06 July 2011

Children Are Not Adults

In early June, Megan Cox Gurdon wrote what has become a much debated article for the Wall Street Journal about whether YA literature has become too dark. (You can read the original article here.) In the days and weeks that have followed, Twitter and the rest of the interwebs have exploded with discussions about the issue.

I haven't been sure what it is that I wanted to add, if anything, to the debate, but today, NPR had a feature about Ms. Cox Gurdon and her arguments, and for the first time I had a chance to hear the author of the article speak more about why she made the arguments.  (You can listen to the interview here.) It made me, finally, want to respond.

During the interview, Ms. Cox Gurdon said one thing that caught my interest more than anything else. Considering her general condescension toward the genre and its authors, it should say something that this is what caught my attention. She said, "Children are not adults." Her point was that children do not have the ability yet to distinguish good from bad, moral from immoral, art from trash, and that it is the job of adults (parents) to help them make those distinctions.

I agree...to a point. I think that it should be the responsibility of parents to help their children make these decisions. How parents are supposed to help them if their resources include articles like the ones that Ms. Cox Gurdon wrote--articles with no substantive evidence to back up some of the claims that she made. Articles that rely more on anecdotal evidence and fear-mongering than on actual investigative reporting. Well, that's a different matter, I suppose.

My point is simply this: It is true that children, that teenagers are not adults, but it is also true that literature is not propaganda.

Many on both sides of the issue--those for and against what Ms. Cox Gurdon argued-- seem to miss this important fact.

Now I'm not saying that literature isn't powerful and that reading can't be a transformative act. Literature is immensely powerful. Every time we pick up a book and read, we change. We become someone we weren't before, someone who has now experienced things that he or she had not before. I've spent so many years of my life studying, teaching, and (now) writing literature, because I do believe in its power.

But here's the thing: Literature cannot be prescriptive.

In part, this is because literary language has a slipperiness to it that is nearly impossible to pin down. An author might have certain intentions about what a book is trying to say or trying to convey, but any literature teacher (or student) worth their salt can tell you that when you're interpreting a piece of literature, authorial intentions are a moot point all together. After all, how many racists were vindicated by Twain's use of a certain unmentionable word in Huck Finn when Twain's own intention in using the word was something else entirely?

More importantly, perhaps, literature cannot be prescriptive because reading is an intensely private and personal activity. Without the reader, no book and no experience of reading can be complete.  The reader finishes what the author began in authoring the book, and because each reader brings to the book his or her own sets of experiences and assumptions, no book will strike any two readers the same way.
A book--whether we're talking YA or Romance or anything else--may save a reader or it may maim them, that much is true. But it may also do nothing at all. A book can change your life in any number of ways, but it does not do that simply by existing. To change a life, a book requires the reader's active involvement.

This is the real problem that I see with Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument and the arguments of so many of her opponents--they give the book itself a power that it just simply does not have.

For a book to injure a child in some way, the child has to finish reading it. And a child who cannot relate to some of these so-called "dark" subjects may not select those books or finish those books. But the opposite is true--for a reader to be saved by a book, it's the reader who is already actively searching for an answer. It's the reader who finds their own power within the pages of the book.

I think that what is most frustrating about Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument is that she claims that these "dark" books have the power to harm the teenagers who read them, as though teenagers are not savvy enough to see these stories as literature and not as propaganda. At the same time she accuses these books of ripping away the innocence of our children, she does no better by ripping away their agency as readers.

If YA does save--and I'm inclined to think that it might--it does not do so by preaching or instructing. If YA saves anyone, it does so by allowing teenage readers the power experience of interacting with beautiful, moving, and often challenging texts. YA saves by treating young adults not as the children that they might be, but as the adults they will eventually become.

27 June 2011

Finding My Tribe

See, here's the thing--I've been struggling with the idea of being a writer. I think that deep, deep down, part of me still wants to be a professor. (Probably the bossy part of me that likes assigning homework and making up exams.) Ever since last September, when I started making a real, conscious effort to write a novel, I've been very reluctant to call myself a writer.  I just didn't feel like a writer. I felt like an unemployed professor.

Since September, I've been trying to figure out at what point I could say I was a writer, rather than just a frustrated SAHM who still wanted the Ivory Tower. It didn't feel like one when I sent off my first dues payment to RWA or even when I finished my first "practice" novel. I'm not even sure that it was when I got decent feedback on that novel in a contest. It wasn't when I was obsessively focused on finishing the real novel--the one that I was thinking about the whole time I wrote the practice novel. Maybe I felt a little like a writer when I was querying or emailing fulls and partials, but mostly I just felt like a fraud. I was sure that at some point someone was going to realize I hadn't been writing fiction or wanting this badly enough for me or my work to be taken seriously.

I  felt like since that other thing failed so miserably when it should have worked, I didn't see how this impossible thing could possibly work. I thought that I was supposed to be a professor. For the last eight years or so, my entire identity was wrapped around that dream, that single goal. I think that was part of the reason why it's been so hard to wrap myself around this new dream.

