Know Your Audience

Dale Peck’s latest novel, Sprout, is in some ways the antithesis of a novel I read earlier this spring, tales of the MADMAN underground by John Barnes.  Where Barnes’ characters speak, think, and express themselves with the manner of real teens, Peck’s characters (at least filtered via the protagonist/narrator Sprout) have consciously edited their language to reflect their understanding of the fact that the people who will read their story (adults) and decide on its appropriateness for its intended audience (teens) have issues with profanity in books. 

Sprout works precisely because it’s so upfront about the fact that it’s being edited for content and language: “it’s easy to shock people, Sprout… but you have to realize that it doesn’t always stop with the initial jolt. Sometimes the tiniest stunt can alienate people forever, which in turn causes them to lose sympathy for you, and what you’re trying to say…I’m saying know your audience. Remember when you sit down to write…you’re writing about yourself. Not toyourself, or to your peers, but to an audience that will be composed almost exclusively of white, middle-aged, middle-class educators with an equally conservative educational profile… you have to think of a creative way to let people know what’s being said without actually writing them down.”  So Sprout’s narrative is consistently filled with tongue-in-cheek phrases to call attention to the ways in which he’s editing for adult-review.  When he does use the f-word one time in the book, he immediately writes: “Did I just write that? So much for this book ending up in a high school library. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it, since it was one of our favorite places to have sex.” 

Of course, the main hurdle to overcome is the fact that Sprout centers around a gay teen having his first sexual encounters, and the language issue is more of an exercise rather than an explicit cause for objection.  Peck understands and acquieses to the double standard in teen lit without sacrificing his story or his characters’ integrity.  Barnes’ work succeeds because he doesn’t give a damn and he lets his characters speak their truths without a filter; which may or may not cause his book to fall victim to the censorship chopping block that we all know is there but that no one really ever talks about (A Dirty Little Secret: Self-Censorship, SLJ Feb 2009).

  • Posted by Cori

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