Hairspray, zits and stars of Brit Lit

Teen novelists are the latest publishing phenomenon. But are they true prodigies? Emma Brooker sifts hype from fiction

Emma Brooker
Wednesday 17 April 1996 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


British publishers have, it seems, acquired a sudden taste for freakishly young authors. This month has seen the publication of First Time, a novel by a young Dubliner called Lara Harte. She wrote it in the corner of her bedroom, aged 18, and then fought with her four younger brothers and sisters for time on the family computer to type up her manuscript. She still lives at home and is studying English and French at University College Dublin. Now in her second year , she delivers her second novel at the end of this year.

Harte is not alone. First Time comes hot on the heels of Rude Girls, a novel about three young black women by the 18-year-old Londoner Vanessa Walters, published in February amid a blaze of good publicity. Walters used her school computer to print out her rough draft and got her best friend to read through it.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Other literary prodigies waiting in the wings include 20-year-old Courttia Newland whose first novel, The Scholar, which draws on his experience as a black teenager growing up on a west London housing estate, is out next spring. Most famously there is Bidisha Bandyophadhyay - the 17-year-old Putney school girl, NME critic and Big Issue columnist who secured a pounds 15,000 advance for her first novel, Seahorses - to be published next year.

This is great news for the teenagers all over Britain who have unpublished manuscripts hidden under their mattresses, but others have taken it less well. The Bidisha deal provoked a scree of scoffing think-pieces on "young talent" penned by a variety of hacks aged 26-plus.

Some suggested that, as publishing becomes increasingly publicity driven, literary agents have taken to trafficking in extreme youth because of the guaranteed media coverage. It's hype, they protested, and what's more, it's dangerous and unfair. Here the scornful tone softened to one of morbid concern for prodigies whose careers would, inevitably, be blighted by early fame and fortune.

But Harte, like her young colleagues, loves the exposure. What could be sweeter than to be young, published, and the centre of so much attention? Dark haired and dreamy on her book jacket, Harte, now 20, seems calm and self-possessed.

Her book - for which Phoenix House paid a "healthy sum" has a sultry title and boasts a cover photo of a Lolita-ish girl reclining on the back seat of a car, dragging carelessly on a cigarette. It looks like a latter- day Bonjour Tristesse, the 1954 novella about a long, hot summer on the Cote D'Azur which shot its worldly 18-year-old author, Francoise Sagan, to international fame.

This is clever marketing, but appearances could not be more misleading. First Time tells the story of Cassandra, a sheltered middle-class Dubliner who is befriended by working-class Emma, the new girl from the wrong side of town who comes to her exclusive private girls' school.

Harte's is a downbeat account of some of the low points of adolescence; zits, hairspray techniques, furtive cigarettes and the existential void that yawns at the prospect of a first snog. All are recounted in grim detail. The book portrays a teen world which is surprisingly innocent and sheltered, but obviously relevant to the numerous readers of Harte's age who have written to congratulate and thank her for writing the book.

"Family and friends have all been very impressed, pleased and delighted," says Harte in her piping wee voice. "To see me getting a break is very encouraging for others." Harte's parents are both teachers and writers with literary connections, but she sent her manuscript off to several London publishers without any encouragement from them. "It was difficult, I couldn't really talk to anyone about the book while I was writing it," she says. However, little rewriting was required and the book was published pretty much in its original form.

Favourably reviewed in the British press where it was hailed as a promising start, closer to home First Time drew bile from the author Mary Morrissy, who reviewed it in the Irish Times. "The tragedy of such halting early attempts at fiction is not that they remain unpublished, but that they might one day see the light of day," wrote Morrissy, blisteringly, dismissing the book as little more than a teenage diary with "a sour and spoiled tone of voice, a tedious solipsism and a total absence of humour". The publishers, she concluded, should have known better.

A true pro, Harte was unperturbed and went ahead with a national radio interview a few hours after reading the review. "I suspect there is some resentment because of her youth," says Harte's agent, Georgina Capel, who has just sold the German rights to First Time and is busy selling the TV rights. "But young authors are no more nor less vulnerable than any other writer. A bad review is hard at any age."

However, Richard Beswick of Abacus, the Little Brown imprint that is publishing Courttia Newland's book, urges caution in handling exceptionally young authors. "You've got to be very careful not to over-hype these books because otherwise you're riding for a big fall. You've got to be protective and you've got to play quite a delicate game." He sees new authors in two main categories. Big Hype and Slow Burn. Inevitably very young writers fall into the Big Hype category, so, "You have to be careful of burn out, one-book wonders."

Youth is such a precious marketing commodity - are publishers and agents exploiting it cynically? Jonny Geller, the 28-year-old literary agent who last year brokered the Bidisha deal, admits that extreme youth doesn't exactly hurt when it comes to selling a book. "There's an angle there.... It helps to get an interest, especially if there's a picture of an attractive young woman on the back cover. But really, the writing has to be exceptional - a new voice and a good story. We need new British writers."

And there is no evidence that young success blights a writer's term career. There are many people with only one novel in them, they just don't usually write them until they are out of their teens. Many writers published in their teens, such as Patrick Gale, Sheena MacKay, Charlotte Bingham and Susan Hill, have had productive and commercially successful writing careers - as have Caitlin Moran and Julie Burchill in newspapers.

There are two reasons for the spate of teen authors hitting the shelves. First, novels such as Irvine Walsh's Trainspotting have shown that there's a vast and largely untapped market for literature among 16- to 25-year- olds. Publishers are desperate to target this hard-to-please readership with new, contemporary voices.

Second, coming of age novels, if well written, will invariably be winners. Adolescence is such a vivid, fleeting and nostalgic time - capturing it in fiction is like trying to bottle a strange, elusive scent. But when it comes to doing this well, age is irrelevant - some of the best coming of age novels have been written by "old" people. JD Salinger was 32 when Catcher in the Rye was published and Harper Lee was 34 when To Kill a Mockingbird came out. The Lover, a kind of Lolita as told from the young girl's point of view, was published when its author, Marguerite Duras, was 70. Wrinklies take heart. There's hope yet.

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