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August 25, 2006

Comments

Gwenda

In my opinion: smart readers. Many of the best books I read these days are published as YAs -- frankly, a lot of big publishing houses wouldn't touch the stylistic hijinks that go on in a lot of these books if they were being targeted as adults. We really are in a golden age of YA literature, and I do think we'll have a whole knew generation of classics when the dust settles. J.K. Rowling's work isn't something I'd put in that category, but it _did_ make a lot of this possible.

Cecil

You are right about the fact that a lot of YA fiction (because there used to be no section called YA) are books that we now call classics universally. To Kill A Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and Catcher in the Rye come to mind.

But...The Bar Has No Lower To Go?

This attitude is exactly why I insisted so passionately that you be awars and read the book MT Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume One: The Pox Party. Because I figured that you would never give it a chance because of it's label, but if you did, you would see just how high the bar for Young Adult literature really is.

Remember this. Teenagers are on the road to becoming adults. Yep. It's true. They are right in the middle of that transformation. That to me is what is so compelling about writing for that age.

It is very upsetting, as an author of Young Adult fiction, who is an adult, and who is a literary adult, to read a sentence like "yet another stone of the great edifice of Grownupland has been gleefully kicked out from underneath us. " It's a bit tiring to feel constantly ghettoized as writer as writing something 'less than' as a literature. Especially when, as Gwenda points out, we are in a golden age of YA.

I'd be happy to give you a list of books that if you had no idea that they were YA you would just think they were really good books.


TEV

Please allow me to clarify.

The bar I refer to isn't really YA. I realize that's probably unclear. It's more to do with the dropping standards by which too many readers in our culture make reading choices. For someone to say (as the interviewee in the piece did) that base their reading choices on seeking out upbeat endings represents - to me anyway - a terrible lowering of the bar; a life in permanent adolescence where everything resolves all nice and sitcom-like at the end of 30 minutes. That is so uninteresting to me as to be inexpressible.

I realize that point might not be made as clearly as I'd like, and I'd understand why YA authors would think me an asshole based on it. My beef here isn't with authors, it's with undiscerning readers - and I'm not saying they are undiscerning because they select YA; they are undiscerning because their criteria of what makes a book worth reading are shallow.

That said, I'm still quite eager to read Octavian Nothing - it's on "Shelf One" here (there is such a thing) - and I do remember that on my initial thumbing through, the book looked very impressive.

I am, however, going to stake my own personal opinion - and I stand reasonably firm in this - that as an adult reader, the very best of YA is still never going to offer me what the best of adult fiction (that sounds like porn) will offer. If you say there's a YA title that competes with a Coetzee, well, that's going to be an eternal hard sell for me. And, frankly, as a 40-year-old, that seems to me as it should be, because his subject matter will speak most directly to me. I enjoyed being a young adult, but not so much that I necessarily want to revisit it via fiction. Just another reading choice, I suppose, and one that you might equally consider a sad lowering of the bar.

James A. Owen

When my manager started shopping around HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, I had no thought of it (which was, to be fair, only an outline then) as a YA book.

But it was Simon & Schuster's Books for Young Readers who made the preempt offer. And my manager cautioned me that if we took it (which we did), I'd run the risk of being labeled a Children's Book Author.

I looked around at my shelves, and realized that the writer whose work I was most wrapped up in (recently) was Garth Nix. And it wouldn't have mattered to me WHAT his books were presented as.

I also considered the fact that a YA book can be marketed UP, to older readers - but a book published for 'adults' would not be marketed down to younger ones.

Either way, I wouldn't have written it differently than I did. How it's presented, marketed and sold has been up to S&S - and who am I to argue with a supportive, enthusiastic publisher?

Cecil

Thanks for clarifying.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Octavian Nothing.

cc

Nan Cohen

Reading the winners' lists of the ALA Alex Awards (adult books with significant appeal to YA readers) -- https://www.ala.org/ala/yalsa/booklistsawards/alexawards/alexawards.htm -- is a reminder of how blurry the line can be. For example, recent winners include Jim Shepard's Project X, ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Of these, all of which I read and admired, I'd maybe have thought of giving Persepolis to a teenager, but the others are potentially wonderful YA reads as well. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home should be on next year's list.

As for books written for YA readers, the really good ones that I read when I was young still do offer me as much pleasure as a really good new novel for adults. Paul Zindel's books come to mind.

Gwenda

And of course there's Meg Rosoff's remarkable How I Live Now, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread and the Orange Prize and won the Guardian and Branford Boase awards (among many others). I don't think many people who've read it would have a hard time conceding that it has more to say than most literary novels. (I'm not going to directly compare Rosoff to Coetzee -- although having read them both, I'd feel comfortable with that -- because using a Nobel Prize winner as the representative of the potential of adult fiction seems a bit stacked toward the argument of: 'well, sure it's good, but could it win a Nobel Prize?'.)

Quite simply, the reality is that many of the books published as YA could be published as adult fiction just as easily. A good example there would be Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief -- published as YA here and as a novel for adults in Australia, I believe. It's an increasingly fine line. What we're talking about, when we talk about the best of YA, is a marketing decision that has nothing to do with whether it's of high enough "quality" to be published for adults. These books are very much in the same league and able to achieve just as much as books written and published specifically for adults.

TEV

A few things as I think more and more about it.

Ghettoization: I'm not that sympathetic to complaints of ghettoization for a couple of reasons, primary of which that said ghettoization is, I think, the result of willing collusion between writers, readers and publishers. The same, for that extent, applies to other genres – science fiction, romance, mystery – where you also see these same kinds of complaints about not being taken seriously enough. (I should extend that to say that I’m equally unsympathetic toward literary fiction writers who complain about lack of commercial rewards.) I continue to think, as I have before, that the genre v. literary debate is a tired and ultimately unedifying one. But I do respectfully point out that these groups of writers and readers tend to travel in their hermetic, self-referential packs, and publishers are savvy enough to find them, group them under a rubric and pick them off. But writers are trying to have it both ways when they cash in on the marketing advantage of being classified as a certain type of author, and then complain about being classified. Frankly, as a writer you pick a horse and you ride it, and whatever area you choose is going to have its drawbacks. In literary fiction, it’s usually money. In genre, it’s sometimes so-called respect. (And even there, I always wonder about the insecurity that fuels the angry responses, as it seems to me an author genuinely sure about the value of what he/she was doing wouldn’t feel the need to complain quite so loudly. There’s a real serenity in believing in what you do.)

Nobels: Although Gwenda stepped back from the Nobel comparison, I don’t think she should because that, to me, is exactly where the question falls. Can a YA novel – or any other genre – reach those kinds of heights? Because that’s what I’m interested in – works of lasting value. I’m not excited about mere escapism, or even a solid tale well told. I want the Big Stuff, the stuff that sustains, the stuff that will cross boundaries and be read generations from now. If those writers aren’t aiming that high, well, I’m not sure they can complain about “not being taken seriously.”

Here’s the rub for me, however irritated it will surely make many of you. (And please do know I respect each of you individually, and my disagreements are not personal at all but philosophical.) I believe that it is the very conventions and requirements of the genres in question that forever prevent them from reaching the very highest levels. I don’t think any art of any kind can reach its full flower with any kinds of restraints – happy endings, clear villains, three acts, whatever – on them. I understand that this comes down to what you read novels for, and not everyone wants what I want. But I seek out the great depth that only novels can offer, the interiority of character, of being able to travel infinitely deep and I think that these types of books – out of honest and fair consideration of their readerships – don’t go there. I’m sure the average mystery reader would pitch a book with Henry James-like character depths over his or her shoulder in well-deserved frustration.

But it’s given me an idea for an experiment. I’m going to seek out four authorities I trust in the fields of YA, science fiction, romance and mystery, and I’m going to ask each to recommend me one title that they feel is truly of deep and lasting value, one that transcends categories, and to explain their reasons. I’ll read each book and then write an essay about all this, including whether my preconceived notions can be shaken in any way.

Gwenda

I don't think those of us arguing in favor of YA believe it's a ghetto. Seriously.

Nor do I honestly consider the Nobel the be all/end all -- that's why I stepped back from it.

As for the experiment, it'll be interesting, but I'm not sure it will "prove" anything, other than perhaps better defining your taste (which I think is pretty well defined already). And reading one recommended title from each genre isn't quite a big enough sample to give you definitive grounds on which to decide whether books from "genre" can reach the great heights of LITERATURE (which I can't even believe is a serious question, honestly). Most SFF readers I know would say you have already outted yourself as a big fan of at least one SF novel: The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. (Which I'm guessing you might disagree is SF.)

Christopher

...including whether my preconceived notions can be shaken in any way.

'Cause what would be the point of reading them without preconceived notions?

Niall Harrison

I don’t think any art of any kind can reach its full flower with any kinds of restraints – happy endings, clear villains, three acts, whatever – on them.

What restraints do you think YA novels (or for that matter, science fiction novels) are operating under? Because neither group are bound by the three examples you give there.

(Relatedly, are you saying that there can never be, for example, a truly great haiku, because haiku is a rule-bound artform? How about a great sonnet? A great concerto?)

Benni Maddi

Hear this: YA is a marketing category. That's it. They're usually about teenagers, but plenty of "grown-up" books are about teenagers, too. How does one decide if a book about a teenager is a A or YA? sometimes the choice to publish as YA is obvious, but in many, many cases, it's a tossup that comes down to marketing.

also i think Gwenda hits the nail on the head in her first post. one reason i was attracted to YA is the fact that it's such a wide-open category, in terms of the risks you can take with both style and content. You don't have to be an old white man writing about Important Things to be taken seriously by your readers. (granted, my own personal books are pretty shitty and inconsequential, but that's not the point.)

And yes, I think a YA book has the potential to be as good as or comparable to Coetzee just as often as an adult book is as good or comparable to a Coetzee book. Which is to say not often.

To answer your second question: no, a YA book is probably not going to win a Nobel prize anytime soon. Why? Because the Nobel committee, like yourself, probably considers itself too klassy for YA.

Glad to see you have an annoying opinion about something you admit to know nothing about, though. Talk about lowering the bar.

Justine Larbalestier

Two points:

One, the novel did not always enjoy the exhalted status it has today. The status quo changes.

Two, constaints frequently produce great writing. The constraints of crime fiction has already produced a number of widely admired modern masters such as Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith. Both of whom are finer than several Nobel prize winners I could name.

The constraints of the Hays Code produced some of the finest movies of the 20th century (Preston Sturges, anyone?).

The form of the novel is in itself a constraint. If you're writing you're operating under a whole series of constraints. At least if you want to be intelligible you are.

TEV

Niall, you make an outstanding point. Something for me to take back and ponder. Thanks. Similarly, Justine's point is also well taken.

I think one thing that's gotten a bit lost is that all along I am stating that I'm aware I'm talking about a preference - my own, personal preference. When Justine says Chandler and Highsmith are finer than some Nobelists, that's her opinion as well. I'm sure not everyone would agree. I do think, however, that the Hays constraints aren't the type I mean. Writers have always figured out clever ways around censorship (See Bloc, Soviet). I mean self-imposed conventions of the form. And while I think Niall is ultimately right, the forms in question feel (to me) to be ruled by convention and the need to satisfy expectation.

Gwenda, I'm sorry you don't find the question serious but it does seem to me a logical extension of this discussion. If various genre authors believe that their chosen forms hold all the same benefits of other forms (and why shouldn't they think that), then why be reluctant to hold that up to some sort of test? I'm scarcely suggesting that my reading would be in any way a definitive statement - by talking again and again about personal preference here, I think I'm clear that we're talking about one reader's taste. Whatever I might finally decide, it's easily rejected by anyone who disagrees (as it's likely to be). But I think if folks who are exceptionally well read in their fields direct me to the best of the best, well, why would I start anywhere else? And what would be more likely to make me see things differently? (If Matt Cheney can't recommend a sci-fi title, I'd like, then it can't be done - that's how I view it.) And you're right, I don't consider Max Tivoli SF - but neither does Andrew Greer.

And Benni my boy, your defensive snottiness is exactly what I'm talking about in the worst cases, so thanks for proving a point. "Because the Nobel committee, like yourself, probably considers itself too klassy for YA," is an idiotic sentiment, and you do little for your cause. Those are the kind of comments that are the easiest to dismiss out of hand, that make your clique seem like a group of petulant highschoolers. I never admitted to knowing nothing, I'm just not an expert. My bar might be low but yours is invisible.

One and all, please remember - this is an expression of taste and preference, and that's all. I can't be wrong about that, any more than the wayward young lady quoted in the article can really be wrong about her taste. I might have my own troubles with that but they are my troubles.

Anyway, intelligent challenges are always welcome. I'm never shy about stepping up when I decide I've gotten something wrong and clearly, I've been given more to think about but some of the replies here. And the day I find a genre read that satisfies me as deeply as my other favorites, I will shout it from the rooftops right here.

Christopher

...I don't consider Max Tivoli SF - but neither does Andrew Greer.

See, Fallacy, Intentional.

Had a few ideas on what genre books you might consider dirtying yourself with. Looking forward to your thoughts on whether they'll stand the test of time, especially since we now seem to be conflating "of lasting value" with "what you like."

Science Fiction: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Romance: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
YA: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

TEV

Again, Chris, I gotta ask - wherefore the hostility? What do you take so personally about all of this?

As for your list, I've read them all and love 'em. I also don't consider Frankenstein sci-fi and think no one outside of the YA world would call Huck Finn YA with a straight face. Love the Doyle but don't think it's necessarily a Great Work.

I have no immediate rebuttal to the Austen. So perhaps you have me, at last ... Presumably, you're happy now?

Niall Harrison

If various genre authors believe that their chosen forms hold all the same benefits of other forms (and why shouldn't they think that), then why be reluctant to hold that up to some sort of test?

