S.E. Hinton (1948-)
When S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was published in 1967, it was not an immediate commercial success, yet it went on to sell over 14 million copies, a number that is still growing. In The Outsiders, Hinton addressed an aspect of youth culture that was otherwise never spoken of, an aspect that went beyond school dances and boyfriends, topics that were oft written about for adolescents. Hinton confronted the fact that “teen-agers” (a new word at the time) were real people with real problems. They were not the carefree group that literature at the time portrayed them to be; they smoked, they drank, they got into fights, and they grappled with their roles in society and how to maintain them. As Hinton said in a New York Times article at age 19, “teen-agers are for real.”
Hinton was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma to a middle class family and parents who she says left her alone with her writing. She began writing stories in grade school on the subjects of horses and cowboys, but it was during her sophomore year at Will Rogers High School that The Outsiders was born. As her father battled brain cancer, Hinton found solace in her work and turned her attention toward the maddening social caste system in her high school. Beginning with a short story at fifteen years old, Hinton finished the novel at sixteen. In it she addressed the “behind-the-scenes politicking that goes on at big schools” and the differences between the popular and unpopular, rich and poor (Hinton 27). After showing the manuscript to a friend’s mother who worked in publishing, Hinton received a publishing contract on the day she graduated from high school in 1966 and The Outsiders was published in 1967. At this time, S.E. Hinton took on her pseudonym. At the advice of her publisher, Susan Eloise abbreviated her name in order to keep biased male critics and readers from dismissing her work because she was a woman writing exclusively about male characters. The Outsiders had a small printing in paperback and was sold at drugstores — hardly indicative of the success it would later garner. Just as it was about to be pulled from shelves, a surge in sales to schoolteachers brought the book back from near death. Teachers had discovered the book and realized their students connected to the material. Sales continued to escalate, giving Hinton fame, and leading to her being deemed “the voice of youth” by many critics. This put pressure on Hinton as she attended the University of Tulsa, and she found herself suffering from three years of writer’s block. It wasn’t until her boyfriend, David Inhofe, suggested Hinton write two pages a day before they went out that she was able to finish another book. Hinton and Inhofe married in 1970 and That Was Then, This Is Now was published the following year. That Was Then received praise from critics for being a much more well-written and controlled novel than her debut.
In 1975, Hinton published Rumble Fish, an adaptation of a 1968 short story she published in her university’s literary magazine. This was her shortest novel and tackled even heavier themes than her previous work had, resulting in contrasting opinions from critics and readers alike. Her advice to kids reading the book is often, “read it again when you’re 25.” Four years later in 1979, her next book, Tex, was published. This book was more lighthearted while still being realistic to teenage life and critics lauded Hinton’s matured writing style. In 1982, Disney adapted the book into a film directed by Tim Hunter. In 1983, two more movie adaptations of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by Francis Ford Coppola followed, as did the birth of Hinton’s son, Nick. Five years later in 1988, Hinton became the first person to receive the Margaret A. Edwards award by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the ALA. That same year, Hinton published Taming the Star Runner, a diversion from her previous work as it featured a third person narrator. In 1995 she strayed even further, publishing two children’s books. She did not publish again until 2004 when she took another leap, this time into the world of adult supernatural fiction, with her novel Hawkes Harbor. In 2006 Some of Tim’s Stories, a collection of short stories all less than 1,000 words, was published as a part of The Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers series. These stories again were written for an adult audience.
Today Hinton continues to write and most recently is writing screenplays for Some of Tim’s Stories. She has been married for over forty years, takes classes at the University of Tulsa and spends much time with her horses. She is firm in her belief that despite being credited as the mother of the modern young adult genre, she is no one special, and that The Outsiders goes beyond her personal self. As she often says, “I think that ‘The Outsiders’ was meant to be written, and I was just picked to write it” (Castellucci). She continues to receive thousands of letters from fans of all ages.
The selected reading is from The Outsiders (1995), Penguin Inc.
Hinton, Susan. “Teen-Agers Are for Real.” New York Times 27 Aug. 1967: BR14 (27-29).
Cecil Castellucci. “S.E. Hinton, a.k.a. Your Majesty.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr. 2009. Web: 20 Apr. 2012. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/04/se-hinton-aka-your-majesty.html>.
S.E. Hinton and The Outsiders Create Young Adult Lit
Until S.E. Hinton entered the literary scene in 1967, “adolescent literature” was considered an oxymoron. Through her breakthrough work, The Outsiders, Hinton asserted to the world that teenagers face real adult problems and crave realistic representations of their lives in literature. Her work turned adolescent literature on its head, in effect creating the Young Adult genre. The Outsiders transitioned YA literature from romance and genre novels written by out-of-touch adults to a genre that portrayed the true and realistic trials faced by modern teenagers without falling into common pitfalls such as “mix[ing] up the real with the dirty,” (“Teen-Agers” 27). Although some consider the Young Adult novel to be inferior to more traditional literature, it has matured over the last eighty decades and today speaks to the same larger themes in traditional adult literature. As the author who began this maturation, S.E. Hinton has earned a resounding place in the American Canon and so, too, has the YA genre. As Hinton said herself, “Those who are not ready for adult novels can easily have their love of reading killed” by a lack of engaging, realistic literature for teenagers (“Teen-Agers” 29). Without a rich selection of YA literature such as we have today (thanks in large part to Hinton), a young person can easily be turned off to literature forever, thus making Young Adult literature equally important to the American Canon as general adult fiction.
