Audio Drama Sunday: The Bright Sessions, A Conversation with Lauren Shippen

A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary audio drama called The Bright Sessions and listened to every episode with a speed and an enthusiasm rivaling a ravenous rabbit discovering a carrot field. The podcast is ostensibly a psychotherapist secretly recording her therapy sessions with young people, with each tape labeled with a mysterious taxonomic nomenclature. We come to learn that not only do these young people have special powers (the ability to jump through time, the capacity to read other people’s thoughts, et al.). But what makes The Bright Sessions so compelling is its more intimate approach. You won’t hear New York City destroyed in grandiloquent fashion after a superhero battle. But you will delve deep into the hearts and souls of the show’s characters.

I contacted the show’s creator Lauren Shippen (she also voices one of the patients, Sam) to express my appreciation and soon found myself in a fun and lengthy email volley about how Shippen came to create The Bright Sessions, thoughts on what radio drama can do for genre that other forms can’t, and some discussion of the 1985 film Clue. In tribute to the hashtag #audiodramasunday, which has recently taken Twitter by storm, I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of Audio Drama Sunday interviews with radio drama creators and their programs to help listeners and producers alike get a sense of the marvelous offerings out there.

If you want to listen to The Bright Sessions, go the website. You can also chip into The Bright Sessions‘s Patreon fund, which greatly helps this show stay afloat.

EDWARD CHAMPION: In audio drama, we have quite a number of wonderful podcasts being made that deal with investigations — what I call the “missing tapes” genre (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Limetown, et al.). These shows have responded, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly, to Serial‘s great success. It’s almost as if audio drama needed its own spin on the “fake documentary” style pioneered by such television shows as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and the like. But somehow your hook, which involves a psychologist taping the sessions of her clients, manages to transcend the tropes. I’m very curious to know how much you researched the audio drama climate before you started creating this show and if you learned any lessons on how to build an audience from your potential investigation. Also, I’m not sure how steeped you are in Dr. Jacob L. Moreno‘s notion of drama therapy, but where did your interest in psychotherapy come from? Why did you feel psychotherapy would be a great format for radio? (I’m also wondering if you’ve ever listened to the podcast, The Psychology of Eating, an often inexplicably fascinating show that deals with patients talking about their eating habits.)

LAUREN SHIPPEN: I actually wrote the first episode of The Bright Sessions in June of 2014 — before even Serial had been released. While I love the faux-documentary format of those podcasts (and of course, adore Serial), that trope didn’t yet exist when I first came up with the concept of The Bright Sessions. Instead, it was somewhat inspired by two very different radio shows: Welcome to Night Vale and BBC’s Cabin Pressure.

I was listening to these shows while stuck in the famed LA traffic and fell in love with the idea of audio drama. These shows showed two very distinct, very different paths to take: Welcome to Night Vale is mostly one man speaking into a microphone and Cabin Pressure is a whole cast with a large production budget performing in front of a live audience. As much as I enjoy Cabin Pressure, I don’t have the same resources as the BBC; the WTNV route seemed more manageable — I had a nice microphone and a vague idea of editing. But I ultimately realized I couldn’t pull off what WTNV does. I think WTNV works as a largely one person show because of three things: Cecil Baldwin’s performance, the beautifully surreal but funny writing, and the music by Disparition. Without a similarly magical combination of things, one person talking can get boring fast.

latrafficI wish I could say the therapy concept came out of some deep, clever thought process but – if memory serves – I was sitting in the aforementioned traffic, talking out loud to myself as the character of Sam (this is a weird but important part of my writing process) when I realized I needed to give her someone to talk to. The first thing that popped into my head was “therapist” and from there, the floodgates opened and everything started to fall into place.

I wrote that pilot episode in essentially one sitting. Then I got swept up in other things and didn’t touch it for a year. By the time I came back to it, I had become more familiar with the audio drama landscape as a whole. I had binged Serial, Limetown, and The Message. But my format was already determined. That being said, I did look to these and other shows to see how and where they existed online and how they promoted themselves.

