madlibsjunior

You Should Be Ashamed for Liking [Insert Genre Here]

INSTRUCTIONS TO FREELANCER SELLING MIND AND SOUL FOR PEANUTS: Please circle the appropriate options contained within brackets and provide the appropriate language where specified. Then return this form to Slate Book Review editor Dan Kois. Do not attempt to stray from the formula. While we appreciate your natural writing voice, there’s little that you can contribute to Slate in this brave new world of superficial outrage.

The boilerplate has been carefully perfected to make many readers needlessly indignant, to get the beloved author John Green to react on Twitter and/or get huffy in a VlogBrothers YouTube video, and to otherwise send clicks to our flailing outlet, which has not specialized in useful criticism for quite some time. Ah, but those days are over. As we discussed over the phone, YA seems to be the hot thing right now. It is important for us to impeach its character in the strongest and least subtle terms. We are Slate. These rubes cannot ignore us.

We are counting on angry Tumblr posts and glum Vimeo confessionals and somber Facebook posts and 140 character missives, which we will transform into traffic through the purest methods of outrage alchemy. Please note that you have waived your right to pursue damages against Slate for any nasty insults or death threats hurled at you, but we urge you to retweet it all for maximum exposure. As we both agreed, your credibility as a writer does not matter. Slate, in turn, will incorporate propaganda methods through social media, using the modifiers “thoughtful” and “provocative” in relation to your piece. We don’t have a lot in our budget, but an unpaid Slate intern will arrive at your home to salute your ignoble work with complimentary mojitos if you play ball with us. (Well, not really. But we like to keep hope alive within this soulless operation. We assure you that the joke’s on us!)

So let’s get started. Here are the first four paragraphs of the Slate piece. Please fill out and return by 5:00 PM. We will contact you tomorrow with the next four paragraphs after we have fed your choices into our outrage algorithm.

BODY

As [insert recent hot YA title] [enters into theaters / hits the bestseller list / is discussed by millions on social media], it can be hard to remember that [once upon a time / in a galaxy far, far away / before the Internet], an adult might have [felt embarrassed / consulted a therapist / thrown herself out of a window] to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because [it is bad / it is for kids / the cover contains a strobing light that might harm epileptics / there are no trigger warnings for the dark content contained inside] [OPTIONAL REASSURANCE BREAK WITH DASHES CAN BE PLACED HERE: CONSULT SLATE EDITOR FOR OPTIONS] but because [it was written for teenagers / a handful of conservatives have rightfully protested it / it is akin to eating cultural vegetables / it is less than 300 pages].

[The once-unseemly notion / The commonly critical consensus / The overly stressed sentiment] that [it’s cool / it’s acceptable / it’s a gateway to other titles] is now [INSERT JEZEBEL LINK TO UNITE #YESALLWOMEN CROWD INTO COLLECTED INTERNET OUTRAGE OVER PIECE]. Today, [teenagers write Bella and Edward fan fiction / grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels / baristas hope to be the next Kendall or Kylie Jenner] with pride. There are [INSERT FLAVORWIRE OR BOOKRIOT LINK HERE TO FOMENT OUTRAGE FROM READERS] that [adults should read / that YA is literature too / that YA does not cause hair loss / that any schlub with a tablet can write YA]. But [reading YA / writing YA / balancing Maureen Johnson books on the top of your head] doesn’t mean much these days. A [INSERT STATISTICS-LADEN PUBLISHERS WEEKLY ARTICLE TO SUGGEST AUTHORITY] by [a market research firm / an authoritative blogger / a minimum wage slave standing in a mall with a clipboard / Malcolm Gladwell] found that [INSERT STAT]. [Note to Freelancer: Our research team hasn’t established a house style on this point yet, but be sure to write a sentence or two on what the definition of “young adult” is supposed to mean. Work in “new adult” if you can.]

[CYCLE BACK TO STATISTICS-LADEN PW ARTICLE FOR TRANSITION TO NEXT PARA], which might be why I [wasn’t surprised / wasn’t shocked / couldn’t work myself up into a lather / didn’t shower today] over this news. I’m surrounded by [YA-loving adults / YA readers / people who are YA-curious], [online / in real life / both online and in real life]. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is [worldly / adult-worthy / better than popping bubble wrap]. That kept me [closeted / bashful / terrified] about expressing my [morally superior / fuddy-duddy / rash / carefully considered] opinion: Adults should [feel embarrassed / throw themselves off bridges / form twelve-step support groups] about [reading / writing] literature for children.