To realize the significance of S.E. Hinton’s place in both the Young Adult and general American Canons, it is essential to understand the evolution of the young adult novel from its humble beginnings to its modern day victory as a genuine source of quality literature. Before the 1930s, a genre of books written for adolescents or teenagers did not exist. In fact, these terms, “teenager” and “adolescent” did not exist either until post-World War II, as people at this age were widely regarded as children (Cart 8). But as the idea of adolescence being a distinct transition period between childhood and adulthood developed, books aimed toward this group began to emerge (Cart 8). However, the literature for teenagers that did emerge in the ‘30s was hardly literary. Books like Sue Barton, Student Nurse (1936) began the market of literature for teenagers, as its story was “too mature for young children and too uncomplicated for adults,” (Cart 9). Sue Barton went on to become wildly successful, and yet was fraught with stereotyped characters and clichéd situations. This was standard in literature for teenagers until 1942 when a young Maureen Daly published Seventeenth Summer. While this novel was typical in its basic plot — a sweet summer romance — the first person narrator was distinct from the rest of adolescent literature at the time and the narrator’s emotions were immediate and realistic. As a story about a young girl coming of age, the novel was considered bold for its time and was the first real stirring toward the YA literature known today. Despite the quality of Daly’s work, however, its popularity with teenagers spurred an outpouring of new novels using Daly’s formula yet filled again with common clichés. This led to a large quantity of novels for teenagers without much quality and while marketing toward “juveniles” expanded greatly during this time, realistic settings and themes were absent with stories focusing entirely on white, suburban youths. Girls were portrayed as silly, boy-crazy teenyboppers while boys were portrayed as bumbling, bashful, Andy Hardy types. Subjects such as urban youth, sex, and drugs were avoided. This avoidance of tough topics in young adult literature continued throughout the 1950s as “juvenile delinquents” and youth gangs began to be featured in film; this trend in film trickled down into literature in the following decade.
The 1960s saw major cultural change for young people. The emergence of Bob Dylan and other figures of youth shaped the decade as one for the young, a striking change from previous decades. The change began to effect literature as well, as S.E. Hinton came into view with The Outsiders in 1967. A teenager herself when the novel was written in her sophomore year of high school, The Outsiders was written largely in response to the social caste system at Hinton’s Tulsa school. With her own outsider perspective, Hinton observed that the rich, aloof kids who played their part in the social hierarchy became popular while the poor kids and the ones who “made slips” were the outcasts (“Teen-Agers” 28). In addition to this, Hinton was underwhelmed with the literature available for teenagers at the time and unsatisfied with the lack of realism to teenage life in the literature that did exist. A big reason she wrote the book was simply because she wanted something to read. Considering the novel’s huge success, it is ironic that the book was not an immediate triumph. One Kirkus Review stated, “you can believe a kid wrote it, but kids will never believe a thing it says,” (Miller 79). Hinton often states that teachers are some of her favorite people and it is they who played a large part in saving The Outsiders from certain publication death. When teachers found that Hinton’s novel was one that students would willingly read and also enjoy, The Outsiders began to find its success and this paved the way for Hinton and her work to be included in the newly forming Young Adult Canon as well as the Academic Canon and the even broader American Canon.
With Hinton’s The Outsiders, the Young Adult genre was born and literature for teenagers began its shift from mere popular fiction to true literature. The Outsiders was distinct from previous teen-centric literature in many ways. An engaging first person narrative, Hinton wrote from the perspective of a male and wrote almost exclusively about males, something not often done by women writers, especially in books for teenagers. The Outsiders is uniquely American, set in the heart of America in urban Tulsa, Oklahoma and featuring an idealistic narrator who believes in the American dream that says the greatest things in life are not only for the wealthiest among us. Hinton’s characters were not interested with proms or football games, but rather with when and where their next clash with a rival gang will happen (Cart 25). In a novel about class warfare, these characters are concerned with their own survival. “Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today,” Hinton has said and The Outsiders delivers on this (“Teen-Agers” 27). Hinton character’s unapologetically drink, smoke, drag race, steal, cheat, fight, and even murder, yet are portrayed as honorable as their loyalty to each other is boundless. These characters are distinct and rich, fully formed and deep. Hinton recognized that violence was a part of teenager’s lives and used it to define the daily lives of her characters, which added to the realism (Cart 27). However, the novel is far from bitter, as it is told through the voice of an idealist facing a realistic world, something most teenagers experience in their lives as they grow up and deal with their own loss of innocence. Despite the themes of violence and crime, the novel is wrought with emotional intensity occasionally approaching sentimentality. No blame is placed on the “bad guys” or “good guys,” or parents or society. “Things are rough all over,” one character says in The Outsiders (Hinton 35). “That’s just the way things are” (Hinton 3). The Outsiders works on many levels: physical, emotional, symbolic, and aesthetic. Its themes of violence, class and social conflict, abuse, and prejudice as narrator Ponyboy and his friends, fellow greasers, deal with their families, their neighborhood, and the rich Socs, come through as relatable to the modern teenager in ways that previous literature was not.