I’m tangentially familiar with Moreno’s work, but The Bright Sessions was not particularly influenced by any one psychological theory. I used my sister — an actual psychologist — as a resource for how a therapist would talk or what methods they might use and did online research when necessary. I think my interest in psychotherapy actually comes from my background as an actor. The conversations you hear in the podcast are very similar to internal conversations I will have when developing a character – you have to figure out all their baggage, what makes them tick. Bizarrely, a lot of acting techniques are pretty similar to therapeutic ones, so it was easy to connect the dots.

therapycouchI think the therapy format works especially well on radio for two reasons. One: it’s straightforward and easy to follow. It can be hard to pull off convincing action in an audio format, but it’s very easy to put together two people having a conversation. Two: there’s a voyeuristic element to it that I think is intriguing to people. Even though our patients are extraordinary, they are still dealing with very real, human problems. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be mined out of that and a lot to relate to. And because it’s an audio recording and not a video, I think it gives the listener the feeling that they are really there, listening in.

And no, I have not listened to The Psychology of Eating, though it sounds like something I need to put in my feed!

CHAMPION: On the subject of psychotherapists, I think one of the reasons your audio drama works so well is because Julia Morizawa is tremendously believable as Dr. Bright. We often hear an annoyed edge in her voice, a vague artificiality often vacillating with something real, with the slight pause just before she has to enter into that professional therapeutic mode. I’m so glad that your audio drama is paying attention to these minute cadences, whether deliberately or organically. It’s one of the aspects of therapy that can be irksome when you’re on the couch! And it leads me to wonder what work you did with Julia to hit these very precise notes and what prep you’ve done with your actors in general. Of course, what I’m detecting here may very well be the natural intimacy of radio! After all, if you listen to any of Anna Sale’s interviews on Death, Sex & Money, it often sounds like a therapy session. Why do you think the radio format lends itself more to a therapeutic vibe? Should audio drama be hitting this sweet spot if it expects to win over larger audiences? Also, how did these conversations with yourself in traffic contribute to the writing process you worked out?

SHIPPEN: Julia is a magical superhuman and The Bright Sessions would not be a tenth of what it is without her. That sounds like hyperbole; it isn’t. I’ve known Julia for about two years – we met in acting class at the BGB Studio in North Hollywood. That same studio is where I met Briggon Snow (Caleb) and Charlie Ian (Damien) — it’s a studio full of crazy talented people and I take as much advantage of that as possible. The moment I realized I didn’t want to play Dr. Bright myself (and yes, that was something I briefly flirted with), my mind immediately went to Julia.

juliabrightI wish I could take credit for all the nuances that Julia brings to the role but all the layers and subtle shifts you hear are a testament to Julia’s talent as an actor. We certainly discuss the character and the story; I give my impressions and Julia always comes prepared with insightful questions and ideas. The first time we recorded, she lugged this enormous binder with her — it had the scripts, her own personal character biography, and pages of notes. Her dedication and attention to detail has made Dr. Bright an incredibly interesting and complex character and really changed the way I approached the writing her. No one, including myself, knows Dr. Bright better than Julia and I think that shines through.

On the whole, I don’t do much prep with my actors. I honestly don’t even give them that much direction when we record. They are all very talented people that I have worked with before and I trust their instincts. I’m still amazed I was able to convince these brilliant people into doing this little project — I really feel like I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast.

samplaylistOur especially dedicated listeners (of which we have more than I could have dreamed — another embarrassment of riches) will be familiar with the music playlists I made for each character. While these have been very fun to share with our audience as bonus features, I made them for myself as a writing tool and for my actors as a way to round out the characters for them. While we were recording the first season, I shared these playlists as well as Pinterest boards. While not directly related to the plot, these were used to express some of the less tangible aspects of the characters.

I think the phrase you used, “the natural intimacy of radio”, is exactly why it lends itself to the therapeutic feeling. With radio, the listener can imagine whatever they want about how the person looks, what the setting is like, etc. This engagement of the imagination engages us emotionally as well and creates this atmosphere of intimacy. I think this is furthered by the fact that most people listen to podcasts alone, with headphones on. It feels personal in a way that TV or film doesn’t. As for an audio drama sweet spot, I’m still trying to find that myself.

The traffic conversations have been a big part of my life in LA and I’m sure have gotten me a few strange looks at stoplights. When I’m working on a character — whether it’s one I’m auditioning for or one I’m creating from the bottom up — I have to determine some things about how they talk. Where in my voice does their dialogue sit? What’s their cadence? What filler words do they use? This can all be worked out on paper or in a script, but I find it’s much easier to work through this process out loud.

