July 21, 2008

"But Don't You Want To Write Something... Better?"

Just after college, I published my first book. It was a paperback with a small press and has since gone out of print -- probably a good thing, because though it had its moments of beauty, it was fairly awkwardly written, and showed how young I was. I was proud of that book, though. I was doubly proud when a sequel was published a year and a half later. I was doing the one thing I had ever wanted to do -- write books.

Soon after that, a friend I'd known since I was nine, who I'd assumed was also happy for me asked, in all seriousness, "Okay, but don't you want to write something better?"

I remember being more confused than hurt. Sure, I thought, all writers want to keep improving. I was publishing through a Christian press at the time, and yes, I wanted to move into mainstream publishing someday, simply because I wanted to write for a broader audience. I also wanted to publish a book someday that came out in hardback first. But none of that was what my friend meant. What he meant was that this was "okay," but that I should want to write for adults, because writing for adults was better.


Margo Rabb's NY Times essay, I'm Y.A. and I'm O.K. brought this back to me, and I had to smile, a bit sadly. Her book is nuanced and intelligent, sensitive and unique, and I can't believe that someone actually pitied her for it being a crossover. Pity. I almost wish she had spit tacks at the person across the table. Pity!

I have to say that I'm disappointed that some publishers feel that it's okay to bow to...whatever, and package a YA-to-adult crossover differently when it emerges in paperback. It's as if the book were previously some kind of neon sugar cereal and has now been turned into a "breakfast bar" and slapped with the label "whole grain" and thus rendered immediately acceptable. That's definitely the feeling I got looking at the adult vs. YA versions of the Potter books here in the UK. I always wondered, "Why does J.K. Rowling let them do that?" Of course, it's a marketing decision, to reach the largest demographic, but I think it stinks.

I struggled for so long to be published anywhere that I was thrilled to tears to be included in the YA pantheon, even on the fringes where my first book lived. It cut me deeply that someone thought it was only "okay," and that I should move on from the one thing I'd wanted my whole life, and ...well, essentially, "grow up." That hurt stayed with me a long time.

This incident was years ago, and the person has since insisted that he didn't mean things badly, but I know what he meant -- it's an opinion that many people share. Writing for kids is viewed as wallowing in childhood. It's embarrassingly non-upwardly-mobile, and it isn't a career builder that's going to get you on Oprah -- and that's the new question, the one which has replaced the gauche query about "something better." "Don't you want to be on Oprah?"

Heck, doesn't everyone want to be on Oprah?


I won't outright say no -- despite the fact that being on TV figures more largely in my nightmares than in my dreams. It would be disingenuous to imply that if a story of mine achieved that kind of fame, I wouldn't be pleased and proud to have one of the largest movers and shakers in the world talking it up on her show. But I can also say that if nothing of mine ever makes ripples large enough to touch on Ms. Winfrey's Chicago offices, that's okay. I'm thrilled to have been published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Maybe I should aspire to "more." But this children's literature/young adult reading and writing life is what I've got, and I'm delighted with it.

I can't even express how much.

That I don't have much interest in career building TV appearances doesn't mean that I don't occasionally feel the pinch of the YA-shunning. Choosing an MFA program was tough, because I really wanted to focus on young adult literature, and couldn't find a program for that on the West Coast. Everyone said, "Oh, just go to Vermont," because everyone knows the heavy-hitters in American YA and children's lit usually have some connection there, but who had that kind of money? Not I, and my other half was already at USF, and so I needed to choose something closer.

I found in Mills College a great MFA program, but even there, prejudice against young adult literature remained. Though young adult literature was listed in the catalog, the program was disappointing -- with one professor who taught two classes and supervised YA theses projects. Period.

Worse, though I participated in classes and tried to bring my enthusiasm for the genre with me, the supervising professor seemed ambivalent to me personally...to be blunt, she didn't like me. When I considered doing my thesis project on young adult lit, I was actively and openly discouraged from working with this professor by several other professors who rated her skills and even her intelligence and integrity as several notches below their own. If we had hit it off personally, I think I would have ignored them, but I opted for the path of least resistance and ducked the criticism and pitying looks that were directed to those students doing a YA thesis. I chickened out, only to receive a note from Dr. Lecourt, one of my thesis readers. "This would have been so much better from the point of view of a teen. This would be really great as YA lit."

