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.)


  1. You might want to check out this thread I started on NightShade: http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/378/6901.html?1157485265

  2. Conversely, I'm reading RUMO by Walter Moers and enjoying it immensely. It's, I feel, children's lit. for adults. Moers seems to have an adult audience in mind, but delightfully playful sensibilities. A bit like Douglas Adams channeling Stepan Chapman or something. Really good stuff.


  3. While I've read things from a YA perspective that *do* feel imposed, it is, as you say, a matter of the contextualising... people used to argue the same thing about Dawson's Creek, and, whether you like the show or not, I always thought it was kinda missing the point... verisimmilitude and believability don't have to be the same thing...

    I must admit the quoted passage above confused me... how in the world is someone "making a face" an imposition of the adult writer? I was aware of that phrase in about grade two! Or a lamp buzzing?! By saying that teenagers are incapable of thinking beyond things squishing the author underestimates YA readers by about ten years, I think...

  4. I think you might be overestimating the need for expectation management a little, or at least, you seem to be implying that it implies more to YA than to other literature, and I'm not sure that necessarily follows. Will be interested on your thoughts on the Anderson in particular, since I've been meaning to read something by [him|her] for a while.

    On the creation of childish voice -- have you read The Accidental by Ali Smith yet? I think one of the characters in that is a brilliant example of the type.

  5. I had the same quizzical feeling you did, Ben, with Kermode's examples -- and we could easily pull phrases from A Portrait of the Artist that don't seem particularly different in their "adultness" or whatever. (I cite that simply because Kermode held it up as an exemplar.) I should clarify, though, that Kermode was writing about a memoirist attempting (apparently) to express his child-self via his adult-self, so he wasn't writing YA per se.

    As for reader expectation, if I seemed to be generalizing far beyond my own experience, I don't mean to. I think reader expectation can play a large part in how a text is experienced, but I don't think any one particular type of writing has more claim to that than another, simply because there are more readers, and so more possibility for variability, than there are types of writing. (So far. Until the taxonomists manage to finally determine not only that every piece of writing inhabits its own particular label, but that every reader brings a unique label to every piece of writing.) My own experience of YA has been one of having what now seem to me unreasonable expectations for a broad group of novels that, beyond being novels written in English, had little more than marketing in common. Those expectations affected a lot of how I approached the books, and not, in hindsight, in a fair way.

    Haven't read The Accidental yet, though I did try to get it from the library a couple months ago (it was out). At this point, I'm not going to have time until January or February, alas, though I very much want to read it.

  6. I'm interested to see what you think of Black Tattoo. I had hoped to include it in my column at Bookslut but was disappointed and elected not to review it. Too many cliches for me - but that's just me and I look forward to your thoughts.

    I also have Drowned Maiden's Hair on deck although I don't think I'll get to it for another month or so.

    One recent YA book I did love is Here There Be Dragons by James Owen. If you want to read a great adventure story when you are done with this, be sure to grab it.

  7. I just realized a very simple reason why I don't read much young or young adult literature. Because I have the perception that most of it features children or teens as the protagonists. And I really don't like reading books with children or teens as protagonists. Just a personal, subjective thing. It doesn't mean I don't think YA, etc., can't be literature.

    So, is my perception wrong? And if so, any recommendations? (And I don't say Lanagan--already read her.)


  8. Jeff:

    Read "Here There Be Dragons" by James Owen. Only one of the characters is a teenager - the others are all grown men and women. James isn't sure why S&S felt it would sell better to YAs then adults, but that's the the direction they are going in. I reviewed it this month in my YA Column at Bookslut. It's a great adventure story and will appeal particularly to SFF fans (you'll understand why when you start reading).

    I also just finished "Bloodlines" by Kate Carey for my October column. It's an update on the Dracula myth - it begins in the trenches during WWI. There are no teens at all in this book (the main character is 20 and a soldier as the story begins). If you like Dracula then you will really enjoy it - quite gritty and dark and a solid read. (There are no sexy vamps in black leather here!)

  9. If you're interested in the creation of an adolescent voice, Matt, you might want to read David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, unless you already have. It could almost be YA, and Mitchell's use of metaphor is particularly unusual as means of building voice: often deliberately clunky or trite to show the uneven development of Jason's adolescent poetic voice.