Let’s set aside [the scholarly efforts that have shown YA to be a viable genre / the transparently trashy stuff], which [only academic quacks subscribe to / no one defends as serious literature]. I’m talking about [the genre the publishing industry / the shit that the Smart Bitches chick is always talking up / anything that Jennifer Weiner likes], often called [“new adult” / “realistic fiction” / “kid lit” / crack cocaine]. Those are the books, like The Fault of Our Stars [Note to Freelancer: It is important that you mention John Green’s seminal novel over and over. This is essential to fomenting Internet outrage. Failure to do so will be considered breach of contract.], that [are about real teens doing real things / suggest importance to young readers by quoting Shakespeare in the title], and that rise and fall not only on [the strength of their stories / the truth of their convictions / the telegenic quality of the author] but, theoretically, on [the quality of their writing / the loudness of their audience / the academic rigor of their defenders]. These are the books that could plausibly be said to [be replacing literary fiction / to be replacing movies / to be encouraging kids to engage in illicit activities] in the lies of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

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whitehead

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)

Not Thinking About the Children

Two essays — one from Annalee Newitz and one from Lizzie Skurnick — express needless hostility to books that involve the young. The first essay quibbles over YA science fiction with protagonists under 18 being categorized as YA as niche marketing gone horribly awry. As Newitz writes:

When scifi novels with adolescent protagonists are marketed as “just for adolescents,” a curtain of taboo falls between most adults and that novel. In an era where there is so much legal panic around relations between adults and young adults, it’s hard to deny your knee-jerk response that there’s something slightly distasteful and pedophilic about an adult reading stories aimed at people under the age of 18.

Let me try and understand this strange logic. If I, a balding and bearded thirtysomething man, wander into a YA section at a bookstore, I will immediately find my name listed in the Megan’s Law database. I cannot possibly purchase a book and claim it to be “for my son” or “for my niece.” (Not that I would. Because a book purchase is nobody’s goddam business but mine. And besides, I have braved the apparent choppy waters of the kiddie section many times in purchasing several copies of E. Nesbitt and L. Frank Baum for friends to give to their children to read.) To wander into the kiddie section is now apparently equivalent to clumsily divagating through the beads separating the “adult” titles from the regular movies in a video store. Never mind that, when it comes to YA, it is parents who hold the purchasing power.

And, of course, I cannot possibly read a YA book on a subway. Not even if I remove the dust jacket and make the book’s title difficult to identify. Apparently, the minute that I open up a YA book, all eyes will veer to my perverted and demented form. There can be no other judgment. Not even the usual apathy. You may not know this, but every YA book can be easily identified by the government-mandated bleeping yellow light whenever anyone over the age of eighteen starts reading it. The appropriate authorities will be summoned. I will be thrown in jail and sentenced to a chemical castration. For I have transgressed the boundaries.

For what it’s worth, I have read a few YA titles on the subway and have not yet experienced any such problems. Perhaps Ms. Newitz has some legislative evidence with which to support her utterly strange claim. But I seriously doubt this.

Then there is Ms. Skurnick’s essay, which quibbles with Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel. She first casts doubt on a 9-year-old narrator’s ability to recite Emily Dickinson’s poems. (Casual YouTube searches suggest otherwise.) The idea that a 9-year-old would consider More Joy of Sex is likewise impossible. (Never mind that kids are quite curious about anatomy. I should point out that I acquired an illicit copy of The Joy of Sex when I was 6. Puritanical households make children curious quite swiftly.)

Both essays have been dutifully responded to by, respectively, Colleen Mondor and John Fox. Fox suggests that Skurnick failed to read one story correctly and used this to paint a needlessly broad stroke against the capacities of children.

But what is really going on here? I have appreciated both Newitz and Skurnick’s work in the past. However, these essays both represent foolhardy and illogical positions. These two idiotic essays read as if they were written to draw traffic to their respective outlets. Forget reason, ratiocination, or even a modicum of common sense. Newitz and Skurnick both decided that they’d throw all that into the incinerator. And in doing so, they have both settled for pernicious and discriminatory positions that threaten the possibilities of literature. If we cannot accept a 9-year-old who likes Emily Dickinson, then I suppose we should disregard the wisdom of Holden Caulfield or the musings of Huckleberry Finn. After all, all dem kids must be dumb! Likewise, it’s worth pointing out that there was once a time in which anyone reading or writing science fiction was considered a pervert or a loon. (For example, consider this 1954 Time article in which a Cleveland psychiatric social worker declared that science fiction plots betrayed “schizophrenic manifestations” in the minds of their authors.) It is extremely disappointing to see the editor of a sizable science fiction website fall into this same fallacious line of reasoning for YA.

Margo Rabb: The Blogosphere Hates Me! Oh Noes!

Margo Rabb’s now throwing a pity party over the controversy that her YA article generated, even tossing around uncited assertions that bloggers have threatened to punch her. I presume that Rabb, much like her undemocratic cohorts at Paper Cuts, is uninterested in approving dissenting comments. Here is my response:

If you put such a foolish article out, edited or unedited, don’t expect it to be universally loved. Some freelancers, such as myself, work very hard with editors to ensure that clarity is maintained. There’s no need to play Pollyanna here. You were responsible for what you wrote. And if you can’t accept criticism, then you have no business being a writer. Furthermore, I find it irresponsible that you have charged a blogger with commenting, “I wanted to punch the author,” without specifying the blogger. Google Blog Search and Technorati do not reveal any such comment. That are you using an uncited remark to tarnish the blogosphere with an ignoble straw man is highly irresponsible.

[UPDATE: To Rabb’s credit, the comment has been approved. And as Brian helpfully points out, the “punch” comment in question is here.]