October 31, 2014

Forget the Marketing

Came across this article by Sarah Burnes in the Paris Review via Bookshelves of Doom's roundup of recent YA "thinkpieces".

Though I obviously agree with the basic thrust of the classic "don't feel bad about reading/writing teen fiction" essay, and while I have a lot to say about this topic myself, most such essays say the same basic thing as all the others. This, however, is something I haven't seen expressed in quite this way before:

The binary between children’s and adult fiction is a false one, based on a limited conception of the self. I have not ceased to be the person I was when I was an adolescent; in fact, to think so seems to me like a kind of dissociation from a crucial aspect of one’s self. And the critic should be concerned with what is good and what is bad, what is art and what is not—not with what’s “appropriate.”
She ends with the familiar quotation from C.S. Lewis about how "putting away childish things" when it comes to literature should properly include putting away the childish thing of putting away childish things. This is well-put, and I agree with it very much.

It's not just "the critic" who would benefit from a larger, more inclusive notion of "the self" when it comes to assessing the place within one's intellectual world of childhood and adolescent experiences and the books that treat of them. The derailment she points out is prevalent wherever YA books are discussed, not just in formal criticism. I'll quote myself:

Publishers will "aim" [a book] at this or that market, and marketing terms like "YA" or "literary fiction" are most useful when the topic is marketing. But to ask whether or not a given book truly lives up to or fulfills the promise of its marketing category, or to wonder whether its audience is fulfilling its most proper role in the hierarchy of this "aiming" -- those are just about the least interesting questions that can be asked about a book. The answers are negligible. That they dominate "serious" discussion of books these days is both funny and sad.
Think of any great novel you've read, A Confederacy of Dunces, Jude the Obscure, The Code of the Woosters, Black Swan Green... whatever you like. Would you say, of any of these, "you know, I'm having trouble understanding whom this book is supposed to be aimed at, and whether or not I am technically a member of that demographic, and whether the aimed demographic is really going to buy it like the publisher hopes it will..." No, you read them as novels, and you take from them what is meaningful to you. And the fact that you're not yourself an overweight, indolent, parody Don Quixote in early-1960s New Orleans, a late 19th-Century stonemason, an Edwardian gentleman who won a prize for scripture knowledge and whose aunt wants to him to steal a cow creamer, or a kid growing up in Thatcher's Britain doesn't mean you are incapable of engaging with the text. (And in fact, to the degree to which such a consideration is relevant to one's ability to engage, the force of the argument is mostly on the side of teen fiction, really, because having lived through adolescence is one of the few things 100% of adults definitely have in common.) Whether a given text is worth engaging with is, of course, another question, but looking to a marketing strategy alone to provide the answer to it seems like a pretty bad way to go about the whole business of reading.

What I'm saying is, the demographic of a publisher's marketing strategy doesn't, or shouldn't, enter into it. (If it does enter into it, you're no longer discussing literature, but rather marketing.)

The other thing I'm saying is, these books, the ones marketed as YA fiction, but in reality, at least as far as most authors are concerned, "aimed at the world", are really, in fact, actual novels, just like regular novels, hard as that is for some people to believe. And this is the case despite their place in the aforesaid marketing category and despite their position as part of a literary tradition that concerns itself with exploring the teenage self. There are good and bad ones, and there great and less-than-great ones, as with everything else. Find the good ones. And then forget the marketing and read them.

Posted by Dr. Frank at October 31, 2014 06:34 PM