Monday, June 6, 2011

Those Bad, Sad YA Novels: Get Off My Lawn Version


A few weeks ago, the New York Times brought us this anxious, hand-wringing take on all the bad, sad YA novels (possibly? sort of?) poisoning the minds of teens. Now we have the finger-wagging, crankypants take on the very same idea from the Wall Street Journal.

Well. I guess it's nice that liberals and conservatives can agree on something.

The two articles share three basic tenets:

1) that we parents didn't read such bad, sad novels back when we were teens (as we were too busy reading Ulysses and/or Anne of Green Gables)

2) that swearing and drugs and stomach-turning descriptions of abuse are "just part of the run of things" in modern teen novels and no one besides anxious and/or angry moms seems to care

3) that anyone under the age of 18 reads for no other reason but to learn valuable -- or in this case, destructive -- lessons.

All of these are wrong, of course. The first proves that the writers of these articles have completely forgotten all the lurid garbage they devoured as teens. Flowers in the Attic, anyone? Go Ask Alice?

The second is the result of the same stupid exercise we've seen again and again. A writer unfamiliar with contemporary teen lit gets ahold of this or that book and is shocked to find, well, whatever it is that shocks and alarms him/her most — sexuality or swearing or violence or bad writing or melodrama or "darkness." He/she then assumes these things can be found in all teen novels and proceeds to have a very public nervous breakdown.

But for every "dark" teen title that has NYT and WSJ columnists wringing their hands or shaking their fists, there are ten others that don't feature "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings." Any YA librarian or well-trained bookstore clerk could name dozens upon dozens of sunny, thoughtful, well-written, challenging, and/or werewolf-free titles, a lot of them on the bestseller lists. So why aren't these the ones written up in the Wall Street Journal?

Setting aside the fact that realistic teen fiction — so-called "problem novels" — aren't half as popular as fantasy and sci-fi right now, these books seem to be lightning rods for parental anxiety. Which makes some sense. Teen novels illuminate teen culture, interests, and experiences, and these things can be particularly scary to adults trying to keep teens safe and healthy. Though the writer of the NYT article seems to be more of the "teen lit is about as artful as a sledgehammer" school of literary criticism, she doesn't deny that teen lit can sometimes accurately reflect what's going on in the lives of teens (even if she really doesn't want to hear about it, thank you very much).

On the other hand, the writer of the new WSJ article seems to belong to the "adolescence is a time of bunny rabbits and rainbows" school of thought. She writes that teen novels do not reflect teen culture as much as distort it, and that such distorted portrayals of teen life will create a hunger for ever more distorted portrayals. Ugliness begets ugliness, this columnist writes. Such books will ruin children's happiness, break their tender hearts, and normalize pathological behavior.

In other words, dark books will put dark thoughts in the kids' heads, ideas that they never would have come up with themselves. Dark books teach dark lessons.

Not be outdone by the NYT in the fearmongering department, this is when the WSJ columnist really starts brandishing her cane at the sky. She indicts booksellers and reviewers for failing to notice coarse language. She mocks writers for valuing free expression, and accuses librarians of "delighting" in banned book lists. She blames video-game-addled, aesthetically-challenged young whippersnappers at publishing houses for "bulldozing misery into the lives of children." She tells parents to stand strong against the tsunami of swill and the evil designs of writers, editors, and librarians.

And then she undercuts all this magnificent hysteria by declaring that teens don't read teen novels anyway.

So, why are we talking about this again? Oh, right. Comment-baiting!

Not surprisingly, the twitterverse and blogosphere have erupted, with many YA writers, readers, librarians and teachers talking about how teen lit can save lives (#yasaves). And I believe this is true. But I also think this bit from Roger Sutton's blog is interesting:

"Gurdon's argument about why gritty YA books are published is classic straw-man stuff:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Who actually believes this is how reading works? It was Sheila Egoff who pointed out that the audience for Go Ask Alice was not drug-crazed runaways but nice little middle-class junior high girls with a taste for melodrama. People like reading about people like themselves whose problems are more interesting than their own. Unfortunately, the Twitterati are buying into Gurdon's thinking from the other way around, claiming that "YA saves," and that YA writers are brave and heroic and helpful, none of which qualities being particularly useful for a writer. Give me an author who is truthful and talented; spare me an author who writes to save lives."

What neither the NYT nor the WSJ columnist seems to understand is that teens read for all the same reasons that adults read. Sometimes a book will help a teen feel less alone in the world, or validate his/her personal experience (which, I'm sorry to say, can be all kinds of dark and abuse-filled). And in this case, individual books really can save lives.

