I Write Dirty Books, and I'm Proud of It.

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.

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Kim said...

Tell you what. I won't read your book because overt violence makes my stomach lurch. I can't read Stephen King either :-).

But I'm going to agree with you on the selection processes. I live in a very small town where the librarians take the process to an extreme. We have a Christian Fiction section but no Romance.

The one I find the most amusing is the Louise Rennison series. Her first book, Angus, Thongs, and Full frontal Snogging was a hilarious book. Then she wrote nine more. The others had more sensible titles, or at least the meanings weren't overt. Our library carries all of her books except the first one. :-).

Keep writing dirty books. We'll read them. And pressure our schools and libraries to carry them.

Unknown said...

OMG, I loved Angus--so funny! I really should read some more of those.

Lynsey Newton said...

WOW, I'd rather read a love/sex scene than a violent-ripping-your-eyeball-out kind of scene. What you've said makes a lot of sense and is ridiculous in nature. I hate censorship with a passion and I will be reading your book, rest assured.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Lynsey! Hope you enjoy ASHFALL.

Catherine Stine said...

Awesome post! Fertile soil, yes.
You wonder what some of the clean-freak advocates would like teens to read-Winnie the Pooh?!

Anonymous said...

LOVE this. Love it so much I want to poke its eye out in a cool ninja move. Oh wait...that's the violence part, not the love part. I get so confused. Anyway, I shared this over on my blog today because you say what I believe with great wit and skill. Well done.

AE Rought said...

Eloquently put. I write dirty books, too, have one on subs right now. You just made a sale.

Both my teens are readers. Their tastes are vastly different--he and his friends are begging me for guy's POV book with "guy stuff" in it. Explosions and hot chicks were at the top of the request list, so I know exactly what you're talking about with the lack of YA lit for them.

Jana said...

I am a middle school librarian and buy lots of books that have the kind of sexual encounters you have written about. I have been waiting for a challenge to come from a parent but so far have been ok (knock on wood). I think that's because most of my readers are savvy enough to know NOT to say anything to their parents. But I always grit my teeth when a students says "My mom won't let me read _____."

Unknown said...

Brilliant and so, so true! And now I really want to read your book :)

Carina Olsen said...

Love this blog post. I really enjoyed your book, was a bit disgusted by the violence, but I am always that ;) And I really liked the "dirty" parts. Also kind of wish they were more explicit ;p But that's just me. Anyway, I loved your book the way it was. And I am extremely excited for the sequel :)

Anonymous said...

Huh. If your 'sex scene' causes a stir like that, I'd hate to see what something quite graphic would do. Sex in a book IS something that I'm wary of, because a lot of the times it's way over the top. Yours was handled very tastefully and wasn't offensive in the least.

If adults think they can "shelter" kids by not allowing "dirty books", they're in for a rude awakening down the road. Have they ever checked the content of some of these video games? Good grief.

Perhaps I'll jump on that 'BAN ASHFALL' bandwagon and spread the word about dirty books...I can make a great picket sign.

ShidaPida said...

Why are we getting down on the Pastor for putting the book down. Maybe he has an addiction to pornography and reading something like that might be unhealthy for him. If the pastor put the book down, maybe he had a good reason to do so. And maybe reading something violent doesn't send him into a self destructive tailspin the way reading something explicitly sexual would. It's not the writer's place to judge the morality or the discernment of his (potential) readers but it is definitely the reader's right to be discerning about what books are right for them. Let's climb down off our high horses and try not be judgmental.

Jessi L. Roberts said...

I am one of those people who doesn't mind violence but is bothered by sex in books. Part of the reason is because I'm a Christian and I believe that should be left until after marriage, which is rarely the case in YA books. It's also something I just don't really like to read about. (I rarely like lots of romance anyway because I'm more action orientated even though I'm a girl.)
As a child, I was pretty shielded from sex, but not violence since we butchered our own livestock, which is probably the reason I am the way I am.
When it comes to parents, or even kids on their own, I've seen many kids ask "Does this book have any sex/violence/swearing in it?" Some kids are bothered by that stuff and don't want to be exposed to it, especially when they're only 13 or so. I worry that some could end up not reading books like the Hunger Games because they're afraid there will be sex in the book. (Yes, I've seen kids ask about that.)
It would be nice if authors would put a little warning on their books so kids can avoid what they don't want to see since reading one book with certain content could cause them to avoid other books that they think might have the same content. (As a general rule, it's pretty easy to guess if a book will have violence but oftentimes, it's much harder to guess if there is swearing or sex.)
Another thing to remember is that not all kids play violent video games or watch violent television. (I've known families with older kids who rarely watch stuff past PG and the kids don't want to watch anything worse.) Everyone has their own views on what they like, or don't like, in books.
In my books, which are Christian YA, I have a lot of violence but no sex or swearing. I'm sure there will be readers bothered by the violence so I might try putting something in the description warning readers about it.
I believe authors are free to write what they want, but parents are also free to protect their kids from what they feel is harmful.