So, when I’m doing a task that is taking up most of my focus — driving, cooking, doing dishes — I’ll pass the time by having imaginary conversations with these characters. Some of these conversations simply help me get into the mindset, but some end up in the final product. I think I was able to write that first episode in one sitting because I had worked out most of it in the car when driving back from Santa Monica during rush hour (never do this).

glengarryCHAMPION: I’m tremendously fascinated with the work you’re doing with the actors to establish these characters and very curious how, in this case, Julia’s notes altered the writing. How much of this story do you have planned out? And how much of the story has been dictated by the notes from the actors? What did these music playlists reveal about these characters that, say, unpacking a history and a backstory didn’t? Your filler description reminds me very much of how David Mamet layers his scripts with underlined emphasis and includes all these filler words or how someone like Kevin Smith is especially demanding of inflection points. My own feeling is that there’s a certain futility in this process. Because there isn’t a single writer, no matter how talented, who can completely transcribe human speech without the final artistic output sounding deliberately stylized. This can often take us away from the reality of what we’re experiencing — unless, of course, one is deliberately striving for a heightened reality. But it does raise some questions. Because no matter what the art, one does have to find a balance between reality and fiction. If we’re reading transcribed speech from Mark Twain or Emma Bovary’s inflections, our minds can fill in the details. But radio is more explicit about speech, even if we’re still using our minds to imagine what’s happening before us. How do your conversations in the car help you to find a compromise between some “authentic” blueprint and the organic nature of conversation that you end up recording?

SHIPPEN: I had written the first nine episodes (which make up the first season) before we all sat down for the first table read. I had a clear idea of who these characters were and where I wanted the story to go. And then I heard it out loud, as interpreted by smart, talented people, and things shifted. I don’t want to go too much into what the initial overarching plot of The Bright Sessions was for fear of changing people’s perceptions of what it is now, but hearing Julia interpret the character of Joan Bright changed the way I thought of the character. She became more real, more human, and her motivations changed somewhat as a result. This shift changed a lot of other characters as well.

theamSimilarly, our production meeting before season two provided a lot of inspiration. I shared the first few scripts and told the actors what I had in store. And then they shared their ideas about the characters and how they wanted them to grow. A lot of the plot for season two grew out of that. The finale episode of this season is a direct result of that production meeting and a few ideas that Charlie Ian floated around. A lot of The AM has been influenced by ideas that Julia has had. So, while I do all the actual writing, my actors absolutely deserve a lot of story credit for the second season.

I don’t know what the music playlists revealed to the actors — that’s probably something I should ask them. For me, the mixes provide the general mood of the character; an energy. I listen to the mixes before writing the characters to get me in that mindset. It can also help me zero in on an overall theme within the character. For example, I built Sam’s whole playlist pretty quickly (she’s the character I voice so I know her very well) and afterwards I realized how much of the content had to do with the idea of “home.” That discovery told me a lot about the character and what was important to her.

I think you’re absolutely right — no writer can ever perfectly mimic natural speech. My use of filler speech, aborted starts to sentences, stutters, etc. function more as goal posts for the general speech pattern of the characters. Caleb says “like” a lot — he’s a teenager, he doesn’t always know how to express himself so he uses this filler word and doesn’t finish sentences sometimes. Sam has a lot of ellipses in her speech. She’s a nervous person so she stops to think of the right…word. I’ll write these kinds of things into the script and then the actors will adopt them and put them in the natural places, even when they aren’t written in. Then it becomes a volley between me and the actor — I write something, they improv and ad lib, I adopt those natural inclinations into writing the next time, so on and so forth.

The car conversations are vital in the early stages of developing a character. I can try and write out their speech patterns but it won’t solidify until I start saying it out loud. There are things that will look good on paper but sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud. And then there are questions that need to be answered. Does the speech go up at the end — if so, how would that affect the way they structure their sentences? Where do they pause? Why do they pause? Do they have to fill the pause with speech or can they sit in silence? All of these questions need to be answered and are easiest when worked through out loud. I don’t often return to these car conversations after I’ve gotten used to writing a character. Thought they can be helpful for figuring out how two characters who have never met talk to each other because each character relates to every other character in a unique way and that is going to change their speech.

CHAMPION: Aha! So as I suspected, your actors almost serve as “editors” for your scripts! This leads me to ask how you manage all the very helpful input you get from your talent. This may be tangentially related to the issue of natural vs. stylized speech, but have you ever faced a situation where your vision for the storyline gets disrupted by all the ideas from others? If so, how do you manage all the notes? How locked is the script when you eventually record it? Also, how and where are you recording it? Given that the patients are teenagers, I’m wondering if you ever considered using actual teenagers for the part. Aside from the car conversations and your work with the actors, do you talk to a lot of high schoolers to get a sense of their angst? (I’m thinking especially of Caleb and the adept way you handle his sexuality.) Given that you seem to be responding to what you have previously established with each episode, what steps have you taken to ensure that you never get caught up in tropes or predictable storylines? Do you have a natural end point in mind for The Bright Sessions?

