Teen Novels: Once Again, a Decade Ahead of Television

I’ve been saying for years that if you want to know what’s going to be on television in five or ten years, look at what’s happening in books today. Like clockwork, we authors always predict exactly where the mass culture is heading.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t predict the outrageous, depressing mess that so much of reality television has become. We authors tend to predict the things that appeal to, um, slightly higher aspects of human nature.

Take the whole issue of gay teens. Did you catch the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly? Gay teens have finally broken through on television in a massive, unmistakable way.

Now I have my own issues with Glee (as much as I love the appealing cast and often terrific musical numbers, I get really frustrated with the often incredibly sloppy writing).

Still, it’s impossible to deny the impact the show has had on popular culture, especially with its gay teen characters of Kurt, Blaine, and Karofsky. Audiences young and old are really, really responding — and the show itself is responding to that by giving these characters increasingly prominent roles.

But let’s go back a few years to, say, 2003. That happens to be the year that a group of gay teen novels all hit it unexpectedly big in terms of sales and mainstream popularity. My first book Geography Club was part of that wave, as was Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters, and Rainbow High by Alex Sanchez.

Of course, there had been plenty of gay teen novels before then, but even all these years later, Julie, David, Alex, and I are still often paired together as a group of writers who saw their similarly-themed books break through at the same time — break-out successes that were all very contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time. I think all four of us wrote great books, but the fact that we all found unexpected success at the same time made it one of those trends that was impossible to ignore: readers wanted more of this.

(Incidentally, I don’t give myself a whole lot of “credit” here: I just happened to have had a book published at the exact right moment in publishing history. I wrote the first draft of the thing back in 1990, and if I’d had my way, it would’ve been published years earlier — and probably would’ve been completely ignored!).

The point is, I could’ve told you that there was this huge, thriving under-the-radar interest in gay teens among teenagers, gay and straight, male and female. I’d already benefited from it! But even so, in 2010, the conventional wisdom still said that the only place for gay teens on television was as peripheral supporting characters. In fact, as a journalist who’s been covering Glee from the very beginning, I can say the break-out success of Kurt, Blaine, and Karofsy even caught the show’s producers by the surprise, much less the network. In the beginning, Kurt was never intended to be more than a minor, supporting character.

What’s the point of all this? To say very simply and very directly that, for all the talk about how “irrelevant” books have become, it’s simply not true. Books still matter. They can be produced much more cheaply than TV or movies, so we’re able to test themes and ideas that investors may not be willing to finance in the more expensive mediums.

Plus — can I just say? We authors are pretty damn smart. After all, it’s literally our job to figure out what’s going on in society, to predict future trends and comment on the good and the bad — and to shape all this in such a way that we can all start to form opinions.

And — this is where it gets really fun — teen books matter maybe even more than other genres. Given that it’s a genre that still doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the more “literary” circles, I find this wonderfully ironic.

Books still matter very much. You read it here first. Maybe ten years from you, you’ll see that on television too.

Brent Hartinger

P.S. So what are the teen books of today predicting about what will be on television ten years from now? I think it’s mainstream popularity of and acceptance for the paranormal and alternative forms of spirituality … which happens to be the subject of my latest book, Shadow Walkers, out this week. :-)

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