Further ranting on the snobs who diss kidlit…


Here is what I have been thinking about…

My objection regarding  snubs from literary institutions  has a LOT to do with the classification of kidlit as “genre” writing.

And from the jump, one can argue that the  division between “genre” writing and “literary” writing is unacceptable.  But I won’t. Because I actually think it is useful.  Some books are “genre”.

Which is not to say BAD, only predictable.

When applied correctly.  the term “Genre” should be assigned to work that is primarily formulaic.  Mystery novels and Harlequin Romances follow very proscribed patterns.  Sometimes, a writer finds a way to manipulate and transcend a formula, and that’s AWESOME! When that happens, the book rarely gets considered “genre” writing.  Take a “sci-fi” book like Perelandra.  Such books free themselves of “genre” classifications.  But this whole system assumes a FORMULA.

Genre=formula.

When the term “genre” gets applied to kidlit, the term is being horribly (I think) misused.  What in God’s name is the “forumla” for kidlit? There isn’t one.  What formula applies to both Goosebumps #17 and The Little Prince?  Or Little Women and Charlies Angels novelizations?  Or Hop on Pop and Lord of the Rings (which are both BRILLIANT literature, btw)?

These books all fall into ONE genre?

No, the only thing they share is an extremely broad readership ( a readership, I might add, that encompasses a HUGE range of intellectual sophistication, far greater than the range of any adult readership).  They have  a lot less in common that, say, Bungalo 2 and many Pulitzer Prizewinners. And yet they all share this “genre” heading.

Which causes, I think, people to treat them all–to some degree– as forumulaic.  Which is SO WRONG.

And perhaps to assume that because the readership is less sophisticated( is it really?) and less discerning and divisive, that the writers of kidlit are less talented, serious, intellectual, and LITERARY!

When in fact they are innovators, poets, geniuses.

I find this “genre” terminology  particularly distasteful in light of all the terribly formulaic “literary” writing in the world.  How many MFA writers have published bad midlist “literary” novels about young self-aware singles struggling against the urban landscape and their own ennui?  How many literary magazines have a published a poem that goes something like…

Daybreak at (insert old european building or decaying American industrial structure)

The (insert birds or small animals) aren’t here today,
but  as the (insert weather system) rolls in,
I glance at my (insert body part)
And remember you saying once
That (insert wise or spare comment),
On a day much like this one.
(Insert refection or question)
I notice for the first time that my
(insert phsyical attribute of aforementioned bodypart)
has grown (insert emotion or insightful  description)
And as I turn and walk back along the
worn path to the (insert name business or car)
I see that the (insert animal from line 1)
has finally come, bearing (insert something small).
And I feel (insert transformative and/or static emotion).
I notice my hands are empty.

How forumulaic is most “literary”  MFA-style writing?  Churned out as it is after  the same advice, the same comments, the same models?  It often takes an MFA student years to rediscover  their own voice.  I know it took me a loooong time, a lot of blogging, a few bouts of writer’s block, a ton of reading, and a massive intellectual re-org.

In fact, one could argue that good kidlit is less formulaic because most of it wasn’t written after such a streamlining process.

I feel strongly we need to STOP applying this term to books simply because they have  a young marketing demographic.  If the division of literary/genre is relevant to begin with, it needs to be assigned based on the content, not the proposed readership, of a book.

There ARE genre boks– romances, mysteries, horror, etc.  For ALL ages. There are juvenile romances, mysteries and horrors, just as there are adult romances, mysteries and horrors.  But to assign this title, this categorical term, to an entire body of literature before it has been read… or even written…

That’s bonkers.  And insulting.  Not because genre writing is bad (I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan myself) but because it is oversimplifed, reductive.

Anyway… I know I tend to rant aimlessly, and  I could go on, and on, and on…  but I won’t. I’ll stop here, and say that I’m pretty sure I’m right about this one.

18 Responses to “Further ranting on the snobs who diss kidlit…”

  1. Alan Cordle Says:

    You’re lovely when you’re angry.

    Kiddie lit classes are taught in library school, in English departments, etc. I don’t know much about it because I don’t read it nor do I have kids.

    I love your formula poem — so real.

    Not sure I have a point. Just saying hi in my own weird way.

  2. Marissa Says:

    I scratch my head over this attitude too. No one minds if you like blackberry sherbet and I prefer mocha almond ice cream…books are a matter of personal taste just as ice cream flavors and anything else is. Yeah, if my mocha almond only has tiny shreds of almond rather than whole nuts, I’ll say it’s lousy, just as I’d say a mystery is lousy if it isn’t well-plotted and twisty and doesn’t keep me guessing…but saying that mocha almond is the *only* flavor worth consuming and that blackberry sherbet is “inferior” is totally puzzling.

    There were some fabulous essays in July’s LOCUS magazine (which focused on YA books) by Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman and others about how difficult but rewarding writing for kids is, because they’ve got extremely well-tuned bullshit meters and possess no qualms about launching dishonest books against the wall. Look on-line at LOCUS’s site–some of them might be available.

    The next time someone asks, “When are you going to write some REAL books, like for adults?” try responding, “So do you ask pediatricians when they’re going to start seeing REAL patients, like adults?”

    xoMarissa

  3. Liz Gallagher Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Laurel. For me, I think what you’re saying ties into something I’ve thought about for a while. My work is (generally) conteporary YA, coming-of-age stuff. And I think it would appeal to readers of adult chick lit more than readers of, say, fantasy YA books.