SaraD said...

Thank you for your amazing post! As the librarian on a grades 5-12 campus I am constantly at odds with parents about the fiction books I have in my collection. Have you read Shut Out by Kody Keplinger? It's a retelling of The Lysistrata which of course means it's about withholding sex to try to get your way. Parents are bound to be horrified, but if you actually READ the book you'd find that it's amazing! I've had so many girls come to me and (almost in a whisper) tell me how much that book meant to them and you can just see in their eyes that no one has ever had a real conversation about sex with them before. That book was there for them and made them see that sex is not a horrible dirty sin and sex is not the most amazing thing where nothing can ever go wrong either. I'll step down from my soapbox now, but seriously... thanks for writing this post.

Unknown said...

OMG, Shut Out was AHMAYZING! I lurved that book. So real, and so many important themes. I should have used it as an example in this post.

Anonymous said...

I've felt the brunt of more than one 'quiet' censorship campaign.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: suggested it as one of 10 options for a high school english class. The teacher chose the book based on my recommendation. School administrator 'borrowed' the book without my knowledge and banned it from the classroom. Instead of the teacher bearing the responsibility for this choice it fell to my shoulders. I have 40 copies my school doesn't know what to do with and potentially can't ethically sell if anyone is interested.

You by Charles Benoit:
Taken off a summer reading list halfway through the summer for being inappropriate. I provided 20 websites proving it's innocence. Still removed.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray:
Removed from my library by a helpful faculty member who felt that the bathing suit cover was immodest. I am allowed to put it back on shelf coverless (good luck circulating that one). When I brought up the argument that any digital representation of this book would still have said cover, they became confused by the ethics issue and dismissed me from the meeting...

All very quiet, in-house censorship. The hardest to fight.

Rae Carson said...

Great post, Mike. I couldn't agree more. ASHFALL is a fabulous book, and I've been recommending it everywhere. I think one of its (many) great strengths is its unblinking, empathetic, and responsible portrayal of teen sexuality in a broken world.

Unknown said...

I hadn't really intended to get into the religious aspects of this, but since a couple of commenters have brought it up....

Jesus abhorred violence, even in self-defense (Matthew 5:38-42). If you want to claim my book is un-Christian because of the violence, I'm okay with that, it's fair.

Jesus loved sinners. He kept company with whores, tax collecters, lepers, and the homeless. His only teachings on sex were: 1) not to divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) and 2) not to look on others with lust (Matthew 5:27-28). There's absolutely nothing in ASHFALL incompatible with Jesus's teachings on sex. If you think my book is somehow un-Christian because it contains sex, you're wrong.

Unknown said...

@thelibrarianreads That is sad and horrifying. All three of those books have enormous value to teen readers--as cautionary tales, as commentary on growing up, and as just plain entertaining reads. How can authors help with the quiet censorship fight? Please, comment here or email me at mike.mullin.writer at gmail dot com if you have any ideas.

@Rae Thanks! The Girl of Fire and Thorns is near the top of my to-be-read pile--sorry I haven't gotten to it yet!

Delia Moran said...

*stands and claps* Bravo.

Jessi L. Roberts said...

Mike, I mean no offense to you. After all, I haven't read your book. (That's because I haven't had a chance, not because I'm avoiding it.)

Luke 22.24 mentions buying a sword and most Christians believe that defending yourself, or others is not wrong.
The Bible says that fornication is wrong in various verses.
I'll stop here since I'd rather not get into a theology debate.

I do understand how certain "dirty" things can be used in a book of noble purposes since I've used violence that way.

The biggest "danger" I see with some YA books is that there can be one book that's perfectly okay for a nine-year-old sitting next to a book that would terrorize that same kid, which can make things difficult for busy parents.

emarshteen said...