SHIPPEN: The input from actors never feels too overwhelming or disruptive because it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll send out a script and get some questions and comments back and then I’ll make small adjustments to the script. A lot of the larger ideas come from “wouldn’t it be cool if” conversations about the overarching plot or character development. An actor will make a suggestion or float an idea about what could potentially happen in a season or in an episode and, if it works, I’ll take that suggestion and work it into the existing structure. As the sole writer of the podcast, all the details and specifics are up to me.

When we record, the script is 98% locked in, I’d say. It’s a final draft (that never seems to stop it from having typos) but occasionally an actor will ad lib or ask to say a line a slightly different way. But, beyond from a few minor line changes or improvs, the scripts tend to be consistent from page to episode. Editing also sometimes happens in post-production – I’ve cut out lines in the past that worked on the page but didn’t in the editing bay.

With a few exceptions, we record the episodes with both actors sitting across from each other, with individual mics on them. We go through the episode in it’s entirety a few times as I give notes. It’s a lot like acting in a class — we’re not crammed into a sound booth recording each line one-by-one — instead we’re recording the episode pretty much as it would happen in real life: two people sitting in a room together (my bedroom in this case — we’re very high tech).

Technically, only one of the patients is a teenager: Caleb. Adam is also in his teens, though not a patient, and Chloe is 20 when the series begins, so only just over that period in her life. But no, I never considered using actual teenagers. Firstly, there would be a lot of logistical and practical issues recording with someone under 18 and secondly, I never considered anyone other than Briggon for the role of Caleb. And he has nailed the high school voice, as I knew he would.

jandynelsonI honestly can’t remember the last time I talked to a teenager — I wish I could say I’ve done in-person research, but most of Caleb’s plot line is directly inspired by all the YA novels I read. Yes, I do still read Young Adult fiction. I’ve met my fair share of adults who don’t consider that a good use of time, but I politely disagree. YA fiction is consistently growing and changing and there are some real gems to be found. I read a lot, and in a lot of different genres, and one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a book that I couldn’t put down and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I think it has had a lot of influence on the writing of both Caleb and Chloe and I can’t recommend it enough.

I also spend a lot of time on Tumblr, a website that definitely skews towards a younger audience. There’s actually quite a bit of linguistic discussion that happens on the site and I think I’ve absorbed a lot about how teenagers speak and interact. On top of that, I read fan fiction — not of The Bright Sessions, but of other things. Fan fiction is written about and by many different people, but a good portion of it either explores the lives of teenagers or is written by teenagers. Reading teenage dialogue written by a teenager will give you a pretty good idea of what teenagers sound like. So I think my ability to write compelling high school dialogue is a combination of reading YA fiction, reading fan fiction, and observing teenagers on social media.

This actually transitions well into your question about tropes. A lot of fandom conversation and fan fiction is centered around the idea of tropes — either leaning into them or breaking them. In order to avoid tropes, you have to know what they are. And yes, you can watch a lot of film and television, listen to a lot of audio drama, and read a lot of books to get an idea of what the cliches are but it is helpful to have tropes distilled for you. That’s what happens in fandom discussion.

All that said, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about making things unpredictable. I focus on what stories I want to tell and sometimes that means taking a hard left and sometimes that means jumping directly into a trope – after all, cliches are cliches for a reason. But, to keep things engaging, it’s important to make a slight tweak when engaging with tropes. The Bright Sessions is built on this idea. A mysterious time traveler shows up! But…she can’t control her ability. A high school football player is having trouble expressing his emotions! But…not for the usual reasons. I think it’s really fun to lean into story beats that are familiar but give them a different flavor.

As for keeping the plot from getting predictable, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, in my opinion. When I see a listener comment with a prediction about the plot, I’m pleased if that prediction is very close to correct. That tells me that I’m on the right path, that I’m not going to jump the shark. However, you don’t want your audience to be able to predict everything. And that’s where the red herring comes in (Clue is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve had to delete an entire paragraph explanation of why because this isn’t my chance to write a dissertation of Clue). Currently, I’m seeing a lot of predictions about the end of season two that could be correct. The predictions make sense in the context of what has happened so far but they are largely in response to something that is a bit of a red herring. As a result, I think the end of the season is going to be unexpected at the time and make complete sense looking back (that’s my hope anyway).

