Thursday, July 24, 2008

Writing and categories

The Margo Rabb piece in the New York times has engendered a lot of interesting discussion, but I'm a little uncomfortable with the degree to which writers are allowing the book business's categories to dictate their conception of a book's worth. Obviously, I believe in young adult fiction as a category in a certain extent. I believe it's a useful way to corral certain books in a bookstore or library, and I believe that, as a genre, it provides a useful rough set of boundaries. And that's all, really. Artistic achievement and the writer's craft are completely separate from this.

I quipped in an email to a colleague that "the book industry screws artists in lots of ways, but I’m beginning to think the greatest crime it’s perpetrated is forcing writers to accept its convenient marketing categories as meaningful to the value of their work."

Actually, I think it takes two to perpetrate this particular travesty. Novelists have to take the categories seriously. I will acknowledge that it would require a naive view of human nature to expect authors to be completely uninterested in how their publishers and readers categorize their work, but I think it takes a similarly naive view of the history of the novel itself to get overly involved in the fine points of contemporary commercial characterization of their work. A novelist's contemporaries are often extraordinarily bad judges of what a novel is. From its birth, the novel--especially in English--was seen as a trivial, second class form. Most novel writing was popular, disposable entertainment. Even into the 20th century, the book business proved wildly inconsistent in its initial characterization of books, from their content to their permanence, sometimes to the author's financial advantage.

Many of my authors know that Nabokov is my go-to example for a lot of things, and this is no exception. The first American editors to read Lolita in manuscript were sure they and the author would go to jail if the book were published. Their attitudes only softened slightly after the book was released by a French publisher with a reputation for erotica (a certain court ruling also helped).

An article in the Boston Globe by Harvard Prof. Leland de la Durantaye from three years ago sums it up nicely:
'Lolita appeared in two pale green volumes from the Paris-based Olympia Press in September 1955. Few readers took notice of the foreign publication until December, when Graham Greene, writing in the London Sunday Times, included the book by the virtually unknown Nabokov in his list of the three best he had read that year. John Gordon, a conservative Scottish editor, examined the unexpected entry in Graham's list and shortly thereafter denounced it in the Sunday Express as "the filthiest book I have ever read," adding that it was "sheer unrestrained pornography." Sales soared, interest increased, and when, after much fearful hesitation on the part of publishers, the work was published in an American edition in 1958, it spent six months as No. 1 on the bestseller charts.'

So, which was more important to the book's success? It's legitimization by Greene or its vilification by Gordon. Or both? I tend to think the controversy--is it art, is it porn?--was the important factor. Nabokov, who outwardly scorned concerning himself with an audience any larger than his one ideal reader, seems to have been reasonably and pragmatically content to tolerate the mischaracterization and occasional abuse (see movie tie-in cover) of his book in the popular imagination, as long as a core of readers (eventually a very, very large core) understood its genius, and as long as he was comfortably compensated for that popular success (which he was, Lolita the book and movie that followed allowed him to quit teaching and live comfortably in Montreux, Switzerland for the rest of his life).

I can't guarantee anyone caught up in the is-it-YA,is-it-adult? controversies a comfortable existence in a Swiss hotel, but I'm having a hard time seeing how it's a bad thing.


A.S. King said...

Most of the YA authors I know have no worth-issues in this sense, and just write books.

But here's the most recent general public comment I've got about YA books. A well-meaning woman who knew I was a writer, says, upon understanding that DUST is a young adult novel, "Oooh! You write *kids* books! I thought you wrote - uh - you know - *real* books!" She moved her hands, to show me the shape and size of a 'real' book, and muttered something about beach reading. She really didn't mean anything harsh by it. She was struggling to have a conversation with me about something she knows little about.

I've had similarly odd things said to me about chicken breeding, or the circus, and other jobs I've had. Fact is, a large majority of the general public has no idea how most businesses work. Don't know where milk comes from. Don't know why or how the light goes on when they flick their light switch.

I think you're right, though - that the controversy is probably a good thing for authors.

I've learned a lot about the YA community and category since landing here at Flux. Before then, I knew very little. Frankly, I think it's a superior genre in many ways for me, because it has this great angsty energy built-in due to this very subject. This energy fits the types of books I like to write, which is why I've continued to write YA books.

This article really has ruffled feathers! All the better for us, I say.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I agree completely- I see no way that this discussion can do anything but provoke readers who might otherwise pass by YA fiction without even checking out the back covers-- to stop by & see what it's all about.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!