I strongly disagree with warning labels on books. It just draws attention to the hot button aspects of a novel and detracts from the overall story. If a person finds something offensive in a book, then all that person has to do is put the book down. They're not obligated to finish it if they don't like its content.

Unknown said...

@Jessi I think you mean Luke 22.36? Be sure to read on to 22.51.

ShidaPida said...

@Mike Mullin: You're right, Jesus was very loving and accepting of people who were flawed... But he also told the woman who was caught in adultery to "Go then and sin no more..." There is a standard of conduct that Jesus upheld and to ignore that is to have a incomplete and incorrect view of who Jesus was and what he taught. And the jury is still out on where Jesus stood on violence. He did famously teach his disciples to "turn the other cheek" But he also told them later on when he was approaching his death: "But now... if you don't have a sword sell your cloak and buy one." I think for Christians (or anyone who is morally obligated for what ever reason) violence in books should be approached with the same discernment that sexuality in books should be approached: with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. And readers should be praised for doing that, not chastised. (And parents of young readers also have the obligation to make sure their children are putting healthy things into their brains just like they are obligated to make sure their kids are putting healthy things into their bodies. Neither writers, nor booksellers, nor librarians should chastise or look down on parents for doing that.)

Unknown said...

The sexuality in Ashfall was great--honest, safe, responsible and realistic. We could use more of that in YA.

Luciferadi said...

Great post. Let's hear it for dirty books.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post and I really appreciate it! As a writer and a middle school teacher, I encounter this problem on a daily basis. There is so much great YA lit out there and most of it is absent from school libraries and classrooms. I am, by my profession, forced to be one of the very gatekeepers you decry and it pains me everyday. That's the crux of the issue, I, like all others in the field of public service (education) must watch my rear end at all times. There is so much I would like to share with my students, but I must tread very cautiously. And, in those cases where I could bring something in from outside I must do so at my own cost. It seems kids are locked out of good reading at every turn.

Teresa Robeson said...

Ok, I have to admit that I'm an action gal, so I'm don't mind some violence (especially in a sci-fi context where I know it's all make-belief versus, say, in a CSI: Miami context where it can be too real). That said, give me sex any day over the kind of sick, unprovoked violence like in Lord of the Flies.

I really need to make time to read Ashfall! It's sitting in my Kindle queue giving me dirty (LOL!) looks.

Unknown said...

Seriously? Ashfall is dirty? I guess those folks don't have cable. Or watch the Super Bowl half-time show. I for one thought the relationship was almost too sweet and respectful to be real, but hey I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks so there you go. Ashfall was a-mah-zing; this librarian who has been recommending it to peers and patrons, and cannot WAIT for Ashen Winter!

Unknown said...

I cringe at the equation of "sexy" with "dirty" but I love your reclaiming of the term! My own YA book doesn't have sex in it, but I'm remembering your post for if/when sex does come into one of my books and I have to deal with the "clean" question.
And the sex in ASHFALL was totally tasteful and YA-appropriate. It was great to read a book that was sex-positive without being explicit, feminist-friendly AND had an unstereotyped gay couple.

Sophia Chang said...

I LOVE this post Mike. It's an old criticism of the Americans from a European standpoint, where nudity on advertisements is fine - that our emphasis on desensitizing ourselves to violence while being "prudish" about sex/nudity is a bit odd and even dangerous.

I'm as annoyed by that as I am by people giving books 1 stars because there's realistic cursing in them.

Tracy said...

What a wonderful post about a wonderful book and an important issue! ASHFALL was easily one of my favorite YA reads last year, and I haven't hesitated to sing its praises to the teens, parents, teachers, etc. who frequent our library.

If I do want to recommend a book that I expect backlash over, I usually am upfront about what content readers (or parents/educators) *might* find objectionable, then I explain why it is realistic and natural. (Or, I try to anyway.) This is how I approached my blog review of Kody Keplinger's THE DUFF. (http://bcplreviews.blogspot.com/2011/10/review-duff-by-kody-keplinger.html)

Also... I love your use of STORY OF A GIRL as an example. One of my favorite YAs ever!

Beth G said...

You'll be pleased to know that the the violence bothered me way more than the sex :)

Unknown said...

@Phoebe and @Liciferadi Thanks!

