Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

I See Red.

I’m going to fess up before the rhetorical angle feels too overwrought – it’s not just about Art per se. The problem is that A R T is a very big word that encompasses a lot of meanings, and you and I might both be using the word without saying the same thing (for politically-laden giggles, venture over to Scalzi to see a similar conversation, this one hinging on the meaning of “nihilist”). I’m not going to get into what the various definitions of Art might be, the thing that I’m focusing on, the concept that’s buried in the concept of Art, is standards.

Some of the words play out differently in writing than they do in the performing arts. Over here, so far as I can tell, the phrases that get bandied about are literary fiction and commercial fiction. Those are publishing terms, but everyone uses them, and I suspect we can all agree that “literary” connotes a certain level of quality (i.e. standards, amongst other things) that “commercial” does not.

So far as I’m concerned, standards fundamentally address craft. Attention to details like plot, dialogue. Attention to character development (sleight of hand! Now it looks like art=craft! Psych!) If you visit just about any YA writer’s blog, you’ll see all of those issues come up. Everyone wants to avoid Mary Sue. Everyone wants delectable villains. Everyone wants unpredictable plots. No one wants clichés.

Sherman Alexie (whom you should read if you haven’t, unless, like Ben, you have a familial issue with him the way I do with Greg Mortenson), after winning an award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was asked, “Wouldn’t you have rather won the National Book Award for an adult, serious work?” (Quotation comes from this lovely article.)

Ah. The problem is not just one of a well-crafted story – Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, for example. It’s also the audience. Middle grade and young adult audiences are simply not smart enough to qualify as discriminating audiences (see this Slate article for further audience generalizations).

Fifteen or twenty years ago, “serious” screen actors preferred film to television. That’s where you had a chance for real work. Then HBO stepped in, upped the ante with original series, and now episodic television dramas and pretty freaking phenomenal. The analogy isn’t a perfect match, but you see my critique.

Standards, man.

Sure, you can point out to me how many bad YA books there are, and I’ll point out how many bad adult books there are. Audience isn’t a gimee. So maybe you’ll wonder loudly who is today’s Jonathan Franzen for the YA set, surely not Suzanne Collins? And maybe I’ll say, well, I haven’t read Speak, but you might check out Laurie Halse Anderson. By the way, her book has been challenged from a public high school because, apparently, the subject of date rape is pornographic (Update from link: Speak remains; Slaughterhouse Five goes.)

I am idly curious how many YA and MG books get banned compared to adult books. I suspect more, ‘cause the kids are so innocent, y’know.

Anyway. Art. Standards. Red herrings and red flags.

2 responses

  1. Glad you liked the article!

    I like your parallel between “bad” YA books and the equally “bad” books for adults out there. It’s not as if everyone stopping in at a bookstore or library is leaving with a Great Work of Literary Fiction. (Hardly!)

    You wondered about banning of youth vs. adult books. I don’t have hard numbers, but every year, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of the most-challenged books. (Here’s the 2010 list) It’s usually completely dominated by youth titles. Of course, those are just the challenges that get reported to ALA and don’t represent anything going on in other countries our outside libraries, but it’s at least one data point.

    July 29, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    • It was great – very comprehensive. My grad work is all in Folklore, so while I’m new to the YA vs. good literature debate, I’m very familiar with the low/folk vs. high/fine one. The argument seems essentially the same with a couple of name changes.

      Followed your name over to Librarified, so I’ll be checking out your words this weekend!

      July 29, 2011 at 7:23 pm

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