Trusting the Reader

By Mathew Henderson

The first event I attended as an IFOA Delegate this year was an Artist Talk with John Boyne.

Boyne, who writes young adult fiction and literary novels, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel, A History of Loneliness.

It was Boyne’s account of his YA writing that most resonated with me. Having enjoyed my fair share of YA fiction, but never having endeavoured to write it, I had the partially formed idea that books for younger readers should be tailored to their age and maturity. Boyne rejects this idea outright, insisting that the only thing he does differently when he writes for kids is that he writes about kids.

John Boyne

John Boyne at IFOA ©ifoa.org/Stefano Rodriguez

And if that seems like a cop out, consider Boyne’s subject matter: he’s not writing about magic, interspecies love or a romanticized dystopia. Rather, his characters live in countries ravaged by war; they confront loss, loneliness and genocide.

I was reminded of a quote from Philip Pullman, author of the frequently banned children’s series His Dark Materials, “I trust the reader; I trust the audience; I trust them to have the sense to see what qualities the book is championing.”

“Trust the reader” is, of course, a common mantra in the world of adult fiction, and it was mentioned or alluded to in each of the other panels I attended during this year’s Festival. During the Plotting Along round table, Damon Galgut, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Ann Eriksson and moderator Ania Szado spoke about their varied approaches to developing plot or story. Along with their purposeful and concrete approaches, the panelists also kept returning to the idea of “feeling” when a novel is going off-course. It reminded me that it’s so often a faith in the reader to identify a contrived plot or character that keeps a writer returning to their work again and again.

Eliza Robertson, during the Forms of Fiction round table, lauded the short story as being a form particularly well-suited to experimentation, mentioning that a style or device which works well over the course of a short story could become grating or ineffective when stretched over an entire novel. Emma Donoghue then praised the readership of short fiction as being particularly sophisticated, and I think it’s this trust in the quality of a readership that allows authors to take risks without fear that their work will fail for being too difficult.

Still, each year, some band of fools tries to ban this or that book from libraries and classrooms, citing political, sexual or religious content. But Boyne is right: young readers shouldn’t be pandered to. If we want a readership of thoughtful and engaged adults who seek complex work, we need to put difficult books in the hands of young readers. We need to trust them enough to challenge them.

Mathew Henderson‘s first book, The Lease, was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Gerald Lampert Award. He lives in Toronto. Henderson is also an IFOA Delegate.