I wouldn't want to say that there are any things that a given genre *cannot* do, but I tend to think that if there weren't things that a given genre was particularly suited to doing, then there'd be no point in it existing.

(Aside: genre is, of course, a terribly loaded word. You're quite right that The Confessions of Max Tivoli isn't genre sf: it wasn't marketed as sf, and I'm willing to believe that Greer didn't think of it as sf while writing it. But that doesn't change the fact that the book has many of the characteristics of sf as a *mode*; that it uses the sorts of ideas, and in the sorts of ways, that are familiar to sf readers.)

To get back to the point, we immediately return to the issue of personal taste: if you're not interested in the things that science fiction or YA novels are best at doing, then although there are bound to be *some* novels in each group that you will like, even love, there might not be very many, and it might not be worth the investment of time needed to seek them out. Which is fair enough.

But looking at genres in this way does mean I'm wary of saying all writing can be judged by the same test. From my point of view, there are many ways for literature to be wonderful, but the Nobel disproportionately rewards a subset of those ways.

(If Matt Cheney can't recommend a sci-fi title, I'd like, then it can't be done - that's how I view it.)

No pressure, Matt ...

TEV

Niall, you are a welcome, welcome contributor here any time. I think you get it all quite right, especially the way you make a much clearer, less muddled statement on where taste leads us than I've managed.

I think there's a great essay somewhere in your notion of modes of SF, how they might cross over and using Max as a specific case. I'd read that in a heartbeat.

By the way, could I twist your arm to put an RSS feed on your excellent site?

benni maddi

ha! okay, i can't believe i'm getting into this considering how pointless the great chick lit debate has been, but here's all i'm saying:

i've written two YA books already. they're dumb chick lit mysteries. cute, but definitely not anything that's going to win any award, much less something fancy. but because I've already published two YA books, i pretty much plan on making all my future books "YA," no matter what the content or quality. so if i happen to write an amazing, brilliant book, on par with whoever your personal literary god may be, it will still be YA, because i'm a YA writer and I like it that way. YA doesn't have genre conventions like sci-fi and mystery do-- because YA is not a genre. like I said before, it's a marketing tool, and there's a diff.

as for why i assumed that you know nothing about YA, it's because of this:
"I don’t think any art of any kind can reach its full flower with any kinds of restraints – happy endings, clear villains, three acts, whatever – on them."

besides disagreeing with the opinion in general, none of the examples of "restraints" that you cited have anything to do with YA lit. Do you think that YA books all have to have happy endings, or am I misinterpreting what you wrote? If so, please offer examples of the restraints that are placed on YA and therefore, in your opinion, make it less worthy than A lit. because i honestly can't really think of any hard rules.

this is not even getting into the fact that almost all art operates in the context of some kind of structure or convention.

finally, you go to great lengths to remind us that this is simply your own opinion. fair enough. but to say you don't read YA is one thing-- I know many people who feel that way, and while I don't really get the justification, it doesn't bother me either. What does bother me is when you suggest that because OTHER adults are reading YA it is somehow a sign of the erosion of society. (Or, as you call it, "Grownupland.")

You later clarify this statement by writing:
"My beef here isn't with authors, it's with undiscerning readers - and I'm not saying they are undiscerning because they select YA; they are undiscerning because their criteria of what makes a book worth reading are shallow."

I hope you see the irony here. I agree that it's dumb to only want to read books with a happy ending. However, I'd say that it's at least somewhat better than including constructed and ultimately meaningless bookstore categories in your own criteria of what makes a book worth reading.

Anyway, sorry you think I'm defensive and snotty etc.! These have always brought me luck...

Niall Harrison

Mark: that's very kind of you, thanks. Torque Control does have an RSS feed, here; I'll see if I can find some way to make the link a bit more obvious.

I can't take credit for the notion of sf as a mode, though. I picked it up from Farah Mendlesohn's introductory essay to The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, but I'm pretty sure it's been knocking around (in genre circles, natch) for a while.

TEV

Added you to my daily reads, Niall. Thanks. And I'll try to track down the Cambridge Companion. Sounds like an interesting read.

ed

Replace YA with "chick lit," "science fiction," "mystery," and "graphic novel." This is the problem here.

Colleen

Okay, I'm a bit late to this party but as you seem to be looking for a few titles I thought I would suggest some that might change your mind about YA fiction in general. I review 5-6 YA titles a month for Bookslut and I also read them for Eclectica Magazine, so I'm knee deep in YA. What I have found is that there are certainly titles that fit the "happily ever after, obvious villain, etc." criteria. They are enjoyable reads but not going to change the larger world. (Although they might change a teenager's world and that is no insignificant thing.) However, there are also a lot of YA titles that go far deeper than adult readers might suspect and are quite relevant. Remember, as Cecil pointed out To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn were both YA titles - and most of us all read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island when we were kids. Now they are classics, period, and have transcended all age group assignments.

Here's some titles that have impressed me recently:

Kipling's Choice by Geert Spillebeen. This novel of WWI is hands down one of the best I've ever read (and I used to teach college level history to soldiers). It follows the life and death of John Kipling and uses him to illustrate why so many young men of his generation initially embraced the opportunity to fight. It also shows the immense transformation John's death had on his father Rudyard. No happy ending here, but some incredibly poetic writing about the folly of war, and the relationship between fathers and sons. This sits on my shelf next to Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier and really, they belong side by side.

Amaryllis by Craig Crist-Evans. Tim O'Brien's Vietnam books are some of the most significant writing I have ever experienced but this novel about two brothers, one of whom goes off to Vietnam, is a small masterpiece. It follows the brother left behind, struggling to keep his small family together in all of the 1960s turbulence, and shows through letters, the eventual breakdown of his older soldier sibling. It captures perfectly the stark before and after that war brings to families and is a wonderful story about brothers, and again, fathers and sons. Also - no happy ending here either.

For more general historical fiction, I thought Pauline Chandler did an excellent job with Warrior Girl, a novel about Joan of Arc. It's highly readable but more importantly the scholarship is impeccable - I have read many nonfiction titles on this subject but this is the first novel which manages to dramatize her life yet stay true to the facts. With Angelmonster Victoria Bennett looks at Mary Shelley's life from the moment she meets Percy and through their subsequent marriage, the births and deaths of so many of their children and his early death. The famous dinner party is included here and the origins of Frankenstein considered at length. In all Bennett manages to make Shelley an amazingly sympathetic character without simplifying her life.

While both of these titles are YA fiction - I suppose because the protagonists are young adults - it really seems odd to me to consider them as such. When these young women lived they would hardly have been considered children and the authors do not, at all, glance over any of the more intense or desperate aspects of their lives. (How Shelley remained sane as one child after another died I will never know.) So why should only teens read these books? I honestly do not know.

Finally, I'm sure you have heard about King Dork which is the sort of book that appeals to teenagers and anyone who has ever been one - just as Catcher in the Rye did. Also, I read James Owen's Here There Be Dragons and while it is certainly fantasy, I am hard pressed to understand why it would appeal more to the Harry Potter crown as opposed to the Lord of Rings loving adults. For that matter, no one has mentioned Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series and that is just flat out masterful writing, from beginning to end.

And Pullman makes sure that the ending is both ambiguous and to some degree quite unhappy. But is it satisfying, deep, thought provoking reading? Hell yes, on every level, hell yes.

I think some of the folks who have responded here have seemed a bit defensive because they hear all the time that writing for young adults is not "real" writing - or that reading these books makes you less of a reader. I am constantly confused how I can gain more respect for reviewing an adult book than a young adult book. I am still the same person, yet my words seem to carry unequal weight depending on the age crowd I'm writing about. It's odd and frustrating, but it's not going away. And while you can dismiss Bennett Madison for being a bit snarky he has a very real point - a YA book will not win the Nobel simply because they would never even consider one. If they did than Pullman would have been on a short list a long long time ago.

It would be lovely if someone wrote an article about adults reading YA that wasn't silly or tied to the journalist's preconceived notions of the literature. Ask any of us why we read it and you will hear the same answer - because it is good writing. I read YA, sci fi, mystery, literature, history, nature, science, biography - on and on and one. (And yes, even the occasional chick lit.) I read these books because they are well written and that is the only reason that matters to me. I probably have some of the most ecelectic reading taste of anyone I know (Jenny D and Gwenda excepting) and I can't imagine excluding YA titles. Why would I do that just because I'm in my thirties? Why would anyone do that?

Christopher

Well, I don't know what "outside the YA world" means, though any definition of it that can be stretched to include me starts to look a whole like a definition of "fiction" so I guess I'll speak from within/and without, and here call Huck Finn YA with as straight a face as my cherubic features can manage.

And while we're talking about definitions; what's a useful one--useful in the academy, useful in the marketplace, useful to the artist--of "young adult fiction" that doesn't include Huck Finn?

(There are useful definitions of sf that don't include Frankenstein, I just don't think they're as useful as those that do.)

Little Willow

I am a professional bookseller with an expertise in children's literature - classics, kidlit, and contemporary teen fiction. There are many stories in the teen fiction department which need to be shared with a wide audience, stories which need to be told to readers regardless of age.

TEV

Hey, all - serious sidebar here, and I hope you'll all take this in the spirit intended.

Have been advised via email that many of you commenting here today "are at the top -- or rising stars -- of their fields" and that I should be "honored that so many of the elite are showing up to participate in this argument."

I genuinely am. And I really want to thank everyone for this.

I have always hoped TEV would be the kind of site where exactly this sort of exchange might take place. Where thoughtful disagreements could play out and people would find a congenial place to toss this stuff around. The fact that so many of you have makes me extraordinarily happy, whatever the differences of opinion.

Anyway, what's there to talk about when everyone agrees, right? Seriously, whatever stances have been taken here today, I appreciate every one of you who've taken the time to weigh in, even when it's gotten a bit sharp in tone.

No choruses of Kumba-ya, I promise. But it's days like today that I'm glad I bothered to launch this site.

Diana Peterfreund

Ooh, I love this argument. Step one: declare a given genre of literature "sub-par" and charge its defenders with providing an example that transcends their opinions/stands test of time/appeals to outside readership. Step two: Defenders provide examples. Step three: Declare that the given example "doesn't really count" because it transcends whatever subpar restrictions you've decided to place on the genre.

Frankenstein not science fiction? How is that? I've always learned (and the dictionary backed me up) that science fiction is fiction based on imagined or actual scientific or technological advances.

Huck Finn not YA? But YA is a novel with a young adult protagonist marketing to young adult readers.

However, "'Classic.' A book which people praise and don't read." So maybe Twain would prefer being called a children's book writer, if it means he gets to avoid ever being called a classic.

LMM

"To Kill A Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and Catcher in the Rye come to mind."


Those books arne't YA in any shape or form, unless you define YA as "books you read as a teenager"... or more specifically, books you are required to read as a teenager by US public schools. But then you might as well call Shakespeare Young Adult fiction.

LMM

"Science Fiction: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Romance: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
YA: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain"


Although I see the point you are ATTEMPTING to make, I think you make a total mockery of your position by using examples that pre-date said genres. It is pointless and, ultimately, fallicious to try and appropriate authors form other time periods to fit into your "side" when such authors have little in common with the acutal traditions of said genres.


It makes it look like you have no real groudn to stand on, since you can't name ACTUAL examples but rather must take already lauded books and pretend they count. If I want to make a case for how great punk music is it is much better for me to list a great punk rock album, not to list Bob Dylan or some other non/pre punk artist and pretend he counts as punk.

Most of the examples you list there, Holmes probably being the exception, only count as part of that genre in the most ignorant and superficial sense. Claiming Huck Finn is a YA book because there is a kid as a protagonist, or that Frankenstien is a Sci-Fi book because there is fake science in it, is a quite blatant fallicious conflation of name and meaning.

To use an analogy, there is a type of music called "emo" that gets is name from the idea that it is "emotional." But only a fool ould claim that ANY music with "emotion" in it is "emo" music. The term has a much more specific meaning. Likewise, romance means much more than any book with any kind of romantic relationship in it at all.

It just makes it hard to take the genre position seriously when the genre apologists dont' seem to take themselves seriously...

LMM

"Huck Finn not YA? But YA is a novel with a young adult protagonist marketing to young adult readers. "

Please. Huck Finn is no more marketed to Young Adults than it is to Adults. Yes, you have to read it in high school, bu tyou also have to read Shakespeare, Dostoevesky, Camus and a dozen other authors who no one would call YA.

Basically the only argument I can see is that the main character is himself a young adult. But pretending that any book that has a young adult as a protagonist is a "YA Novel" is just idiotic. That isn't how the genre is defined.

Darby

Forgive me if this has been covered--I haven't read every word of this discussion yet, though I intend to--but, question: when we talk about young adult lit, what targeted-at age range are we talking about? I see the word "teenager" being tossed around here but I suspect that 19 year olds and 13 year olds would cringe at the thought of being lumped into the same category.

Colleen

Darby, to answer your question there are no set rules for what makes a YA book. (Just like mysteries can be literature or romance can cross over into mystery - get the idea?) It's all a marketing ploy. Typically, YA involves a teen protagonist and will often involve coming of age type plot points. But James Owen's new book Here There Be Dragons has only one teen - the main characters are all grown men, one of whom is on leave from fighting in the trenches.

So yeah - those rules are fluid.

It is hard to compare a 19 year old and a 13 year old but it does happen that both of those ages could end up in YA. It just depends on the audience that the publisher thinks would be most receptive to the book. In some cases it's a no-brainer (say with Nancy Drew stories), but it can get rather complicated with others.

That's why adults reading YA is really not so uncommon.

And LMM - Catcher was published in 1951 and Mockingbird in 1960. Sorry, but YA books were certainly around by then. And even Huck Finn - you really don't want to compare a story about a boy on a raft seeking the world with a friend (could you build a better set-up for a coming of age novel?) with the greats of adult literature, do you? And hey - no need to get so angry, all the rest of us have managed to remain civil.

