05 September 2006

A Prolegomenon to the Reading of Some Books Labeled YA

Sometime in the coming months, I hope to read four new novels that are, as far as I can tell, being marketed as Young Adult Literature. This is purely for my own pleasure and edification, because YA is a realm a lot of people have been praising as full of interesting interests, and at the very least I always need some good books to recommend to students who say they don't like reading. (My recommendation of War and Peace has not been well received.)

There has been a lot of talk about YA and genres and ghettos and such at The Elegant Variation, and this made me remember my pledge to read some YA this year. Unfortunately, I've pledged to read all sorts of things this year, and have also just returned to work full-time after a year's sabbatical, and have a masters thesis that needs some major progress to happen to it soon, soon, soon, and--

But, I am persistent and try to do what I say I'll do, and I really do want to read these books, because I think it will be fun, and fun is something we all need. I am not trying to make some sort of judgment on the whole YA phenomenon or anything like that, but rather to read four books that are being aimed at mostly the same audience, and see what sticks out to me. My greatest hope is that I'll love all four and want to exhort the world to read them immediately.

When reading, much of how the reader feels at the end depends on the expectations the reader had at the beginning. For instance, the last time I read some YA novels I did so because somebody had told me that they were stylistically and structurally complex, they were subversive, they were x, y, z. In some ways they were, but mostly they felt thin to me, a bit tricksy, a bit too desperate to be the kind of thing a kid might find cool. I was put off. I was annoyed. I was the wrong audience for these books, and I'd gone in with expectations they could not possibly meet. I do not have the kind of brain that can say whether a kid will love a book or not; I am often surprised to find my students love books I thought they'd find boring and hate ones I thought they'd have to pry their eyes away from. In some ways, this makes me the worst possible person to read YA novels, because there's something within my way of gaining pleasure and insight from fiction that is vastly different from the way teenagers gain pleasure and insight from fiction. (And yes, I know there's something in my way of gaining pleasure and insight from fiction that is vastly different from the way everybody gains pleasure and insight from fiction, you don't have to remind me of that...) This time, then, I'm going in with no expectations except to see what's up with these books, and to have as open a mind as possible, the same kind of mind that allowed me to read the first four Harry Potter books with a superficial pleasure -- my expectations were so low as to be almost nonexistent, and though I remember next to nothing of the books, reading them was an enjoyable way to kill some time.

I have not mentioned the books. They are: The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven, A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson. I mention them now because I'm thinking of it and to give a good start to anybody who wants to read them as well so so as to be able to argue with whatever I happen to say about them. I expect to begin in the next few weeks, and to finish, I hope, by the end of the year. We shall see...

Meanwhile, Jenny Davidson points to a review by Frank Kermode wherein he says:
In fact [Andrew] Motion sets himself a virtually impossible task: an adult writer is setting down what he imagines to be the thoughts and observations of a teenage boy who is, in turn, remembering and reflecting on his earlier life. This complicates a problem that would exist even if there were only two, not three, Motions involved in the business. It is impossible to imagine what an account of childhood 'without benefit of hindsight' might be like, unless it resembled Joyce’s attempts in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist.

The imagined speaker in this book reflects soberly that whereas the childhood of others ends slowly, in fits and starts, his has ended 'suddenly. In a day.' Not, surely, a child’s observation; and neither is this: 'I don’t want to talk about it in grown-up language I haven’t learned yet.' Of course that is what he does and has to do, with some effect of falsity. The voice is inevitably the voice of the artist: someone 'made a face' or 'lit another cigarette and dotted the ash into the blue glass ashtray' or clasped and unclasped her hands. When a lamp 'buzzes', or the boy kicks aside a mistletoe berry or a yew berry (feared as poisonous), we must assume the adult writer’s imagination is pretending to be the teenager’s memory. Perhaps there are moments when the man has remembered his childish language, betrayed by his fondness for such words as 'wriggle', 'slither' and 'squish'. But mostly I think we understand that the grown man is doing the talking and thinking, sometimes with slightly uncomfortable results.
I am drawn to both agree and disagree with this objection in general -- agree, because I, too, have had the experience of reading books where the attempt to capture a child's impressions and ideas seemed strained and even embarrassing; disagree, because most successful fiction creates a voice that is entirely artificial, and yet, through its artifice, persuades us -- misdirects us -- to swear it's real and convincing and verily verisimilitudinous. The problem, if there is a problem, would not be with Motion's failure to create a true representation of how he would have written the book were he a child, anymore but rather it is a failure to find an idiom that distracts the reader from the actual writer's adulthood. Joyce's opening pages of Portrait are extraordinary not because a child would have written them that way, but because they accomplish all the adult writer seemed to be aiming for (in terms of how those pages relate to the book as a whole; the structural accomplishment of an adult) while also creating strangely lovely sentences that make us, the adult readers, immediately recognize the voice as that of a young child. As Stephen grows older in the following pages, the diction and observations follow, but there is still a tremendous artifice to the whole endeavor, and when I read the first fifty pages or so of Portrait, I am always aware of the author behind the words, because the presentation is breathtaking. Truly great art is art that draws attention to itself because it is a virtuoso performance, and we revel in the performer's ability to accomplish what we ordinary people cannot.

(I'm not sure this has any connection with the first part of this post, but perhaps I will figure out a connection later, once the reading has begun.)