The Compulsive Reader: Why Does It Always Come Down to the Booze?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why Does It Always Come Down to the Booze?

I’ve got a little exercise for you: walk over to your bookshelves, look at your YA books, or think about the books you have read recently. Now, I ask you: how many of them feature underage drinking? Probably at least a few. Now, how is alcohol portrayed in that book? Is it something that helps the plot? Character development? Or is just in there, because that’s what all the characters are doing? Just drinking.

Now, there are many excellent and important YA novels that feature underage drinking. I’m not saying I have a problem with them all. The fact of the matter is there are teens that drink, and teens that don’t. There are those who have no interest in alcohol, and there are those who love it, and there are those that only drink on occasion. I’m not bashing those teens or those books (though you all should know that, according to the CDC, not only does alcohol lower your inhibitions, if you are eighteen or younger, it can stunt growth and sexual development, leave you at a higher risk for assault and suicide, make you five times more likely to develop dependency issues than those over 21, and cause changes in brain development that will affect you for the rest of your lives. Just saying).

My problem with the alcohol in YA is that oftentimes it’s just…there. A protagonist will go hang out with friends, or go to a party, and there will be drinking. It’s mentioned, it happens, someone might get drunk, the protagonist will drink a little, everyone drives home, no big deal.

That kills me.

If alcohol is going to be a factor in novels, especially novels that young, impressionable people will read, why is it being treated lightly? Why does it serve no purpose to the story? Books that treat alcohol like it’s just something teens drink when they are with their friends and parents aren’t around because they are simply bored and it’s not like it’ll ever hurt anyone just rub me wrong. Too many times I see alcohol popping up in the book to make it relatable to teens, not to serve the plot in any way. And not only is that a poor choice and poor writing on the author’s part, it may be damaging to readers.

Think about it: how many of those books we talked about earlier that have drinking portray it as something everyone does, an accessory to a fun party, or something that makes you seem cool and popular? How many of them tell readers some alcohol is helpful, because if you consume just a little, it will make you more confident? How many times do you think those books are being read by teens everywhere? How does that use of alcohol appear to them through their eyes? They see a nice character that they’ve come to like and identify with pick up a beer, drink a little, get buzzed, drive a friend home, or ride with someone who has been drinking. And then, suddenly drinking becomes plausible in their heads. It becomes something that people do when they want to have a good time. It gets easier and easier to ignore the warnings, the hazards, and the consequences.

I would love to think that most teens have good heads on their shoulders, and they are confident in themselves and their own decisions and won’t let themselves be easily swayed by popular media, but as long as we’re being realistic here, a lot of teens aren’t so firm. A lot are easily swayed. If this weren’t the case, the percent of people under 21 who drink wouldn’t be as high as 45% (from the CDC again).

You know, for once I would like to see a character like the teenage boy I saw in a courtroom two years ago, caught for underage drinking, deeply embarrassed and scared to be facing a jury of his peers, knowing that his punishment lay in our hands and knowing that what he did was stupid. Or how about a character who acknowledges that downing that shot at that party to get up the courage to talk to their crush was stupid, because it made them sloppy, not cool and confident. Or, more simply, I would like to see a character say, “No thanks,” to a proffered beer at a party. It doesn’t have to be this huge monumental teaching moment, or an integral lesson in the book. It just has to be proof that 65% of teens aren’t stupid or easily cowed.

Now, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. You don't have to identify yourself, the anonymous button is one. But, where do you stand?


Sanne said...

Hmmm... I do agree with you that alcohol is often treated quite lightly in YA literature. Drinking under the age of 21 shouldn't be presented as 'normal', something teens do because it's cool.

On the other hand, I'm not sure teens are that easily swayed by books and other media... Many things on television are quite exaggerated and I don't really think teens confuse them with real life. I think they're more likely to be influenced by their peers, which I find a little sad as well. In my country, people are allowed to drink alcoholic drinks at age 16 and because it's cool, most of them start drinking. It's become normal and I think that's a reason you see so much alcohol in books and movies, too.

I don't think there's much harm in media featuring underage drinking, but, like you, I'd love to see a character say "no" as well. Just because it would be refreshing and because there are people like that, too.

Unknown said...

I agree - and I think I mentioned this over at Twitter - drinking, like everything else, has to be factored into character and context. AND all characters should or shouldn't drink for different reasons. The decision should be unique unto the individual.

If the alcohol fits into the story and character, it shouldn't be jarring, it should just be one more facet of the story/character.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I agree. On a side note, have you noticed how many dead characters show up in YA?

Cate said...

I'm with you 100%. I really dislike underage drinking in YA. But, as you said, some kids DO, so this is true-to-life (in some cases.) Personally, I find that when the main character of a book drinks, it's just one more thing that doesn't allow me to relate to them. I agree with the commentors above; it would be refreshing to see some one say no.

ritathecheetah said...

I agree with this. It seems a lot of writers just throw drinking in without thinking because they think that teens do this kind of thing.

It's somewhat true- some do, some don't. It seems like every book involves drinking though, which makes it disgustingly unrealistic for supposedly realistic books.

