in which I read about sex on a train

I always loved Melvin Burgess. I’d read anything he put his name to and would flaunt his books proudly. When I was a teenager he lived next door to my cousin’s best friend’s Auntie. Obviously, this meant I knew him, despite the fact I never actually met him. Ah, the teenage years. “What’s that you’re reading?” my friends would enquire and I’d smile smugly “Oh, it’s by Melvin Burgess. He lives next door to my cousin’s best friend’s Auntie you know.” I was so proud. An Angel For May; Burning Issy; The Baby and Fly Pie; Loving April; Kite. I’d read them all and Junk, his novel about teenage runaway heroin addicts is still secure in it’s position of one of my favourite books ever. I re-read it recently and it had lost none of it’s appeal. Burgess takes controversial subject matters and he writes them, well. Junk is a perfect example of that, but, I am not here to talk about Junk, or brag about my Melvin Burgess claim to fame. I am here to talk about his more recent offering, Doing It.

It is quite difficult to find a good review of Doing It; In the Guardian for example, Anne Fine was horrified. Why? Because this novel, written for the YA market is about sex. It is about sex from the teenage boys perspective and it is billed as pulling no punches. I was going to read it anyway – I think a part of that teenage girl who thinks Burgess is her best friend is still lurking – but reading the reviews made me want to read it so much more. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I seem to remember Junk caused a lot of outrage when it was published, and it always surprises me, how our society seems to want to protect it’s youth from ‘real life.’ I mean, the kids in this book are not 12 or 13 or 14. They are 17, 18 and so over the legal age for consent. We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think a large percentage of people that age, and younger – lets be honest - were not sexually active, but there aren’t many books out there, fictional works that is that tackle a subject that is so close to every teenager of a certain age. Why not? Because not many authors are as brave as Melvin Burgess. I take my hat off to him.
Reviews try to dismiss this book as ‘teen trash’, describe it as ‘crude’ and ‘coarse’ or to quote Anne Fine ‘vile and disgusting.’ I beg to differ. Children’s Laureate I will never be, but I do have an opinion, and it is this:

Doing It is honest and it is funny and with it’s cleverly woven together themes it is impossible to dismiss it as trash. Yes, there is sexual content and yes it is explicit. Yes. If I had read it when I was 17 and in the presence of my parents I would probably have turned an interesting shade of beetroot but this book is clever and Burgess is a great writer and it is to his credit that he handles any awkward scenes with sensitivity and honesty. The novel broaches issues that need to be broached more often; You have one boy trapped in an affair with his teacher, desperate to break free but unsure how, one boy in love with a ‘fat bird’ but scared what his friends might think and a third, the ‘popular’ boy that every school has, madly in love with the ‘popular’ girl yet desperate to lose his virginity, and then you have your teenage angst as well, divorce; adultery; peer pressure; shoplifting. Doesn’t sound particularly chirpy does it, and to be honest this book could easily have become deep and depressing. Lucky then that it was touched with that Melvin Burgess magic and like Junk before it, manages to be well-observed and rather amusing at the same time as it moves you and at times makes you cringe. It is well written and it has a unique twist in that it is told, for the most part from the point of view of the boys. How often does that happen? Every character has a voice, there are no cardboard cut-outs, no judgements are made; you are left to make your own mind up.
The conclusion I reached?
I wish this book had been around when I was seventeen.

But of course, to a degree, it was.

It was a funny coincidence that about the time I decided to finally get on with reading Doing It, my brother chose to clean out the attic and present me with a huge cardboard boxful of my old, mainly Enid Blyton, books. Tucked in there was a rather careworn copy of Forever by Judy Blume. The 1970’s Doing It.
Doing It is proof that ‘going all the way’ is still a taboo subject in YA literature, so why did Judy Blume get away with it, some 30-odd years ago. Whereas it is hard to find a positive review for Doing It, it is equally hard to find the opposite for Forever although I am aware that it did cause controversy at the time.
So, out of curiosity I read them both on the same day.
It was a wonderful experience, to be transported back to being 16, or 17, when I read Forever for the first time and I quickly got sucked back into the story of Michael and Katherine, just like I had then, and, I was frustrated with the ending just like I was then; I was always a fan of the happy ever after. Why could forever not have really been forever. (“..because I love you too,' I whispered into his chest. Saying it for the first time was the hardest. There’s something so final about it. The second time I sat up and said it right to him. 'I love you, Michael Wagner.' 'Forever?' he asked. 'Forever,' I said." *sob* it broke my 17 year old heart…)
Forever deals with the same sort of issues as Doing It does. It is sexually graphic, although maybe not in the same way as Doing It, and it deals with less than pretty issues.
Forever opens with “Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six guys.” The same Sybil, later in the book has to miss her graduation as she in hospital giving birth to the baby that she gives up for adoption. Surely that is equally as shocking as the opening of Doing It, which has the three protagonists having a hypothetical talk about sex:
“'OK,' said Jonathon. 'The choice is this. You either have to shag Jenny Gibson or that homeless woman who begs spare change outside Cramner's bakers.' "
I think every teenage boy I ever met (and several girls) will have played that game growing up. What makes it shocking is the language. Melvin Burgess *gasp* had the nerve to use the word ‘shag.’ Judy Blume however, opened with a 17 year old girl who had already had 6 sexual partners and had another main character desperate to ‘get laid’ before graduation. Now I am not saying I disapprove of Forever, to the contrary, I love it. I am just saying that really, Doing It is no worse, in several ways it’s better. Judy Blume wrote Forever (for her daughter I believe. How embarrassed would you be?!) with every word indicating she could remember just what it was like, and how it felt to be a teenager, thus engaging with every girl that ever picked up the book, and I believe Melvin Burgess has done the same.
Doing It is maybe cruder, I’ll be stereotypical and blame that on the main characters being teenage boys; they are famous for that ‘laddish’ jokey attitude to sex, but Burgess expresses that this is more out of nervousness or embarrassment than actual idiocy. Forever is more sentimental. I’ll let my Goddaughter read Forever (when she’s older), and you know what, I’ll more than likely let her read Doing It as well, ‘vile and disgusting’ or not. Teenagers need more books like this, and I applaud both Blume and Burgess, for 35 years apart, having the nerve to write them.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Blog Tour: The Method

Review: Paper Butterflies

Book Review: Sirens