Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why YA?

I finished reading a friend’s manuscript earlier today. It’s a stunning novel, and she’s getting some interest from agents, which, after reading it, isn’t surprising. More about that in a moment, but first, I wanted to talk about one of the things that struck me while I was reading.

The protagonist is a talented violinist in a youth symphony who’s faced with the choice between pursuing her music or choosing another field of study when she goes to college. There was much in the novel that reminded me of my own struggle as a writer to find justification for continuing to pursue this impossible dream of becoming a Published Author. One passage in particular reminded me of what it’s all about: the trying, the process or, to use a well-worn cliché, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters (Not that my friend’s novel is about a cliché. It’s not. It’s amazing and original, and her writing is gorgeous).

Anyway, the passage reminded me that art for the artist is never about the finished piece – it’s not the painting that matters, or the performance, or any given book. It’s about the finding of it, the engagement with the material, the struggle to make it be what you see or hear or feel in your mind and your body. Yes, it’s satisfying when the painting stops people in their tracks, or the performance brings people to their feet, or the novel makes them think and feel things they’ve never considered before – but all of that is beyond the artist’s control. What is in the artist’s control is bringing him or herself to the act of creation completely, wholly, and with joy and reverence for the incredible gift it is to be able to do this thing.

My friend’s novel was a nice reminder of that on this Christmas day.

Now, the other thing I wanted to talk about was that one of the agents who’s shown interest in her novel is asking her to consider the Young Adult (YA) market for it. Would it fit? Yes, very nicely. I think it would be a stunning YA book that would be a contender for some of the YA book prizes.

While I could talk about how agents are really pushing any book with a youthful protagonist into the YA marketplace because YA is selling right now, that isn’t the soapbox onto which I’m climbing. Nope. I’ll concede that there’s some good YA out there and there are enough literary novels that have been discovered by teenage readers that the publishing industry is taking notice of the crossover potential for new releases and, sometimes, coming out with dual adult/YA releases.

But it’s that last part that has me concerned. So here’s me, climbing up on the soapbox to talk about what bothers me the most about the whole YA phenomena in publishing.

I think it takes away the thrill of a young reader discovering the world of adult literature.

When I was 11 years old, I discovered my dad’s science fiction collection in the guest room in our house. He had the classics – Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein. The first non-kid’s book I read was Fahrenheit 451, and I never looked back at the kids’ classics my parents and grandparents had given me – Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Little Women, my collections of fairy tales (although, to be very honest, those books and stories were not intended for a child’s reading when they were first released), those were put by the wayside as I delved into the fantastical and philosophical worlds of the masters of science fiction and fantasy. A year later, I was reading James Mitchner, a precocious 7th grader carrying around the 1,000+ page Centennial and eagerly devouring it at every opportunity (the mini-series was on that year and, at a chapter a week, it was moving too slowly for me, so I got the book, and I remember one of my teachers looking at it and commenting that she was impressed because she would never read a book that long).

I remember getting a library card that allowed me to take out books from the adult section of the library. A major milestone in my life.

I fear that the desire to promote literature that is geared toward young people, marketed toward them, with characters who are similar to them and situations they can related to, will rob them of one of the great pleasures of growing up: that wonderful moment when you cross out of children’s literature and into the adult world of grown-up novels.

I don’t mean to imply that YA books are not well-written. Many of them are incredibly well-written presenting complex characters and situations in fine, nuanced prose. In many cases, I think the publishing industry’s desire to cater to young readers is wonderful. Yes, it’s driven by a desire to make money, but it’s also driven by the desire to create life-long readers (even if, in my more cynical moments, I think that it’s that “cradle to grave” philosophy so many businesses aspire to) by giving young readers good things to read rather than risking them turning off from literature forever by being cast adrift in the sea of Important Books.

