February 04, 2006

Can't Explain

Oliver Kamm writes amusingly in the Times about the responses from a handful of celebrated authors asked by Britain's Royal Society of Literature to name their top ten recommended books for children.

It is true that there's something funny about Andrew Motion's inclusion of Ulysses and The Waste Land on his list. Though speaking from experience I'd have to say he's right: the most painless way to enjoyment and understanding of Ulysses as a teen or "young adult" or old adult is certainly to approach it as an ironic, half-crazed commentary on The Odyssey (which of course it is.) And the Odyssey is great fun at any age. Still, you need to work up to that sort of thing. It can be done. But I doubt it is done very often.

Of course, you need to define "children" when you think about this question. I've been thinking about it a bit myself lately for obvious reasons. The reason for the crazy array of subdivisions and terms in "children's publishing" (young readers, young adult, older teens, etc.) is that we're not sure as a culture what an "adult" is exactly, and increasingly things slip through the cracks in the category structure. But people have always crossed that line flagrantly. Do you stop reading such books when you reach adulthood, whenever or whatever that is? For me, and for many, the answer to that is no, of course not. A good book is a good book. You return to, and commend to others, the ones that are great, regardless of the "market" they were slated for.

My book is in the tradition (and I believe it's quite a grand one - I've loved it practically all my life) of the Young Adult Novel. It is a YA novel. I've noticed a tendency to shy away, or equivocate, about this "label" on the part of authors; hey, man don't put your labels on me! I understand why. It's because every time you tell someone you've written a young adult novel, they say something like "oh how precious! Do you plan to write a real novel someday?" You can tell them it is a real novel, and they will give you that indulgent "sure it is" look. You get the same thing with punk rock, or rather, I do. ("Oh, pop punk. That's neat. Must be moving along now, I've got more serious matters to attend to..." "Don't you want to check out my lyrics or something?" "Yes, I'm sure they're very nice...") But I think it's important to stand up for it, not shy away. That's what it is, and there's nothing wrong with it.

The parallel between the YA novel and rock and roll goes deeper than the mere fact that people make annoying comments when they find out you're of a certain age and involved with either of them. Rock and roll music is teenage music if it is anything, yet it doesn't have a strict expiration date. People of all ages write rock and roll songs, and people of all ages like them. The themes of teen angst, frustration, confusion, heartbroken-ness, as well as the joy of being in love or horny or simply being alive and moving around (as well as the torture of being in love or horny or simply being alive and moving around, let's be honest) never, or so it seems, "wear out." Then there's also this cool thing that happens where every rock and roll song that is written exists on its own, but is at the same time a celebration of and commentary on all the rock and roll songs that have gone before it. Sometimes this can be very specific, deliberate, ironic ("Come Back Jonee" refers to "Johnny B. Goode," "Flower Punk" to "Hey Joe," etc.) Sometimes it's fuzzier and more abstruse, sometimes it's simply a matter of restating a sincere, powerful sentiment. That's what "in the tradition of" ultimately means. We keep listening to, and re-writing and re-writing, "Can't Explain," and it's always worth doing, because no matter how old you get, it's still hard to explain stuff. Trust me on that one.

It's the same with YA novels. There is a great tradition of novels that explore the experience of teenage-hood. Books "in the tradition" of the YA novel do that referential-commentary thing as well, and in much the same way. Mine, like many, very literally and directly does it with The Catcher in the Rye and other "classics" of teenage lit; but it also does it in less direct ways. I mean you see traces of The Chocolate War in a great many YA books, even when they're not literally referring to it. At any rate, such books resonate because they discuss something real and powerful (and frequently hilarious) that everyone has gone through in some form, and that everyone will likely continue to go through. People who claim they have "outgrown" such novels (or music) can't really have understood them very well in the first place, as far as I can see.

