Young Adult Fiction and The Imp of the Perverse
I have a new young adult thriller novel out — an adventure story and ghost story combined — Nightmare City. I seriously hope you'll consider getting a copy or two to read secretly before giving them to the young adults in your life.
Meanwhile, here are some brief thoughts on writing stories for the youth market.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story called The Imp of the Perverse. The imp was that demon inside all of us that pushes us to do the wrong thing, the thing that is certain to harm ourselves and others. You feel the imp inside you when you stand on a precipice and have the urge to throw yourself off. Maybe it's just another name for the devil, or maybe it's a personification of that sinful nature that, to paraphrase St. Paul, makes us do what we would not while being unable to do what we would.
Nowhere is the Imp of the Perverse more active today than in the stories and images we give to our young people. The imp is in the beckoning toward self-degradation and self-destruction that underlies so many songs and movies and books, in the blithe romanticization of promiscuity, drugs and foul language, in the strutting pride in transgression not of outdated social mores but of one's own inner conviction of what is noble and good. There are plenty of wonderful songs and stories out there, but there really does seem an aggressive movement in parts of the entertainment industry to sell behavior to young people that, simply put, will make their lives not better but worse. I don't have to name the garbage. You know what it is.
Criticize the selling of self-destructive behavior to the young and you're "puritanical," or "slut-shaming," or being "unrealistic about the modern world." But in fact, this effort to normalize the degraded is itself perverse in the extreme. It's the incarnation of that imp within who urges us to do ill to what we love the best: ourselves and our children. The people who peddle this trash curse those who dare to criticize them so loudly precisely because they know they are doing wrong and can't stop themselves. Believe me: the person who accuses you of "slut-shaming," is herself deeply ashamed.
When Thomas Nelson publishers, a Christian house, first asked me if I'd be interested in writing young adult fiction, I told them, "I don't preach to anyone. It's obnoxious and makes for bad storytelling." They responded that they didn't want a preacher. They just wanted me to tell great stories from my point of view.
So that's what I do. My stories don't lecture anyone about what sex life to have or what drugs to take or what language to use. I simply tell stories that take place in the world as I understand it and that represent the things I know to be true. We live in a moral universe. That doesn't mean that good guys win and bad guys lose. That doesn't mean that God sends you down, down, down if you do wrong and up, up to happy-land if you're very, very good. It simply means that there's a price you pay for everything — not always in the world of the flesh, but in your spirit where it matters; where it matters whether there's a life beyond this one or not. The price you pay for cruelty, deception and self-degradation is paid in shame and rationalization and a slow strangling of your capacity for both truth and happiness. The rewards can be pleasures of great intensity. They don't last but then, in this life, nothing does. The price for moral integrity is paid in effort of will, a sharp awareness of your own failings, and an occasional denial of those same intense and immediate pleasures. The rewards are a priceless clarity of heart, a heightened ability to love, and a steadily blossoming sense of joy in the fact of life and the gift of life. As the old saying goes: you pays your money and you takes your choice.
To represent a world that works otherwise — a world where treating the human being like a hunk of meat with a chemistry set inside is all good fun — a world where your deepest sense of right and wrong, honor and shame, good and evil are only illusions foisted on you by a finger-wagging society — that's lying to your audience plain and simple. That's giving free rein to the imp of the perverse.
Lying is fine for journalists and academics; it's what they do. But I'm a novelist. You can't make good fiction out of lies.
Again, Nightmare City, is on sale now. I hope you'll give it a try.