Diana Peterfreund

Please. Huck Finn is no more marketed to Young Adults than it is to Adults. Yes, you have to read it in high school, bu tyou also have to read Shakespeare, Dostoevesky, Camus and a dozen other authors who no one would call YA.

Basically the only argument I can see is that the main character is himself a young adult. But pretending that any book that has a young adult as a protagonist is a "YA Novel" is just idiotic. That isn't how the genre is defined.

Please explain to me, then, "how the genre is defined." What other argument is there for what is YA? I was under the impression that there was no argument here that Young Adult books were books written for adolescents with adolescent protagonists. That's how the ALA defines it, by the way. Huck Finn is both. It has been popular with young readers since it's publication (due in no small part, no doubt, to the frequency of its being banned), and yep, young protag.

Oh, and I also disagree with the idea that certain examples pre-date the invention of certain genres. In the case of Frankenstein, they begin them. The novel itself is not so old a form, and science fiction, especially, is a young genre. The science of Frankenstein, however, was not any more outlandish then (they knew that electricity can restart heartbeats), any more than the science of Jules Verne's descriptions of moon voyages were. Shall we retroactively disqualify only Verne's novels that have not now proved scientifically accurate as being part of the genre?

And roamnce is NOT a young genre. It's as old as it gets. Young adult literature is not a young genre, but then again, it's also not a genre in the way that science fiction or romance is. It's a marketing term, like children's tylenol. There was definitely children's literature at the time Twain wrote Huck Finn. He wrote literature for young readers. Guess who else did? Lewis Carroll.

As I said before, this is an old argument. Merely disqualify any example the genre's defenders choose to put forth and you have yourself an unprovable supposition. In this case, it seems that any candidate will have to exist on two mutually exclusive planes: be a book that has stood the test of time and thrilled readers for generations, and also magically been published in the current publishing climate so that it does not "predate" what you define of the genre.

The definitions I provided earlier, by the way, were from the ALA and the dictionary. I don't know which ones you are using. The ALA defines YA books as books recommended for readers between the ages of 12-18.

Kestrella

I woke up thinking about this so I'll add my two cents, even if it is rather late in the game.

TEV, you act surprised that people are angry with your sweeping statements, but of course they are! Because, though you insist otherwise, you're not putting forth an opinion, you're making a judgement. And not only that, you're trying to back it up with the established literary institution (Nobel Prize, ha!), an institution that most of us are well aware is FLAWED, baby.

Your problem doesn't seem to be with YA, per se, but with popular culture. You seem to believe that anything that isn't classified as "Literature" or as being "for adults" by marketing teams and high-tone publications is necessarily going to be lower in quality than things that are. But hasn't it become clear over thousands of years of literary history that the marketing teams and high-tone literary publications of an age are NEVER good predictors of what's going to last? of what's going to speak the truth about a certain moment in human history?

Because guess what people were saying about 17th century theater when it was in its heyday?

Another stone from the great edifice of the Christianity has been kicked out from under us!

Enlightenment philosophy?

Another stone from the great edifice of monarchy has been kicked out from under us!

Surrealism?

Another stone from the great edifice of LITERATURE has been kicked out from under us!

It's been clear for a looong time that we little people of the present have a very narrow perspective on the art of our times. We like what we like, and that's okay, but getting snobby about what the masses like, about what young women working in bookstores like, about who wins the Nobel Prize and who doesn't... it's a fool's game.

The power to move people, to really say something, to strip away the bullshit and get at some nugget of truth, the power of great art, is not and never has been limited by genre categories. Art bursts the seams, it pops up where the institutions of this world least expect it. The idea that any one person can point and say, "This genre is good, this one is bad," is utterly ridiculous. I mean, let's just step out of the way and let art do what it does, which is infinitely enrich our lives.

The fact that children and adults are reading what is classified as young adult literature says something. It says that something is happening here, that people are finding some kind of sustenance here. Isn't it more interesting to try to understand what that is than it is to cross your arms and put your nose in the air?

And, besides, if a person tells me, "I cannot be touched or moved or really affected at all by one entire category of art," be it YA or pen-and-ink drawings or rap or whatEVER, well, that says a lot more to me about the person speaking than it does about the genre.

What the popularity of YA does not say is that our culture is crumbling around us. It does not say that something irrevocably bad is happening. There are bad things happening these days, for sure, but people loving books is not one of them.

Besides, so what if the culture is crumbling? It's always when the surface falls away that the really good stuff is revealed.

Larry M.

"And LMM - Catcher was published in 1951 and Mockingbird in 1960. Sorry, but YA books were certainly around by then."

Um, sorry but I never claimed they YA books weren't around by then. You must be conflating mutliple posts of mine.

Anyway, in what meanginful sense are Catcher and Mockingbird YA books? The main definition being thrown around here is that its a marketing catagory, yet Catcher and Mockingbird were not marketed towards YA when the book came out. They were marketed towards the normal adult literary scene.

Is it merely because they have young characters? That seems like a pretty thin definition of YA, don't you think? Also, IIRC, Scout is a fair bit younger than the typical YA marketing group...

So I guess I'll have to assume To Kill a Mockingbird is properly a "children's book" then.

Larry M.

I was under the impression that there was no argument here that Young Adult books were books written for adolescents with adolescent protagonists. That's how the ALA defines it, by the way. Huck Finn is both. It has been popular with young readers since it's publication

You do realize that you changed arguments there. First you claim that it must be "written for adolescents" but then you switch to saying Huck Finn is "popular with young readers."

Being written for and being popular with are very different things.

Frankly, I'd say that Huck Finn is neither. It was not written for children, it was written for adults and is full of adult themes. I also doubt that it is truly popular with young readers. It is FORCED on them in school, no doubt, but in my experience it wasn't popular. We were too young to appreciate or understand it when we were forced to read it.

The people who praise Huck Finn are typically adult and read or re-read it as adults. If you make teenagers make a list of their favorite books, I doubt Finn would appear often.

Oh, and I also disagree with the idea that certain examples pre-date the invention of certain genres.

I personally think that any concept of genre that isn't historical is a waste of time. We can play a game all day long making new definitions to fit old works of art into modern genres, but it is ultimately pointless. Genres are less concrete strictly defined works and more historical catagories, in the sense they are more relevant and helpful when considered by how they developed, who influenced who, etc.

Definitions of arts genres are always hard to make and will always, if one trys to be pendantic, allow us to throw in lots of inapprorpiate works. I could try to define punk rock as something like loud rock music with angry lyrics and loud guitars... but such a definition would include a billion artists who predate punk or have nothing to do with punk.

I learn a lot more about punk from looking at it historically and seeing how it developed than by trying to make a definition for it and then retroactively seeing who I can claim as punk.


As I said before, this is an old argument. Merely disqualify any example the genre's defenders choose to put forth and you have yourself an unprovable supposition.

Yes, it is an old argument. Merely claim a work of indisputable literary importance as part of the genre and then pendatically claim they fit into the "definition" and you have an unassailable position.

Larry M.

The fact that children and adults are reading what is classified as young adult literature says something. It says that something is happening here, that people are finding some kind of sustenance here. Isn't it more interesting to try to understand what that is than it is to cross your arms and put your nose in the air?

Is there every a point where we can be concerned though? Or is any trend positive no matter what?

Should I be excited and interested that millions of people think Big Momma's House 2 is the height of comedy and that movies like that outsell well-written and quality comedies by billions?

When people claim they are too lazy to read novels and that its easier to watch re-runs of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" should I say "wow, people are finding sustenance here" and leave it at that?

People find "some kind of sustenance" in a lot of rotten places these days. While I understand the pointlessness of getting angry about what people do with their free time, I also think it is silly to pretend that all art is created equal and we should jump for joy Paris Hilton wins an oscar...

Frank Portman

Yes, Larry M., because a YA title that crosses over to general readership is exactly like Paris Hilton winning an Oscar...

I may be wrong, but it seems as though TEV and the other YA-bashers here haven't even read what they're dismissing out of hand. That is predictably irritating to those being dismissed unread.

And thanks for the plug, Colleen.

Kestrella

I agree, Larry M., that every reader can and should have standards, but dismissing an entire category of writing in one sweeping motion suggests a total absence of standards, or of critical sense at any rate.

Justine Musk

Young Adult fiction: Robert Cormier, Robert Cormier, Robert Cormier (who is not exactly known for upbeat endings): 'The Chocolate War' and 'Beyond the Chocolate War'. Those were two of the books that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

For a more current title, Philip Pullman's 'Dark Materials' trilogy seems to be 'transcending' the YA genre quite nicely -- haven't read it, but wow, do I keep hearing about it. And hearing about it. (And the fact that it's a secular retort of a sort to the 'Narnia' series only adds to its appeal.)

James A. Owen

Colleen wrote: "Also, I read James Owen's Here There Be Dragons and while it is certainly fantasy, I am hard pressed to understand why it would appeal more to the Harry Potter crown as opposed to the Lord of Rings loving adults."

I'm hoping it will appeal to both categories equally well. ;)

Really though, it was because the editor who was most serious about acquiring it, who made us the best offer, was the VP of the YA imprints at Simon & Schuster.

I had had discussions with a couple of other publishers about it (when it was only an outline), both respected 'adult book' publishers. One in particular made me an offer on it (as a package with some other projects) with an immediate advance, that he knew I desperately needed. I declined, because he wanted to do it as a paperback, and I wanted it in hardcover. He offered me a larger advance (still small overall, but it would have been paid immediately). I offered to take LESS if he'd do a hardcover. We got farther apart and finally realized we couldn't meet in the middle.

So I had the opportunity to have it out as a book marketed to adults, if that perception had been my primary goal. But it wasn't. I wanted a greater long-term committment from my publisher, and the one who happened to come through was YA.

One aspect that I really AM thinking about: a lot of the reviews this far, incuding Booksense and Colleen's, have mentioned the art. Part of the deal was that I also do the cover myself, as well as illustrations for every chapter.

This concept is a LOT more common in YA and children's publishing than in traditional publishing. It isn't totally uncommon, but rare, in books marketed to adults.

Part of my motivation was anecdote from people like Neil Gaiman, who once mentioned being really disappointed with the cover of a new paperback of his. And I worried that if HE didn't have more input over that kind of thing, a neophyte would be in real trouble. So we made that intention clear from the start - I'd illustrate the interior AND the cover.

I'm pretty content with the final form - but that's the thought which lingers: if it hadn't been bought as YA, would it still have ended up as the finished book we have?

TEV

Frank, yes - you are wrong. Completely wrong, at least as far as I'm concerned. Can't speak to the others.

Hal Duncan

I suspect that the popularity of YA with adults may be born from a reaction against the conventionality of contemporary social realism as much as anything else. When it comes to those kitchen-sink (i.e. working-class) or drawing-room (i.e. middle-class) melodramas -- domestic narratives with an artificially heightened tension -- the downbeat (or poignant) ending has become trite, banal and often contrived, and we're tired of it. I think it was Michael Chabon who had an essay snarling about never wanting to read another bloody "moment of apotheosis" story again. I quite agree. So I suspect if readers are looking for "happy endings" it may be less about a desire for infantile solace as a dismissal of the sort of bourgeois miserabilism which wrongly equates "serious" and "solemn". There's nothing that makes an upbeat ending less profound than a downbeat one (my favourite upbeat ending, for example, is that of Joyce's ULYSSES; you'd be hard placed to find anything in any genre as *affirming* as "he asked me if I'd yes to say yes and yes I said yes I will yes."); but contemporary realism seems to have forgotten that this is the case, that we're allowed to end on another tone than grey, that -- indeed -- ending on that tone, with some cliches about regret and self-realisation, is not in fact all you need to make your work a literary masterpiece.

I suspect it's this banality (or at least, the perception of this banality) that is driving readers away from contemporary realism and towards YA or fantastic fiction where, in many respects, anything goes.

Justine Larbalestier

Wow, Hal, that was almost succinct!

Lauren McLaughlin

Thanks, Hal, for writing what has been burbling up in me as I read this intriguing/excrutiating discussion. I won't even get into the blanket stupidity of not counting Frankenstein as an SF novel. Self-obsessed, lamebrained, terminal psychoanalysis is exactly what I suspect drives readers screaming from the "serious" literature section and into the arms of Genre where, freed from the devouring needs of endless self-analysis, ideas both Big and small have room to breathe.

Frank Portman

OK, TEV, I stand corrected. I'll put it this way: your caricature of the YA novel (i.e., inherently, essentially constrained by "happy endings, clear villains, three acts," and consquetnly lacking depth and "interiority of character") does not square with many of the books mentioned by the YA defenders on this thread.

Colleen

Wow - go to sleep and run some errands and this whole discussion heats up, doesn't it?!

From reading a lot of YA/middle grade/children's books I can point to some differences there. Larry M is correct that Scout is younger than many YA protagonists - what makes Mockingbird YA as opposed to middle grade would be the storyline - it's very intense and serious and would be considered too much for say, an 8 year old. (That does not mean that books for 8 year olds aren't published on racism or violence or death, but it's all in how they are written.) A "Children's book" now is pretty much a picture book. "Middle grade" starts around 8 and goes to 12. There is a grey area then from 12 and up that is generally YA - although some are more geared to the 14 and over crowd. (This would include King Dork I imagine as it has sexual content.)

But please - don't look for an iron clad rule because you will not find it. We could argue ourselves silly over what is YA. Jim Lynch's wonderful The Hightest Tide is about a teen protagonist and is certainly a coming of age novel - but Bloomsbury marketed it as adult and when I went to a local reading there was not one teen in the room. When he went to Canada on his book tour he told me it was marketed more as a YA title - tons of teens everywhere. It worked both ways, the pub just decided how it should go. (And when I reviewed it, it was as an adult book because that seemed to be the audience who was propelling his sales.)