As for a natural end point for The Bright Sessions…no, I don’t have one. I’ve heard a lot of other audio drama creators say “I know exactly what the last episode/last line/last season of my podcast is” – I am not that person. I had no idea how this season was going to end when I started it. I know where I would like characters to end up emotionally but I’m really just letting this thing organically develop on its own terms. We’ll see where that takes us.

CHAMPION: Your method of scouring for youthful banter reminds me of how the great novelist Megan Abbott conducts research. She also writes about young people very well and scours many online forums to get the tone right for her last few books. But I’ve detected a bit of Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon in The Bright Sessions. I’m curious to know more about The Bright Sessions‘s literary influences (including YA, of which, being a wide reader myself, I’m certainly not going to pull a Ruth Graham here!). Also, we’re living in a time in which we are saturated by endless superhero movies, Hugo Awards ballot stuffing by frightened white middle-aged libertarians, Comic-Con as a publicity machine, fan entitlement, and numerous other intrusions into genre storytelling. But the many genre audio drama podcasts I listen to — such as yours, Ars Paradoxica, Atheist Apocalypse, Tanis, Lily Beacon, Wolf 359, Eos 10, The Cleansed, far too many wonderful shows to list here — seem relatively insulated from these developments. It’s almost as if audio drama is operating in its own hermetic corner, relatively safe from any General Zod neck-snapping controversies. Do you think audio drama runs the risk of getting co-opted? Or capitulating to the audience too much? What do you feel you owe the audience? Do you think audio drama is enough of its own animal to beat the odds? And why (or why not) do you think that is?

SHIPPEN: I think it’s hard to say what’s not a literary influence on The Bright Sessions — everything I’ve written could probably be traced back to something I read once. I am an avid reader and I feel like every book I read becomes a part of my brain. YA has definitely had a big influence, David Mitchell is always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about world-building (especially on top of existing reality — he’s a master at that), and Philip Pullman (an all-time favorite of mine) has definitely had a roundabout influence on the last few episodes of this season (and on my brain in general).

I think audio drama is excelling in genre storytelling for a few reasons. Firstly, genre film and TV can often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the “smashy-smashy” (as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it). While people, myself included, go to these films for action, it is sometimes given attention to the detriment of character or plot. Unless the action is innovative and exciting enough to hold up a film (as it is in Mad Max: Fury Road, though that movie has pretty much everything going for it, in my opinion), you can’t just blow up buildings (or have Superman snapping necks) and hope people will be satisfied.

Audio drama is truly incapable of making that specific mistake. Action can happen in audio form – the audio montage in Wolf 359‘s “Mayday” is a stellar example of this — but action isn’t the go-to. Instead, the focus goes to the characters and the worlds. When you can’t distract the audience with shiny effects or crazy stunts, you have to work twice as hard to give them something to chew on. I think that motivates audio drama to innovate a lot more than other mediums.

Secondly, I think audio drama benefits from being independently produced. It costs money to make a podcast, but not Mad Max $150 million kind of money. There’s no studio to appease, no execs to give notes, no 20 person marketing team ready to merchandise your idea. Having audio drama be entirely in the hands of its creators provides the kind of freedom you can’t find in big genre movies. As a result, you see a lot more risk-taking and a lot more diversity in audio drama. Half of the podcasts you mentioned have female protagonists; Marvel has yet to make a female-led movie. There have been numerous news stories recently about how female characters in genre films were changed to male for fear that a female character wouldn’t sell toys. Even when genre creators try their best to widen the pool of main characters — and I really do believe that they are trying — there is a larger machine at work that can stall progress. To my knowledge, that machine has yet to exist in audio drama.

I couldn’t presume to predict where the audio drama world is headed — I’m still a newcomer but I feel like things have shifted in the year I’ve been working on The Bright Sessions. There’s more content than ever and the quality of said content seems to be getting better and better. I think there will certainly be attempts to co-opt audio drama — after all, it is a rapidly growing entertainment sector with low overheads and excellent advertising potential — but I don’t know what form that will take or how successful those attempts will be. But, whatever happens, I think audio drama will continue to find new and exciting ways to tell stories, whether independently or under a larger umbrella. Bigger is sometimes better.

