1. I had this big rant about how I started watching Supernatural again last week and how I kind of find the whole angel-demon-apocalypse thing weird/boring and yet I suddenly really like Castiel (which I really didn't back when I was last watching the show, beginning of S4) but it was kind of confusing and off-track and vaguely anti-Christian and also turned into a rant about how I just hate apocalypses so I deleted it and instead I think everyone should give me Dean/Castiel recs. I think this is the third time I've returned to this show, maybe the fourth, and I have to say I don't know why. There are better shows on TV. There are shows with actual women on them, which I happen to really enjoy. But w/e it sucked me in again.
2. Here's a profic rant that's been building up for awhile, probably since the Wellington book festival. I was not having a great week and didn't get to much, but I did get to the Margo Lanagan and Neil Gaiman panel about writing ~~Darker and Edgier~~ YA.
Anyone who's cracked a book lately is aware of a surging interest in young adult fiction. This is at least partly because the shit is really selling lately, and not just to teenagers: also to women of all ages (like me). One aspect of this is that the stuff that's really selling is fantasy; for awhile in there it was urban fantasy, now, of course, it's paranormal romance. It's worth noting at this point that I think some of the greatest fantasy being written at the moment is being written for teen audiences. Gaiman (Coraline, The Graveyard Book
) and Lanagan (Black Juice
and many other short story collections, Tender Morsels
) are only two examples. However, they are certainly poster children for a particular style of writing and for a fairly significant crossover audience.
Naturally they were asked about this: writing for YA, the differences between writing for YA and writing for adults, writing graphic violence and/or sex, how has the crossover audience affected YA, etc. They both said basically the same thing: they don't think of themselves as writing YA books. They write the books with the protagonists they want to write and then their publishers decide and you know kids can read all kinds of stuff these days and blah blah blah they're way too cool to make marketing decisions, which is all, you know. Fine. It's fine. I understand what they're trying to say: they're trying to say that the children's and YA reading audience is sophisticated, can be much more sophisticated than they are given credit for. And this is true, particularly for children who are prolific readers. (I was going to get into a discussion here about the relationship between privilege, especially educational and financial, and being a "good"/"sophisticated"/voracious reader, but I think I'll talk about it another time so I'll just leave it there.)
But Neil Gaiman couldn't answer the question without taking five minutes to diss the problem novel, which he described in this way (paraphrased): "Back when I was a journalist I would come across YA/teen books for review and they were all these horrible things about your brother being a drug addict and becoming HIV positive and your stepfather beating you up and your girlfriend getting pregnant."
Now, Gneil is hardly the first author or book reviewer or editor to take a swipe at the problem novel
(sometimes also described as an issue novel and not to be confused with the social problem novel), which is indeed a staple of the YA genre (and has been since, oh, The Catcher in the Rye
). Wikipedia has a fairly nice definition and brief summary of attitudes to the problem novel which I will quote here:
Problem novel is a term used to refer to a sub-genre of young adult literature that deal exclusively with an adolescent's first confrontation with a social or personal ill. The term is rather loosely defined ... as dealing more with characters from lower-class families and their problems; being "grittier"; using more realistic language; and including dialects, profanity, and poor grammar when it fits the character and setting.
I would add to Wikipedia that problem novels are famously YA but are not exclusively so: they're just as common in picture books and middle-grade and intermediate novels.
Now, first off let me point out that the problem novel has a frankly illustrious history. To Kill A Mockingbird
is a problem novel. So are The Outsiders
, The Chocolate War
, Maniac Magee
. These are widely-acclaimed novels, and if you check the list of Newbery and Carnegie Medal winners, you will see problem novels cropping up often. (I think Tithe
is a lot like a problem novel too, by the way. Francesca Lia Block has written a few.)
So there's no doubt that problem novels can be good. Those novels, their existence and their value, doesn't need to be justified. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that adult readers, writers, reviewers, don't understand and often don't appreciate the problem novel, the ones that don't win Newbery awards, and it's these people who are popularising crossover YA fiction and it's a real attitude problem.
Anne Fine (Goggle-Eyes, Madame Doubtfire, Flour Babies, Step by Wicked Step, Round Behind the Ice-house
) has won the Carnegie medal multiple times. Jacqueline Wilson (The Illustrated Mum, The Suitcase Kid, Bad Girls, The Story of Tracey Beaker
) has won the children's Whitbread several times. These are women who write prolific, straightforward problem novels, about divorce, adoption, stepfamilies, shoplifting, mental illness, death, bullying, romance (not all in the same book.) (Note: these are both Brits and I'm referring to them because I read a lot of both of them. Judy Blume would be a US analogue.) But I do not think they are understood and they have no crossover audience of which I'm aware. And this is because - and I think this is crucial - they aren't writing for adults
. They aren't writing ~the books that come to them~ and then letting their publisher pick who to market it to depending on what's hot. They are writing books for children and young adults about issues that are of vital and pressing concern for actual children and actual young adults. And these are the writers that are being dissed when we diss problem novels.
They made a movie of one of Anne Fine's books, Madame Doubtfire
. Maybe you saw it, it had Robin Williams in it and it was pitched as a family film. But in order to make it as an American, Hollywood movie, they had to cast - well - Robin Williams. They had to change the protagonists from the children to the adults. Because Madame Doubtfire
is profoundly a book about children
. I have no doubt that it would not have sold well as a family film, because they have to be sold to adults as entertainment for adults. And I think this is a signal of why I find all this talk about crossover audiences and fiction for all ages and blah de blah upsetting.
Sure - we can sit around slagging off Go Ask Alice
til we're blue in the face (and I think GAA is problematic because it's a bit of a cautionary tale, but w/e). But problem novels are profoundly not for us
. They're for children and middleschoolers and young adults who, actually, do want and sometimes need to read about someone whose brother is a drug addict and whose girlfriend is pregnant. They can be crucial for teens in crises and for helping teens not be in crises and "at-risk" teens and children. Slagging them off is, to me, part of a process of co-opting the young adult market for 23-year-old women like me and I don't want a bar of it. Stop doing it, everyone.
Little bit o'links:Justine Larbalestier on problem novels
, great suggestion in the comments about differentiating between "problem novels" and "lecture novels"A whole blog about problem novels
, although - hahahaha - their 2007 intro post refers to the "new trend" of problem novels.Diversity Roll-Call: Problem Novels
, which includes the cover to the problem novel (actually a short story collection) that might have been most important to me personally, Am I Blue?Problem novel recs
at The Englishist.Cross-posted with comments enabled to http://labellementeuse.livejournal.com/324225.html. There may be further discussion in comments there.