Monday, June 13, 2011

A Ramble: June Joys and #YASaves

(The fourth in what should be a monthly series of blog posts in which I write for an hour about whatever comes to mind.)

Happy summer! I spent the weekend in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Novel Revision Retreat. It was a beautiful venue—a 1930s woods lodge, with gorgeous views of the Shenandoah mountains out every window, including the room in which I taught my sessions. The talks were more or less the “Quartet” talks from Second Sight. . . . These are my usual retreat talks, because they cover all three major elements of fiction (Character, Plot, and Voice), but every time I give them I find something new to say in addition to all the material that’s already there, so I’m going to have to ask the organizers to grant me two hours for every session the next time I do them. (Or I should learn to edit myself and say less; but then I do like being thorough, to transfer as much of my brain to attendees’ brains as possible. Someday technology will evolve enough that we can just do a mass Frankenstein hookup and be done with it, and then we can all spend the weekend writing instead.)

Some neat things in the last month:

  • Before I went to the revision retreat, I took a delightful road trip with my equally delightful author Sara Lewis Holmes, who wrote Operation Yes. When Sara heard that I was coming to central Virginia for the retreat, she insisted that I should visit the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton; and I ended up asking her if she'd be willing to come with me, which she very kindly was. And it was one of the neatest productions of "As You Like It" that I've ever seen, performed in the style (though not the costumes) of the Bard's time, with full light for the whole play, which in turn facilitated some very neat audience-actor interaction. The actors were great, the music was fun, I loved their interpretation of the play, Staunton as a town is terrific, and it is well worth the road trip for you too, should you be anywhere in Virginia.
  • On a trip to visit some wedding venues, I lost my beloved little Samsung Rogue phone; so I now have a HTC Incredible 2 (an Android phone), which is fast becoming even more beloved than my Rogue was.
  • I read Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove recently, and they were just delicious—tightly written, darkly sexy, fully backstoried fantasy full of con men and women and clever, clever twists. They’d be great beach reads this summer.
  • A recent realization/articulation that came out of reworking my plot talks: Stakes not only can change in the course of a novel, but they very probably should, as the character comes to know and understand more of the world and their values change likewise. So in StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, the stakes begin as Digger’s survival; but as her world and affections widen to include all the people in her eventual destination, the stakes change to the survival of those people, and the cause they’re all fighting for. So as you’re looking at your novel, think about the stakes at the beginning vs. the stakes at the end, and how the character gets from one to the other.
  • My next SCBWI appearances will be in October, in Wisconsin, on plot; and November, in New Jersey, hopefully on voice, if they'll let me talk for two hours.
  • Some recent films I enjoyed: Fast Five; Win Win; Beginners; Bridesmaids.
  • To expand a little more on the reasons I enjoyed Bridesmaids: One, it had one of the most likeable and flawed female protagonists I’d seen in a long time, a fully rounded woman who had a career that mattered to her, friends, and a family, as well as romantic confusion. . . . It is a little depressing how rare that is, that we'd see a female protagonist in all of those dimensions, and yet, there she was, so let us celebrate that. And second, despite all the wedding trappings, the emotional plot was really about female friendship: what it’s like to have a best friend, how you hang out and talk and exercise together and then eat dessert; the little jealousies and larger issues that can create distance; and the relief and pleasure when you connect again. The climax of the movie was not Kristen Wiig’s getting together with the cute Irish cop, but her reconnecting with Maya Rudolph at last, and I found myself getting almost teary-eyed in thinking about all my dear girlfriends and seeing that sort of true warts-and-all friendship at the center of a story at last. (The one exception to my enjoyment was the infamous barfing scene, which I just kept my eyes closed for, so as not to emulate it in turn.)
  • Whenever there is entertainment for women vs. entertainment for men—or, in children’s literature, boy books vs. girl books—there’s a debate about whether males will embrace female stuff, with the general understanding that the answer is “No.” So then do we harsh up our girl stuff to attract the men, as Bridesmaids did? Or do we own our girl stuff and accept that men won’t come? (This is apparently not an option for Hollywood studios, or one that they’re willing to accept in only limited doses; it’s easier for publishers, as the financial stakes are so much smaller.) Or do we tell men/boys to stop being idiots and start respecting women’s/girls’ stuff? I don’t know that that would work, but it’s certainly my favorite option, and I think it is worth bringing up every time, to remind all of us that it’s sexism afoot here, and what we need to change is our selves (or sexist guys) more than our stuff. Hrmm.
I was also interested in the recent #YASaves discussion. Some commentators online noted that we have this discussion about every two years, where the children’s/YA lit community has to defend itself against charges of being too dark, usually as a result of an article in the major media like this one. The responses tend to fall into these forms:
  • A) This writer is an idiot who doesn’t really know anything about the genre and hasn’t looked hard enough. (Usually true.)
  • B) Discussion of the need for dark material in YA literature, given that it reflects the real darkness in teens’ lives and psyches. (Also usually true.)
  • C) Writers defending their writing this kind of work, based on (B), often including descriptions of all of the letters they’ve received from teenagers who appreciate seeing their realities at the books’ hearts.
  • D) Sighing over the fact that YA is still regarded primarily as a didactic genre by the major media, and doesn’t get respect as an art form in and of itself.
  • E) In response to (D), writers (or at least Barry Lyga) saying “Forget you, it’s my art and I’m going to own it and practice it, and I don’t have to defend it to you, fool.” I think this is a new wrinkle in the discussion, but I was glad to see it, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  • F) A few brave souls who dare to agree with the theoretical point of the original article, even if the writer was an idiot in practice.
I think that first of all, we need to stop taking major media disses to children’s and YA lit personally—the Today Show stiffing the Newbery/Caldecott winners, the New Yorker (which I love) or the Wall Street Journal (which I don’t) thinking of our genre as primarily a didactic one. These venues think children’s and YA lit is fundamentally inferior to adult lit either because it doesn’t make as much money or because they perceive it as only didactic; they do not get that it is an art form; therefore, they will always get describe it wrongly, and we should stop wasting energy being surprised and offended every time. After all, with the magazines specifically, because these articles are generally scare articles, they generate a lot of page views (from concerned parents and librarians as well as offended members of our community) and off-page discussion (cf. all the response blog posts and the whole Twitter campaign), and those make too much money and buzz for the publication in question for the editors who assign/accept such columns to give them up. (“YA Is Art” isn’t controversial enough to get the same response.) So let’s concentrate on writing our own smart articles investigating the art of our genre, or finding ways to celebrate our own people’s achievements far and wide, and not waste time rewarding stupid ideas.