The bottom line for me - and I said this earlier - the appeal is always and only for a well written book. YA is no more about happy endings then adult literature and it involves all the serious themes of any literary genre. It is not even generally shorter in length anymore then adult lit. I consider reading YA to be no different then reading sci fi, mystery, etc. Just a different section of bookstore, that's all.

And here's something else - I just reviewed Tim Pratt's Strange Adventures of Rangergirl for my October column - it's an adult fantasy but I think it would be great for teens. So I'm introducing it to YA readers. It works both ways, we just don't often consider that direction.

Larry M

"Yes, Larry M., because a YA title that crosses over to general readership is exactly like Paris Hilton winning an Oscar..."

I never said it was. Are analogies that hard to follow? I was making a rhetorical point, not claiming YA literature is the same as Paris Hilton.

"I may be wrong, but it seems as though TEV and the other YA-bashers here haven't even read what they're dismissing out of hand."

You'd be wrong.

Although, for the record, I'm not dismissing TA literature as much as I'm annoyed by the disingenuous arguments being made here. Why can't a YA lover just defend YA literature by pointing out the best examples of the genre (Pullman maybe?) instead of trying to pretend that Shakespeare or Proust or Twain or whoever are YA authors.

Larry M

"But please - don't look for an iron clad rule because you will not find it"

Yet this is my whole point, you people are trying to make a rule based on a simplistic understanding of genre ("well if it takes place in the west it must be a western" "If it has a young person in it, it must be a YA novel" etc.) and using that as the basis of the argument.

Its quite clear that more is required of a book to be part of the YA novel tradition than to merely have a young protagnoist. What, is Ham on Rye a YA book now?

The fact is, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't sit well alongside YA fiction and there is nothing about it that makes it stand out from general audlt literary fiction.

TEV

Thank you, Larry! I can't help but note the same thing. The co-opting of Frankenstein as a "science fiction" title smells like a desperate quest for respectability - especially when you've got Verne, Wells and any number of others to draw from, not to mention Asimov, Bradbury, etc.

Interestingly, I've just been reading Edward Mendelson's excellent The Things That Matter, which includes a thoughtful 40-page essay on Frankenstein - and I don't recall him once referring to it as "science fiction."

The engagement with issues of science in that work reflect a typical Romantic-era mistrust of science, and a repudiation of the Englightment emphasis on rational/scientific thought. That's the pertinent context for Shelley's use of science in the tale, not some Grandmother of Sci-Fi role that's being forced upon her.

And by the by, I think Pullman is terrific (yes, I've read him, too) - but scarcely an overlooked Nobel laureate. Sorry.

Anne Weller

In his non-fiction book Invitations to the World, Richard Peck (an author in the vanguard of the officially designated YA novel) gives an interesting definition of what is and what is not YA literature by telling the story of assigning A Member of the Wedding to a class of thirteen-year-old girls. Because the protagonist was a thirteen-year-old girl, he assumed his class would completely relate to her. They despised her and hated the book.

He reasoned that this was because the book had not been written for them. It was written for adults who had already passed through that period of their lives and "had the courage to look back." It is a decided difference in perspective and useful to keep in mind when considering adult books that feature teen protagonists.

Niall Harrison

The co-opting of Frankenstein as a "science fiction" title smells like a desperate quest for respectability - especially when you've got Verne, Wells and any number of others to draw from, not to mention Asimov, Bradbury, etc.

I feel obliged to point out that the above commenters are not just pulling an argument out of thin air when they suggest Frankenstein as a science fiction novel. It is well-established as one of the possible origin points for the genre, being first proposed as the book where sf separates from the gothic by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree in 1973 (now more readily available in the revised edition as Trillion Year Spree). You can still argue it's part of a desperate quest for respectability, but it's an idea with a pedigree.

The other most common suggested origin points for the sf genre (and an argument for how each shapes how one views sf) are summarised here.

Colleen

Okay, here's the thing about the Nobel and Pullman - we get to disagree on what makes great literature. I might think it's worthy and you don't and that's okay. But who Pullman's intended audience is should not be the criteria for consideration and I that is the point that several YA folks have made here.

As for - again - what makes young adult books young adult books, well it would be great if mystery books would end up in the mystery section regardless of their age target (keeping in mind that I'm not referring to something aimed at 5 year olds), and the same for westerns, romances, etc. I am hard pressed to understand though how a book like Love, Cajun Style should be young adult and Divine Secrets of the YA YA Sisterhood would be chick lit/adult fiction when they are about the same thing, the only difference is one involves teenage girls and one involves women past twenty. But they are separated by the YA barrier strictly due to protagonist age. And that's something the publisher has decided.

Beyond that, why on earth is Philip Pullman in the YA section? And why isn't Dandelion Wine in the YA section? Bradbury wrote about boys in that book (and Something Wicked This Way Comes) but those titles are Sci Fi (which is also silly but a whole other argument).

Honestly, I don't think that Frankenstein must end up in the Sci Fi section (or Horror for that matter) but if you used the genre definitions that modern authors labor under, then I think that's where her book would go if it was published today. And Sense and Sensibility - well, isn't that basically chick lit? It's about finding the right man - and all struggles therein. Isn't that what chick lit keeps getting bashed for being?

Finally, I am not, nor have I ever said that YA books strictly must contain a teen protagonist - in fact I gave more than one example of books that have not. I'm trying to explain this is all too often done on a case by case basis - and so often adults read certain books that are YA classified usually due to protagonist age, plain and simple. I think that Mockingbird is a YA book and so do a lot of others. You may not - fine. I just see it as more of a coming of age story then, say, His Dark Materials, which deals with much deeper and more intense themes. (The whole nature of organized religion.) The only point I have tried to make (again and again) is that it is very wrong to make a blanket opinion about what YA literature is. I think all of this started because that is what Mark seemed to do in his initial post.

Further, at the risk of sounding a bit elitist, I don't think you can adequately argue about what is or is not modern YA literature unless you are reading and/or writing in the genre. Basically if you were reading a lot of YA then you would know how complex the titles are that can found within it. There is a lot going on in YA and quite frankly you would need to be in there with a lot of us who make it our business to know what's happening, in order to understand just how YA could appeal these days to so many adult readers.

Jeff VanderMeer

It seems to me quite clear that our ideas of genre are often founded simply on publishing labels and that some of these labels slapped on certain books turn out to be "accidents of birth" that have little to do with the artistic aspirations of the work, for one thing, and, sometimes, little to do with the total audience that might enjoy them, for another. (Whether it be "young adult," "fantasy," the amorphous and non-existent "mainstream literary" or whatever.)

At the same time, as a reader, I don't read a lot of young adult literature. I don't think it's any better or worse than adult literature, but the vast majority of it seems aimed at, well, young adults. What the heck is wrong with that? It seems to me that getting defensive about that if you're a writer who thinks of yourself as someone who writes for young adults or children is kind of silly.

However, at the same time I don't like TEV's generalization at the beginning of this thread because generalizations in fiction are always false to some greater or lesser degree--and they always harm books in some way by creating a discussion that is framed in terms of a simplistic either-or situation.

But I also find the core message TEV puts forth a good one, so long as one ignores or edits out the initial young adult tag. (Because that tag strikes me as a real disservice to Justine and all the other wonderful young adult authors.) In other words, it is disheartening when readers *only* want escapist fiction and happy endings, wherever they find it--in adult or young adult or children's fiction. I find that situation, across the spectrum of questions of audience, sad, given what fiction can offer. I also find it sad that most adult fiction seems all about avoiding ambition on the writer's part. What could be sadder than so many words that mean so little--to anyone.

Jeff

Matt Cheney

(If Matt Cheney can't recommend a sci-fi title, I'd like, then it can't be done - that's how I view it.)

Yikes! Thanks for the confidence in me, Mark, but man, talk about pressure! I'd love to know what you make of Brian Aldiss's novel Greybeard, just to throw one out there that I've been meaning to reread, because when I first read it some years ago it did for me, actually, something similar to what Coetzee does for me, though a bit more lyrically (though one of the things I most like about Coetzee is the sharpness of his sentences, a sort of lyrical nonlyricism, if such a thing is possible). I don't think most books that are unambiguously science fiction are interested in doing what the best and most literary fiction is doing, though, so I'm not sure it's a fair comparison. On the other hand, my favorite novels from 2005 from a literary point of view were books that were not wedded to a strict sort of realism -- The People of Paper, Divided Kingdom, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.

Random other thoughts: I'm going to dodge the YA questions here, because it's a realm that I'm only beginning to explore (thanks to Gwenda Bond and Kelly Link marching me around at BEA and telling me what YA books to grab). I have enjoyed the few YA novels I've read well enough, but certainly haven't felt the sort of depth of character and philosophy that I find in the best fiction marketed to adults, though I'm completely willing to believe it's just because I haven't read the best YA has to offer. Couldn't something like Candide perhaps be published as YA today?

At the risk of having people throw rocks and rotten vegetables and bits of the former planet Pluto at me for saying this, I think, Mark, that you nailed a lot of the dynamics among certain tendencies within some "genre" communities. I, too, don't have much patience with most litfic vs. genre debates, and even less patience with the "we don't get no respect" arguments, because in most cases I think the people who utter such whines either have no idea what they're talking about, or wouldn't want the kind of respect they claim they don't get.

Certainly, though, there's a lot of ignorance on all sides -- including the genre readers/writers who think all lit'ry fiction is about college professors having affairs -- but my personal experience is that the supposedly elitist literary world is more willing to be open to cross-fertilization than the supposedly populist world of genre fiction. (Although I think there's been a nice opening up of some parts of the popfic world in the last twenty years or so.)

The difference is who feels the stakes more -- the community of science fiction writers and fans is a small group of people committed to maintaining a separate identity from any other, because that identity defines and delineates them, and so there is a need to maintain the ghetto image, because it sets up the borders that allow the identity to exist. I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with this, and a lot quite right with it, in that it helps people share interests and passions, but I don't like the groupthink that can result, the need to feel you're a member of a special group with secret, suppressed knowledge and rights -- I once almost got punched at a science fiction convention when I said I thought claiming Frankenstein for science fiction was silly, since claiming anything for science fiction much before the early part of the 20th century, when the idea of a separate such fiction gained traction, seems silly. Multiple fans and writers gathered around me to let me know that no, actually not only is Frankenstein science fiction, but so is everything else all the way back to the Sumerians. It didn't seem to me that people were angry with me just because of our differences about literary or publishing history; they seemed to be angry because of something deeper. I had questioned a central tenet of how they conceived of themselves as part of a secret (superior) history.

Well, I've rambled and managed for the first time in my life to write something longer than Hal Duncan, so I'll stop now. A fun conversation all around, though.

Colleen

I, too, don't have much patience with most litfic vs. genre debates, and even less patience with the "we don't get no respect" arguments, because in most cases I think the people who utter such whines either have no idea what they're talking about, or wouldn't want the kind of respect they claim they don't get.

I think that was a fine post Matt, but I do have to point out that the initial "whining" was due to what Mark titled his original post "When the Bar Has No Lower to Go." Even he has to agree that was disrespectful to everyone who reads and writes YA. (And Cecil rightly called him on it.)

TEV

Just to be clear - Cecil called me on the lack of clarity of my post. I've clarifed it (certainly to her satisfaction if not yours) to say that the Low Bar in question has to do solely with the way people are making reading choices. If the interviewee of the article had mentioned science fiction as oppposed to YA, then that's probably who'd be posting here now.

And Frank, again, I was probably unclear but the constraints I listed were not all specifically YA constraints - I was taking issue with all the genre forms I noted. It was lumped together, perhaps inelegantly, but not all meant to point to YA conventions. Not much difference to you, I imagine, but worth clarifying.

Colleen

I got your response Mark - I just wanted to make sure that Matt understood how it could have been taken wrong by readers initially. And also, the knee jerk reaction to title your post as you did, and to include the initial content about "Grownupland", well that shows that YA does have a bit of an uphill battle toward respectibility. (Even in the original news article the employee states that folks come to YA looking for something "fluffy". Come on - who wants to be known as the fluffy genre?!

ha!

Larry

Thank you, Larry! I can't help but note the same thing. The co-opting of Frankenstein as a "science fiction" title smells like a desperate quest for respectability - especially when you've got Verne, Wells and any number of others to draw from, not to mention Asimov, Bradbury, etc.

And if I may say so... it seems odd to try desperatley to claim Frankenstien when it isn't even a well written book. Its legacy is entirely in its ideas and the story surrounding its creation, but the book itself isn't very good compared to the greats of that time period.

Several people have pointed out that Frankenstein may be a book that later inspired Sci-Fi. Sure, but this doesn't make it Sci-Fi in the sense that term is normally used. To again use a punk rock analogy, there is no doubt that the Velvet Underground were heavily influential to punk rock, but that doesn't mean the VU were a punk rock band a decade before punk rock even existed.


But Frankenstein is at least sensible. When I"ve seen these arguments before, genre heads will try desperately to include everyone from Pynchon to Borges to Calvino to John Cheever as sci-fi. It gets quite silly.

Larry

but if you used the genre definitions that modern authors labor under, then I think that's where her book would go if it was published today.

Perhaps, but this is exactly why it is unhelpful and pointless to have a concept of "genre" that isn't historical and contextual.

Like it or not, genres in ANY artform are heavily defined by history and context.

I guess it might be a fun game to see what books would fit into what genres if published at entirely different times and in entirely different contexts. Would Pulp Fiction have been a Film Noir if released in the 1940s? Would The Band be considered country if they released their debut album in 2006? Would the Bible be read as bad fantasy if released today as a novel?

