Tag Archives: literature

Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.

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The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.

 

 

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Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.

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Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.

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By Invitation Only

Lately? I’m re-discovering Jane Austen and falling in love all over again. I started with Northanger Abbey, a book I’d never read. I was bowled over by its cleverness, humor, delicious language, and lively pace. And then there’s her little gem of an epistolary novel, Lady Susan, whose scheming main character is great fun to hate. Finally, I just finished Mansfield Park, but not without dragging my feet. A lot. I had a great deal of trouble, you see, caring what happens to the insufferable, self-righteous heroine, Fanny. Park is the only Austen book I can’t really admire, not because it’s not strongly written and admirably constructed, but because Miss Goodie Two Shoes is simply so hard to take!

 Which started me thinking about other protagonists I might not be inclined to follow through a book. Some of them, like Melville’s Ahab, are folks even their authors knew better than to foist on us without a buffer. The white whale’s nemesis speaks like thunder, but without Ishmael’s more judicious voice for balance, could we bear the blast? A fellow writer, who’s gone back to grad school, is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the first time. She emailed me that she just doesn’t think she can take any more of this character’s “victim mentality.” Since I adore Hardy’s novel, I begged to differ. But I also realized how individual our responses can be to main characters. And why not? I might introduce the same person to four friends at a party, and never know which combination will click. 

So how about you? Which protagonists do you wish you’d never been introduced to? I’m not talking about characters who start out totally unappealing and then turn likeable à la Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. And I certainly don’t mean delightfully, unrepentantly immoral or flawed m.c.’s like Gatsby or Scarlett O’Hara. I want to know, instead, who rubs you the wrong way from start to finish. (If you finish!) Maybe it’s a character the author doesn’t even know is unspeakable. (Does Philip Roth have any idea how truly loathsome Portnoy is?) Or perhaps it’s one who’s just plain boring. (I’m looking at you, Bella.) Bland or irritating, whiny or obnoxious, let’s invite them all together right here—for the world’s worst party! 

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Shock Your Teeth!

 

In her richly detailed One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty writes of taking train trips with her dad.  As a child, she watched him chart travel time with his large gold pocket watch.  Carefully, she held the “treasure” he would bring out periodically and share: his little metal traveling cup.  She writes of filling it at the water cooler, of raising it to her lips, then  … the clink of the metal tip, a “shock” to her teeth.

A shock to the teeth.  I love that!  So often we privilege our senses of sight and hearing, in writing and life, such that the others go unnoticed, unappreciated.

Here’s a “mouth moment” from a poetry workshop with third graders.  The kids wanted to hear and read aloud certain poems again and again.  They especially liked two lines from Eloise Greenfield’s “Way Down in the Music” (Honey, I Love).

Down in the bass where the beat comes from.

Down in the horn and down in the drum. (p. 16)

The kids giggled, hit certain words hard, whispered others, tapped their desks.

“So, what is it about this poem?”  I asked.  “What makes you want to say it, not just hear it?”

“BeCAUSE”–one little girl practically hopped out of her seat–“I can feel it in my mouth.  I OPEN my mouth and the words … come OUT.”

So, feel that glass of water on your tongue, roll a few phrases round your gums.  Shock your teeth, relish a tasty word.  (I’m off to try this now.  If you want, do let me know what you tried and what words you especially enjoyed.)

~Mary Quattlebaum

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