As for what I feel I owe our audience: I want to continue to entertain and surprise them. I want to keep things unpredictable without making them ever feel like they’ve been misled or cheated. I don’t think I owe rainbows and sunshine — the audience doesn’t have to like every plot point or character — but I owe thoughtful writing, even when it’s painful. I owe them continued and respectful character development, enthusiasm to rival their own, and a satisfying conclusion to a story they’ve invested in.

As to when that conclusion will come is anybody’s guess.

The Zombie Adulthood Ideal of A.O. Scott

There is certainly a case to be made against the increasing hostility to anything remotely “difficult” in American culture. Rebecca Mead rightly called out Ira Glass after the This American Life host tweeted “Shakespeare sucks” and opined that the Bard was “not relatable, unemotional.” Last month, the Washington Post published an op-ed written by a dullard named Justin Moyer that was indistinguishable from a small child banging out a spastic screed before his daily Ritalin shot. It began with the sentences, “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” There is a legitimate sickness in our culture when sitcom experts complain about poptimism and this dreadful neologism is offered as a “cure” for book criticism. Calling someone with highbrow tastes a “snob” is no different from calling some undiscerning underground hip-hop listener a “backpacker” or suggesting that someone should be embarrassed for reading YA. But in shoehorning these problems into some vaguely expressed notion of “adulthood” in The New York Times, A.O. Scott has revealed himself as a flailing prescriptive type who would rather wolf down the few canapés remaining on the plate rather than share what’s left. If you don’t share his vulpine approach, you’re a “child.”

Adulthood, for Scott, means an embittered white male existence where an older woman who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair is an unacceptable cancer to be sneered at and eradicated. He suggests that the adults we now see within culture are “symbolic figure[s] in someone else’s coming-of-age story” and he limits acceptable comic protagonists to people who have “something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt.” (Never mind that Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface were essentially hard-on-their-luck guys who acted “morally” or “politically” in their narratives only on occasion and largely by accident.) Scott’s notion of adulthood is a concessional ideal, one that does not wish to learn from the work that gets through to people.

Scott fears that the “perpetual freedom and delight” of reading YA fiction means squeezing out the more “serious” titles and living a relentlessly juvenile life devoted to nothing more than slavish fandom. But this is an especially condescending way of looking at readers. Facebook recently compiled the results of a meme where users tagged each other, listing the “ten books that stayed with you in some way.” Both YA and “serious” titles left memorable impressions on readers. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series took the top position. J.R.R. Tolkien, Suzanne Collins, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis snagged six slots in the top twenty. But readers still care very much about Shakespeare, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Victor Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Mark Twain. And they’ll continue to care about great literature as long as we continue to remain passionate about it. It is rather sad and delimiting that Scott cannot fathom a reader who likes both YA and books, much less the possibility of getting readers into YA hooked onto other forms of literature.

To some degree, I sympathize with Scott. When the distinguished indie publisher Coffee House Press spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign for an essay compilation on cat videos, I was skeptical. How could the same house that published J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing devote itself to such a superficial and ostensibly juvenile exercise? But then I remembered that I had edited and uploaded two cat videos — one that was a Keyboard Cat response to Spock’s melodramatic breakdown in “The Naked Time” and a Nyan Cat video that was in answer to a preposterous Herman Cain commercial. Both exercises were goofy attempts to understand the style of these then popular memes. I wanted to know why something got through to an audience by reverse-engineering it. So who was I to stand in the way of potential cat video scholarship, especially when an essay outlining the rise and popularity of the YouTube genre could lead readers to other thoughtful valleys?

My initial dismay originated from the kind of myopic view that Scott proffers in his essay. I worried that people who wanted to read about cat videos would not have opinions or interest in reading about Syria, ISIS, developments in Gaza, the recent fast food strike, income inequality, drones, journalistic ethics, the history of American imperialism, militarized police and the needless murders of unarmed men, racism, sexism, game theory, #gamergate and the increasing abuse towards women who speak their minds, and any number of important subjects that I can’t stop obsessing over as a thinking adult. On the other hand, if I want other people to care even a soupçon about issues I consider important, then it would be foolish of me not to examine what does get people excited. This is why I have read at least one volume of Harry Potter and Hunger Games. It is why I have played all three Bioshock games. It is why I listened to a One Direction album in full (never again). It is why I tuned into Beyoncé’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, it’s also important for me to read, watch, and listen to the art that people aren’t paying attention to. But if I want to be culturally fluent and communicate with people, then I need to get some baseline on what’s happening. I don’t have to like it. (Indeed, in many cases, I don’t.) But if I despise it, I can always go back to James Joyce, Shakespeare, Maria Bamford’s comedy, Ronna & Beverly, Westlake’s Parker novels, Iris Murdoch, the Marx Brothers, Mark Twain, The Shaggs, Fawlty Towers, The Prisoner, Alison Bechdel, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, the hilariously misunderstood movie Shoot ‘Em Up, or any of the countless pleasures that keep me happy and inspired. I really don’t care what brow the art is supposed to rest on. Culture is omnifarious. It just has to be good.

