The reasons for this blog: 1. To provide basic author information for students, teachers, librarians, etc. (Please see sidebar) 2. I think out loud a lot as I work through writing projects, and I'm trying to dump most of those thoughts here rather than on my friends.
Friday, November 21, 2008
long tedious post again
I know this has got to be one of the most boring and technical writing blogs out there, and that it has nothing to offer other writers promotionally speaking. So I was a little surprised that anybody at all started, much less made it through that long self-absorbed post the other day, to get to the part where I commented on people who say YA didn't exist when they were teens. I'd actually gone back after a while and cut the name-calling bit and just left the negative snarkiness, because that made the same point without being rude and childish to people I don't even know. Then I got a few e-mails from writer friends who had read it and were happy I said it. I know from ten+ years of internet experience what that means: many times that number of people read it and are probably p*ssed or hurt or resentful, but won't or can't say anything to my face.
But I stand by that opinion: if you think YA only started when you started reading it as an adult, then you need to wake up and smell the coffee.
However, I started thinking about why this annoys me so much--enough to lump a bunch of people I don't know into a group and cuss at them. That's quite a knee-jerk reaction. One thing, I guess, is that some of the ground-breaking work in YA was and is near and dear to me, and I take it personally when it's treated as if it never existed. Another thing is that I've been lucky enough to meet some of the old guard (I don't consider myself old or new guard, but sort of a fringe participant who doesn't really enter into the big picture) and it makes me utterly humble to see their commitment to writing for writing's sake, and to the writing community. You will never see anyone with feet so firmly planted on the ground as a YA writer who's been at it for 15+ years. These are people who wrote in ways no one else had ever dared to write before, and if we now have the creative freedom to write how we want about what we want, it's due to those who published before us.
But I also think that almost anytime you dig into any writer, you're going to hit fear. Or maybe I should say if you dig into any writers that are actually in the rough-and-tumble, vibrant world of trying to sell their writing in a competitive market, you will hit fear. I figure this is why some people say they're writers (or will be one of these days!), but never actually write--that way they get a good ego-boost without risk. But almost every working writer I've ever met is afraid of something (and I suspect I just don't know the others well enough to be privy to this kind of info). Even the ones you'd think aren't afraid. Writers with critical acclaim are afraid they aren't good enough because their fans seem not to be teens and their sales aren't remarkable. Writers with lots of sales are afraid they aren't good enough because they don't have literary acclaim. Writers with both acclaim and sales are afraid it's going to end and they'll be humiliated because that means they aren't good writers anymore and maybe they never were, because if you're any good it shouldn't end.
Writers have infinite ways to torture themselves, and generally they do.
So I think maybe "They never had YA before" people scare me, and perhaps make me feel threatened. They must, right? Why else would I be so knee-jerk vehement? I've got a couple of special needs kids; there are certain things I don't lose patience with easily, and people who ought to know better is usually one of them.
Considering further, I think it must be about...I don't know what to call it. (If you are new to writing and don't like jaded stuff, quit reading now. NOW. You have been warned.) When I started trying to get published, I thought that books were forever. I thought that children and books are both ways of leaving your mark, of saying, "I was once here on this earth." Now I know that books have a lifespan; they fade and die. Some of them never even really get to live; they are published but don't get on shelves and either don't get reviewed or their reviews are buried by other more celebrated books, so they can't fade because they're faded before they even leave the warehouse. Anyway, I have accepted the fact that my books are likely to die before I do.
I also believe that this is true of all but a few books that are out right now. I worked in a bookstore in the early and mid-eighties, and then again in the early nineties. Both times I ran or helped run the YA section. But if I go in a bookstore now, I will find neither the books that were big sellers then, nor the ones that got critical acclaim. This must be true of adult books as well, because have you ever seen a list of bestsellers from 30, 40, 50 years ago? Or the list of Pulitzer Prize winners? Most of the titles bring a collective scratch of the head nowadays. To me, history says that today's NYT bestseller will one day be available only through sellers of used books on Amazon (side note to NYT bestselling authors and members of boy bands: bank some of your money now).
It bothers me to know that my books are not going to be immortal. And I think that when somebody says there was no YA till now, it also erases every writer that ever meant anything to me and influenced me. It's like, not only do my books not count, but my entire creative trajectory never existed. And those people I connected with, who touched me? They weren't there, either.
Oh--I know what it's like! It's like in Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox's picture of his family shows them slowly being erased. It feels like my family is being erased: Michael Cadnum's Calling Home, Shelley Stoehr's Crosses, Chris Lynch's Iceman, Erika Tamar's Fair Game, Ouida Sebestyen's The Girl in the Box, William Sleator's House of Stairs, John Marsden's So Much to Tell You, Nancy Garden's Annie On My Mind, Cynthia Voigt's The Runner, Rob Thomas' Rats Saw God. Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Richard Newton Peck, Norma Fox Mazer, Virginia Hamilton, Robert Lipsyte, Chris Crutcher. And more; even now writer friends introduce me to their family of inspiration, so I get an even bigger sense of things slipping away.
And not only that. Just like with Michael J. Fox, it means one more thing: I'm next.
What does that say, if people don't know what boundaries have been stretched? Does that mean the YA genre is a tired, dead thing that just repeats itself over and over? Maybe that's okay, since a new crop of teens isn't going to know that their favorite book is a retread of something that was done better by someone else ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago. Does it even matter? I mean, it does to me, and I don't plan on changing my attitude about it. But look at the turnover in editors. If it wasn't for child labor laws I think the publishers would actively be shooting for an average age of twelve; if you're an experienced, old-school, book-loving editor you'd better watch your bottom line because those young uns with a flair for marketing come cheap. Look at the young librarians coming up who have to keep their finger on the pulse of what is new and fun and hot so they can get kids to read instead of going online or play video games. Look at booksellers who only see the few books pre-chosen for a month-long shot at selling. With all that, does it even matter, in a larger sense, if anybody knows what came before in YA?
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