I dunno, but I dont' think we learn much about the actual works or the actual genres by such questions.

Lee

I hope I'm not repeating something already said - there really are an awful lot of comments - but I think it might be useful to have a look at the fiction of literary authors who also write YA and see if there are any interesting conclusions to be drawn from comparisons within their own body of work. Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon come immediately to mind, maybe Aidan Chambers eventually (he's written YA so far but is working on an adult novel, I believe). I'm not including Zusak, because I personally don't think he's of their literary stature, at least not yet. Unfortunately, it's not a project I myself have the critical skills to undertake.

Larry

I don't like TEV's generalization at the beginning of this thread because generalizations in fiction are always false to some greater or lesser degree

This is a side topic, but the above kind of statement always crops up in arguments I see online and I'm afraid to say I think it is at heart a fallicious statement.

People seem very uncomfortable with generalizations and I can see why. Often they can be mistaken as being totally true (as opposed to GENERALLY true) and can increase prejucide, yada yada yada.

However, the fact of the matter is generalizations are not "always wrong" and are quite often correct. Generalizations are just that... general statements that apply generally.

If I say "Japanese people are shorter than Danish people" this is understood as a general statement that means on average japanese people are shorter. It does not mean ALL japanese people are shorter than ALL danish people. This is obvious when spelled out... but it doens't change the fact that 50% of the time you say such a statement someone will yell at you and say "Nuh-uh! that is just ignorant! I know a japanese guy who is 6 foot 5!"

The fact of the matter is that all language is general (see: Plato) and we couldn't talk about any concepts like "genre" or "literatuer" without speaking in generalizations.

E. Lockhart

I think the anger in the comments is coming from the generalization made by your interviewee -- about why people want to read YA. Happy endings, etc.

I have been known to want a happy ending or a light and easy read -- and I turn to Jane Austen or P.G Wodehouse, certainly before Chris Crutcher or Mary Pearson, both of whom make me cry copiously and have to think seriously about the world (and both of whom are YA authors). As Bennett points out, YA is a marketing category, not a genre, and the books range from lightweight to literary, and from comedy to drama. As you well know, dramas can be fluff (Bridges of Madison County) and comedy can be literary (David Copperfield).

The interviewee's generalization was, to my eye, completely wrong about the content of YA (upbeat, toujours fluffy)-- and your subsequent generalizations followed from hers. Your clarifications in the comments help me understand your point much better.

I comment because I think there's a bit of context to consider here, in terms of the response your post has received. Recently, smart thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell and Naomi Wolf (among others) have weighed in on YA fiction without having read more than one or two books -- if any. So the community of writers and critics of YA is cranky about such generalizations, coming as they do, from people who would not otherwise be writing about stuff they hadn't read. So yours is the latest in a spate of such write-offs, and it is frustrating to see them coming from such good critics who have nonetheless not read the books in question.

To identify myself, I've read your blog on and off for three years and liked it very much; have a doctorate in English literature; and write YA novels.

Frank Portman

That was well-stated, E.

Mark, I see what you're saying: the conventions of "genre fiction" of all types do not tend to produce Great Literature. I'm curious, though, what YA books have you read? As E. noted, Naomi Wolf based her blanket condemnation of YA on a couple of volumes from the Gossip Girl series; Gladwell based his on, apparently, nothing specific, but rather a general impression; once again, I may be wrong here (and I'm sure you'll correct me if I am) but my sense is that the anti-YA folks in this discussion have in mind a continuum that stretches from Harry Potter to Philip Pullman. No? Interesting discussion, at any rate.

Anne Weller

Frank, a similar question for you: Did you actually read Naomi Wolfe's article? Because I don't see how her opinion can be classified as a "blanket condemnation of YA." Her thoughts were clearly directed at a specific subset, which she had obviously read. She does not extend these thoughts to YA literature in general and in fact, seems to appreciate what the best of YA literature can achieve.

Frank Portman

Yes, Anne, but Naomi's subsequent proposals that "rating labels" be put on teen lit were not restricted to the Gossip Girl or A List books. That may not quite be "blanket condemnation," but it is certainly something like "blanket hysteria" (not to mention a very strange thing for a writer to desire) and it appears to have been based on a study of a pretty narrow slice of the teen lit that is out there.

Kevin Wignall

To paraphrase Robert DeNiro, "I have nipples, Mark, can you milk me?"

My books are sold as thrillers but they don't have clear-cut villains or happy endings and the characters have complex interior worlds. You can still read them as fast page-turners if you wish, but there's as much food for thought as the reader desires.

I don't say this to set my work apart - I think the same could be said for a great deal of genre and YA fiction. My friends Laura Lippman and Olen Steinhauer are both producing provocative work in the crime field. Two YA titles, "Holes" by Louis Sachar and "Mortal Engines" by Philip Reeve are among the most memorable books I've read this year, though neither might be quite your cup of tea.

What I will say is that a lot of the work that wears its literary credentials on its sleeve simply doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. I notice you recommend Banville's "The Sea", a book I've recently panned over at Contemporary Nomad, for being sloppy and fake and for completely failing to capture childhood - perhaps he should have read some YA himself.

Of course, as ever, the usual tomayto/tomahto caveat applies. Good discussion.

TEV

Welcome to the party, Kevin. Hope you're not offended if I stay clear of your nipples.

Here's the thing about The Sea - Banville is not remotely interested in trying to "capture childhood," so you've criticized him for doing something he never set out to do.

What does interest him is how an old man, looking back perceives his childhood. It's all about the unreliability of memory, so it's exacttly so that he wouldn't have necessarily "captured childhood." But I'm willing to bet a lot that folks of "a certain age" reading the novel would feel it an awfully true portrait of how memory colors the past.

That's like saying the cubists failed because the painting doesn't look like a guitar. It's not at all what they were after.

Larry M.

Not to speak for Mark, but his generalization about YA literature probalby doesn't extend to all genres. That wouldn't make much sense. Thrillers are often similar to mystery novels and if the villain and villainy is clear cut then there isn't a mystery really.

I often wonder if a lot of the division amongst fans and such comes down to a matter of focus in the writing. A lot of SF and fantasy fans are very interested in "world building" and having totally believable fake worlds. OTOH, frankly very few genre fans seem concerned at all about style or structure. I have a ton of genre head friends and they recommend me books all the time and yet never ever talk about the prose or style, they just talk about the quirky idea behind the plot or how real the world is or the political message underneath, etc. While reviews and recomendations for "literary fiction" almost always focus on style.

To me it feels like there isn't normally (and yes, there are a few exceptions, but thye are rare) very engaged in FORM it is utilising, which is to say "prose fiction." I think this is why film versions of genre books frequently surpass their source material in quality and acclaim. OTOH, "literary fiction," for lack of a better term, is heavily engaged with the form, and film versions are invariably noted as "not being as good as the book."

Kevin Wignall

I'm aware of these claims for "The Sea", Mark, but they smack of having your cake and eating it. It's about the unreliability of memory but, as I point out at Contemporary Nomad, he remembers a summer holiday of fifty years ago in astonishing detail. (I have to stress that his failure to capture childhood was but one of my problems with the book)

denise hamilton

As the mother of two YAs, an omnivorous reader, an author and an occasional critic, let me add fuel to the fire by recommending a body of work in another much-maligned genre that works beautifully for 'mature' YA and contains every profound theme known to humankind: Neil Gaiman's `Sandman` series of gasp! comic books. This is classic, ageless literature, no matter what label you put on it, and illustrates to me the silliness of making reading choices based on packaging.
denise hamilton

Kevin Wignall

Good call, Denise. I wrote a short time ago about "Black Hole" by Charles Burns - equally captivating and a great companion piece to "Girlfriend in a Coma" by Douglas Coupland.

I suppose the only counter-argument is that it's a different artform.

Larry M.

"I suppose the only counter-argument is that it's a different artform."

Well, the counter argument would probably be that graphic novles like "Black Hole" are the equivelant of "literary fiction" within the comic world. They are the artsy, literary whatevers as opposed to the normal genre work.

I'm sure at there are comic messageboards whre this same exact debate is going on, except with the names Clowes, Burns and Ware replacing Coetzee, Banville and Shakespeare and "Superhero comics" replacing "YA fiction"

Hal Duncan

A lot of SF and fantasy fans are very interested in "world building" and having totally believable fake worlds. OTOH, frankly very few genre fans seem concerned at all about style or structure.

That's not entirely accurate, actually. Style and structure are *always* important; it's just about half-and-half between fans who demand one particular style (transparent prose) and one particular structure (linear, exteriorised plot), and those who make no such requirements. I would even say the former may well be in the minority, but more vocal in their conservatism. I can tell you from my experience of reader's reactions to my own work (which is non-linear, heavily voice-focused, hugely interiorised -- hell, I have to use words like "Cubism" and "pataphysique" to describe what I'm up to), that the realities of reader taste are a whole lot more complex. The whole style and structure thing? The mistake readers make (inside and outside genre, I'd say) is seeing style as a superficial surface of words, something they have to see "through" in order to get at "the story" (as if the story wasn't actually *constructed from* those words). Whether "the story" you're looking for is action-driven and externalised or theme-driven and internalised, whether you're a philistine or a philosopher to put it bluntly, I think this is a common approach to reading.

In those situations, style and structure (other than the most conventional, that is) are percieved as barriers to "getting at" the action or theme. The hostile reactions of many non-genre readers to something like FINNEGANS WAKE, for example, is a good example of that blinkered outlook. The philistine looking for straightforward action says it lacks "plot". The philosopher looking for straightforward theme says it lacks "meaning".

However, as I say, from personal experience I can tell you that there's at least as many genre readers who *relish* style and structure as there are who see it only as a means to an end (that end being either action or theme).

So why do they not rave about style? Why do they instead usually focus on the Big Idea?

Well, "World-building" *is* important in the fantastic modes of writing which get lumped and chunked as "SF", "Fantasy" or "Horror", but this is as much about the importance of the central metaphoric conceit and how it is extended throughout the text as anything else -- as the concretised, unmoored metaphor is a key feature of the fantastic mode. One big trick fantastic fiction pulls is to take a metaphor and run with it, but at the same time to uncouple the set of symbols generated from any singular (i.e allegorical) reference. The counterfactual / hypothetical / metaphysical conceit thus becomes a medium for exploring the ole "human condition" in an extremely abstract way.

To give an example, if I was talking up GORMENGHAST to you I'd most likely describe the setting, since the vaguely Edwardian "Big House" as concretised metaphor (in part for the inter-war upheavals in Britain's class system, but unmoored and therefore of far wider relevance and far deeper resonance than a purer allegory like ANIMAL FARM) is, well, pretty damn central. Peake's style, his narrative voice and use of a Dickensian Comic-Grotesque in characterisation, reflects this metaphor in its baroque detail; it's therefore deeply important, and he does pull it off superbly, but ultimately it's not the... USP of the book.

To go back to the Cubism thing, in fact, riffing off Mark's comment, you wouldn't focus on the brushwork of Picasso the way you would with a Romantic painter like Delacroix or a Neo-Classicist like David, where those stylistic features are essential to the aesthetic. What you would rave about with his GUERNICA (or at least what *I* would rave about with his GUERNICA) is the abstraction and fragmentation, the use of simplified shapes to construct the whole, the incorporation of primitive cave-painting like stylisation and the way that attempts something which doesn't *represent* but does *refer to* our world. That process of simplification, fragmentation, reduction, recombination -- that's a very good analogue of the process at play in the "world-building" of fantastic fiction. It's not whether the guitar is painted with the wild brushstrokes of the Romantic to signify the passionate nature of music, or with the clean-lines of Neo-Classicism to signify music as beauty in order and structure; it's how the artist has taken the guitar apart completely in his imagination and reconstructed it on the canvas -- that's what matters with this mode of art.

Hal Duncan

To me it feels like there isn't normally (and yes, there are a few exceptions, but thye are rare) very engaged in FORM it is utilising, which is to say "prose fiction."

The "exceptions" aren't rare; they're the core of the genre. But let me clarify that. All genre fiction is deeply engaged with its form; that's what makes it genre. The thing you're missing, I think, is that "prose fiction" is a huge mass of multiple forms with three different aesthetics at play, inherited from the 18th, 19th and 20th Ceturies -- Romanticism, Rationalism and Modernism. The first is heavily formal in terms of its orientation to plot, and genre inherits a lot of Romanticism's features by way of the pulps and the penny dreadfuls before them. The second is heavily formal in terms of its orientation to theme, and contemporary realism inerits a lot of Rationalism's features by way of the Victorian melodrama (we start in the drawing-room and end up in the night-club by way of the kitchen-sink).

Those two aesthetics have been going mano-a-mano for a couple of hundred years and the same tired argument is playing out right here between genre and non-genre. A literature perceived as too focused on passion gets derided by one side as shallow sensationalism. A literature perceived as too focused on reason gets derided by the other side as sterile intellectualism. (Interestingly the same argument occurs within the field of fantastic fiction, between "Romantic" Fantasy and "Rationalist" SF).

The purest contemporary avatars of those aesthetics are deeply concerned with the form of "prose fiction", but each has a quite different idea of what that "form" is. For the Romanticist prose fiction is very much about the fantastic, with an emphasis on dynamic momentum (exotic description or exterior conflict); for the Rationalist it's very much about the domestic, with an emphasis on reflexive comment (mimetic description or inner conflict). In the purest avatars of these modes, those notions of form lead to highly conventional narrative voices -- on the one hand, the clipped, pacy style we call "transparent prose"; on the other, a ponderous, discursive style which I'm going to call "received prose". Both are highly polished, both require high levels of craft, but the latter is still privileged because it's the mode most associated with the canonical literary novels. Even laying aside transparent prose you can see that privilege expressed in the reactions to Modern writers who dared to write in the vernacular or in stream-of-consciousness. Like Dante writing in "low" Italian instead of "high" Latin, these guys were invariably charged with "vulgarity". Right up to James Kelman and Irvine Welsh you can see hostile reactions to prose styles which don't fit the "received prose" profile.