But for other teens, books are a window onto lives and experiences entirely unlike their own. (As Roger Sutton says, they like to read about people with more interesting problems.) And we can't forget that a lot of teens, like adults, read simply because they want to lose themselves in a cracking good story filled with all sorts of drama.

Before we get ourselves all tied up in knots because teens occasionally read "dark" books, let's not forget that teens read all kinds of "dark" stories -- that is, violent, strange, bloody, and fabulous stories -- in their English classes. I'm talking about Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Antigone, Beowulf, Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Canterbury Tales, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Lottery, etc. etc. etc. Why would we assume that Romeo and Juliet will be less triggering than, say, 13 Reasons Why? Why would we assume young adults are smart enough and sophisticated enough to handle Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but too dim, immature, and impressionable to be trusted with the latest vampire novel (or to put it down if they don't like it)?

And if our teens are too dim, immature and impressionable to set loose in the teen section of a library or a bookstore, don't we have a much bigger problem than books?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Not again, NYTBR

Why oh why does the NYTBR like to give YA novels to reviewers a) who claim to have never read one, b) don't respect them, and/or c) have teens of their own, so are already suffering PTSD from all things adolescent? Said reviewer then goes on to write a review that isn't really a review as much as it is a whole lot of hand-wringing over the sad, dark or just plain bad books teens are reading. What are we going to do about all the sad, bad books teens are reading????

I hadn't yet read last Sunday's issue of the book review until someone told me about this column and the subsequent follow-up post on the Motherlode blog. I found both these articles so wrong, so many times that I was exhausted even before I started composing a response. Other people, like Sarah Ockler and Bennett Madison, are more on top of these things.

I did manage to comment on the Motherlode blog yesterday, hopefully not too snarkily or ineptly. What I objected to most was this reviewer's notion that "The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson."

Please. The purpose of teen lit is to tell stories teens want to read. Sure, every writer has a worldview, and we can't escape that, but I don't write any book with the idea I'm about to impart a "much-needed lesson." (Though Bennett Madison does point out on his blog that some YA authors, editors and gatekeepers seem to be confused on this point themselves, so why wouldn't the NYT be confused as well?)

And then there was requisite insistence that the worried parents of all these sad, dark teens never read any of this rot back when they were kids. No, no, they read books for adults. Like Go Ask Alice. (Yes, she used this as an example, though how she got the idea this was written for adults I'll never know. Also, who would use Go Ask Alice as an example of anything but scaremongering?)

Go Ask Alice aside, I can't understand what this comment is supposed to mean. It's better for teens to read sad, dark books as long as they're for adults? We should be handing out Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the seventh grade? Besides, if YA is all darkness and rot, well, I read plenty of rot when I was a teen, and I happen to be one of "today's parents." Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier were particular favorites of mine. (Is there any YA writer darker than Robert Cormier?)

The reviewer complains that today's YA novels don’t even pretend to appeal to grown-ups. Which is sort of hilarious, given the millions of Twihard moms and the uproar over the casting of "The Hunger Games." And again, sort of irrelevant. Who cares if the books appeal or don't appeal to grown-ups? Is it because the typical adult won't pick them up, so then won't be aware that all the teen books are so sad and dark?

Now that I'm thinking about it, I think this is the point of both the review and blog post, the point of every hand-wringing not-review about YA that the NYTBR does. The reviewer imagines he or she is alerting naive and unsuspecting parents to the horror lurking on the bookshelves. I'VE UNCOVERED THE TRUTH, the reviewer says. THESE BOOKS ARE DARK, PEOPLE. And then, WHY ARE THESE BOOKS SO DARK? (I imagine the reviewer saying this with both hands clapped over her cheeks a la Munch's Scream).

In my response on the Motherlode blog, I said, "They're not," and posted examples of a whole bunch of authors who weren't writing problem novels about cutting and bulimia. (Which is not to say we don't need those sorts of novels). And then I said, "So what if they are? As a teen, I plowed my way through horror novel after horror novel, because it seemed to me that middle school and high school bore a remarkable resemblance to hell." And this is true, too.

I remember sitting at a salon, chatting with my stylist as she cut my hair. The customer in the chair next to me learned I wrote for teens and fretted out loud that her daughter was reading way too many "depressing" books. Kids should read cheerful things, this mother said. But what I believe she was really saying was that her daughter was too depressing. That her daughter should be more cheerful. And you know what? Teens can be dark. They can be depressed. And angry and moody and combative. It is scary at times, terrifying even, to parent dark, depressed, angry, moody, combative people who change their hair color every forty seconds and want to pierce random bits of themselves.