And we were back at that again.

At that point, it occurred to me: this is who I am. This is what I do. And as Justine Larbalestier was saying over on her blog, I haven't ever aspired to anything else.

More responses to Margo Rabb's op-ed piece have been rounded up at Chasing Ray, who's going to be interviewing Margo later this week. And don't miss Margo posting at her own blog the bits of that essay -- and the quotes from several more young adults writers -- that landed on the editing desk and didn't make the piece.


Brian Farrey said...

True story: my academic advisor for my MFA program, with whom I'd studied extensively over two years and was a person I was considering asking to be on my thesis committee, began steering me to another faculty member when I told her the project I was working on was YA.

"You should really work with Bob," she urged. "He was a lot more knowledge of YA."

I took her word for it, thinking that I would indeed be better off with someone who understood YA and I ended up working with Bob on my thesis. At my defense, when I mentioned that I would be looking for an agent who specialized in YA, Bob blinked and said, "You think this is YA? I didn't see it as such. But then, I don't know a lot about YA."

So, yes, my advisor lied to me about another faculty member's YA credentials just to pawn me off so she wouldn't be saddled with something so horrible as YA.

I hate snobs.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, Brian, YUCK. That's... Oh, that... Man. "SUCKS" is the only word that comes to mind.

Did you ever say anything to your advisor?

Brian Farrey said...

I never did say anything to her, largely because I don't want to burn bridges and I had a really good experience with my thesis advisor, certainly better than I would have if I'd asked my academic advisor.

Here's the kicker: she wrote an award-winning novel that's classified as adult but I know of at least one librarian who considers it to be a great YA. Truth is, it WOULD be successful as YA, if it were marketed as such.

tanita✿davis said...

I hear ya on the bridge burning... I have to admit that I never even really confronted my dubious friend until years later, and it was only in passing.

I really hope your former advisor's work is repackaged as YA, so that she discovers what a privilege it is to have young people read her work...

Jules at 7-Imp said...

1). I know this opinion will make me unpopular, but I think being on the Oprah show to promote a book can be over-rated. :)

2). You wrote, "Writing for kids is viewed as wallowing in childhood." I see this condescension (sp? not enough coffee yet today) toward people who write for children and people who work anywhere near children's lit in any way whatsoever all the stinkin' time. Teachers get it, too. Fundamentally, I think there's a flaw in how we view childhood in contemporary America.

If that doesn't make any sense, I'll explain when I have had more caffeine.

tanita✿davis said...

Jules, it does make sense -- and it doesn't. The condescension, I mean. What is UP with that?

Sarah Stevenson said...

If it helps at all--and admittedly, I'm extremely biased--I find it an absolutely noble endeavor to be involved with writing for children and young adults, possibly more so than writing for adults.

The way I see it, writers for children and YAs have the extraordinary privilege of being teachers, guides, friends to our readers in a very real way that writers for adults simply cannot be.

In particular, writing YA is incredibly important in my mind. During the teenage years, you either make lifelong readers or you lose people forever as readers. Quality literature REGARDLESS OF CLASSIFICATION is what can keep teenagers reading into their adulthood.

I am appalled at the hypocrisy of a literary world that professes to care about youth literacy, yet looks down on the writers that work hardest to ensure that that literacy continues.

Okay. I'm now stepping down off my high horse. :)

Jules at 7-Imp said...

It's a HUGE question, TadMack. If I could only live nine lives at once....I'd study up on it and I'd write my dissertation on the subject.

Perhaps Leonard Marcus' new book touches upon this a bit?? It's sitting here, waiting for me to read it.

Little Willow said...

I am condescended to on a daily basis by those who would judge me based on my appearance and think less of me (or not consider me at all) because of it.

Those who would think they are above others are missing out on great opportunities, great books, and great creations, not to mention great people. Sadly, their ignorance and their judgmental ways will hurt those who created those opportunities, but it is we - the condescended-to - who must rise above those who would judge us for what we read, what we write, how we look, and what we believe.

Funny how that is, isn't it?

A competition for loftiness isn't necessary. Those who understand and appreciate good things when they see them will be rewarded. Just knowing (and appreciating) who we are is its own reward, as is enjoying what we do.

We ought to celebrate different forms of storytelling rather than ranking them and declaring one "better." The proof is in the pages. It's in the storyteller. In the writing. In the story.