The point is that both exterior and interior drama, both plot and theme, are epiphenomenal effects, and where more purely Romantic or Rationalist (i.e. Realist) works focus primarily on achieving those effects, neither actually engages with the form of "prose fiction" in the sense I think you mean. That might set up the prose style as a "barrier" vis-a-vismy previous comment. Rather conventional voices which don't "get in the way" are preferenced.

Now, with Modernism it's a whole nother story. When you talk about being more interested in work which engages with the form of "prose fiction", I think this is exactly what Modernism adds to the equation by establishing the right to use vernacular and stream-of-consciousness, or for that matter to get downright experimental on the prose's ass, chop it to pieces, fold it in, layer it with weirdness.

It's fair to say that non-genre fiction has been heavily influenced by those Modernist achievements; the "received prose" style has been pretty much discarded along with the Omniscient Narrator in favour of 1st Person / 3rd Person Limited with bags of vernacular and inner monologue voice. But if you think there hasn't been the same level of influence in genre, you're wrong; it's simply that, on the whole, you're looking at a blend of Modernism and "transparent prose" rather than a blend of Modernism and "received prose". Also, because of genre's focus on the fantastic, its emphasis on dynamic momentum, exotic description, exterior conflict, the influences of Modernism are perhaps generally more structural than stylistic. Metafictional layerings of "found texts", cut-up and fold-in prose, mosaic narratives, the SF/Fantasy/Horror genre is *rich* with these features, from Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION up through Delany's DALGHREN and Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE to Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES, or VanderMeer's CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, or my own VELLUM. And largely these are used in quite a different way than they would be in postmodern fiction, far more seriously and much less arch and ironic.

I can understand *why* you have this perception of fiction in the fantastic genres beig generally (which is to say *essentially* with a few rare exceptions which "transcend the genre") characterisable (and dismissable) as intrinsically bound to X, Y and Z conventions. But you're misunderstanding the core nature of the genre.

But that's another post entirely.

Hal Duncan

Several people have pointed out that Frankenstein may be a book that later inspired Sci-Fi. Sure, but this doesn't make it Sci-Fi in the sense that term is normally used. To again use a punk rock analogy, there is no doubt that the Velvet Underground were heavily influential to punk rock, but that doesn't mean the VU were a punk rock band a decade before punk rock even existed.

The Stooges are the obvious counter-example here. While they're classed as a garage band the distinction between early 70s garage and mid 70s punk is largely a matter of labelling. Somewhere between the Sonics (Chuck Berry on strychnine) and the Ramones (the Beach Boys on speed), garage rock morphs into punk rock. Hell, the Clash song, "Garageland" makes that heritage explicit. Yes, you can draw a line at the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols or whatever, and say, punk starts here, and nothing before the historical context of the NY or London punk scene circa 1976 can be truly considered punk. Then you can go on and argue that Television were a punk band simply because they were playing CBGBB's during that time. This "historical and contextual" understanding of punk renders the term as empty as a marketing label.

If you look at the characteristics of the music, what it's doing, how it works, the Stooges are a hell of a lot more "punk" than Television. Listen to the confrontational shambles which is Mettalic KO, with wonderful fuck-you lyrics such as those of "Cock In My Pocket". See the cover with Scott (or is it Ron?) Asheton in full Nazi regalia, cradling an unconscious Iggy. Now, I'm not saying that the Stooges were punk two or three years before punk rock even existed. I'm not saying that they can and must be understood as "proto-punk" or as the "origin point of punk". What I'm saying is that one could argue either of those positions on the basis of shared characteristics and a wider historical perspective; frankly, the label "punk" fits the Stooges a damn sight better than it fits Television. Sure, you could say the Stooges were just an "influence" rather than actually being "punk". But then you could say the same about the Ramones and the New York Dolls, insisting that these too are only influences, that punk only truly came into existence with the Sex Pistols. That's what Malcolm Maclaren would have you believe, after all.

The point is, the comparison of the "Frankenstein is SF" argument to a hypothetical "VU is punk" argument is, well, no more than that -- a comparison, an analogy. It doesn't actually support your position any more than the analogy would support *my* position if I invoked the Ramones where you invoke the Velvets. And both positions are bollocks. Frankenstein is neither the VU *nor* the Ramones of SF. It's neither mere influence nor fully paid-up member but rather somewhere in between. The proponent of the "Scientific Romance" definition of SF might well make a case that FRANKENSTEIN is more than influential, but has to be considered as prototypical. Frankenstein is to SF as the Stooges are to punk -- a far closer relative than the Velvets. Personally I disagree with Aldiss's view that Frankenstein is the first SF work, that SF is an outgrowth of the Gothic -- I think it's fundamentally a Modernist mode -- but the notion of Frankenstein as prototypical SF is not a view to be dismissed with a glib analogy and a snort of derision. It's not about co-opting a classic for literary credibility; it's a serious attempt to trace the roots of this mode of writing.

Actually, Orwell is a better candidate for prototypical SF, in my opinion. And before the back-and-forth of whether or not Orwell is SF kicks off, go read this:

https://www.rbd26.dial.pipex.com/orwellsf.htm

By all indications Orwell himself considered his work in the tradition of Wells and (shock horror!) actually had a high respect for the American pulps. So NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR can be seen as the point where the Romantic tradition of pulp invention and the Rationalist tradition of social extrapolation converge as a distinct mode. Orwell's novel is far more characteristic of the written SF that was to follow than either Wells or the pulps alone. Neither Wells nor the pulps can, I think, *quite* work as proper origin points, not in isolation; I might accept them as grandaddy's but it's where those two paths converge, where the families intermarry, that SF really begins as far as I'm concerned. Again this is not a matter of co-opting Orwell to a tradition in the hopes of gaining high-brow credentials. It's simply that what we have here is a dystopian novel written by someone clearly identifying themselves as working in the tradition of Wells, Stapledon, Huxley, etc., a novel by a writer familiar with and respectful of the pulps, and a novel which features world governments, artificial language and other such SF hypotheticals. To exclude this from the canon would be like saying ANIMAL FARM is not a fable because, well, it was published as a serious novel for adult readers. ANIMAL FARM is an allegorical animal story; it fits one definition of the "fable" as an aesthetic form, and is presented as such. By its existence it demonstrates that the aesthetic form of the "fable" -- the allegorical animal story -- and the depth of a "serious novel for adult readers" are not mutually exclusive. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is equally a demonstration that the SF mode of writing doesn't have to be just a Romantic piece of fluff or a Rationalist intellectual exercise, that a work of SF can be a "serious novel for adult readers".

Of course, to accept this requires a distinction between genre as marketing category, genre as aesthetic form(s) and genre as commercial formula, a distinction genre readers can and do make but which non-genre readers seem incapable of getting their heads around. I mean, Larry, Mark, most of what you're saying seems to indicate that you hear "SF" (or YA) and think "commercial formula fiction", right? And it's your understanding of the essential requirements of that "commercial formula" which makes you dubious of genre, no? Or am I reading you wrong here?

Hal Duncan

Sorry, one last comment. (See, this is why Justine and Matt take the piss out of me):

...this doesn't make it Sci-Fi in the sense that term is normally used.

Unfortunately the term "Sci-Fi" is normally used by people who have no idea what they're talking about with regards to SF (and that, sadly, includes "genre heads"). Coined by uberfan Forrest Ackerman, and reviled by most SF writers since Day One, it's normally used with the same sort of critical nous as your aged aunt when she hears you playing that Sonic Youth album and complains that "all of that *Heavy Metal* stuff is just noise" (to riff off the music analogies). Truth is, the mass of people don't have a feckin scooby about the written mode of SF, because they're familiar mainly with Hollywood and TV tosh. Since that tosh is almost entirely composed of adventure stories in the Romance idiom, their usage of the term Sci-Fi invariably carries an implicit and inaccurate definition of this "Sci-Fi" stuff as "Romantic adventure" with all that this entails (happy ending, power-fantasy, clear-cut heroes and villains, blah blah blah). This is about as accurate as a perception of rock music formed by looking at pictures of Slipknot in Kerrang magazine (or, for that matter, talking to a few metalheads as opposed to "genre heads" -- another revealing term with respect to the misperception of SF).

So the sense in which "that term is normally used" is of little relevance here. In the same way that "Heavy Metal" applied to Sonic Youth simply betrays your maiden aunt's ignorance and carries a shitload of conceptual baggage (i.e. posturing adolescent moppets in spandex and mullets), the term "Sci-Fi" used in reference to canonical SF works like, for example, Samuel R. Delany's DHALGREN (a highly literary and experimental novel which bears the same relation to STAR WARS as Sonic Youth bears to Slipknot) points to a similar miscomprehension. If "Sci-Fi" is your label for SF, if you hear "SF" and think "Sci-Fi", with a mental picture of the literary equivalent of spandex and mullets, man, you're way out of step with the actualities of the field.

This may sound like semantic nit-picking but there's an important point here: this misperception of SF (and a similar one regarding YA) is at the heart of this debate, as I see it. The quote in the article expresses this fallacy, and both Mark and Larry seem to be working with that same fallacy (feel free to correct me, if I'm misreading your opinions). Not only is there a confusion between genre as marketing category and genre as aesthetic form, but there's also a failure to distinguish between genre as aesthetic form and genre as commercial formula. The logic seems to be that: 1) works published with certain labels -- YA, SF, Fantasy, Horror, whatever -- *all* conform to simple sets of aesthetic criteria which make them essentially generic-and-not-literary; 2) these criteria are *all*, functionally speaking, designed for mechanically producing works of a certain formulaic nature; 3) *all* works produced with those formulaic natures will have flaws due to their inherent commercialism; 4) *all* works conforming to certain aesthetic criteria will therefore have those flaws; 5) *all* works published with certain labels will therefore have those flaws.

Even substituting *generally* for *all* in each of these points is a gross misrepresentation. To take them one by one: 1. Marketing categories are arbitrary. Works which fit the classic aesthetic form of SF, like THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE, may be published without the genre label. Works which do *not* fit the classic aesthetic form of SF, like THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER, may be published *with* the genre label. 2. There are multiple sets of aesthetic criteria which may be applied, together or separately, any of which will lead readers, writers and editors to consider a work "SF". Some of these are designed to produce formulaic structures, but most are not. Just as some poems are limericks and some are sonnets, but most are bound by neither sets of conventions, so some SF works fit this mold or that one, but most do not. Again, I'd refer you to Delany's DHALGREN, which fits no commercial formula whatsoever but is clearly SF in terms of both aesthetic form and marketing category. 3. On the basis of the above, this is now as circular and irrelevant as saying that all limericks lack serious content. The field of SF has its formulaic dreck, but saying that all formulaic SF is dreck is an exercise in stating the obvious. 4. On the basis of the above, this is now as false and misrepresentative as saying that all poems lack serious content. This is the crux of the fallacy, where an ignorance of the diversity of aesthetic criteria at play in SF leads to a blanket condemnation on the basis that it's all just Romantic adventure tosh. 5. The application of that misperception on the basis of marketing category alone is not only false and misrepresentative; it's superficial, quite literally judging a book by its cover (the image, the imprint, the copy and blurbs, the genre label on the back).

I'll say it again: even using *generally* in place of *all* is a mistake here. SF is not primarily formulaic dreck with a few exceptional works which "transcend the genre". No more so than poetry is primarily limericks with a few exceptional works which "transcend the genre". Even with the presence of (multiple sets of) aesthetic criteria acting as constraints, the field is better characterised by the diversity of its canonical works than by the derivative hackwork sold alongside it. Here's a few names: Aldiss, Bradbury, Bester, Ballard, Clarke, Delany, Disch, Dick, Ellison, Farmer, Gibson, (M. John) Harrison, (Harry) Harrison, Heinlein, Jakubowski, Keyes, Lem, Moorcock, Niven, Orwell, Priest, Ryman, Spinrad, Sladek, Tiptree, Verne, Wells, Zelazny. It's not a complete A-Z, and not all of these are great writers by any means, but these are some of the writers whose works actually define the genre, and define it as an extremely wide-ranging form indeed. The point here is about the diversity of the form, not exemplary instances. The point here is that the genre is that SF is not even *generally* formulaic, but rather fundamentally eclectic. Poetry rather than limericks. Rock rather than Heavy Metal. SF rather than Sci-Fi in the sense in which that term is generally understood.

I've got a really long analogy to illustrate my point, but I'm going to give you a break from my ramblings.

Larry M.


I'm glad you took the time to make a long response to post and much of what you say is intelligable... although a certain amount lacks both "plot and meaning". However, I feel like our differences probalby stem from some basic differences in assumptions and in experience, so we may never agree. A few things though:

The "exceptions" aren't rare; they're the core of the genre. But let me clarify that. All genre fiction is deeply engaged with its form; that's what makes it genre.

No... it isn't. Though perhaps that was poor word choice. I probably should have said "medium." A book is not made genre by its level of engagement with its medium. That doesn't even make any sense.

The thing is that, in my experience, most genre fans have little concern in the prose style or structure and, thus, the actual writer can become almost irrelevant. Plenty of writers whose prose is, at best, medicore are lauded as geniuses in the SF/F world. Tolkien springs first to mind as an obvious example.

This is not a matter, as your posts assume, of "rationalist" writing versus "romantic" writing or "transparant prose" versus "dense prose", it a matter of bad prose versus good prose.

This is obviously a hypotehtical I can't prove, but I feel confident that if I went back in time and forced Tolkien to let another writer ghost re-write his books before he published them, keeping the plot and world and changing the prose, his books would be just as popular and influential. I could do it a dozen times with different writers and each time they'd be as popular.

