Here’s one of the questions I’ve been asked frequently about my debut novel, ASHFALL: “Is it clean?” The first time the question came up, I was taken aback—what did he mean? I examined the stack of books on the table beside me—had I spilled my coffee and not noticed? After checking over a couple of the books, I reassured the questioner—yep, they’re clean.
The librarian standing next to me was shaking her head. “He’s asking about the content,” she whispered. “Oh,” I replied, “it’s about an apocalypse, realistically depicted. It's violent.”
“That’s fine,” said the guy—a pastor—picking up a copy.
The librarian was still shaking her head. “There are, um, sexual situations in the book,” she said. The guy’s eyes widened, he set down the book, and marched away.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought, any kind of violence is okay but the mere mention of sex is not? ASHFALL has a scene in which Alex, the hero, knocks a man’s eye out of his skull. That’s better than two teens exploring their mutual attraction in a responsible, loving way? What exactly does that say about our culture? (None of the sex in ASHFALL is explicit, by the way—it all happens “off-screen,” during the chapter breaks. But if it were explicit, so what? It's not an illustrated book.)
I thought the pastor might be an aberration, but sadly, he wasn’t. At one school I visited, the librarian prepared the students by reading the eye-popping scene out loud but scolded me for including fade-to-black “sex” scenes in the book.
I maintained my sense of indignation for months. Perversely, every time I was asked if ASHFALL was clean, I’d say no, it’s violent. I held out hope that eventually I’d find someone who would turn away from my work because of the violence, not because of a responsible teenage romance—gasp—realistically depicted. But if those people are out there—those who value love more highly than war—they’re awfully quiet.
But this is the world we live in. A video of a father taking a .45 to his daughter’s laptop goes viral, winning the approbation of millions—but one of him punishing her in a reasonable way, then hugging her and reassuring her of his love, despite her ridiculous outburst, would probably have been met with yawns.
For a while I responded by objecting to the question. If any book that mentions sex is dirty, isn’t the hidden assumption that all sex is dirty? Should we be burdening teens with that idea, rather than sharing the more truthful and sane message that sex is special and worth waiting for? (One wag on Twitter suggested that if I thought sex was clean I was doing it wrong. I’ll admit that possibility—I’ve been married for 19 years and in a committed, monogamous relationship for 25, so my experience is limited.)
Now I’ve decided to embrace the question. I still don’t like the implications of ‘dirty’ versus ‘clean,’ but I doubt I can change the way others use those terms. So yes, I write dirty books. Dirty in the sense of rich, fecund, and fertile. Dirty like this:
Not clean like this:
And we need more dirty books for teens. More books that provide fertile soil for growth. Dirty books accomplish two things: First, they can give a lifeline to teens who are experiencing, or might experience, difficult issues. Second, dirty books can help redress the precipitous drop in guys’ reading that occurs between middle and high school.
My book, ASHFALL, is intended to entertain. But some dirty books save lives. Cheryl Rainfield’s brilliantly dirty Scars, for example, provides hope for kids experiencing the kind of sexual abuse she survived. A patch of good dirt in which a life can grow. Can even be saved, perhaps.
Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl asks the question, “What happens after you make a mistake—have sex too early and with the wrong person?” It’s an important story—relevant to something on the order of half of all U.S.teenagers. How could that story even be told, if we limited ourselves to reading and writing “clean” books? If that were all we stocked in our schools and libraries? It’s a story that has to be dirty, and is appropriately dirty, in that it ends in growth, life, and hope.
This is part of the reason I’ve decided to embrace the dirty label, instead of continuing to struggle against it. Dirt makes our children stronger, in a literal as well as a figurative sense. I’m a writer now only because my parents had the foresight to take me out of a sterile, antiseptically clean school in fifth grade and move me to a chaotic, dirty school in sixth where I was—gasp—expected to read and write every day.
The noisy push for “clean” books is not only misguided, it’s actively harmful to kids—particularly teenage guys. 97% of teenagers play video games (shocking, I know). 50% of teenage boys play games rated Mature or Adults Only, while only 14% of girls play games with those ratings. Why? Many guys like violence and sex (again, shocking, I know). Does anyone seriously believe that reading a book—almost any book—would be worse for a typical teenage guy than playing Grand Theft Auto?
Part of the cause of the dramatic drop-off in reading among teenage guys is because the publishing industry does not, by and large, produce young adult material that’s competitive with other forms of entertainment available to teens. Why doesn’t the publishing industry produce more “dirty” material for the YA market? Because teens are not generally buying the books they read for fun. Adults are—primarily women. The books kids read for fun predominantly come from: 1) a school library, 2) a public library, or 3) a parent’s purchase (Mom's, 70% of the time). And publishers—wisely, from a bottom line perspective—focus on producing books that the gatekeepers will buy.
There are two kinds of censorship. The good type is the noisy, public, Mr. Scroggins-style book challenge. This form of censorship is excellent because it gets people talking about books—often people who wouldn’t otherwise engage with a book. I learned about and read Sarah Ockler’s outstanding Twenty Boy Summer due to this type of challenge. (Thanks, Mr. Scroggins!) By the way, if anyone reading this is interested in starting a loud campaign to ban my novel ASHFALL, please contact me at mike.mullin.writer at gmail dot com—I’d like to help! I can write scathing press releases, stuff envelopes with protest mail, or even march with a picket sign if you like.
The second type is the bad kind—the censorship arising from selection policies. The quiet censorship of the library that only puts “clean” books on the shelves. Of the school that only chooses to invite authors of “clean” books to visit. If your library has nothing but “clean” books, how are you going to convince the half of your teenage guys who are playing adult games at home to pick up a book occasionally? The answer, of course, is that you aren’t. The themes that guys are interested in as middle graders—heroism, friendship, school stories, etc.—are amply addressed in middle grade literature. But as guys grow up, their literature doesn’t, so teen guys mostly either quit reading altogether or transition directly to adult books. (There are other reasons many teen guys don’t read, of course. For a more thorough discussion of that topic, check out this post.)
We need dirt. We need dirty books. No seedling ever sprouted on a hospital floor. Minds grow when engaged and challenged. And that’s why I’m not going to dodge the question “Are your books clean?” anymore. I’m going to say, no, I write dirty books. And I’m proud of it.