It’s an impulse I see at work in my older son’s high school curriculum – no Scarlet Letter or Canterbury Tales for him, his reading list is comprised of YA cross-over titles, those “published for an adult audience but with a youthful protagonist that appeals to a younger reader” books (this young man is, even as I write this, reading Gulliver’s Travels – he was motivated to pick up the book after listening to an interview with Jack Black talking about the new Gulliver movie earlier this evening. I commented that he probably wanted to see the movie now, and he said no, but did we happen to have the book in the house? He’s been reading it ever since).

But I think this denies young readers the opportunity to truly understand what literature is about, to challenge themselves, and to have that secret thrill of gaining access to the previously unknown world that adults inhabit.

It feels like yet another way in which, in our eagerness to provide our children with “advantages,” we have co-opted their lives instead, pulled the curtain away and revealed the Great and Powerful Oz as just another guy from Kansas trying to make a living, by making it all so accessible for them. Just like the plethora of child-sized furniture that is available now, we have cut our literature into easily assimilated bite-sized morsels that are safely on display in the children’s and YA sections of the bookstore. No need for the teens to go wandering into the wilds of the literature section. Who knows what they’ll stumble upon there? But if we make these books available in another place, tell them it’s for them specially, we can keep them in this insulated cocoon of childhood longer.

And maybe that’s what worries me the most.

Those books I read when I was a teen, the ones with adults struggling to figure out their place in the world or coming to terms with different philosophies or impossible situations, those books prepared me for the adult I would become. They showed me that adults don’t have all the answers. They made the adult world that was rapidly moving towards me a place in which I could envision myself. I didn’t need someone to show me what my own world looked like – I was living it every day. But I did need someone to show me there were other ways of seeing the world than the one I lived in and that I didn’t need to have all the answers even when I was a grown-up.

I worry that YA makes our kids too comfortable - it gives them visions of their own world, hands them characters to whom they can relate, but it doesn't offer them something more. It doesn't ask them to envision the world as it could or will be. And it absolutely doesn't give them the thrill of discovering it on their own.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What These Ithakas Mean

I’m helping some friends home-school their high school-aged daughter by taking on the literature component of her curriculum. I volunteered for this, actually, because I think it’s important that young people have a grounding in the classics upon which our Western literature is based. I can’t tell you how many of the creative writing students, both grad and undergrad, don’t know The Odyssey, haven’t got a clue who Virgil is (either in his own right or as Dante’s guide in The Inferno), and can’t identify why they know the name ‘Gabriel’ nor what its significance is. Yes, I view these as serious deficits for writers and also anyone who is studying literature. So much of our literature is based on these earlier works, that not knowing them cuts out a whole level of understanding. I also believe that all art exists in conversation with what’s gone before it. To me, not knowing these earlier works is like not learning the alphabet and being expected to read.

The reading list I designed, follows the development of one of the major motifs of Western lit – the journey. Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aenid, Candide, Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and a few others I can’t think of right now.

Which is not what I wanted to write about with this blog post. This is:

We’re working on The Odyssey right now. It’s probably my fourth or fifth time reading this book, and my next novel (the one I actually went into grad school for so I could work on it) is based on it. Simply said, I love this story.

The first time I read it was as a freshman in high school, a really bad prose translation. I’ll admit, the book didn’t make much of an impression except for my teacher’s insistence that Odysseus’ naming of himself as ‘nobody’ in the Cyclops’ cave was an expression of his loss of identity (this is also the same teacher who later declared that a minor character in a Hemingway novel would succeed while all the rest were doomed because he was wearing green pants when we meet him – I love Mr. Johnson, he was one of the best teachers I ever had, but…he played a little bit on the heavy side with symbolism) (okay, in full disclosure, there was another thing I remember about that reading. Because of the bad translation – which substituted ‘no one’ for ‘nobody’ and my slight dyslexia, I read the name as ‘Norman,’ and couldn’t figure out why this was such as especially good trick on Odysseus’ part. I mean, so what? When Polyphemus’ friends are asking, “Who’s hurting you?” and he says, “Norman is hurting is me.” where’s the cleverness in that?)

