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)


  1. Ah, he’s a special perfect snowflake, the kind who writes books that simply everyone in the whole wide world will love. One of those writers.

    I guess that’s better than entirely dismissing non-adult readers, but not by much.

  2. Actually I think this is a very solid answer. The guy has no control of where his books go or who they are marketed to and I’m sorry – most literary reviewers do ignore YA lit. I haven’t read Sag Harbor yet but as someone who reviews YA every month (at Bookslut) it sounds like an excellent crossover to me. I understand his frustration about the whole issue because it is frustrating. More power to him for just writing his books and not worrying about audience; hopefully teens will find him just fine. (If every bookstore would just shelve in more than one location like Powells does then none of this would be an issue.)

  3. It would have been funny if he’d said, “YA?–YA?!? Fuck that jive-ass YA shit!”
    Also, does Richard Ford have a son? Whitehead should send that child a copy.
    Also, has anyone noticed that when Richard Ford talks it sounds like he’s sucking on a marble?
    When Updike was old he had that marble-loll speech too.
    It just creeps me out and I have to mention it. When I heard either of them speak, I felt like they could pull a baby out of their pocket at anytime and eat it.
    Also, do YAs have souls?
    Also, I’m a bit of a faggot.

  4. Must be nice not to have to identify a genre when going about publishing a book, but to all of those first-time authors out there that are forced into having to put a label on it just to get their manuscript in the door and on an agent’s desk, it is a bit snobbish. Was there a need to behave in such a manner? Sounds more like someone just got their nose bent out of shape, he certainly doesn’t sound unapproachable in the response. If anything, I’m hoping he *is* approachable. I wonder if he could be the turning point to eradicating labels completely and opening up the whole literary world for everyone’s benefit.

  5. I’d be really very surprised if anyone were to say, “You know why I became a writer? I’ll tell you – in order to fit into a publisher’s preconceived notion of how product should be presented to a sub-set of the reading public. That’s the bit I love. I take huge pride in making my work fit neatly into a genre definition, and I mercilessly crush any creative impulse that might threaten my conformance to those holy conventions.”

    Publishing is a spread game – they want to hit as many people as possible within a targeted demographic, and they know that the closer to the periphery of that target a reader may be, the less likelihood there is of picking him off. That doesn’t matter, because marketing budgets – like napalm – work best when they’re aimed at concentrations of civilians.

    Writers don’t write with the napalm model in mind. They tend towards the germ warfare model, according to which a microbe can be introduced into practically any community and will then spread by contact infection throughout the entire population, regardless of demographic, age, religion or ethnicity.

    Different models – different expectations. Writers need to understand why publishers do what they do, but they don’t have to like it.

  6. Whenever anyone calls me huffy, I get all…huffy. It’s impossible not to. Really, try it. I think CW is feeling vulnerable for having FINALLY written an obviously autobiographical novel. People say “autobiographical” as if it’s a dirty word, like “confessional” for poets. It’s ridiculous. I can’t wait to read it. I hope I can find it!

  7. I’m midway through it now and loving every page. Though I honestly don’t see why anyone should feel the need to label this a “YA novel.” Because it concerns teenagers? So is Catcher in the Rye now to be considered YA too? Or Lord of the Flies?

    I can understand Whitehead’s annoyance at being unnecessarily tagged in this way. Call it top-shelf literature; that seems about right.

  8. I heart Colson Whitehead. I’m so over labels! I mean, I get why the industry needs them, but I like that he pushes them aside as a writer.

  9. I had to comment…I appreciate CW but please people stop with the I “heart”! What is that? It’s not cute by any measure of modern speak.

  10. Mr. Whitehead, well said. I’m sure my UW- Madison Professor of Children’s Literature, David C. Davis, would have whole heartedly agreed with you about trade publishing and library classifications are people management tools. Universal ideas are universal. You would think the present political reality of America’s Alice in Wonderland would be all one needs to understand the of folly of artificial age appropriate labels. Lewis Carroll wrote for a thinking person who happened to be his young daughter, the rest of us- young and old- shouldn’t read it? Please.

  11. My impression of what I read of the book was that it was written from an adult perspective about what his 15th summer was like. In my opinion teens don’t want to know what adults thought of what their life was like as a teenager. If it was written more from the perspective of a 15 year old I might think it would be a good crossover book since it does have some important messages.

  12. ‘lson should thank all the allahs that he’s lucky enough to have a job. He doth protest too much. Maybe his next novel should portray Muhammad the prophet as gay–Naah, that would be too edgy for a bourgeois novelist like ‘lson.

  13. The fact that he stole someone else’s first novel idea might explain why the YA issue has come up for him now after his third or fourth novel.

    Gone and quickly forgotten.

    Good riddance!

  14. I met Whitehead at the Book Fest on the Capitol Mall this weekend. My son wanted Rick Riordan’s autograph, but there were thousands of YAs on line for it. Whitehead had no line at all. I jokingly asked him if he could get Riordan’s autograph. “I don’t know who that is,” he said. I pointed to the line that stretched for about half a mile. “Oh,” he said.

    Maybe that YA category ain’t so bad afterall.

  15. ^He comes off as reasoned and your response here as petty or maybe just trolling for clicks. Remind me why anyone should care about your opinion enough to read it online on your blog?

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