Colson Whitehead Responds to YA “Controversy”

Posted by in Whitehead, Colson, YA

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)

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