Now when a scummy anti-intellectual jackanape proclaims that there is only one type of art to appreciate — whether it be Dan Kois employing his ADD and ample idiocy to protest high art he deems “cultural vegetables” or Ruth Graham telling Slate readers that they need to be ashamed of reading YA (a charge adeptly parried by the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg) — it gets in the way of the natural all-encompassing pursuit. It creates a needless lie that something entertaining cannot be found in art or that something artful cannot be found in entertainment. It is precisely the kind of two-tiered, hypocritical approach to cultural engagement that Leslie A. Fiedler, who Scott glowingly quotes from, nailed in his essay, “The Middle Against Both Ends”:

There is no count of sadism and brutality which could not be equally proven against Hemingway or Faulkner or Paul Bowles — or, for that matter, Edgar Allen Poe. There are certain more literate critics who are victims of their own confusion in this regard, and who will condemn a Class B movie for its images of flagellation or bloodshed only to praise in the next breath such an orgy of highminded sadism as Le Salarie de la Peur. The politics of the French picture may be preferable, or its photography; but this cannot redeem the scene in which a mud- and oil-soaked truckdriver crawls from a pit of sludge to reveal the protruding white bones of a multiple fracture of the thigh. This is as much horror-pornography as Scarface or Little Caesear. You cannot condemn Superman for the exploitation of violence, and praise the existentialist-homosexual-sadist shockers of Paul Bowles. It is possible to murmur by way of explanation something vague about art or catharsis; but no one is ready to advocate the suppression of anything merely because it is aesthetically bad. In this age of conflicting standards, we would all soon suppress each other.

Scott can claim import in three notable deaths in Mad Men while avoiding any comparable speculation into the notable deaths in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2. He can bring up the death of television patriarchs, essentially the “adulthood” he covets in culture, but backpedal from articulating it (“this is not really an argument I want to have right now”). He can commend Walter White on Breaking Bad as a seductive monster, but not examine Olivia Pope’s comparable qualities on Scandal. (Scandal‘s last season finale racked up 10.5 million viewers. That’s a tad more than the 10.28 million people who watched “Felina,” the Breaking Bad finale.) Olivia Pope is arguably a “grown-up” character. Is it not fruitful to examine how Shonda Rhimes depicts adulthood in our culture? Or is Scott simply incapable of looking at the world through the eyes of anyone who isn’t a white person? What of the adulthood in Orange is the New Black? Key & Peele? The Bridge? (All of these shows, including Scandal, won the distinguished Peabody Award last year. All of these shows contain adult perspectives that are not presented from the white male side. None of these shows were mentioned by Scott in his essay.)

This dishonest notion of unvoiced Cacuasian privilege recalls Scott’s hostility to Spike Lee earlier this year, which resulted in an appropriately blistering response by Lee. It is not so much “the cultivation of franchises…that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world” that Scott condemns. It is his timidity in confronting his myopia. He will wave a scolding finger at those who don’t fulfill his limited ideal of art as he trashes the “glass brownstone” of anyone trying to depict minorities and subcultures while making art. He cannot seem to value any perspective straying outside “the monument valley of the dying patriarchs.”

A.O. Scott is little more than a reactionary bore holding up a zombie ideal of “traditional adulthood” that involves being a Veblenian consumer too self-respecting “to be idiotic, selfish, and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless.” His essay rightly signals “a crisis of authority,” but it’s too bad he doesn’t have the guts to leave his lawn. He’d probably have a much better time, maybe discovering a few new ways to be adult along the way.

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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This concludes Stage One of the editorial process.

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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.

The Bat Segundo Show: Jenny Davidson

Jenny Davidson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #230. Davidson is most recently the author of The Explosionist.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Investigating the veracity of explosions.

