Friday, February 5, 2010

Dude: Teen Voice, My Problems With It, & Obi-Wan

Today, all of my part of Virginia is holding its breath as we wait for The Snowstorm to End All Snowstorms to arrive. The net effect, so far, is that everyone now owns a snow shovel and the sky is petulantly gray. I’m still waiting for the snow that was supposed to have started two hours ago.

Meanwhile, my March deadline is starting to eyeball me in that funny way that grocery store cashiers do when they see that you’re writing a check instead of just swiping your card. But I think I’m going to take a momentary breather to wait for the snow and blog about something that’s been annoying me lately. It’s about the narrators in YA. I get most of my reading suggestions from reviews on blogs and Goodreads, and I’ve seen something crop up a few times that I strongly amazingly incredibly disagree with and here it is:

Teen Voice.

There are several different versions of this complaint that I’ve seen in reviews, but they generally go like this: “I really didn’t think that the main characters talked like real teens. They sounded like adults to me. Real teens don’t speak like that. Wow, what’s up with the SAT words in their vocabulary? Dude.”

This bothers me on about three different levels. No, four. Let me see if I have a bulleted list in me. Oh, I do. Here it is:

1 - Teens are not a foreign species of alien. It always makes me really itchy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about teens, because they are people, and people are wildly different. So when someone says: “They don’t sound like teens” I want to immediately shout “that’s like saying ‘Maggie doesn’t sound like a Virginian.’ “ I am a Virginian, whether Virginia likes it or not, and while there is a Virginian accent, I don’t have one. Does that make me a . . . Marylander instead?

2 - I know you’re going to say “but there is teenspeak.” Oh, am I ever aware. Thank you, cellphones, for making the abbreviated chatspeak fanmails in my inbox possible. I know that there is hooking up and getting up in grills and things that are tight and OH EM GEE. For every teen that says those things, though, I can point you to a teen that doesn’t. I was never a slang sort of girl growing up, and only one of my friends was. Were you?


(oh! snow! it’s snowing!)

3 - Date me, baby! You want to give a book a shelf life (pun so not intended)? Seems to me a great way to date a book is by using teen speak and teen slang. Today’s “teen speak” will sound as strange to readers down the road as characters nowadays busting out “radical!” or “what a bohunk” or “tubular!!!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my eye on my books being somewhat relevant five or ten years down the road.

4 - On behalf of all teens, I am phenomenally insulted by adult readers doubting teen vocabulary. Again, maybe not all teens out there know the meaning of words like “piscatorial.” But there are a lot of teens that have great vocabularies too. I, for instance, knew what piscatorial meant when I was 11, because that was when I read my parents’ Encyclopedia Brittanica in alphabetical order.


I think what it comes down to is this: are we writing about teens in general or one teen character in specific? Are characters supposed to be averages, the entire teen experience rolled up into one person, or are can they be quirky individuals you wouldn’t run into every day? From my clever loading of that question, I think you know what my answer is.

I never used slang growing up. I loved big words. I had weird and quirky habits that most teens didn’t, and my friends were the same, with their own weird, quirky habits. None of us were “normal.” And I happen to think it’s okay to write about that teen who is not normal. Because there are as many not normal teens as “normal” ones -- the difference is that because the unusual are all different, they don’t make such a coherent focus group as the slang teens. I also happen to pretty much hate reading YA novels that feel too much like those teens I avoided growing up -- the ones that “sounded like teens.”

I think that concludes my rant. Are you convinced? Or does a “non-teen” voice pull you out of a book?


Eero said...

Actually, a 'non-teen' voice pulls me into a book. Oftentimes, carefully constructed teen slang seems forced and artificial in a story line---unless it is key to the personality of the character....

Yes--I agree---a fine line to walk (write!) in not dating the book as well with transient slang.


Anissa said...

I agree with you 100%. Enjoy the snow.

Phoebe said...

Thank you for this.

In response to a MS I'm working on, I got the following comments: that the language was too poetic-sounding for a teenager, and that the narrator's voice was too simplistic for an honor's student. Honestly? I think adults just tend to be hyper aware of this sort of thing because they assume that there's some kind of great divide between adult and teen speakers, when there's not.

Anonymous said...

@Eero: Exactly! I'd rather read a "teen voice" full of big words any day than a forced-trendy voice. I didn't necessarily speak in ten-dollar vocabulary as a high-schooler, but I *thought* in it, and if my 16-year-old self were narrating a book, darn straight she'd use big words.

As for forced-trendy, you know those teen magazines where the writers put on this overly-excited voice about everything, and try to cram every popular slang word into one sentence? There are YA books that do that, and it drives me nuts. It drove me nuts when I was a teen and reading that style in magazines. It feels condescending, and it makes me think of cheesy articles about lipstick: "Here's how to make that pretty pout really pop!"

beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beth said...

I am so glad you wrote this! I am reading a book right now that uses teen speak. Absent that, it's a beautiful concept, striking idea,and not a bad story. But every time this character is about to recant a conversation and starts off with 'I go,' "blah,blah,blah" I just want to slap her!

The irony is that while there are continuous complaints about the vocalbulary and word choices of YA narrators, it seems fitting. Who takes 300-600 pages to tell a story? English majors, writers and story-tellers, duh! Most of which start developing their vocalbulary (whether they know it or not) before they've even started school. Of course, they use limited slang and have large vocalbularies. They READ.

Mrs. Huch said...

If it is written well, and true to the character at hand, then the voice should match. If it is a teenager who speaks like that-then I accept it. Why can't the dialogue be used to help shape the character instead of stereotyping it. Plus, I can't really see someone who spends time as a wolf saying things like, "OMG!"

Heidi R. Kling said...

