-involved, too shallow, too distracted, to care about the past. Or they don’t want to read something that sounds like an assignment. These are copouts. Teens read fiction for the same reason other people do, for the same reason anyone reads fiction at all. To find themselves reflected in the words. To find their experience validated, expanded upon, enlightened. Mostly, they read to be entertained. I submit that if they’re not reading historical fiction, it’s because the books that would do these things are not being offered to them.
The historical fiction adults are reading today – discounting Romance fiction, which often uses history as set-dressing – is quite different from the kind I remember growing up. The covers all featured well-muscled heroic types either swinging swords or just about to, while some damsel in apparent distress and a state of undress, looks helpless.
There is a common saying among historians, which was put very succinctly by E.H. Carr decades ago: “History is a dialogue between the present and the past.” I believe the same thing is true of historical fiction. To succeed, it must connect the past to the reader’s present and suggest why it is important.
I am not calling for didactic fiction. That is the opposite of what I am talking about. Historical fiction, whether it’s written for adults or teens or middle-graders, should not try to teach, but to engage. Gary Paulsen’s sad and splendid Soldier’s Heart is not about PTSD. It is about the courage and suffering of a specific soldier, and the unhealable wounds to his soul which eventually will drive him to suicide. But any moderately aware young person reading it will know that hundreds of thousands of men and women back from service in the wars in the Middle East are afflicted with the same thing; that he lives in a country where the numbers of such sufferers is, for the first time since 1865, approaching the numbers of those who were afflicted with what was then called “soldier’s heart”.
Similarly, my novel Lightning Time is not about the overthrow of American slavery that grew out of John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. It is about the ambiguities and dangers of trying to advance civil rights in a nation full of those who are hostile or indifferent to that struggle. The last words my main character Theodore Worth writes are “John Brown may have his peace. We have his war.” And, God help us, we still do.
Gideon’s War, which became available today for the first time through Short Fuse Publishing’s new Teen Fuse imprint, is not a celebration of the easy-looking victory of the United States over Spain in 1898. It is the story of what that victory actually cost the men who gained it, and of how it put us, quite consciously, on the path of empire that led us to a semi-official state of permanent war. Our victory over the Spanish empire led straight to the burning oil fields of the Shatt-Al-Arab. Gideon Bauer, home from the war, sleeps again in the bed he once shared with his brother, the brother who is now fighting to secure American rule over the Philippines. Gideon dreams of a long line of soldiers marching somewhere very far away. Perhaps it’s made up of the millions of young people who have come back from the imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most people in their late teens know at least one such veteran.
There’s an unexamined assumption about historical fiction that it has to be triumphalist fiction. At the end, the hero has directed the course of events in the way he wants them to go and we will get the benefit. Such stories don’t fit with the times. Kids devoured the Hunger Games series because it spoke to them about their lives now, and the lives they can expect to have. Things are dark, and getting darker. Historical fiction can, if writers wish it to, reflect that darkness without giving in to despair. It can amuse, enlighten, excite – but only if it firsts connects its readers to something that is already part of their lives. Once do that, and they will join us, watching the past illuminate their present.