Return to the cupcake ghetto: In defense of Margo Rabb

I know some  folks are bristling a bit at Margo’s essay in the Times yesterday. Because it suggests a kind of hierarchy of genres, because it reads as a kind of apology, and perhaps as a complaint (by someone who seems to be  awfully successful and lucky).

But I want to offer this thought…

When someone has been working toward a goal, any goal, the idea that (at what feels like the very end of the journey) you aren’t going to get the goal, but are instead going to get something else…

That’s kind of hard.

Imagine being a kid, reaching for the brass ring on the carousel, and when you finally get it, it turns out to be a chicken nugget!

You don’t dislike or disrespect chicken nuggets. In fact you may LOVE  chicken nuggets.  But you’ve been going around and around and around on a big painted frog for a very specific reason, to get a RING. And now, here you are with a nugget.

I can relate to the essay. I can REALLY relate to the essay, and have done a bit of apologizing/defending/complaining myself about such things.

I spent YEARS becoming a poet.  It was and is a huge part of my identity. I dreamed of teaching gigs and colonies and silly snooty book parties.  From the age of 15 I dreamed of such things.

So no matter how thrilled and excited and happy I am to be writing mg novels and picture books, and no matter how much I believe in these books and have made a choice (the right choice!), I did feel strange the day I realized I couldn’t apply to colonies to work on such projects, because such places only fund ADULT LITERARY writing. And my books, it would seem, aren’t literature now that they come from a children’s imprint.  And my books won’t help land me the teaching job I still dream of, because I love teaching…

Honestly, it does still feel weird when I tell people I have this novel coming out and they say, “But you’re still writing poetry, right? Right?”

(I am, but I don’t feel I should need to legitimize myself that way)

For me, when I had my kidlit conversion, the issue was different than for Margo, because for me it was an internal process, of realizing that some of my “prose poems” were in fact picture books. Of realizing that these ideas and words and books I wanted to write would best be WRITTEN (not just marketed) for kids. I had to work through my issues with the academy and the hierarchy first, slowly, on the inside.  I had time to prepare myself, get ready to say “THPBBBT!” to poety friends who might turn up their noses.  Becuase I really WANTED to write for kids, and jsut had to get used to the idea.

But for Margo it happened very suddenly–how much stranger to write a book with one audience in mind, and discover overnight you’ve got another.

And then to realize that all the things you’ve worked toward are different things now, suddenly.

I can’t count the artists I know who’ve ended up in more lucrative graphic design jobs, apologizing for themselves.  The law school students who take another kind of job and look sheepish about it when they ahve to tell people what they do.  Why is that okay, but this isn’t?

It doesn’t have  to be a value judgement of YA by the author. Margo obviously likes YA and reads YA, and now she’s simply indicating something about our literary culture, and descibing an experience she had, which seems to me pretty reasonable.

That she expected/ worked for/ dreamed of one thing, and got another.

Like expecting a girl and getting a boy maybe. You love your kids. You can’t imagine anything other than what you got.  But when you get home from the hospital, you look around the frilly pink room, and you have to  adjust.  And that takes a little minute.

I really hope this is all changing. I really hope that soon there will be more respect paid to kidlit and YA. Because it’s an AMAZING literature.  Because I have come to believe that more interesting, creative, vital, and artistic work is being written for kids than for grownups right now.  Because kids are reading more as adults are reading less.  Because these truly are the books I love right now.

But I won’t lie and pretend that when a smartypants short-fiction friend clutching some long boring book of experimental writing , (fresh from a stint at Yaddo or Macdowell or VSC or someplace else I’m not allowed to go) asks  what I’m working on… I get a little weird.  I rant a bit.  I give them a speech, a little like this one.

A speech designed to educate but also– to defend.  Which implies at least a little bit of insecurity, and I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise. In that moment I do feel insecure.

But that’s a really small part of what I’m feeling in that moment. Because most of all I’m thinking, “THANK GOD I DON’T HAVE TO READ THAT LONG BORING GROWNUP BOOK YOU’RE HOLDING!”


Tags: , , ,

4 Responses to “Return to the cupcake ghetto: In defense of Margo Rabb”

  1. ed Says:

    I completely understand your position. But the fact of the matter is that what we do as artists doesn’t always translate into HOW we’re perceived. When we’re finished with a piece of art, it isn’t always ours. It’s given to the world to figure out. And if some folks want to call it chicken nuggets, that’s their prerogative. Look at Ian Rankin. He started in earnest wanting to be a literary novelist and failed. He began writing these mystery novels about an Edinburgh detective as “commercial” work. When his publisher was about to drop him, he then rose to the level. The novels improved, taking on additional social resonance. And he became both a critical and commercial success. He LEARNED humility. He learned that he was not entitled to a living. And he embraced true aspects of himself, while understanding the needs of the publisher.

    I didn’t set out to became a literary critic. I originally wanted to be some independent filmmaker and fell into this life. It was the writing that led me to where I am today. I am very privileged to be here, take none of it for granted. If I am categorized as some iconoclastic loon, well then that’s just another person’s opinion. But at the end of the day, the work — particularly the work that I have spent a good deal of time on — will either hold up or it won’t. If people want to call me chicken nuggets, I see no problem with that. Because I’m lucky to be here. And I realize that life doesn’t unfold on a planned trajectory. It’s very much being pro-active while following an anarchic muse.

  2. laurel Says:

    I absolutely agree with you!

    I linked to your comment because it was well put and worth talking toward, not because it was “the one” I wanted to take issue with… I love your mad blogger stylings…

    As a fence-sitter myself I feel it’s important to watch both sides of the property line. And I think maybe the kidlit folks who are upset by Margo’s feelings are people who stand solidly in the kidlit side. I just don’t want it to be a “Margo thinks kidlit sucks” kind of arguement. Imortant for me that people see this as a situation where someone has had to adjust.

    And really, I think she has.

    There are two threads to this. One is the way the academic/literary world treats kidlit. The other is about marketing. BOth re facts we navigate, but marketing won’t ever change. It’s driven by demand.

    Maybe the snobbery will change. I’ve just never understood why we see someone like Roth as the standard bearer for lit fiction, and Sweet Valley High as the standard bearer of YA. One we judge by the highest rung of the ladder, and the other we assess based on what sneaks under the lowest…

  3. Miss Erin Says:

    YES. I completely agree with your post. It was wonderful. Thank you.

  4. Little Willow Says:

    YA lit rocks!

Leave a Reply