I still say rad and have since I was twelve. :P
Look for wolf paw prints heading into the woods.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

This is my favorite thing EVER:

Plus, I can't really see someone who spends time as a wolf saying things like, "OMG!"


Crystal Cook said...

I loved this post. I read a YA a few months ago where all the guys would say "Word" when they agreed that another guy had something that spoke to their trendy teenage souls, I could hardly finish it. I agree that there are more teens who don't use teen speak than there are who do. And isn't that what we all look for in a book a fresh point of view that isn't trite or especially dated? I know I do. First time I've commented after lurking for about a month, love your books, all of them :)

Suzanne said...

This reminds me of when I read my kids The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time. It's tough to read "Peter said, 'By jove, you're right Lucy'", and keep a straight face. My kids were all "Uhhh, what does 'by jove' mean?" I started interjecting "holy cow" instead.

It's very distracting, and often modern day "teen speak" just feels like the author is trying too hard to sound hip. Or fresh. Or dope. Or whatever it is the kids are saying these days...

Tiffany Neal said...

First of all, let me say that YOU ROCK! I loved Shiver and cannot wait until Linger becomes mine. You all but gave me a heart attack at your ending.

I recently just found this world of blogging. I know. I crawled out from under a rock. Now, I have to choose how to spend my time neglecting things like cleaning and taking care of the kids. Choose your form of neglect - Should I read, write, or blogstalk?

I appreciate this post because I one hundred percent agree with you here. I've seen these topics online and they've made me second guess how I've written my YA manuscript. Ultimately, I decided as you did to stick with what will have a longer shelf life. I don't know if I'd be able to even write teen speak if I was required to.

You are awesome and you've got my full support. (Not that that amounts to much of anything!)

Nicole said...

The "teen voice" most definately pulls me out of books... Now, I'm not going to mention any names...*cough*HouseOfNight*cough*...but I can't even get halfway through a book like that without wanting to light it on fire. I find it insulting when people assume that all teenagers talk like that, as if we're all idiots. Ugh.

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

This post was AWESOME! I totally agree with you. Wheeee, have fun in the snow. Look out for Sam prints.

Anisette said...

Agree on all points, ESP the slang (and my other pet peeve BAD dialect). A huge adult offender (and I'm talking gargantuan proportions) are those BDB books that are so enormously popular.

I tried to choke one down because of all the raving and couldn't decide if the author was really writing it seriously (or seriously deluded) or if it was MEANT to be camp. The dialogue couldn't scream rich white housewife any louder if were written by Paris Hilton's mother, while trying to sound like bad-ass vampire rap studs . That and all the brand name dropping made me wonder if she was getting a royalty check for every brand name she typed.

I'm all for the 'less is (way) more.' Like seriously, dude.

Amy and Sean said...

I completely and totally agree with you! I actually can't stand when I am reading a YA book and they start using slang. It irks me. And as a someone who grew up as a California valley girl and probably said "like" way more than any human being should....I still don't think it should be written.

PS. you don't know me and I've never commented on your blog before...but yours is my new favorite blog to follow and I love your books. : )

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks guys.

Amy and Tiffany -- thanks for appearing here to comment! I appreciate it!

And Suzanne, SUCH a good example with the slang in the Narnia books. They're so timeless otherwise that those little bits do stick out, don't they?

Amelia Robinson said...

Well said! *applauds*

I can speak for myself when I say that not all teenagers do the slang thing. The only slang I use is "ya'll" but blame that on my love for my country roots. (Course, when I use 'big words' around my small-town girl cousin, she starts glaring at me and saying I'm weird. But hello? It's not like I'm using words like obvuscate or something equally obscure.)

I prefer books that have a non-teen voice as well. I can relate to the characters more. Those with "pure teen voices" make me feel like the outsider I am at school. And it annoys me, too.

The whole pure teen voice thing...goodness. It's like people think the way teens generally talk is impressive! Hearing all their swear words and suggestive slangs is not something any of us want to hear in the first place. Why put stuff like that in a book?


You phrased it perfectly! Kudos! ^_^


Elise V said...

Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I teach middle school and have been trying to teach my students the joys of great YA Lit, Shiver and Lament, for example, and they all of big words. I use big words *tips my nerd hat*, have them increase their vocab, and ask them to read novels that will help with that. By writing intelligently, it requires the reader to think as they dive/submerse in beautiful words! Thank you!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thank YOU, Elise. I agree, people tend to rise or fall to your expectation of them. Calling teens juvenile makes them fulfill that. Saying they have poor vocab means that it's wrong when they don't . . .

And thanks, Amelia.

Denisse Alicea said...

Maggie, I agree with you. Thanks for talking about this. Your books are wonderful!

Tony Noland said...

In any book that has multiple teen character, I would hope to see a difference in voices, ranging from "Dude, you're like, so farked and stuff!" to "It's not Jane Eyre I find tiresome, it's Mr. Bronner's dessicated teaching style."

Not all teens speak alike, even in a common school/neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I just finished the agent search for a novel. One of the agents wrote me about how the story's great, but the vocabulary (in the third person narrative segments) would turn off editors. She said certain phrases needed to be changed to something 'zingier' and more children's-writing appropriate. Another agent snatched it up, and I'm about to shop it-- but this agent was a former editor, so I do wonder how true her words will prove.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I agree completely, Tony. I find, though, that if you have a more adult-sounding teen and then a more slangy one, readers tend to identify less/ view the more "teen" sounding one as comic relief.

Anon - I'm not surprised. I've had multiple editors and had multiple agent offers, and I've heard a wide range of opinions on teen voice.

voicemail message sample personal said...

Its indeed considered to be a matter of fact to test those ideas for your probabilities to becoming a more professional in this skill, hopefully there would be more things to be discussed and done by the time.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...