Beth S. said...

Maybe writers feel in order for an adult to write a book for teens, they need to make it "realistic" and one of the first things adults think of when they think "teenager" is, unfortunately, underage drinking. In an attempt to be authentic, I think they're encouraging generalizations and stereotyping of teens.

Then again, a lot of teens drink. You can't deny that. I was not one of those teens when I was in high school and I made sure to surround myself with friends who felt the same way. I'm not sure how many teenagers have enough conviction to be that way. Fitting in a lot of times is more important than standing your ground.

The Swivet said...

I'll take a random guess that the author is trying to write a book that reflects a modern teen's actual life.

Hell, I'm in my 40's and when I was a teenager, all of my friends drank to some degree or another on the weekend. And not one of them was a drunk; they'd just have a beer or two when we all got together. They also smoked cigarettes and pot. In other words, they were teenagers. Now, I myself wasn't a drinker - not because I was a goody-two-shoes - but because I didn't like the taste of alcohol. But I would say the vast majority of the 2000+ kids at my high school were underage drinkers.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I can only speak for myself, but in my experience as a teacher/speaker/workshop leader, I'd say that most YA authors agonize over virtually every decision in writing their novels. And as a former teen, I seem to remember alcohol being at pretty much every unsupervised social occasion. It was a huge deal to me that I had a best friend who'd walk out of the house with me if someone was doing pot. Not that I wouldn't have walked out by myself, but frankly, when you're an adolescent, the support of even one loyal friend can make a huge psychological difference.

All the said, I put an extraordinary amount of thought into alcohol use and references in my novels. With Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I framed the character's uncle as being in AA because, in the context of that family, I wanted to show him making a positive choice. It explained why Rain's father (in the service) hadn't traditionally relief on his brother to look after the kids while he was overseas (going with grandpa instead) but did so in a way that didn't stereotype and also served as a reminder that it's never to late to change.

With my Gothics, especially Tantalize, Quincie's greatest moment of empowerment is when she stops drinking. Yes, it's a fantasy and, yes, it's usually a blood-wine mix, but we're talking about a really thinly veiled metaphor here. Teens get it. I don't mean to suggest that she's perfect now or that it'll be easy, and I'll show that struggle. But it's always clear that the right thing is to make a choice that's not (spiritually) destructive of yourself or (literally) others.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right and underage drinking should not be treated lightly. let me just say this. I am 17 and have read quite a lot of Ya literature that features drinking and i can very honestly say that this makes me want to drink less not more. I don't plan on drinking until i am 21 and there are lots of books that feature drugs and sex but they don't really make me want to do those things either.

Amanda said...

I agree. If there is no point to have the drinking in the story, why put it there? Also, how are there ALWAYS parties to go to? And why, even if the teen isn't welcome there, go anyway? I could never do that.

Anonymous said...

I am a high school senior, and while my good friends and I don't drink, I do know of people I am friendly with that do. My friends and I just don't because first of all, we don't know where we would get it, and second of all, we value our trust and relationships with our parents more than "having fun". And frankly, we can have just as much fun with Mountain Dew and Chex Mix as we probably can with alcohol, without the nasty side effects. I mean, you have to go through the trouble of getting the alcohol, and then worry about getting caught, only to drink it and have fun and not remember hardly anything the next morning. Thats stupid.

Arianna said...

I agree, because there are some books like Ellen Hopkins' and stuff where alcohol is a part of the story and the characters, but then books like Wish by Alexandra Bullen really didn't need the alcohol and I liked Olivia and stuff before she started drinking with the popular people, but after I was really disappointed.

April (BooksandWine) said...

I think you make some good points here, definitely.

Personally, I had my first drink at 13 -- champagne at midnight new year's eve, and began partying at the age of 17, my senior year of high school. In college, that drinking was a bit more hardcore, as there was one semester my sophmore year where I was out every weekend partying (also my best semester grade wise). I guess my point which may sound nuts is that when I came to college I knew my limits around alcohol because I had experimented in a safe place with my friends, it's not like I was around punch for the first time. I knew a lot of people my freshman year of college who failed out because they were out partying everynight, not just the weekends. I think it was because those kids didn't know their limits and hadn't been around that much alcohol.

Now, am I saying drinking is a great thing for underage kids? No, absolutely not. I think we give it too much attention though, I mean think about how many people count down the days to 21. I know so many people from school who absolutely couldn't wait until they turned 21, being able to drink legally was that big of a deal. I compare that to the experience of co-workers from other countries (I worked at a camp, we had people from all over the world working there). Those people saw alcohol as not a big deal, they could handle their liquor and they weren't all party party party, because alcohol was never a big deal for them as they were allowed to have it their whole lives.

It's strange, because now that I am 22 and able to drink legally and purchase any alcohol I want, I actually drink less than when I was underage.

I think when examining the use of booze in YA it is important to look at the age of the character featured. I think if the character is like 13, then yeah I'd expect there to still be mountain dew and chips at the party. If the character is 16 and older, and the party doesn't have parents, it's reasonable to expect there to be some sort of booze at the party.