I read the book in my freshman year of college, too. This time, it made a much greater impression on me, largely because my class was in open rebellion about calling Odysseus a great hero. It was 1983, and we were a generation that had grown up with our country’s disgust about the Vietnam war as part of our daily routine. That Odysseus lost ALL 600 of his men on the way home from Troy, spent a year living with one goddess and seven living with another, and kept falling asleep at the most inopportune times, was more than we were willing to accept in a hero. My professor finally gave up trying to have discussions about the book and we turned to The Aeneid, a book I gave up on reading, though I don’t remember why. What I do recall about The Odyssey, though, was that Professor Vos gave us a poem by C.P. Cavafy titled “Ithaka” which I have carried with me ever since. It’s a beautiful poem about living for the journey not the goal that ends with the lines, “And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you/ Wise as you will have become, so full of experience/ you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” (from the translation by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I read The Odyssey and started recognizing how extraordinary it is. Maybe it was because I was almost the same age as Odysseus is in The Odyssey. Maybe it was also watching Troy and being struck by Sean Bean’s portrayal of the man and his friendship with Achilles. Maybe it was also a phenomenal series of lectures on the book by Elizabeth Vandivier (by the Teaching Company, if you don’t know about them, you should), and the classics kick my husband and I were on (still are, actually). Maybe it’s because I realized I have the same scar on my leg that Odysseus has on his. (This is how the servant, Eurycleia, recognizes him – from the scar he got boar hunting as a boy. The boar charged and caught him across the left thigh with one of its tusks. My scar comes from running into a 2 x 4 my dad used to balance the window air conditioner in my room – the year I was in 7th grade, my dad left the boards and air conditioner in the hallway after he’d taken it out. I didn’t notice the board sticking into the hallway when I went running back to my room one day. I still have a lovely 4 inch crescent-shaped scar on my left thigh. Not as exciting as Odysseus, but still…an odd thing to have in common). So I don’t know what happened, but this time, the book hit a chord.

Most especially, on my third read-through, I was struck by how amazing Penelope is. A lot of feminists dislike her because, while Odysseus is off sleeping around and taking 10 years to get back from sacking Troy, she is calmly sitting at home, tending the farm, and being endlessly faithful to him. I think she’s extraordinary. First off, this is an incredible love story. Odysseus loves Penelope. He loves Ithaca, but it’s Penelope he’s longing for. Calypso knows it. She asks him what Penelope has that she, a goddess, doesn’t, and Odysseus, ever the cagey one, tells her that really, it’s Ithaca that he wants, but he’s also just been told he can go home after this goddess has been trying, for seven years, to convince him to let her make him immortal and never-aging (good thinking, there. Dawn, with her rosy fingers, made the same offer to a mortal, but forgot the never-aging part – not pretty) if he’ll consent to becoming her husband. Odysseus has been holding her off for seven years, which has to mean something in the Penelope department, as far as I'm concerned. If it's just Ithaca he wanted to get back to, I don't think he would have been so reluctant (yes, he sleeps with Calypso, his "unwilling flesh" alongside her "flesh that was all too willing." Then again, she's got him captive. What's he going to do?)

To me, Penelope is every bit as clever and intelligent as Odysseus. She’s surrounded by duplicitous women in The Odyssey, all of whom offer a cautionary tale about what havoc unfaithful wives can wreak. Helen, who’s infidelity caused the Trojan War, and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, who conspired with her lover to murder her husband when he returned from war, are pretty powerful warnings about what not to do as the wife of a king. She speaks bitterly of the Trojan War, calling the city Des-troy, because so many lives were destroyed by Helen's folly. This is not a woman who is going to be unfaithful to her husband. But she's not just faithful, she’s smart. She holds off the suitors until her son, Telemachus, is old enough to defend the family fortune and property, to take his father’s place as head of the household. She’s kept the fortune together for 20 years, too. Odysseus’ holdings, while diminished by three years of the suitors partying, isn’t even close to being gone. And when this guy shows up and kills all the suitors, she doesn’t rush into his arms immediately. She tests him.

