Embracing Darkness and Uncovering Our Forgotten Pasts: A Quest to Make Reading for Boys Cool Again

Fewer boys and young men are reading these days. Young adult writer Steven O’Prey sets out to find the causes and possible solutions.

Experts insist the future for boys reading is bleak, crippled, dying. Boys, especially teens and young adults, just won’t read. The experts, of course, know the reasons why. Boys can’t be bothered, they boldly assume. They are ignorant and unschooled, growing up in a radically different culture to that of ten or twenty years ago. What’s the point of a publisher wasting valuable funds to fight a loosing battle? The government are already sorting it out by sending free books into schools, so what else can we do?

The answer, simple as it may seem, is to write about things that interest them, create books they actually want to read. And write them with flare and pace. Today, sadly, infuriatingly, we seem to live in a culture where publishers are deciding what their readers want based on past statistics, and the success of Harry Potter, churning similar titles out in the millions. Some get it right. Most don’t. I say one thing: That was the past. The world is changing, moving on faster than ever before, and the publishing industry needs to move with it or face extinction.

So, are our so called ‘experts’ right in their assumptions? A writer myself, I decided to go out and ask, rather than assume what interests today’s boys and young adults. The answers I found changed my views on writing for ever.

My first opportunity to do some real research arose about three years ago, a project for a university theatre module. Using a Dictaphone, we were told to interview a group of students on an everyday subject so that we could interpret their answers into a documentary theatre script. Most of my group opted to grill their unwitting victims about family, interests, university life etcetera. My objective, though, was for my own selfish benefit and the prospect of receiving lower marks for going off topic didn’t deter me from finding out what I wanted to know.

So, Dictaphone in hand, off I went. Did I head to the library to find the English lit students studying away, perfect candidates to answer my burning questions about the future of literature? Of course not! That’s where the ‘experts’ went to conduct their doomsday theory. I headed to the local student hangout lounge to lasso the type of modern day youth I was trying to cater for.

It didn’t take me long to find a trio of lads that fitted my criteria: aged sixteen to eighteen, playing pool, talking about music and movies. The experts, I’m sure, would have sneered at the opportunity to speak to these guys. Just the type of boys who would rather wrestle bears than read a book.

Persuasive as I am, I earned a quick interview. The guys were pleasant, friendly, loud, and were armed with strange catchphrases that they liked to shoot at each other – wrestling phrases, if I’m not mistaken. After explaining what I was doing, I hit them with my big question.

“So, why don’t modern day guys like you read?”

My question, somewhat presumptuous when I think back, was greeted by narrowed eyes and side-glances. It was almost as if I’d insulted them. The answer was evident when one of the lads reached into his bag and pulled out a score of small paperbacks. I soon realised these were graphic novels. Manga. The lads went on to tell me they actually enjoyed reading, they just didn’t enjoy the type of fiction being churned out these days. They stated it was far too slow and descriptive and the plots were boring, laughable, and aimed at the mentality of an eight-year-old. The only thing that seemed to be cashing in on what they liked, wanted, needed was the Anime/Manga industry.

Speaking to these guys was one of the most important moments of my life. They all seemed to love the high-octane, dark, venomous worlds created in these Manga stories. They admitted the storylines sometimes lost their way, or weren’t structured very well, but the plots and themes were what they wanted to read about. And hey, let’s remember, these stories were written by artists, after all. They had spent most of their lives learning how to tell a story through a blank canvas with pencils and paint, not with rhythmic prose.

That day I asked lots more teenagers their opinions on reading. I was greeted with a lot of negative responses, involving profanities I won’t document, but all the negativity seemed to revolve around the ‘ boring story’ factor, or the Harry Potter copycat syndrome. I also put forward the publishing industry’s idea of making novels entirely into E-books instead of printing them. The responses I got on that subject suggest that if this happens the world of literature will disappear forever in no time at all. One girl told me she would rather poke her eyes out with a fork than sit at a computer trying to read a novel. Others said it takes the comfort and privacy out of reading, and they would certainly not buy an E-book. And how do you take an E-book to the beach on holiday?

Wanting to check the type of books on sale without buying through the internet, I headed to a Tesco mega-store; there was nothing on offer that anyone above the age of eight or under the age of twenty-five would have been interested in. I had to visit a real bookstore to be fair to the study, though.

Waterstones. The U.K’s biggest bookstore would have something. Thankfully, they did. I found a series written by Darren Shan (a personally favourite author who I will admit I knew about beforehand) about vampires, and a book called Hunting Season by Dean Vincent Carter. Speaking to a helpful lady in the store, I found out that Shan’s sales were immense, both kids and adults couldn’t get enough. I asked why she thought this was and she told me there were simply not enough authors producing novels aimed at modern day kids, who, due to video games and movies, are hungry for a much darker, faster, scarier taste of the world. It was her who recommended Carter’s work to me. Anyone trying to get their son, brother, uncle, even dad reading again should buy a copy of Hunting Season and put it in their hands.

I recently asked D.V.C what his opinion on the subject was and he kindly took the time to give me his opinion:

“This is a subject I've been quite passionate about since before I started writing novels. I have to admit that when I was a teenager, I didn't really read much 'teenage fiction.' From my early teens I was far more interested and excited in adult fiction, particularly horror from writers like Stephen King and James Herbert. I think a lot of people when they're young, tend to read higher than their age. It's a natural thing, perhaps a subconscious defiance and refusal to take what we're being given, but publishers need to take heed and start giving teenagers what they want, not what they (the publishers) think they should read.

