When your guidelines exclude a Hugo nominee, there’s a problem.

These are the guidelines for Tesseracts 15, a Canadian anthology of genre fiction that is focusing on YA stories this year. I was really excited about submitting to this anthology, until I read the guidelines. (They’re available as a PDF on the website linked above.) Snip:

If yours doesn’t fit, please don’t submit it.

Whatever other definitions of a story suited to a 13 and older reader you may encounter or hold, the only ones that matter to this anthology are ours, plain and simple.

* No torture or explicit acts of violence. (Action/fights/struggle are fine.)
* No explicit sex. (Be romantic.)
* No obscenities. (Be inventive. Yes, kids swear. No, we won’t buy your story if your characters do.)
* No shades of what’s already been done in YA speculative fiction, i.e. schools for magic or vampire boyfriends, unless you are presenting a markedly different and original approach.
* No flat, clichéd characters or character place-markers, i.e. the lost little girl, the unhappy dad, the sandwich-fixing mom.
* No stories without a strong speculative fiction element that drives the plot, i.e., mom and dad getting a divorce on Mars won’t cut it for science fiction, unless there is something more to be made of the setting’s effect. The same applies for fantasy and horror.

I like how editors Julie Czernada and Susan MacGregor have already anticipated a lot of the arguments, here. I think they’re right to draw the line at their editorial privilege: what matters isn’t what other editors allow, but what they allow. It is, after all, their anthology and not someone else’s. Remember when your mom used to say “I don’t care what you get to do at Jimmy’s house; this is my house and you have to follow my rules”? This is like that.

The trouble is that I like Jimmy’s house more than yours, Mom. That’s where the Hugo nominees play. And as everyone knows, the Hugo losers’ party is way more fun that the winners.’

Taking another look at those guidelines, I realized that one of my favourite books in recent years, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, wouldn’t make the cut. Neither would M.T. Anderson’s National Book Award Finalist, Feed. Neither would either of Margaret Mahy’s Carnegie winners. And to me, that’s a problem. Because when your YA anthology excludes material found in award-winning YA novels, that’s like saying that you don’t want the best.

This isn’t to say that adult content makes a good story, or that all YA stories should dance on the knife’s edge. Heinlein, Bradbury, and LeGuin all wrote short stories that fit the guidelines outlined above. The book that won the Hugo last year, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, also fits the guidelines and is aimed at a YA audience. But I think those guidelines are stringent enough to stifle the writers who don’t have a “clean” story in the stable. There are only about two months to complete this story, if you’re starting from scratch. That’s not a lot of time to put down work that rivals Gaiman’s.

Say you want to submit, but you have to de-fang a story that might not make the cut in order to get it in on time. How would you do it? The line here seems to be explicitness. There’s a chasm between Holden Caulfield “feeling pretty sexy by that point” and Holden Caulfield being unable to get the image of underage prostitute Sunny’s nipples out of his mind. But these things happen by degree, and the terms “explicit” and “romantic” are inherently weaselly. One person’s explicit is another person’s romantic. This is the problem with all obscenity regulations. They’re deeply subjective and vulnerable to passing fashions, and they’re why even classic children’s literature is banned or challenged in multiple countries. The guidelines listed above (those that relate to language and depiction, not plot development) seem designed to make sure that T15 is never challenged, ever.

My friend and fellow workshop member Mike Skeet reminded me that there’s a big difference between “adult” material found in YA novels and the same material found in YA short stories. Obviously the latter are more condensed, and anything you add has to be done with more grace and wisdom. But the classics of YA literature, genre or otherwise, aren’t known for their…safety. Bad things happen. All the time. That’s sort of the point. Holden Caulfield tries sleeping with a hooker and gets beaten up by her pimp. Ender Wiggin kills two kids. Jerry Renault winds up a in a boxing match with public masturbator Emile Janza. Leslie Burke dies. “Alice” drops acid. Charles Holloway’s hand gets crushed. It’s called conflict, and it’s what makes a story. But a writer spooked by guidelines like these might find herself conflict-averse in her attempt to make a sale and build a name.

When I talked about these guidelines with my workshop in an email thread, the thing that kept popping up was worry for the Tesseracts brand. One parent in the group said that the guidelines read like recommendations for ages 10 and under, not ages 13 and over. I understand that an editor’s first job is to give herself the time and space to read and think, and that one way to do that is to lay down the law and filter out unwanted content. But I wonder if opening up the field would have guaranteed more quality in and among the quantity, while simultaneously preserving the editors’ right to reject stories they found offensive. Would allowing racier stories have circumscribed that right? Would it have limited the editors’ right to have a “let’s tone it down” conversation with the writers they wanted to buy stories from?

The answer’s in the anthology, of course. If these guidelines guide in quality material that young readers enjoy, then mission accomplished. But if those young readers are anything like the reader I was, the last thing they want is content that comes pre-sanitized. At thirteen, I was reading Stephen King novels. At fourteen, I was reading Michael Ondaatje. At fifteen, it was Sebastien Japrisot. Are you seeing a pattern, here? Kids like texts that are actually above the level most adults think they can or should be reading at. They like to be challenged. They hate being talked down to. Every writer should know her audience. I’m just wondering who the audience is, here. Kids, or their uptight parents?

1 thought on “When your guidelines exclude a Hugo nominee, there’s a problem.”

  1. It does strike me as odd that in the 21st century there’s still such a strong emphasis on blunting reality, ESPECIALLY in the sf arena.

    I mean any mention of censorship on, you know, the internet seems a little strange. Can’t have the same kids who troll 4chan use curse words in their creative inlets? Sigh.

    They will figure it out someday no doubt.

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