And then with #YASaves itself . . . Is there dark stuff in YA, all about sex and death? Sure. But there is also I Now Pronounce You Someone Else and StarCrossed and Eighth-Grade Superzero and July’s The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, to name four books off my own list that are terrific and smart and not at all about angst; and I feel a little bit frustrated that YA is being tarred as a dark genre when there is such an incredible diversity that people just aren’t educated to see. (Or they can’t find the books in stores, because the darkness is what sells and therefore what gets on shelves.) If you’re scared about the darkness, by goodness, do more to celebrate the light. Read review magazines or YA blogs to find titles you approve of. Tell your local bookstore (whether a chain or an independent) that you’re looking for those kinds of books. Request specific titles, if you need to, and then buy them. Give those as gifts to friends whom you’re trying to educate about the genre and to teenagers.

(And of course the whole discussion is yet another iteration of the unfortunate literalist strain in American Puritanism, the inability to look beyond the factual existence of whatever "sordidness" these critics perceive to the deeper emotional pain that drives that behavior, and the humanity of that pain, which in turn deserves sympathy. . . . Writers, of course, have a responsibility to bring out that humanity, to make the experience of reading these books more than pain tourism for the readers; and if writers don't do that, well, then they deserve the criticism.)

Finally, the hard fact I always come back to whenever discussions like this come up: We (meaning writers, editors, publishers, even booksellers and librarians) cannot control readers’ reactions to the books they find through us. There may be readers who read books about cutting or bulimia or feeling suicidal (to pick three forms of darkness at random) and use them to start or continue those practices themselves. This is horrifying and sad but true. There will also be readers who already practice cutting or bulimia or who feel suicidal, who will truly benefit from seeing their experience reflected on the page and given that recognition by someone else; who will connect with that character, and be helped by seeing that character start to move back toward hope and out of the sickness, and may start to take that step themselves. This is inspiring and brave and also true.

A book is an object made of ideas, and like any object, it can be used for both good and evil. . . . I think we have to be honest and acknowledge the possibility of that evil happening, and perhaps do what we can to diminish the chances of its coming to be, to offer hope or resources in real life, if our books deal with that material. (I am contradicting my own statement about didacticism above, but as Samuel Johnson says, “Inconsistencies cannot both be right, but imputed to man, they may both be true.") But those who see only darkness also have to acknowledge the possibility of connection and hope; and I still feel we shouldn’t shy away from showing (albeit never celebrating) that darkness, as it is an important part of our overall human experience. Our responsibility is to write (or edit and publish) as well and honestly and full of human sympathy as we are capable of, without rewarding darkness for darkness's sake; and to hope in the end that all books find their right readers who will hear the right things in them, as we can't do any more.


  1. At a recent conference, I had a kindly lady come up to me and tell me, little Marketing Assistant that I am, that we needed to change the cover of Matched because it had a girl in a dress on the front, and boys might really like the book, but they wouldn't read it because of the dress on the front.

    To which I said, forgetting for a moment that I was supposed to be shiny and markety, "The boys need to get over it, or it's their loss." I hold this to be true for a variety of issues, including movies.

    And, I think this applies to silly people who write poorly informed articles, as well.

  2. Cheryl -- I linked this posting to my selection class for librarians because this exact topic is one currently under discussion -- the darkness and supposed perversity of YA lit. Your discussion is both timely and on the mark.

  3. Thank you for acknowledging that this is not a black-and-white issue, which is how so many in this discussion seem to see it, with YA books either being dark and dangerous or miraculously good.

    If we claim books are powerful enough to save lives, how can we deny that such power can also cause harm? And that authors are not in control of the direction the power they release with their work will take.

  4. Beautiful, original comment (in the article and by Melissa) on a writer's responsibility to not make the world worse. I love being able to read and write books that range from sheer fun to a darker path (that may or may not be more realistic). All I really want is the choice to read whichever I feel like - and to give my future teen offspring the same choice. Luckily, I can.

    Louise Curtis