Maybe there should be some purpose for the character to drink the alcohol and a consequence. In real life however, a lot of the time the only consequence is a wicked bad hangover unless you become an alcoholic or drink and drive, in which case most people I know use a designated driver, take a taxi, or take what we call "the drunk bus". Really, I wouldn't mind seeing a YA character who knows their limits and doesn't drink so much, the character has to be babysat.

Anyways, I think when it comes to realism and alcohol, I think that yeah the author should never put a character who is buzzed behind the wheel with no consequences, that's just stupid. However, if the character is just taking like one shot and that's it, unless the shot is 300 proof chances are it's not going to have a consequence.

I also wonder at the age group covered in that statistic, is it everyone under 21? Is it from age 5-19? Is it 13-21? Because I'm pretty sure if you go from the age 18-20 the statistics of those who drink is going to go way up, I think I read 82% of college students have engaged in under age drinking. Now, I know YA books definitely do not feature college kids, therefore how is that statistic useful? Well, I think in looking at underage drinking it's good to look at the age group -- teens, and perhaps the level of school they are at. If it's high school, then yeah perhaps the author should show that teens can have social gatherings without alcohol and actually have an awesome time (hellz yeah rock band! and smash brothers and Apples To Apples).

Anyways I guess my point to this whole long ramble is that I really do like a lot of the points you make, disagree with some, but will definitely consider this to be excellent food for thought and something to keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

Now that was a great post!!!

I do think that sometimes drinking makes sense in the context of a story but often times there is no point to it other than because you're in a party and that's not okay because it doesn't add anything, it's just there.


Jessica Lawlor said...

Honestly, I'm going to have to agree with a lot of the above commenters. In order to make a book seem realistic, I think authors are just writing about things that are real. I would laugh if I read a book where a 17 year old went to a party and everyone sat around and played board games and drank soda. In my mind, it would hurt the credibility of the author. That's just not what happens at most parties. I think that an author is just trying to be as realistic as possible to help relate to readers.

jocelyn said...

First of all, this is a good, well-thought-out post. Good job with it, but, I disagree with some of what you've said.

Sometimes, alcohol IS just...there. Sometimes, it ends badly for teens when they drink. Sometimes it's dramatic. But a lot of the time, it isn't. I don't drink, but I will argue that a lot of teens in the YA book blogging world, who are average within the community, are not average teens. This isn't a bad thing, not at all, as they're generally smart and mature and everything, but they don't generally have typical teenage experiences. They're less likely to drink alcohol or use drugs or have sex or to even be around any of those things than your typical American high school or college student. It's a skewed sample.

These writers are just trying to reflect one of many, varied teenage experiences. Some of those teenage experiences involve alcohol, and nothing bad or dramatic happens because of it. This seems more radical to a lot of book reviewers than it actually is in many teenage lives. Sometimes, it's just something people do. Maybe that's not how it should be, but that's how it is, and, honestly, I'd much rather read a book like that than one that teaches a big lesson about alcohol.

jocelyn said...

Oh, and in response to Jessica Lawlor's comment, I'm an 18 year old freshman in college, and, over the last four or five years, I have been to parties with underage drinking, but I have ALSO been to parties where seventeen year olds sit around, drink soda, and play board games! There are lots of different types of teenagers and teenage experiences out there :)

Unknown said...

AGREE! i have read books where the protagonist refuses to drink but the friends of the protagonist still get waster which come to think of it still sends that bad message since the people who drink are always from the 'in-clique'

allikpeters said...

I was really bothered by this exact issue in a book that I didn't care for anyway, "L.A. Candy" by Lauren Conrad. I understand and know that teens drink--I was one of them. But recently, the books that feature teens drinking fail to mention the issues I had as a teen: who would buy for us, where would we go to drink so we wouldn't be caught etc. We knew we were doing something wrong. It is just a part of teen lit. now, as if any 15 year old can go into any liquor or grocery store and by a case of beer. I don't get iot.

Donna Gambale said...

Thanks for bringing up an intriguing point! If I were writing about freshman or sophomore year of high school, I probably wouldn't include drinking. But junior and senior years, I feel like it would come up every once in awhile. People drank all the time at my high school -- but there were plenty of people who didn't. I didn't start until senior year, and even then it wasn't a lot at all.

For the most part, I think authors write what comes naturally to them and what fits into their story. It's definitely something that should be considered thoughtfully before including and not used gratuitously or "just because."

Melissa @ Mel's Books and Info said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa @ Mel's Books and Info said...

I have to agree. I wish it was either excluded or used to make a point--in so many cases you could just cut it out of the book altogether and you wouldn't miss that section at all. Every year I have had to choose books for our Battle of the Books competition between local schools. I search year round for great titles to choose for 7-9th grade teens, and some of my favorites have had to be removed from the selection process simply because there is an unnecessary drinking scene in the book. I wish authors would realize that they can write a wonderful realistic fiction book that doesn't include teenage drinking.

January 12, 2010 10:

kanishk said...

I can't wait to read these! Thanks for letting us know.

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