OTOH, if I went back and murdered Joyce and made someone else re-write Ulysses it would not have the status it does today.

Again, I feel this is why film versions of genre books so frequently eclipse their fiction counterparts. The plot and idea and world are what is important, not the prose, so someone can remake the work easily. Again, there are exceptions, but generally this holds true.

The mistake readers make (inside and outside genre, I'd say) is seeing style as a superficial surface of words, something they have to see "through" in order to get at "the story" (as if the story wasn't actually *constructed from* those words).

People say this all the time, but it seems to me to sound deep rather than to be deep.
Yes, all aspects of the story are constructed from words, but this doens't mean that we can't identify and seperate different elements of the work.

I could make a detailed short story outline and get two different writers to write it and we would end up with 2 different piles of words, yet the same plot and characters (for all practical purposes).

Even laying aside transparent prose you can see that privilege expressed in the reactions to Modern writers who dared to write in the vernacular or in stream-of-consciousness. Like Dante writing in "low" Italian instead of "high" Latin, these guys were invariably charged with "vulgarity". Right up to James Kelman and Irvine Welsh you can see hostile reactions to prose styles which don't fit the "received prose" profile.

This is a neat side topic, but not one that really addresses what I am saying, or what I meant to say but perhaps expressed badly.

My complaint has nothing to do with "transparant prose" versus "recieved prose."

I should probably point out that the complaint lies more with the readers than the writers. It isn't that genre writers don't care about good prose, it is that the majority of genre readers do not and this allows medicore writers to rise and dominate the field.

Larry M.

And along with my last comment, this is why genre writers who ARE concerned with those elements, such as Vonnegut, often leave the genre world for the literary world.

Larry M.

The Stooges are the obvious counter-example here. While they're classed as a garage band the distinction between early 70s garage and mid 70s punk is largely a matter of labelling.

No, as I said before, it is a matter of history. They don't really serve as a counter example.

If the Stooges had been around during the punk movement and had parcipated in it (toured with those bands, been on those labels, enjoyed that fan base, etc.) THEN they might have been called punk. But they weren't and aren't.

(Also, musically The Stooges, with their moody, bluesy rock, fit much more comfortably with their contemporaries than with late 70s punk)

You are very correct that at some point it becomes a matter of mere labelling. Are the Neon Boys pre-punk but Television punk? At some point we have to make a fairly arbitrary distinction.

But this doesn't mean there isn't a real difference between said genres. It is like mountains and hills. At what point does the hill become a mountain? We could probably get a general agreement, but the exact height ends up being arbitrary and a fair number of formations could probably count as either.

This doesn't mean there isn't a difference between a mountain and a hill and that such terms are meaningless.

If you look at the characteristics of the music, what it's doing, how it works, the Stooges are a hell of a lot more "punk" than Television.

That depends entirely on your conception of what "punk rock" is. Punk is, in truth, a very diverse and complex genre. Television are the epitome of a certain strain of punk rock that stretches from... well, Television to the present day. This strain is normally called "art punk." Just because people who watch MTV all day long think punk bands have to have mohawks and snotty vocals doesn't make it so.

The point is, the comparison of the "Frankenstein is SF" argument to a hypothetical "VU is punk" argument is, well, no more than that -- a comparison, an analogy.

And thus why I specifically said "an analogy."

Larry M.

Whoops! didn't mean to post that, wasn't finished. To continue:

but the notion of Frankenstein as prototypical SF is not a view to be dismissed with a glib analogy and a snort of derision. It's not about co-opting a classic for literary credibility; it's a serious attempt to trace the roots of this mode of writing.

I think you are misreading what makes us uncomfortable with these claims. The problem is not with noting many sci-fi books are influenced by Frankenstien or with tracing th roots of SF or any of that. The problem is that said people are claiming, in this discussion, it as SF against literary fiction.

To return to our analogy, if you want to claim that the Sonics were an important proto-punk band and could maybe even be considerd punk... well, I'm not gonna have a big problem with that.

But if we are having a debate about 60s garage rock versus punk rock and I ask you what punk rock album can stand up to the quality of 60s garage rock and you respond "introducing the Sonics".... THAT is the problem.

To exclude this from the canon would be like saying ANIMAL FARM is not a fable because, well, it was published as a serious novel for adult readers.

Ah, but again, the problem is not in including it as a fable, but it including it as a fable AGAINST "serious novels for adult." It is both.

I mean, Larry, Mark, most of what you're saying seems to indicate that you hear "SF" (or YA) and think "commercial formula fiction", right? And it's your understanding of the essential requirements of that "commercial formula" which makes you dubious of genre, no? Or am I reading you wrong here?

I'm sure there is some element of that (both for me and in reality) but it isn't really true.

hen I think "Science Fiction" I think of the SF books that I've read and specifically of the ones that have been lauded to me by SF heads. My SF/F bookself is like "The Left Hand of Darkness," "Towing Jehovah," "Lord of the Rings," "American Gods," etc.

It isn't Star Trek novels and Harry Potter fan fiction.

The quote in the article expresses this fallacy, and both Mark and Larry seem to be working with that same fallacy (feel free to correct me, if I'm misreading your opinions)

Well, as I just indicated, if I have this fallicious sense of SF it is from reading LeGuin, Morrow, Tolkien, Gaimen and people like that. Not from watching too many episodes of Star Gate SG-1.

Even substituting *generally* for *all* in each of these points is a gross misrepresentation.

There is no "even" here. It should be naturally assumed that we are discussing things in a general way. There are always exceptions in any genre. Any aspect of "heavy metal" you might bring up I can thinmk of an example that doesn't fit. We can do that for anything.

Larry M.

Hal: I"m really enjoying this discussion and I think your posts quickly got a lot more sensible.

However, I must say, for someone so insulted by a generalization of your favored genre, I'm surprised you would toss something like this out there:

The point here is about the diversity of the form, not exemplary instances. The point here is that the genre is that SF is not even *generally* formulaic, but rather fundamentally eclectic. Poetry rather than limericks. Rock rather than Heavy Metal

I'm not a metal head by any means, but even a cursory glance at metal would show an extremely diverse and eclectic set of music.

Lauren McLaughlin

Larry M, I'm curious. When someone who is demonstrably an expert in the field of SF, such as Hal Duncan, points out the spectacular bounty of good and great writing in a field about which he clearly knows a lot more than you, why cling to your ideas? Isn't it good news rather than bad that an unjustly maligned genre hides a treasure trove of undiscovered gems? I ask because I have had this conversation one too many times with readers who tick off a short list of SF titles then glibly claim that the field is mostly dreck but for those books that have graduated to the exalted sphere of literary fiction. What exactly is so threatening about the idea that SF is better written and more diverse than you knew?

Larry M.

Sigh...

when someone rants against things which I've never claimed and goes off on long tangents unrelated to what was being discussed, I'm not going to change my ideas... because what he says is frankly irrelevant to my ideas.

"What exactly is so threatening about the idea that SF is better written and more diverse than you knew?"

I'm not threatened nor have I ever claimed that SF is not diverse. And, while I'm sure Duncan is more of a SF expert than me, he has hardly showed me that the genre is better written or more diverse "than I knew" by listing a bunch of commonly known authors.

I've read many of the authors he listed (as have most poeple here, I'm sure) and I'm hardly going to change my opinion of their writing merely because some other writer says they are great. I tend to make up my own mind about works I've read, as I'm sure you do too.

"ask because I have had this conversation one too many times with readers who tick off a short list of SF titles then glibly claim that the field is mostly dreck"

This word has come up about a dozen times, yet I don't see anyone here claiming that "all SF is dreck" or anything close to that. The closest I've seen is Mark saying that the best YA literature doesn't hold up to the best nobel prize type literature.

A far cry from saying all genre is dreck.

Larry M.

When someone who is demonstrably an expert in the field of SF, such as Hal Duncan, points out the spectacular bounty of good and great writing in a field about which he clearly knows a lot more than you, why cling to your ideas

I hope that my last post didn't sound insulting towards Duncan, I didn't mean it to be. Its just that I don't see what his expertise has to do with this. If we were discussing something within SF, say the importance of Asimov or something, then I might defer to his superior knowledge. But we aren't discussing SF per se, we are discussing SF and genre versus other literature. One would need to be an expertise in all these genres and mainstream fiction and literary fiction to be authoritative here. I'm sure Hal Duncan has read a lot in his life, both genre and non-genre, but I see no reason to assume he has read signficantly more or less than myself or Mark or anyone else in this thread. Thus, we are probably all roughly equal "experts" as it pertains to this discussion. I see no reason for any of us to defer to each other's "authority" here.

Also, anyone who loves a genre and writes in a genre is obviously going to think there are tons of great things in it. If they didn't they wouldn't be involved in it. So I think it is merely assumed that Hal Duncan will love SF and think it is diverse and has excellent works. I'd be surprised by anything else.

Gwenda

I can't believe y'all are still talking about this. There should be an award.

Hal Duncan

A quick point first:

You say that SF / Fantasy fans are more interested in world-building, in the ideas than the prose. As I've said, the concretised, unmoored metaphor (the conceit) is an integral aspect of the fantastic genres. Extrapolated out through the text, theorised with science or not, the fantastic reimagining of reality is at the core of what the book is saying and how it says it. Most any work by J.G. Ballard would be a good example. Peake's GORMENGHAST is, again, a prime example here. But you seem to be positing that genre focuses on this element to the detriment of the prose. I could throw that sweeping dismissal right back at you:

The thing is that, in my experience, most non-genre fans have little concern with the concrete metaphor or conceit.

Another way to put it is that there's a whole literary technique which contemporary realism excludes, and a readership who care little about the vast potential squandered... but do care about pretty sentences?

To flip some more of your ideas around:

Further, this is why "non-genre" writers who ARE concerned with those elements, such as Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore and so on, appeal deeply and widely to the genre market, why genre readers are drawn to them, why genre writers very often cite them as influences, and why those genre writers (choose to and are able to) sell their similary "literary non-realist" works as genre.

You complain about the attempt of SF and Fantasy fans to co-opt this or that literary writer to their canon, naming some of those above. You think the fans are doing this out of a defensive insecurity, a desire to gain literary credibilty. But the point remains that these writers are being named for a certain reason -- because their concern with particular aspects of the craft of writing, their interest in the fantastic, appeals to particular types of reader. The Beat writers, the Modernists, the post-Modernists, the Magic Realists and all manner of fantasists, fabulists and plain old weird-ass experimentalists have been popular amongst genre readers so long that a market for such "literary non-realism" is well and truly established within the genre, a more dynamic and cohesive market possibly than much that the literary world has to offer, where the dominance of contemporary realism means that small-f fantasists will always be marginalised. There are not just individual, exceptional writers but whole magazines, anthologies and publishing imprints which focus primarily on this type of fiction and form a significant facet of the genre as a whole. More conventional genre magazines, anthologies and publishing imprints continually publish fiction of this type, reflecting that facet of the genre. Result: there are writers like Kelly Link and Jeffrey Ford, who have published their work largely as genre, who are central to the genre, who I'd feel quite comfortable grouping with those writers above, both in terms of type and quality.

But you're not going to be convinced by my listing names, so you'll just have to go read Link and Ford if you so desire -- if you haven't already -- and, as you say, make your own mind up. I'm assuming here that you do appreciate Kafka, Calvino, et. al., and are neither entirely averse to the fantastic on principle nor prejudiced against a marketing label to the point of intransigence.

Anyway, this is a side-point to the main issue, since the focus of your dislike seems to be on another aspect of genre entirely. Your modification of "form" or "prose fiction" to "medium" brings this into focus, I'd say.

A book is not made genre by its level of engagement with its medium.

OK, it seems to me that you're talking "medium" in largely stylistic terms and I'm talking "form" in largely structural terms here -- which is to say, you're talking about engaging with "prose" as craft (sentential structure, semantic sets, syntax, rhythm, etc.) and I'm talking about engaging with "fiction" as craft (scene structure, character dynamics, plot, pacing, etc.). Actually, "narrative" would be a better word than "fiction" in this context.

Your complaint about the low-level craft ("bad prose" versus "good prose"), your example of rewriting Tolkien versus rewriting Joyce (but keeping the plot and background), your idea that in genre fiction "the plot and idea and world are what is important, not the prose" -- your whole argument pivots on this dichotomy between prose and narrative. But if "the plot and idea and world are what is important" in genre fiction, this is entirely at odds with the latter part of your statement that "most genre fans have little concern in the prose style or structure". You yourself are setting up a dichotomy between surface execution (prose) and underlying structure (plot, idea, world... narrative) and arguing that genre readers are concerned with the latter more than the former.

How then can you argue that this concern with plot, idea, world, pace, narrative drive, etc. is *not* a concern with structure... and therefore an engagement with the craft of fiction, an engagement with the form, with narrative?

It's like arguing that a punk band who deliberately set out to make rock songs in the classic three-minute format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle-eight, verse, chorus, and who prefer a simple line-up of singer, guitar, bass and drums, are not engaging with the medium. They may well be less concerned with intricate guitar licks, syncopation in the drum beats, the melodic skills or clever lyrics of the singer. That doesn't mean they're not deeply concerned with the craft of the "rock song". Actually, they're deeply concerned. The purity of structure, the raw and visceral drive achieved by disregarding executional polish and focusing on simple, tight structures -- that's what they're concerned with.

Again you contrast prose and narrative:

I could make a detailed short story outline and get two different writers to write it and we would end up with 2 different piles of words, yet the same plot and characters (for all practical purposes).

And one writer might write it straight from your outline, focusing on the polish of the prose, the social and domestic documentary detail, the effects of voice in creating plausible character(s), the reflexive comment, the tone. Another writer might say that your plot is thin, that your setting is irrelevant, that your first ten pages are throat-clearing, that your characters are dull, that their interactions are uninvolving, that your scene structure will make it drag in the middle, that there is no narrative drive and no sense of climax, closure or even resolution.