“When I started writing my first book, I intended for it to be adult horror, but my editor, the shrewd person that she is, thought it would be much more effective as a novel for teens, but with the horror segments toned down. I think it worked really well, and it made me realise that this is exactly how teen horror should be written: as an adult horror novel, but with the more explicit and controversial scenes reviewed or edited. The worst thing a teen novel can do is to patronise its reader, and this is usually done (probably in all innocence) by the author deliberately trying to write for teens. It's so easy to forget what one was like as a teen, and similarly easy to talk down to them. So to play it safe, publishers should encourage their authors to try and write for adults, then reign them in on the stronger sections, snip a few nasty words, mop up some of the blood and messy body parts, and perhaps not reveal what that 'something' in the woodshed actually is.”

Trying to move on with my research, my mind kept returning to the historical subjects used in those graphic novels, like ancient cultures and Western America, the darkness of them, the way they had latched onto what the modern day boys wanted and offered it in the form of storyboard art, albeit with rather unstructured plots at times. Let’s be fair, the authors weren’t novelists, but it was them who were receiving the admiration and sales of the audience that the modern-day fiction writer should be absorbing. One night, I got up at some unearthly hour and checked the popularity ranks of such Manga works as Priest (A cowboy who sold his soul to the devil) on the internet and managed to accumulate some rough figures on sales. They were huge. They were monstrous. On certain subjects, people were asking if there were any regular novels anyone could recommend similar in theme, as the graphic novels were only a twenty minute read. Apart from Shan with his vampires and D.V.C with his werewolves, there weren’t. Soon, I immediately decided, there would be, but in an entirely different way.

That night, fuelled by an unhealthy amount of Pro-plus, I switched on my laptop and began writing a dark novel about a young outlaw in the actual Wild West of 1887. I didn’t really have a definitive storyline but I wrote until it was time to go to work. At work I did more research, scouring the internet for a novel like mine about cowboys. There were none. Stephen King’s The Gunslinger came closest to what I was searching for, but having read it already, I knew the style, story and setting were not really themed around the history of the Wild West or told the way I was planning on telling. How, I thought in utter disbelief, could there not be one dark novel for teens and young adults (excluding the world of graphic novels) about the Wild West? With smash-hit videogames such as Gun, Call of Juarez, and Darkwatch it was obvious it was still an immensely popular subject. On further inspection I noticed Western films making a modern comeback too, with the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim falls, and the Assassination of Jesse James; all starring huge actors such as Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Pierce Brosnan. Why was it only the Manga industry recognising this, and how could I confirm that people wanted to read a novel about it? It drove me crazy.

There seemed only one logical way to find out. As quickly as I could, I put together a questionnaire. It was simple. It was made up of lots of tick boxes tagged with themes such as wizards, animal-kingdom, aliens, vampires and werewolves, teen problems, demons, and for my own curiosity, cowboys. It also had a section about pace, one about style, and one about length. All the people had to do was tick their preferences, then I’d collate the stats and write the combination of them all into a novel. Simple. Effective. Accurate.

I handed the questionnaires out at the colleges, university, high schools, local football teams, and to other unsuspecting victims who I pounced on while they were out shopping for videogames, movies, music, and of course, books. The questionnaire took literally twenty seconds to complete so I got a lot of instant feedback. The feedback, I must gloat, was like a pat on the shoulder from God.

Out of the hundreds of lads, and even a few girls, the results were conclusive. The top three themes were vampires and werewolves, demons, and yes, oh yes, COWBOYS. The pace section was almost 100% fast-paced. Like a pair of racehorses galloping neck and neck toward the finish line, the top two styles came in as Dark-fantasy and Horror. The winning length was ‘Medium,’ for which I had bracketed about 300 pages long. Funnily enough, the theme of Teen problems, which publishers seem to think is one of the biggest draws to reading for teenagers, didn’t get a single vote. Not one!

That was all I needed to know. Feeling extremely pleased with myself, I erased my earlier vague outlaw effort and began the dark, fast-paced story of seventeen-year-old Clay Reed and his terrifying adventures with the infamous Coyotes across the historical Wild West. The novel it became is called Twistwood. I finished the first draft in three months. Spent another sixteen months or so editing it, perfecting Western dialect, and ensuring my timelines and historical facts were correct. There was so much to find out. I put a huge, exhausting amount of time and research into finding out about the old West and the myths and facts surrounding it. I had to. How else could I have made it believable?

My proofreaders were impressed by the finished story, saying they couldn’t believe how original, yet simple the idea was. The most frequent question I got asked was, “Where did you come up with such a complex but easy to follow storyline?” My answer was simple; I did my research and asked my readers what they wanted to read about, then gave it to them on silver platter. That is, after all, what my job as a writer is all about.

Let’s be honest, the music industry changed radically to keep up with the times. If the publishing industry wants to survive, I advise it does likewise and listens to modern-day readers and writers, and studies the trends in other media, such as videogames and movies. It’s time to take a stand, and write simply for other people, the audience, not for fame, fortune, or the tag of the next J.K Rowling. Whether you’re a writer, agent, or publisher, move with the times and give reading the power it deserves to stand up there with its head held high beside movies, music and videogames.

It’ll be worth it in the end ...