June 23, 2011

With friends like these...

I know they're just promoting their book the best they can, but this breezy "how to write YA" article in Slate still irritates. The tone and attitude reminds me of many conversations I've had with "literary" writers, in which they dispense wisdom on how much easier it must be to write "a YA" and how it must be nice not to have to worry so much about the writing.

"I've been meaning to do one," one writer of "literary" fiction once told me, when the subject of YA novels came up. "Just for a break, something easy for a change. Get in on some of that Twilight money, too, am I right?"

"Yes," I replied. "You should totally do one. In fact, in the YA world, we have an in-house term for teen fiction: EASY MONEY." Then I added that any writing is hard, to which her response was to try as hard as she could to resist patting me on the head.

I mean, the whole conversation was breezy and jokey and good-natured just like the Slate article. The "we're only in it for the money" bravado is a form of self-deprecation at bottom (Frank Zappa didn't mean it either, really.) However, the notion that their teen fiction is dumbed down, simpler, less complex, and less "real" than their other work appears to be quite genuine. And it may well be true. In fact, it probably will prove to be true, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, because it's just not an attitude or an approach that is likely to yield a great book. If you're going to spend all that time and self-torture writing a novel (and don't kid yourself, it takes both, even to write an EASY MONEY novel) you'd better be prepared, at least, to mean it. If you don't, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to spend the time and torture it will take to read it. You've got to respect your readers if you want them to care.

As for these ladies, I'm not saying they do or they don't. They're winking, joking, self-deprecating adults talking among themselves. This commentary is not intended for their readers, who are curiously left out of the loop in so much writing about the writing when it comes to teen fiction. I'm sure they put lots of work into making their book the best book it could be, and it may well be great. But speaking of, does this sound like something you'd like to read:

Writing Y.A. as an adult is a chance to rewrite being a teenager. Our series […] is, in some ways, the high-school experience we never had, where everyone is witty and good-looking and their problems are more like, "My evil grandmother is torturing my dead mom's soul!" rather than, "I have a lot of zits." It's an opportunity to relive high school in a more perfect manner. Who doesn't want to be 16 and living in a mansion? And hooking up with the hot guy? And having super hoodoo powers? It's totally normal.
I wish them well, of course. (And I really hope no one starts an earnest #YA-readers-do-too-care-about-rumination campaign on twitter. I mean, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't, just like people do with your grown-up books.)

correction: I assumed both authors were women, but it turns out one is a dude.

They're taking quite a drubbing in the Slate comments, to my slight surprise.

Posted by Dr. Frank at June 23, 2011 07:56 PM | TrackBack

I'm really interested in what you would designate as YA? It seems like the "genre" itself has some fairly superficial criteria, marketing-wise. But it sounds like you have other criteria, content-of-book-wise, other than just "books about young people."

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at June 23, 2011 08:44 PM

The article irritated me as well. Who only writes two or three drafts of a chapter in YA? I often write ten or twelve. And who doesn't care about rumination, about poring over sentences and turns of phrases? Everyone I know who writes YA cares very much about these things. Sad to see so little respect for young adult literature yet once again.

Posted by: Loretta Ellsworth at June 23, 2011 08:54 PM

It's not a genre, in my view, but rather a marketing category that comprises many genres. But beyond the marketing category, it is a literary tradition, going back at least as far as Huckelberry Finn. "About young people" is a good enough criterion, but what makes a novel a part of the main line of the tradition is an attempt to show the world from the point of view and through the voice of a teenager. That's how I see it, anyway.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at June 23, 2011 08:57 PM

I'm not saying this to kiss your ass in any way, shape, or form, but I thought King Dork had one of the most distinctive voices I've read in years. And I'm a big reader, literary and otherwise. Frankly, a lot of those "literary" novels that are so "hard to write" can be pretty tough to tell apart from one another. Not to mention the fact that reading about Baby Boomers struggling with whether to get divorced to seek fulfillment can get old.

Posted by: Michael Schein at June 23, 2011 09:48 PM

This article is a bunch of malarkey! I'm no writer, but idea that writing decent YA is easy is ridiculous. YA authors are writing to an audience who, in large part, haven't decided if they even enjoy reading yet. They also have to write in a voice that YA readers connect with. (Which might as well be a foreign language to many authors.)

Posted by: Macky Cheerleader at June 23, 2011 09:52 PM

This attitude was prevalent even back in the Fifties when Robert Heinlein wrote his juveniles, through so man other YA writings of the sixties, of which I'm particularly aware of sf/fantasy examples, including Robert Silverberg, Andre Norton, Lester del Rey (who farmed his YA contracts out to others), and these days you should talk to Jane Yolen.

Posted by: Gary Farber at June 25, 2011 10:21 PM