I love the moment when, after the suitors and disloyal servants have been dispatched, and Odysseus cleans himself up, Penelope and Odysseus are sitting on either side of the hearth. Just sitting there. She’s looking at him, and he’s staring into space. Telemachus rushes in and declares that she’s got to be the hardest-hearted woman on the face of the planet, but she just tells him she and Odysseus have other ways of knowing each other, and Odysseus sends him out to go do something else. That’s when Odysseus says he’s tired and wants to sleep, and Penelope tells the servants to take his bed, the one from his bedroom, and make it up in the courtyard. Odysseus made this bed so that one post is a living tree, still attached to the ground. The only way this bed could be moved is if it got cut down at some point. Odysseus explodes, accuses her of being unfaithful, and explains how the bed was made, by his own hand. Only then does Penelope know her husband has come home and greet him as a loving wife.

Hands-down, I think she’s one of the most extraordinary female characters ever written. She's smart, strong, passionate, and faithful.

Anyway, this is getting long. I’ll continue my observations about my current reading in my next post. Because this time, I’m noticing a lot about how the story is constructed, and it’s amazing me all over again.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Today, Neil Gaiman posted a letter I wrote to him about creative writing programs and genre writing on his blog, which you can read here Neil's Blog

And, since I'm getting some of Neil's fans coming over here to check me out, I want to expand a little bit on my letter to him. If you look through my previous blog posts about grad school, you'll see I had a phenomenal experience getting my MFA. It was very different from my undergrad experience. I loved my professors, my fellow students, and every class I took in grad school. Getting my degree was, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. Ever. I would not be writing the novel I am today without this program and the people with whom I worked. They have my utmost respect and gratitude.

I don't write much fantasy or science fiction anymore. My work has always alternated between realistic fiction and fantasy (as does my reading tastes), although even my realistic fiction has fantasy elements. The novel I'm currently working on, The Altar of Dead Pets, is about a 14 year-old boy who's brother dies on page 1 in a car accident. It began as a ghost story, with a decapitated body, but has grown into more of a symbolic ghost story (no decapitation) that culminates with an attempt to contact the dead brother out in the Nevada desert that doesn't go exactly as planned.

My comments to Neil are about the relationship of genre writing and creative writing programs and based on my observations having been in two such programs. While I understand the frustration some professors feel at having to read bad fantasy or science fiction work, why is that frustration any greater than when they have to read bad writing of any kind? I have never seen a professor seek to ban stories about drugs, violence, partying or relationships gone bad UNLESS they fell within the categories of genre fiction no matter how atrociously the students wrote them.

Even though 20+ years have passed since I got my undergrad degree, the academe has not changed its bias against genre writing. I think it is destructive of professors to denigrate, limit or inhibit what their students write, especially their undergraduate students. No one has the right to tell another person what they should or should not be writing.

Young writers are especially vulnerable to the influence of professors. I know I was. I wanted their approval. These were published writers. Authors with good reputations. I wanted them to anoint me, to tell me I was worthy of joining their club. Having someone like that tell me what I was writing wasn’t even worth my bringing it into class was devastating. I stopped writing for seven years after I got my undergraduate degree and it was a long, long road back even though there is nothing else I ever wanted to do.

When my husband and I were in Australia for our honeymoon many, many years ago, I was told that the Australian aborigines believe that you have a story and you are the only one who is allowed to tell that story. While I think it actually means you become the guardian of a particular story, say the story of Odysseus, and you are the only one allowed to tell it. No one else can tell the story of Odysseus, and when you die, someone else takes over that story. I took it to mean something a little different.

I believe everyone has a story to tell that is theirs and theirs alone. As writers, we are guardians of all our stories, and I don’t think anyone has the right to tell another writer which stories are theirs and which aren’t.

(if you’ve found my blog because of Neil’s post: Hello, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you stick around and come back soon.)