This paradox was brought home to me vividly when we were trying to get blurbs for King Dork. One of the people we approached was Chuck Klosterman. Now this is a man who has built a literary career on being a commentator on and "appreciator" of rock and roll music. Yet his reaction to being asked to blurb a YA novel was along the lines of "YA? Why did they send this to me? Be serious..." There's something distinctly odd about loving "teen music," but rejecting "teen books" as unworthy of serious attention. As I've said before, if you applied this standard to music, you'd have to stop listening to "Can't Explain" or "You Really Got Me" as soon as you reach drinking age. But you don't because they're great; and because someone is always gonna really get you and you still won't be able to explain it.

To return to the article, though, the funniest part to me was the bit about the authors who, in the tradition of (as the saying goes) people in gifted students programs everywhere, responded to the question by disputing the premise of the assignment instead of doing it. "Read the world" instead of books, says one. "It is the most mysterious book of all." I bet she got all A's for that kind of thing in school. Of course, I disagree that people should not read books. What an insane thing for an author to suggest! But I'm with her on the mysterious part. Quite.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 4, 2006 03:22 PM | TrackBack

Good luck with that whole punk thing...

Posted by: Bill at February 4, 2006 03:49 PM

Ha! Bill, I had almost forgotten that little.. incident! Yeah, I hope that whole punk thing is working out for you, too...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 4, 2006 03:57 PM

Frank, I am still reading the book (I like to savor things, that's the only reason - it is fast-moving and a page-turner for sure)but I have to say I don't agree that it's a Young Adult novel. I don't know what you want to "give away" at this point, but one of the bands is called "BALLS DEEP" and one of the main characters is nonchalantly described as a pillhead. I love it. However, I don't see this catching on with the school Marms who decide whether or not something is pushed on the Young Adult crowd or not. Plus, I think the humor is just too advanced for some 13-year-old kid. When I am done with my copy, I'm sending it to my 14-year-old nephew. He's not particularly bright or "cool", just like a regular teenager. I want to see what he thinks of it. (I'll donate 16.99 to your paypal account) Maybe I'm selling that age bracket short. Regardless of the eventual market, I do predict this book is going to be HUGE. I think the cover will play a big role in that, so far the pages contain *exactly* what someone intrigued by that cover would want to read.
When I do my proper review I will send you a copy as well as the two to your publishers. It's gonna be nice to review an actual book this time, in the current issue I chose "Yours Truly", a fictious James Frey novel that we said was coming out in June. The made-up excerpt is killer! Don't worry, though, I will make it clear it in your review that it is for an actual book.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 4, 2006 05:39 PM

I'm going to remember this essay when my middle grade novel comes out, and I tell people what I do at parties. You are the wind beneath my wings.
The comparison you draw between teen books and music couldn't be more on the money. I think a similar thing happens in cinema. Movies, particularly genre movies, can be written to target the "reading level" of a teen or pre-teen, and go on to gather an audience of all ages (Spider-Man, The Incredibles, Lord of the Rings, etc.) but the same forty-year-olds who go to see Spider-Man at the multiplex wouldn't think to pick up a comic or a YA book. Instead I suspect a lot of them don't read at all, rather than try to slog through Ulysses, or suffer the embarrassment of reading Harry Potter on the subway.

Posted by: Adam at February 4, 2006 11:56 PM

A lot of very interesting points.

Chuck Klosterman seems like a real jerk.

"'Read the world" instead of books, says one. "It is the most mysterious book of all.' I bet she got all A's for that kind of thing in school."

The article says that was Ben Okri, ya sexist pig.

Posted by: josh at February 6, 2006 01:26 PM

It will be a dark, dark day when I outgrow children's books. Kids won't put up with much bs in their books and that leads to some really fine literature.

Posted by: jess at February 7, 2006 05:50 PM

I think sir, you've hit the nail on the head.

Looking forward to reading your YA novel.

Maybe we should start an indie/punk ya/author crossover club. I think one blends into the other nicely. (although I am in "retirement" right now)

If you are in San Fran on 2/22 come and say hello. You should know about Not Your Mother's Book Club there anyway.

Posted by: cecil at February 8, 2006 12:38 AM