Colson Whitehead Responds to YA “Controversy”

whiteheadThe blog A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’ recently posted an item from an appearance that Colson Whitehead made at The New School. At the event, Whitehead was reportedly asked about whether his latest novel, Sag Harbor, could be classified as YA. And it was reported that he got “huffy” about the issue. This surprised me, because Sherman Alexie and China Mieville have both written specifically for a YA crowd. And it might also be argued that David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could swing both ways as a YA and an adult title. If Whitehead had indeed said these things, it seemed counterintuitive to reduce his novel’s possible audience.

Curious about Whitehead’s side of the story, I contacted him by email and he responded to my questions quite quickly. Here is his answer:

Thanks for letting me address this “controversy.”

I remember the exchange. Do you have a transcript of it? Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t do “huffy,” but I do roll my eyes in exasperation, as I will when asked at a writers conference about “how will it be marketed?” I’ll talk about writing, how I got started, my work process, what have you, but marketing is boring and not what a writer should be asking about. Write the book. Make it the best book you can make it. All the other stuff is crap. So if I seemed “huffy,” that’s the reason: I’d rather talk about the work. I’m not hawking Flowbees here. I don’t “target” my work to a “demographic.”

Labels bug me. My first ideal reader was a teenage version of myself; someone who might randomly come across my book and be changed by it, the way I was changed by so many books in that key time. Then I started publishing, and the people who came to see me read were so varied – old, young, black, white, redheaded, balding, etc. – that it seemed dumb to have a mental picture of my ideal reader. It’s a blessing if anyone reads your book at all. But if she or he is a “Young Adult,” great. With braces & a bad slouch, even better.

If I had my way, there wouldn’t be any categories at all. For me, it’s all just “writing.” Is The Colossus of New York non-fiction? Not strictly, but it has to go somewhere in the bookstore, and if it’s in Essays or in the About New York section, I don’t care. I’m just glad that it’s getting out there. But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. What I’m saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again.

I’m publishing in the age of the web. You don’t have to go far to find that I’m not a snob about genres, and go out of my way to say that I came to writing by loving comic books and Stephen King, because that’s how it happened and you should read what you want to read, and not what someone else thinks is proper for you to read. Frankly, I don’t really know what YA is. Does that mean it features kids or teenagers and is only intended for kids and teenagers? I’m sort of out of the loop about these turf battles. They seem kinda dumb. If it’s a good story, I don’t care what section I find it in.

(Photo credit: Melissa Hom)

Is Colson Whitehead Stuck on Novel #4?

From New York Magazine: “Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days, The Colossus of New York, and Apex Hides the Hurt, is currently holed up in the bistros of his neighborhood, Fort Greene, at work on his next novel, which is about a teenager who subsists on TV dinners and toils at an ice-cream parlor (the novelist’s traumatic summers in a Hamptons scoop shop are documented in his New York Times essay ‘Eat Memory, I Scream’).”

Now this seems a bit suspicious to me. First off, a novelist shouldn’t be in the business of describing an unfinished work. And when pressed by an interviewer, the novelist should probably just say, “Yeah, I’m working on something. Next question.”

But in this instance, Whitehead has offered an answer. And it isn’t “a teenager overcoming a personal obstacle” or “a teenager who comes of age.” No, the great human angle on this story is “a teenager who subsists on TV dinners and toils at an ice-cream parlor,” suggesting that cultural reference comes before character development or that Whitehead is riding the great food crutch that many writers dwell on during a gestation period.Of course, it’s probably unfair of me to read so closely into an answer like this. Nevertheless, after the lackluster Apex Hides the Hurt (a passable novel, but lackluster in comparison to his two previous books), I worry about Whitehead’s ability to deliver.

No More Absurd Than “Courtney Love: The Real Story”

Poppy Z. Brite hates John Updike: “Mr. Updike, I’m sorry you have arthritis. I truly am. Both my grandmothers suffered from it, I suspect I have a touch myself, and I know it is no picnic. Sometimes it’s torture. In spite of everything, I wouldn’t have wished it on you.“BUT WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY do we have to hear about your STIFFENED NETHER MEMBER?”

Also, Colson Whitehead hates ice cream, which is a very sad and possibly more troubling thing than damning a writer exclusively on a phrase. Note to all aspiring writers: don’t work in an ice cream shop! (Both links via Jenny D.)

Another Whitehead Report

Over at The Happy Booker, another Colson appearance has been registered.

As for our own thoughts on Apex Hides the Hurt, we will say that it’s not as bad as some reviewers have made the book out to be. But it’s clearly no John Henry Days or The Intuitionist. Our own complex thoughts re: Apex will be fleshed out just as soon as (a) we have actual synapses to use and (b) we finally get around to logging all the books we’ve read as part of our 75 Books pledge.

[UPDATE: Near Proud Papa Rake points out that Whitehead has a blog, which includes the widely reported Empire State Building essay making the reading rounds.]

New Books, Arty Books, Odd Books

The Guardian has a nuts and bolts profile of John Gregory Dunne, who passed away over the New Year’s weekend. A final novel, Nothing Lost, is planned for publication later this year.

Colson Whitehead’s next book has the man going crazy over New York in a collection of essays. Newsday doesn’t get much out of him, but it does note that Whitehead’s third novel is due out this spring. Oh, and he’s bought a home in Brooklyn with the MacArthur money. Hard reporting that boils down to this: Isn’t it good to be a hot, young thing?

Can you judge a book by its cover? New York book fetishists may want to check out the New York Public Library. Virginia Bartow has selected 90 books, trying to see if the books in questions can say something without being read. Included is Agrippa, a collaboration between William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh encoded in the first letters of DNA’s nucleic acids and a poem on a floppy disk that encrypts data upon access.

L. Frank Baum published two books in 1900. One was The Wizard of Oz, the other was The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows. Stuart Culver has a little more. Among Baum’s observations: “You must arouse in the observer cupidity and a longing to possess the goods you sell.” “Arousing the cupidity” didn’t actually work for Baum himself though. Most of his business speculations failed, but the Oz books did well.

And a moment of candor from the Post re: blogs? Or are they riffing with alt-weekly angst to keep up? Whatever the case, it’s a strange read from the paper of Woodward and Bernstein. (via Sarah)

[1/21/06 UPDATE: Dunne’s Nothing Lost (called by Kipen a “sloppy, fun swan song”), of course, was completely subsumed by Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which, like nearly every Didion nonfiction book, has gone on to win nearly every nonfiction award. And I should point out I’m just as defensive about blogs today as I was two years ago. I need to be more critical.]