But the books are not causing this teenage turmoil. They reflect the turmoil. And reading the books can give teens the opportunity to reflect on that turmoil it in a way they sometimes can't when they're screaming that they hate you and that they're so getting that tongue stud when they move to Thailand to get away from you.

Reviews like Lisa Belkin's seem to insist that teenagers only read one sort of book -- the dark kind, the sad kind, the sex-and-drinking-filled kind that terrifies their parents. But, like adults, teens don't read only one sort of book. The kid who spends a year devouring everything they can about Dachau suddenly decides that what they're really interested in is organic farming. And isn't that what's so great about books? That, no matter what your age, you can read so deeply and so widely, about dark things and light things and everything in between, experiencing it all in the safety of your imagination?

My question? Why doesn't the NYTBR know this?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mortification Monday #BlogInARound

Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) asked authors for embarrassing event stories after blogging about her own tales of mortification. Since it's a cold and miserable day, it seems like a fitting topic.

The first event I did to promote my first novel Lily's Ghosts was a visit at my then 13-year-old's school as part of a celebration of the arts. I was introduced as "Jessie's stepmom" which meant that every teen in the room promptly ignored me while the teachers chatted loudly in the back of the room. (Never a prophet in your own country?)

Another event I did was at a local book festival. I'd heard it could be a challenge to get families to attend book festivals in the summer, and even harder to get kids to sit and listen to an author when these festivals usually had clowns and guys like this performing as well. So I was happily surprised to see a sizable crowd gathered at the tent where I was supposed to present. I sat in the audience to listen to the man who was speaking before me. The man started to talk about his love of children, his fondness for gardening, his hopes, his dreams, his wish for peace and goodwill toward men. The sun got high in the sky. People began fanning themselves. He talked some more. Hopes! Dreams! Fresh vegetables! People fidgeted, checked their cell phones for messages. I'm not sure if the man was a writer because he hadn't yet mentioned a book, and the crowd was getting restless. Children were starting to whimper. Adults hushed them and consulted programs, most likely looking for the nearest snack bar or the time of the next Bubble Man performance. People started to leave in dribs and drabs, then in droves. When it was my turn to speak, the only people left in the audience were three people I'd invited, plus one child and his long-suffering mom. (Possibly the child was scared of clowns and/or bubbles?).

My book for adults, I'm Not Julia Roberts, was released in January in 2007. The first event for this book was a reading at a bookstore on a dark, wind-whipped Monday night, the temperature hovering around two degrees, the air filled with stinging needles of snow. The bookstore manager was the optimistic sort, and had set out, oh, about nine thousand chairs. Which were empty. Finally, one guy who ducked into the store to get out of the cold sat with the manager and listened to me read. A few years later, the bookstore closed. (I like to think that I had nothing to do with it.)

Around the same time as that ill-fated bookstore event, I was doing a tour of area libraries to talk about my middle-grade books. At these events, I was usually getting about twenty-five to thirty-five kids, which I thought was a great turn out. At one of the libraries, however, I was surprised to find a crowd of three hundred students and their teachers waiting in an auditorium for me. Awesome, right? Except I didn't have a microphone, or a PowerPoint presentation, or back-up dancers, or anything. So, I stood on stage and PROJECTED as loudly as could while waving my books over my head. Still, the kids were great and everything was going remarkably well, until I noticed that one of the teachers sitting dead center in front of me had fallen asleep. Not quietly. Think Homer Simpson: head thrown back, uvula vibrating, audibly snoring. I tried to ignore her, as well as the students around her, who were pointing at her and snickering (though these students were not as loud as the teacher). Finally, during the Q&A, the teacher woke up, stretched, noticed me yammering away on the stage, and raised her hand. When I called on her she asked me if I knew any agents I could recommend to her. I said, "Literary agents?" Clearly irritated by my stupidity, she said, "No, movie agents."

Most recently, I attended an author breakfast at which a local author was seated at every table to chat with attendees between main speakers (some of whom were quite famous). When I arrived, I went to my assigned table only to find every seat taken. A woman with pink hair noticed that I was looking for a seat. She said, "I'm sorry, this table is full." I said, "Yes, but I'm the author." She stared at me blankly. I said, "An author is assigned to sit at every table." She frowned and said, "But this table is full." I said, "I'm here for the Author Chats. It's in the program." She frowned even more deeply and said, "There's no room." I said, "Well, I can find somewhere else to sit, but you're going to have the same problem when they rotate the authors between tables." As I glanced around the ballroom, wondering if it would be strange to sit on the floor, someone else at the table realized what was going on and made room for me.

