Saturday, August 07, 2010

Melissa is Right (About Books), As Usual

Over the years, my wife--the one and only Book Nut--has done a lot to open my eyes to the world of children's and young adult literature. Not that I'm blind to such: I was a big reader as a kid and teen-ager, and was quite conscious of the fact that I was a reader at the same time--I wouldn't be able to so easily rattle off a half-dozen children and YA books that have stayed with me over the years otherwise. But I was, nonetheless, quite oblivious to critical arguments about that literary world--particularly, I was unaware of the often defensive border-mongering which keeps kids' books, YA books, and really any kind of "genre" fiction whatsoever, separate from "real" or "adult" fiction. But I'm aware of it now, and with that awareness has come agreement with Melissa: what matters most is plot and characters, and if it so happens that some of the best treatments of such are to be found in tales that borrow liberally and creatively from classic stories and tropes, from fairy tales on down...well, who really cares?

But Melissa, and hundreds of her fellow writers, reviewers, and book-bloggers, nonetheless find themselves regularly stigmatized by the literary profession and academy. No big deal, maybe; the books still sell, and the discussions and book groups still happen. Sometimes it becomes a big issue--such as the controversy when the National Book Foundation gave its highest award to Stephen King--but mostly it just goes along, beneath the surface. Still, it bugs them, and it should. As a friend of mine commented, "everything is some sort of 'genre'." Why assume that one genre, just because its target audience is children or teen-agers, is someone more immature or easier than any other? Maybe a lot of it is sloppy and filled with cheap pathos, true. But a lot of other genres are similarly filled with their own sort of hack-work. Why not just accept that books are for the readers who love them, and quit ranking one genre--particularly one that just happens to speak mostly to kids and young adults--as beneath any other?

Well, this is all by way of introducing an excellent piece from the New York Times, which gets all this exactly right. Melissa and her friends are forwarding it to one another, delighted to see their case made so well in such a prominent place, and they're right to feel that way. Here's an excerpt:

[T]he historian Amanda Foreman, a 42-year-old mother of five and author of “Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire,” was honeymooning when she first read Harry [Potter]. When I asked Foreman about her young adult reading habit, she could hardly contain her enthusiasm. I must, she urged, read Susan Cooper (“incredibly clever”), Eoin Colfer (“a brilliant author”), Rick Riordan (“really, really, really good”). I must! “A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart,” Foreman, who is currently working on a book about British involvement in the American Civil War, said. “But good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people"....

Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves. “When you talk to people about the books that have meant a lot to them, it’s usually books they read when they were younger because the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn’t bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy,” explained Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary. “When you read these books as an adult, it tends to bring back the sense of newness and discovery that I tend not to get from adult fiction.”

As they say, read the whole thing. As for me, I've started reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels out loud to our third daughter, taking a break from Harry Potter. Melissa and our older two daughters have long since read them, and adore them. I expect I will too.


Heather said...

I've been into juvie fiction, secretly, for yers, and am so happy to FINALLY have other friends talking about it! Love Riordian, right now, esp. Genius!

Matt said...

I'm pretty sure that "young adult" is more of a marketing scheme than a genre. The bad part about that, though, is that it pushes editors and agents to look for stuff that fits into the pattern of previously successfully marketed books rather than looking for stuff that's good, causing the field to be full of derivative and unoriginal work, and causing publishers, agents, and stores to be even more wary of more unusual work than they otherwise would be. I'm sure this is so of things other than "young adult" books, too, but it seems especially likely given that it really is a marketing scheme rather than a genre in a more serious sense.

Melissa said...

Young adult isn't a genre, Matt. Not in the way "fantasy" or "historical fiction" or "romance" or "science fiction" is a genre. It's more a classification. Sure, it's also a marketing scheme; especially in the last 10 years or so, as Harry Potter has gotten big and proven to publishers/booksellers that there is a market for kids and young adult books. But, there is a difference in the way authors, publishers, editors, and readers approach young adult fiction, something that is not present in the fiction that is marketed toward adults. And it's that distinction that appeals to me, and other readers. This post has more thoughts on the subject, too.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Just to add to what my wife says, Matt, I think the word "genre" has a variety of meaning, some of which very plainly cross over into marketing, at all levels. When my friend commented that everything is part of some "genre," I think his point is that categorization is invariably going to play into not just how things are sold, but how things are read and written as well. Say an author is thinking about how explicit they want a sex scene to be, in order to convey the feeling which they want the characters to have on the book's readers. And say they decide to make it fairly explicit. Are they writing "erotica" now? Or are they Philip Roth? That decision isn't entirely in the hands of the author; a hundred other factors, some of them commercial, will come into play. But the result will still be a "genre" label of some sort, and will be usable by readers as such.

YA authors are clearly categorizing themselves in choosing to write about things they do in the way they do, and just as surely booksellers are leveraging that choice to appeal to certain markets. But that doesn't mean the label is dubious; it just means it's multifaceted and vague, just like every other such label.

Camassia said...

I noticed that the central library here in D.C. furthers that segregation by having a "teen zone" with a sign outside indicating that the room is ONLY for teens. I think the library meant well with this, but it is kind of frustrating to us adults who like to check out a YA novel now and then. (This was one reason I wound up downloading Twilight instead of reading a physical book.)