After The Outsiders, as the 1970s, a decidedly less culturally revolutionary decade hit, literature for young adults began to go through many ups and downs. The Outsiders began the first Golden Age of young adult literature as writers such as Robert Cormier, Judy Bloom, and Lois Lowry surfaced, following Hinton’s approach of writing about well-rounded characters dealing with heavy ideas in realistic ways. Like Hinton, they wrote boldly about the hard-edged realities faced by teenagers and did not pander, showing that morality did not always conquer and that “justice doesn’t always win” (“Teen-Agers” 29). Despite these great new voices in the growing genre, however, some writers of lesser quality came forth as well, taking the young adult novel beyond realism into sensationalism. This led to the so-called “problem novel,” or a novel that is not focused on character, but on a particular issue, which becomes the subject of the novel. Like a soap opera, these novels dealt with overly dramatic situations about unrelatable, dark topics. In response to the problem novel came the romantic renaissance of the 1980s, which was a resurgence of novels reminiscent of those from the 1940s-50s. Immensely popular mass marketed paperbacks focused on the series rather than the characters and again offered mostly stereotypes and clichés. However, the YA genre did not take a complete shift back to popular fiction, as significant writers did continue to appear, such as Gary Paulsen and Francesca Lisa Block. The ‘80s also saw a wave of multiculturalism in the YA genre as blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans began to receive greater spotlight as writers for young adults. Yet by that same token, the idea of political correctness began to censor writers of YA literature as writers were pressured into writing only about their own respective cultures and books by multicultural authors began to be challenged in schools. Over the last 10-15 years, however, the young adult genre has been in an upswing as many more young authors have begun to be recognized. Since the 2000s, the genre of young adult literature has become increasingly inventive, diverse, literary, and global. The genre has exploded with phenomenon such as Harry Potter (1997) and The Hunger Games (2008). The genre attracts powerful new voices that include Laurie Halse Anderson and Markus Zusak. Meanwhile, the definition of “young adult” has expanded both in science and in literature. A time in life that used to be considered finished by 18 or 19 years old by some definitions now expands into the mid-to-late twenties (Cart 119). As the genre opens up to a larger variety of writers and readers, it becomes much more valid as a legitimate literature in the American Canon.
Throughout all of these undulations in the YA genre, at least one author remained a constant in producing major, quality works. S.E. Hinton began the canon of YA literature by turning the idea of fiction for teenagers upside-down with her ideas of having “some honest talk instead of nudging and sly prying on one side and bitterness and suspicion on the other,” (“Teen-Agers” 27). Hinton “launched an industry,” beginning the tradition of writing complex characters dealing with complex themes in literature for teenagers and continued this through each up and down of the genre (Gurdon). Aware of easy pitfalls such as the problem novel before such a novel became a problem, Hinton managed to write realistically about the lives of teenagers and the adult problems they experience. While she tackled heavy issues and dark themes, Hinton did so without resorting to sensational effect. While she knew it was important to realize that “sometimes the bad guys win … some men have their price, and … some people sell out,” she also knew that “some people don’t sell out, and … everyone can’t be bought,” (“Teen-Agers 29). Hinton never pandered to the teenage audience, yet knew where to draw the line between realistic and “dirty,” (“Teen-Agers” 27). Her novels, like the other great novels of the YA genre, are bound together by the rich, multidimensional characters that create the stories. This goes to show that what makes young adult novels great is what makes adult novels great: vivid characters dealing with true and universal issues. Hinton was the author to initiate the young adult novel into this level of literature, and thus it is she who has earned a place in the American Canon as well as the respect of her colleagues. As Richard Peck, a writer and critic of young adult literature, once said, “[Hinton] may be the mother of us all” (Cart 27). The YA genre will always have to battle poor stereotypes imposed upon it by popular fiction such as Twilight (2005) and summer romance novels, as well as the ever-present problem novels which continue to delve deeper into sensationalized subjects, but the authors who combine well-formed, beautifully realized characters with realistic themes and plots relatable to teenage lives, will continue to shine above the popular fiction, shouting at the American Canon to make room in a booming voice.
Hinton, Susan. “Teen-Agers Are for Real.” New York Times 27 Aug. 1967: BR14, 27-29.
Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. ALA Editions, 2010. EBL Reader. 15 Apr. 2012.
Miller, Teresa. “Interviews With S.E. Hinton.” Some of Tim’s Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. 15 Apr. 2012.
Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. Speak, Penguin Putnam Inc,: 2003. 15 Apr. 2012
Gurdon, Meghan Cox. “Darkness Too Visible.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 4 Jun. 2011. Web: 15 Apr. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html>.