But I did end up chatting with the woman with pink hair between speakers. Because it was an author breakfast, and people usually came to these things to talk about books, I asked her what kinds of books she liked to read. "I don't really read," she said. "I'm just here to see Weird Al Yankovic."

"Yes," I said. "Me, too."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Resurrecting Lily's Ghosts: from OP book to ebook

So, while I've been preparing for the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop in Fantasy that I'll be leading with the fabulous Anne Ursu, I've also been working on something else: turning my first novel, Lily's Ghosts, into an ebook.

When people ask me which of my own books is my favorite, I usually say that it's the book I'm currently writing, because that unfinished book still has a shot at becoming a shining jewel of abject perfection. But if I have to pick, I pick Lily. Lily's Ghosts was my first published novel, and you don't forget that. You don't forget that Kirkus Reviews -- yes, crankypants Kirkus -- called it "a slightly spooky, romantic mystery, capped by that rarest of animals: a twist ending that's totally earned. This should be a movie just so teens and tweens will come ask for the book."

So, I was sad when it went out of print.

But not as sad as I would have been had it happened a few years ago.

More and more people are putting their backlists online themselves — sci-fi/fantasy writers Diane Duane and Art Slade to name some entrepreneurial people comfortable with technology. Me? I'm easily frustrated and somewhat technologically challenged. When I have to look at long strings of numbers -- like ISBNs -- my eyes cross, the numbers get jumbled, and I have to snack to fortify myself. I don't even like the words "upload" and "format." I'm too disorganized, too distractible, too, too, too. But it made no sense to allow my book to disappear when I could keep it alive myself.*

And I was glad for the opportunity to give Lily's Ghosts a fresh look. I've always loved the old illustrated cover, but I wondered if it skewed a bit young for the tweens and teens I had in mind when I wrote the story. I wanted art that was photographic rather than illustrated, more iconic, darker and spookier. Here's the new cover, which I love, designed by Janie Bynum:

Right now, you can only get the ebook on Amazon US and UK; hopefully, it will appear on B&N soon. Still working on getting it into the iBookstore and elsewhere. (I was planning on using Smashwords for that purpose but I'm not happy with their kookoo-bunny formatting. Hmmm.) I'm also planning a print-on-demand version. Perhaps even an audio edition one of these days.

Today's my birthday, normally not that big a deal for me. But having Lily back on the (virtual) shelves? That's a great birthday present.

-- Laura

*Well, not entirely by myself. I hired Rob Siders at to do the formatting for me.

UPDATE: Now up at Barnes and Noble too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Anger management and the coming apocalypse

When I was a college freshman, a close friend decided to record everyone on our dorm floor saying the one phrase she felt best captured his/her personality, the phrase they said most often. Mine? "I hate that. It bothers me."

Sigh. So flattering.

But, after a lot of thought, after going through most of the posts on RL LaFever's fabulous Shrinking Violets Promotions (a fabulous blog for all the introverted writers and artists out there), I've decided to change the name of my blog. Earth-shattering news this isn't, I know. But my own essentially rage-y nature is the reason I'm an author. Something irritates the sweet baby kitties out of me and I have to write about it, just to sort out my own feelings on the subject. Thus, the new name "Anger Management." In which I write about managing anger. Sometimes well. Mostly badly.

There's another thing I'm doing, and that's more blogging, more often. I'll be blogging here, and over at a new website eisforbook, about ebooks and the changes in the publishing business, or the publishing apocalypse, depending on your point of view. My first post here. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

As proof how ill-prepared I am for the "erevolution," I just learned how to put that follower widget thing on this blog. Awesome.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Fantasy Workshop

Highlights Foundation is now taking applications for our Whole Novel Fantasy Workshop that will take place May 1st through the 8th. Last year was the first year that the amazing Anne Ursu and I led this workshop, and I have to say, it was one of the best weeks I've spent with a group of writers. The thoughtful critiques, the intense discussions of craft, the immediate sense of camaraderie, the food, oh my goodness, the FOOD — awesome.

If you or someone you know has a completed fantasy manuscript — middle-grade or YA — and would like to spend a full week steeped in monsters and magic with fellow fantasy lovers, being inspiring and getting inspired, then this Whole Novel Workshop is for you.

Snorting the coffee out of my nose

Ursula LeGuin's response to Harpercollins' new "morality clause" in its publishing contracts.