@iainmavrocoggins I'm well aware of the intense pressure teachers are under--I'm married to one. Try this: place your dirty books on a special shelf labelled "DO NOT READ THESE" or something similar. Put a stack of permission slips next to them. Make the kids get their parents to sign permission to read the books. Your rear end is 100% covered, and those books will circulate like CRAZY. Everyone wants to read forbidden stuff.

Unknown said...

@Teresa Thanks! Hope you enjoy ASHFALL!

@Renee I didn't think it was dirty until numerous people informed me so after it was published. I've had others criticize my portrayal of Alex for being too responsible about sex, to which I shrug and say fair enough.

@Imogen One of my highest hopes for my work is that some readers will take away from Alex the idea that it is possible to be a feminist and manly. That's the way I see him, anyway.

Unknown said...

@Sophia Thanks! I don't get the bad ratings for cursing thing either. If you dislike cursing so much, put the book down! There are millions of books devoid of all curse words. Why waste time with something you won't enjoy?

@Tracy Thanks for your support. I love love love Story of a Girl. Such a beautiful and beautifully told story. You might also try my special shelf/permission slip idea above. Others have found great success with that approach, both from a circulation and CYA standpoint.

@Beth Hooray! I think. The sequel, ASHEN WINTER, will probably bother you too, then. If anything, it's darker and more violent than ASHFALL. There's sex, too. Shocking, I know.

Heidi Ruby Miller said...

You have stated very eloquently what I've experienced ever since I became a high school teacher--adults don't care about violence, but even hint at sex and they're ready to burn you and the books. (I no longer teach high school, but it doesn't sound like much had changed, unfortunately, and that does a disservice to teens.)

Jessi L. Roberts said...

On the topic of cursing, I've read books with it in them and while it normally isn't enough for me to put the book down I will normally give the book a lower rating if there's a lot of it. The same goes for sex. It lowers my enjoyment of the book and thus means I won't give it the same rating I would have if the stuff had been absent.
I'll admit, I've gotten a little more used to language, and even sex, in books. A few years ago, when I was still a teenager, I would have put a book down as soon as I saw the f-word.

On another note, I saw an author on Shelfari ask, on a YA group, what the readers thought of sex in YA books. Most of the replies said they didn't like it and if they wanted to read about it, there are plenty of books and other media where they could find it. (This wasn't a group geared to Christians either.) I think the choice of putting it in or leaving it out really depends on who your audience is.

Unknown said...

@Heidi Yes, some adults in the U.S. seem to have a really skewed outlook on violence and sex. And the pressure on teachers has only grown.

@Jessi Cursing bugs me when it's a crutch for the author or a cliche. I edited out some of the cursing in ASHFALL because I found more interesting ways for characters to express shock and surprise.

I'd be curious to know if the participants in the Shelfari group were teens or adults and women or men. I also think it makes a big difference how an author portrays sex in any fiction, not just YA.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing the truth. In fact, I think it's your job. :)
Of course, no matter what you write, it will offend someone.

I will say that ASHFALL is not full of sex and violence...it's full of bravery. The thing driving Alex to survive is the hope his family is still alive and waiting for him. This is not a dirty message. It's genuine. It's squeaky clean.

But you do your readers an injustice to allow your book to be labelled as "dirty" or "clean." The point is being missed. Next time someone asks you, answer with "It's real" or "It's genuine" or "It's the truth."

Let them reject your book because they choose to believe the lie.

There is no warning label for life.

I'm a parent. I protect my kids from danger, not from ideas.

Unknown said...

Did you have to scare my cats, Sarah?

I just read the last line of your comment and screamed, "F*** YEAH!" The claw marks on my legs will heal, so you're forgiven. Those two sentences are the best thing I've read in weeks. Thank you!

Melinda said...

I just have to say that I completely and totally agree with you, Mike. I wish that I had had more availability to "dirty books" when I was a teenager. My parents are Christian and I am as well, but adolescence should be a time when these things are discovered and discussed. I can't say how many times I was frustrated because I had to turn to my friends who read dirty books to discuss "dirty" things because my parents and older mentors would approach sex on a "I don't want to know" basis.

As for what I can stand, violence isn't really my taste, but I definitely would have benefited from a few "dirty" books during my teenage years. That much, I do know.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Melinda. There's considerable research that supports your point of view. Kids who know more about sex generally wait longer to become sexually active, have fewer sexual partners, and are more likely to practice safe sex. And aside from the research, there's nothing un-Christian about sex in the context of a loving, committed relationship.