Author: Jenny Davidson

Subjects Discussed: Coincidental run-ins, the necessity of war, Edmund Burke, philosophical asides, a novelist’s use of argument, Agatha Christie novels, John Buchan, ending chapters on cliffhangers, early 20th century British adventure fiction, alternate universes, Tolstoy as theologian, research undertaken years in advance of writing a novel, forgetting things one makes up, world-building as you go along, Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon, thought experiments, rationality vs. emotions, historical plausibility exemplified by electric kitchens, junk science, lie detectors, spiritualism vs. organized religion, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herbert Sidgewick, radios talking to ghosts, post-9/11 sensibility, danger of terroristic attacks in public places, narrative serving the needs of the world, novels as problem-solving exercises, tradeoff between security and civil liberties, fiction as a means of addressing political issues, productive forgetting, contemplation hindering the creative process, the internal responsibility to finish a trilogy, Margo Rabb, YA and genre categorization, voracious and eclectic reading, the difficulties of writing a good book, John Banville, cynical motivations for writing genre novels, freedom afforded by academic institutions, meaningful distinctions between YA and adult fiction, Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, whether authors should worry about book marketing, leaving publishing concerns to the experts, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Sigmund Freud broadcasting via pirate radio, possible references to The Man in the High Castle and Brave New World, suicide booth trope in Golden Age SF novels, inventions by Alfred Nobel’s father, seals trained to drag bombs on ships, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes, exclamation marks, italicized words, exclamations as metaphor for genre writing, cockamamie explanations in the exposition, nostalgia for British children’s literature, ratio for invention and ambiguity, classroom scenes as an acceptable setting for fiction, reclusiveness, the enthusiasm and passion of boy characters, tension between female school roommates, Muriel Spark as a “great novelist of a small group”, sociological interest in dynamics of schools and boarding houses, Scottish dialect, peculiarities of diction, willful delving into uncomfortable territory, standing by sentences, emotional ethical questions about truthfulness, relationship between style and ethics, when writing is “too showy”, Thomas Paine, self-pity as antithesis to good writing, blindness to self-justifying elements of prose, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, Ernest Hemingway’s style, David Foster Wallace as self-parody, David Copperfield, the purity of the unwritten sentence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Well, going back to one of the many questions that I just asked you about the idea of concocting this alternative universe, was it a matter of working within a loose world here? I mean, in a way, this book reminded me very much of a Michael Moorcock alternative history, like the Hawkmoon books that he wrote, which have only a few existing elements which suggest what may have happened. But it’s largely an excuse. This particular book gave Moorcock the freedom to explore this notion of ideas that have spun off into other terribly mutated forms. And I wanted to ask how this idea of worldbuilding relates to this idea of exploring ideologies, of which I plan to ask you more about.

Davidson: I think that’s a really fair description. And I find in my academic writing, as well as in my fiction writing, I’m strongly right now in a counterfactual mode, where it’s the thought experiment appeal. If this was different, and the thing that you make different — like, in this case, what if 1930s Scotland was still really being run in a way that was consistent with the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment. No swerve into the 19th century and these different snails of thought. What if we really went back to those core ideas of rationality and the emotions? That was my most fundamental counterfactual for this novel. The set of questions that came up around that. And what if you were a teenage girl growing up in a country that was being run along those principles? That was at the core of my interest in the topic and what made me want to write the book. So the other stuff is for fun, and the stuff that comes up around that once you start thinking that way. But I guess in a sense, I’m not so much writing alternate history as a novel of ideas type thing. Where the premise of altering something in the past allows me to get a clear grip on some idea like that. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how we categorize these different genres anyway.

Correspondent: So you’re saying in the end that where it’s set, or when it’s set, really does not matter because it is a novel of ideas? Is that what you’re suggesting here? And that the world, or the alternative universe, is more of a fun component towards entering the story?

Davidson: Well, I think the sense that you get — at least I hope the sense that you get — I’m clearly a writer who is in love with densely realized and realistic particulars that are historically plausible in some sense. So that, for instance, the storeroom with the electric kitchens, and all the sense that electricity is transformative and the way of future — that’s very realistic. I mean, that was a real feature. And a lot of the things in the novel that seem slightly fantastical, I drew from historical sources. I don’t mean so much to say that it’s a novel of ideas, as I mean to say it’s more like regular historical fiction than alternate history. Because, in fact, in very many particulars, the world of Sophie’s 1938 Scotland is like the world of real 1938 Scotland.

BSS #230: Jenny Davidson

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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.]