Assuming those two writers are entirely unconcerned with the other's views, they are nevertheless equally "engaged with the form". The priorities of each might well lead them to neglect the qualities prioritised by the other. And where readers subscribe to one aesthetic and reject another they will be responsive to one version and dismissive of the other. This dichotomy was historically and culturally self-evident in literature's divide into Romance and Novel. There are still remnants of it in the nominal divide between "genre" and "literary". This seems to be a divide you take for granted as an essentialist reality in statements like:

The problem is that said people are claiming, in this discussion, [Frankenstein] as SF against literary fiction.

No, actually. People are claiming FRANKENSTEIN as SF and literary fiction. Or at least, in my case, as genre (Gothic) and literary fiction. The idea that these are mutually exclusive, that "non-genre = literary = good", is the very assumption that's being challenged as a circular definition. Where I or others are actually arguing that a work can be both "genre" and "literary", you seem to be arguing on the basis that one sense of "literary" (high-brow, quality fiction) is interchangeable with another (non-genre, novelistic fiction). Hence -- hey presto -- by definition "genre" and "literary" are mutually exclusive and any particular work can only be considered one or the other.

This is really just a flat assertion that only non-genre fiction can be high quality or, to turn it around, that genre fiction is essentially lower quality. Still, cutting through any crap about high-brow or low-brow (fuzzy labels with too much classist baggage anyway), we at least seem to have nailed this down to a difference of focus on prose versus narrative. Since you're generalising about genre it seems to me fair to generalise the inverse in relation to non-genre. If genre works (and/or readers) focus on narrative at the expense of prose, then non-genre works (and/or readers) focus on prose at the expense of narrative.

To be a tad cheeky, one might turn your words around:

This is why film versions of non-genre books so frequently require radical revisions. The prose is what is important, not the plot and idea and world, so making the narrative work is hard. Again, there are exceptions, but generally this holds true.

Or to be more sweepingly dismissive:

The thing is that, in my experience, most non-genre fans have little concern with the narrative drive or structure.

Since we're speaking in generalities, this is just as fair as your dismissal. From my conversations with fans of non-genre, from my own reading of contemporary realist works, it is clear that narrative drive is not a priority, that loose rambling plots with little sense of direction and little sense of tension, where the concerns of characters are largely mundane and therefore banal, are acceptable as long as the prose is aesthetically appealing. This lack of concern amongst readers has clearly allowed mediocre writers to rise and dominate the genre of contemporary realism. Kelman's A DISAFFECTION strikes me as a perfect exemplar of this sort of mediocrity.

Further, this is why "non-genre" writers who ARE concerned with those elements, such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Glen David Gold, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and so on, often dabble in or draw on the literary methods and modes of genre fiction. This is why many of them, like Vonnegut, start out in genre fiction in the first place.

Thesis. Antithesis. Can we come to some sort of synthesis or do we have to agree to differ?

Back to the music metaphor...

In so far as your desire for "good prose" and lack of interest in "plot, world and idea" is an expression of personal taste, well, it doesn't bother me if you prefer the literary equivalent of big and complicated prog-rock epics which, to my mind, are bloated and pompous even though expertly played by musicians of great skill. It's no skin off my nose if you love all that twiddly guitar and widdly synth stuff, and recoil from the three-chord, three-minute blasts of energy I like, unable to get into them because "the musicians can't play their instruments for peanuts". I do think it's a shame you're missing out on those genre equivalents of punk bands who can play their instruments, that having heard a few of the more popular ones -- ones who have good songs but lack polish -- you've not been able to see what the big deal is, even on the level of song-construction. But again that's no real skin off my nose. I guess what I'm more concerned about is your advocacy of the idea (as it seems to me) that this lack of polish is systematic, like you're saying the best punk band could never be as good as a prog band, because punk (with a few rare exceptions) will always be hamstrung by its intrinsic faults, whereas your favoured prog, being the standard against which all rock should be measured, is a higher art form. This analogy seems to map quite closely to your opinion with regards to genre and non-genre fiction.

Anyway, I beg to differ. I could argue that quality of prose is a superficial basis on which to judge a work, and that those who neglect narrative craftsmanship in favour of slick sentences are applying a rather shallow aesthetic, but in truth I think it's up to the individual if they forgive such narrative slackness. If it's ponderous, bloated, self-important, neurotic, meandering, "good prose" you're looking for -- hey, so be it.

What I would argue is that the dichotomy itself is superficial, that just as there are plenty of genre writers who are actually concerned with tight prose, there are plenty of non-genre writers who are actually concerned with tight narrative. The same goes for readers. Just as there are genre readers who find it hard to read a work without at least serviceable prose (As a prose junky myself, I find Tolkien turgid beyond words, for example, utterly unreadable), there are non-genre readers who find it hard to read a work without at least serviceable narrative. The big difference is that where one subset of self-identifying genre "fanatics" who don't much care for prose are largely notable by their over-zealous positivity as regards their own tastes, the subset of non-genre "afficionados" who don't much care for narrative are made notable by their over-zealous negativity as regards the tastes of others.

If the former are harmful, allowing mediocre prose to survive and flourish in genre under their patronage, the latter are even worse, allowing mediocre narrative to survive and flourish outside genre under their patronage, AND simultaneously devaluing narrative so as to inflate the value of prose. Because snorting prose is what the classy people do, right? It's only the scum that mainline narrative. Man, this "Grownupland" of "literary" fiction is a tall and unstable ivory tower. The bricks aren't being kicked out from under it; they're crumbling under the weight of the big fat egos sat at the top, spitting at the peasants down below who want solid ground rather than refined hot air.

This is the real reason, I'd say, why YA is booming, why literary writers like Chabon, Lethem, Mitchell and Roth are turning to genre methods and modes, why an SF novel like THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE can be and is sold as general fiction rather than genre. There's a demand for something... something that wasn't / isn't being supplied by "literary" fiction, something that these types of writing do supply. Is it happy endings the readers are looking for? Nah. They just want endings, period. Beginnings, middles and endings, and maybe not in that order, but at least discernable as such. They want narrative, the sort of tight, focused narrative drive you get in genre, and not at the expense of polished, interesting prose, but with it. If they're turning to the genres or YA to get narrative, what does this tell you about its availability outside these sections? If kids are suddenly reading again because of YA Fantasy series like HARRY POTTER or HIS DARK MATERIALS, what does that tell you about keeping the reader's attention? If adults are picking up these books after not having read a novel in years, what does that tell you about the dismal state of a "Grownupland" that's managed to bore people away from reading over the last few decades? If new writers are increasingly bringing genre qualities over into works sold as general fiction, and finding an eager market, what does this tell you about the vacuum they're filling?

What's happening is not a lowering of the bar in terms of reader taste. It's a heightening of the bar in terms of narrative drive. Looks to me like what's happening is that the genre of contemporary realism has done exactly what you accuse genre of but in reverse -- it's allowed mediocre writers to rise and dominate the field on the basis of polished prose (because a good grasp of tone can be sufficient to give that all-important sense of inner conflict and resolution, the similitude of plot) -- and now readers are willing to risk being sneered at for their "poor taste" in reading genre or YA... if it at least means they'll get a decent narrative.

Personally, I can't wait to see what weird new forms are built out of the wreckage of that ivory tower by the generation of Modernist mutants who've been hanging in the genre ghettos for the last fifty years, partying with the inhabitants, and watching that paper-thin structure sway in the breeze. If you think living in the genre ghetto invariably means being swamped among the untermensch of narrative junkies and subsisting only on the mediocre prose they hand out in the soup kitchens, consider that as far as we're concerned the alternative might well be seen as a cocktail party of self-styled ubermensch, snorting prose and nibbling on the flimsy narrative hors-de-ouvres handed out by obsequious serving staff.

Truth is, we've had delicatessens in the ghettos for decades, and gastro pubs selling gourmet cuisine to the hipsters. Hell, we've got opium dens dealing prose that will get you truly whacked out. Have you tried the DALGHREN I was talking about? Or how about some fresh Lucius Shepard? Or just ask Matt Cheney over at The Mumpsimus what's good, and tell him I sent ya. You may have walked a few blocks in, seen a few of the most popular tourist spots -- Gaiman's Cafe, Le Guin's Bar And Grill -- and a few of the old run-down greasy spoons (and, man, I wouldn't let my dog eat at Tolkien's Trattoria)... but you have to check out the centre and the side-streets around it, and not be spooked into flight by the wildlife, weird as we may seem at times.

Or don't. It's your loss and our gain.

See, you have to bear in mind that we're thieving gypo scum who like to ramraid the kitchens of that ivory tower at every opportunity. We can gate-crash those parties if we want, steal the hors-de-ouvres narratives, snort more than our fair share of prose, check out what's hot and what's not, noise up the nobs when they start sounding off about the genre yobs below, and head back home with new recipes for our soul food cafes. Not all of us do. There's many who're happy just to flip their patties and serve up the same old burger plots and beery sentences. But there's a huge, dynamic culture devoted to the druggy delights of prose and the gastronomic glories of narrative, and those of us in that scene, we've tasted the best fixes and the best food of the genre and the literary worlds alike, learned from the best of both worlds, and set out to better them. If the "literary" writers don't know the best the genre world has to offer -- either because they never thought to look, or because, like you, a few bum steers led to a hasty retreat and a firm distrust -- then they're weakened in the long term.

I can't say it won't be funny to see their faces as they're brushed to the side, and the Nobel is given to a genre writer for the first time to much shock and horror. But then I'm cruel that way.

elyse

um, i'm coming into this conversation very late i know, but i wanted to say a couple of things and i hope you'll all be gentle with responses since i'm new here. a co-worker pointed me to this blog and after reading for a little while i felt compelled to jump in. i'm actually studying to be a young adult librarian right now and in my opinion the dismissal of young adult literature as "fluffy" is common and the reason why writers and readers of young adult literature take it personally is because it is so false! (i'm not really speaking to the original post here, as this point has been clarified.) and most of us who work with young adults have to endure questions like "are you just a YA librarian until you can be a real librarian?" no, i'm a young adult librarian because i enjoy working with young adults. just as YA authors don't write YA novels until they can move onto "real" novels. they write for YA's because they want to (at least i hope that's why they're writing).

if you want some contemporary examples of YA fiction that stands the test of time, i point you to "the chocolate war" by robert cormier, there is nothing fluffy about this and if you want a happy ending move along my friend. there's also "the giver" by lois lowry, this is actually marketed/categorized more as children's or juvenile fiction, but again it is a novel with deep themes that makes you look at the world around you with new eyes. finally a very recent example of an amazing YA novel would be "speak" by laurie halse anderson, this may be (along with "the perks of being a wallflower" by chbosky which was marketed to adults) the best example of a writer capturing "YA voice". which leads me to what my definition of young adult literature is.

i think it is any novel that is either about a young adult or speaks to the young adult experience, yes "to kill a mockingbird" is about a very young protagonist, but the experiences that scout goes through speak to young adults and that is why it has become a young adult classic. merely writing about a young adult doesn't mean you're writing a young adult novel either. there is a subtlety and conscientiousness to good young adult writing.

finally, confusion about what age ranges constitute "young adult" isn't surprising, there are so many theories running around that it's wide open to debate. some believe that it is ages 12-18, but others believe that if you look at young adulthood as the time between puberty and adulthood (or when your brain has finished growing) then the age range jumps from 10 year olds all the way to 25 year olds since scientists have begun to think that your hormones are still pretty actively changing your body and mind until then.

oh my, i just previewed this and it got rather long, appologies for that. also i'm not going to get into the whole genre fiction debate but a good book for learning about different genres and their "characteristics" is "genreflecting" by diana tixier herald, it was the textbook for a reader's advisory class i just finished.

Suzie Diaz

The world of YA books seems the same as the adult world of books - - the shelf’s just smaller.

These are books of all genres that will likely appeal to young readers . . . and even as a kid the genre differences within this section of the library seemed obvious to me:

Christopher Pike / R. L. Stein = Horror
Baby Sitter’s Club, etc = Chick Lit
Sweet Valley High, etc = Romance
A Wrinkle in Time, Feed, etc = Sci Fi
Nancy Drew / Encyclopedia Brown = Mystery

. . . these books followed or challenged their genre rules & modes in much the same way the good books in the adult sections do.

And then there were other sorts of YA books. Ones that would fall under the group / genre of Literary Fiction. For me these were books like The Year of the Gopher, The Girl in the Box, I Am the Cheese, Girl, Interrupted, or The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys - - like any bookish kid, I could go on and on.

Part of what I think makes this conversation difficult and circular is that one bookstore shelf of YA books encompasses all of the familiar adult genres, including Literary Fiction. Calling YA lit its own genre and then pitting it against Literary Fiction seems wrong to me - - these books are not categorized by genre as we understand it, they are categorized by something else less clear-cut: (likely) age of readers.

(As was pointed out, Comic Books / Graphic Novels seem to fall prey to this same kind of thing - - categorized by something other than genre. But of course they span all the topics, moods, styles, levels of difficulty & accessibility, and subject matter that the rest of the bookstore does, in the same way that YA books do: all on the same shelf.)

What’s interesting to me is that there’s this perceived lack-of-respect amongst YA librarians, adult readers of YA work, and authors of YA work, when bizarrely in today’s Literary World it seems like the best thing possible is to be a young author of adult work about young protagonists - - hence Mirsha Pessel, J. T. LeRoy, Nell Freudenberger, Jonathan Safron Foer, Zadie Smith, Curtis Sittenfeld, etc. Since the likely age of readers is adult, these works are all lauded - - they're not happy endings, necessarily, but they're not Grownupland, either.

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."