This past Saturday, my local RWA chapter, Southern Magic, had a panel of YA authors that featured Jennifer Echols, Rachel Hawkins, Rosemary Clement-Moore, R.A. Nelson, and Chandra Sparks.  They talked about their books, their lives as writers, and some of those quintessential moments that aspiring writers dream of. As they talked, I realized a couple of things. First-- there are a ridiculous number of insanely talented and very recognizably successful authors who live within a fairly short distance from where I now live. Apparently there's something in the water or air down here.

Second, and probably more significantly, as they talked I realized something that even getting an agent didn't make me realize--these    really are my people.

Don't get me wrong--I was a pretty decent academic. I've got the CV to prove it, even if I don't have the job. But I always felt like being around academics was really, really hard. They're just so smart! All. The. Time.  I am not smart all the time--at least not in that way. Being that kind of smart all the time requires an amount of brain power and focus that I'm not sure I have. No, I'm pretty positive I don't have it.

As I listened to the panel talk this past weekend, I realized that these were the kind of people I want to be friends with--and not in a creepy stalker way. These are the people I  want as colleagues, and these are the people I want to be respected as a colleague by.  When Rachel Hawkins talk about killing all the random smiling in her manuscripts, I knew exactly what she meant. I just got done doing the exact same thing. And when Jennifer Echols talked about being able to announce the first time she sold at one of the Southern Magic meetings, I understood what she was talking about. I had just been able to announce my new agent just moments before. They speak language that I understand--a language of books and literature that has nothing to do with being able to reference obscure German or French philosophers. A language that has everything to do with the difficulty of craft and the beauty of language.

More than any number of words written, or queries sent, or even offers of representation made, the writers I've come to know in the past few months are the reasons why I've started to feel more and more like a writer. And if I ever do become a published author, their books will have been the reason why.

04 April 2011

A Virtue I Don't Possess

So here's the thing-- I have the patience of a gnat. 

No, really. I'm so bad that I tend to read the ends of books because I don't want to wait to see what happens. Sacrilege, I know.

I've never been much for waiting.  In HS I got tired of waiting to get to college, so I started taking courses at Akron U during my senior year. I graduated from Kent in only 3 1/2 years. And then I went straight to grad school and got through that fairly quickly, too.  Actually, I would have been done sooner, but the market tanked so I hung out for a while and pretended not to be done until J finished.

But the publishing industry is absolute torture for someone like me.  I'm all about the instant gratification of knowing.  I don't even care if it's bad news, as long as I know.

Right now I'm querying to agents, and let me tell you that as exciting as it is to still have 6 partials out there, the wait is k.i.l.l.i.n.g. me. 

So I'm trying to figure out what to write next. Mostly, though, I just think about what to do if all 6 of those partials turn out to be a bust.

Also I discovered Twitter, which is like crack for someone who likes to know things instantly. Thank goodness I don't have a smart phone.

So how do you keep waiting from killing you?

01 April 2011

Upon Penalty of Death

I'd like to preface this post with a warning.  You really, really shouldn't tell me any of the following:
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It's all part of God/Yahweh/Ganesh/whomever's plan.
  • You do have a job-- you're a mom.
  • Everything happens for a reason. (seriously- I hate that one.)

So it's been a while, eh? And while you've all been up to whatever it is you've been up to, I've been having a little bit of an identity crisis.

But I think I've worked my way through it finally. (insert applause here)

So the whole being a professor thing didn't turn out. And I'm not really cut out to be a housewife, no matter what the lady at the bank seems to think. So I've decided to go with something really realistic.  That's right.  I'm a writer!

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself until we run out of money and I'm forced to get a full-time job.

But seriously, I wrote a book.  Okay, I wrote two books, but we're not going to count the first one since it was really just practice.  The second one, though, we're totally going to count.

It's out in the world right now looking for an agent.  I'm patiently (okay, not really patiently) waiting for it to send an email home to its mama and tell me it found a fabulous job.

(Did I mention I tend to go for careers that have little-to-no chance of taking off??)

But, hey, seven (out of you don't even want to know how many) people so far actually requested to see pages. 

So stick around and we'll see what happens next.

27 March 2011


Squeak: (out of the blue when we were driving home from preschool) God gave us things.

Me: Oh? Like what?

Squeak: Bushes.

Me: Bushes?

Squeak: And bridges.

14 March 2011

The Bookshelf in Your Mind

In my past life, I taught literature. I was an Academic. I looked down my nose at the Nora Roberts and other Fluff that my mom read each summer. I read real Literature. I read the Greats. I forced my students to wade through the greats. And I loved it.

Then I hit a rough patch back in 2008 and I needed happily ever after instead of "Isn't it pretty to think so?" at the end of the books I read. Someone handed me Outlander. Outlander lead to Karen Marie Moning which led to Mary Balogh which led to me bringing home 10 or more romances a week from my local library and devouring them. Eventually, I had to turn to Nora Roberts. I didn't have much else left. And I fell in love with her, too.

At first I told myself (and my husband, who seemed kind of concerned with my sudden change in reading habits) that it was research. I was learning the genre so that I could understand how it worked.  Partially, I was still experiencing a residual academic shame for the scantily clad couples on the covers of the book I was checking out each week.  But I was also partially telling the truth. I really did want to figure out how those writers managed to take stories that seemed like the same plot over and over and make them fresh and engaging. I wanted to figure out what drew me to those stories.

Read the rest of this post HERE.