  4. Margo Rabb Says:

    I completely agree that many “literary” novels are a genre themselves…and your genre literary poem is hysterical! You should submit it to a literary mag.

    I think that so much of the stigma has to do with the way, in our society, anything geared toward children is less valued–teachers being so incredibly underpaid is a prime example.

  5. Kaethe Says:

    Hmm. I share your ire at kidlit snobs. Anything that fits a formula, you seem to be saying, can rightly be called “genre”. But everything fits a formula. We can lump Shakespeare’s plays into one of three genres. Books don’t lift themselves out of genre, literary listmakers and, yes, snobs, lift books they like out of “genre”.

    The problem isn’t that kidlit can’t be literary, the problem is anyone thinking that reading level offers any kind of clue to reading quality. All genre labeling is marketing, intended to help a buyer find what she’s looking for, right? “Ages 6-8″ isn’t meant to be proscriptive, but descriptive, and help granny pick out something for her avid granddaughter. Some books for ages 6 to 8 are awesome, some are mediocre, and some suck. That’s why there are awards given to some of the outstanding works from each year.

    Now, in answer to the assberets who run certain programs, what you write is literature. Full stop. Was there a separate question about the reading level of your target audience?

  6. Alison Says:

    Your poem is hilarious!

  7. SarahP Says:

    Nobody’s said yet that it has to do with marketing. In the chain bookstores, you’ve got “fiction” (which includes literary fiction and non-genre bestsellers) (and literary bestsellers, of course) and the genres (“romance,” “science fiction/fantasy”, etc) and you’ve got “children’s”. That section doesn’t seem to be divided by genre, but by age: YA, early readers, MG, picture books, etc.

    I’m not sure whether I see the “children’s” section as divided from “fiction” by a genre boundary or not.

    Anyway, I think that NYTimes BR piece a couple weeks ago was interesting because it highlighted how the boundaries of YA fiction are shifting and people are uncomfortable, and when people are made uncomfortable they tend to react negatively–their safe identities are blurring, they don’t know where they stand, they aren’t sure what they’re reading or writing… Meanwhile the fact that we’re in the midst of a YA/MG golden age is starting to get noticed. Eventually, I think, things will settle.

    And man, you should try writing sf/fantasy. I’ve done both children’s lit and sf/fantasy, and I get way, way, way more respect as a kids writer than as a fantasy writer. That’s why I’m hesitant to call children’s literature a “genre”. It’s just not in the same class.

    This was rambly–sorry!

  8. laurel Says:

    Sarah,

    I think I’m referring less to where things get shelved than how they get viewed in universities, the media, etc. I totally understand that this is the way books get sold… but over and over I hear the term “genre” attached to kidlit. I guess I’m saying that (all other problems with “genre” aside), when a really amazing “romance” tiptoes into the literary world, they slap a fancy cover on it and make it a hardbound and it isn’t “genre” anymore. As long as all kidlit is “genre” there’s no way for it to get out of the ghetto.

    I think I’m not talking about how its written/ produced/ sold so much as how its’ read and evaluated by the non-kidlit world.

    OR I’M JUST NURSING RESIDUAL GRIEF FROM MY MFA!!!! ;)

  9. laurel Says:

    Margo,

    You’re totally right, though I only found out recently this was true– that (for instance) pediatrics are considered a lower order of medicine.

    Messed up…

  10. laurel Says:

    Thanks for the compliments on the poem, everyone! You shoudl hear my “reading voice”

    :)

  11. Eva Mitnick Says:

    Great rant! Being a lifelong children’s librarian and therefore immersed in the “culture,” I guess I haven’t raised my head up enough to realize that folks were actually calling children’s literature a genre. It’s true that anything even peripherally related to children will always be rated as second-rate (teachers, daycare workers, children’s librarians, children’s writers), because children are second-class citizens in our society. Hey, they don’t vote.

    One quibble – genre does NOT mean formula, in my humble opinion! Yes, there are certain elements one might find in fantasy (use of magic, for example) – but within that genre are scads of different kinds of fabulous stories, and the best may have familiar themes but are far from predictable.

    From (you guessed it) – an obsessed SF/Fantasy/Mystery AND Children’s Lit fan!

  12. Terry Says:

    I think you captured it with this …

    It often takes an MFA student years to rediscover their own voice. I know it took me a loooong time, a lot of blogging, a few bouts of writer’s block, a ton of reading, and a massive intellectual re-org.

    It is a catharsis that takes you back to what made you love reading and writing in the first place: the books you read “long ago” that took you places and introduced you to memorable characters. Luckily, you remember your acquaintance well enough to introduce them to the world in your own original works!

    I would actually say that the snobs are the ones who are less literary. They’ve closed their minds to what great stories are all about.

  13. Laini Says:

    Hi Laurel — interesting post! I recently posted about this same snobbery myself, but from a different angle:

    http://growwings.blogspot.com/2008/07/why-ya.html

    But. . . I disagree that genre = formula. In many cases, genre books ARE formulaic, but to me that’s not what “genre” means. It’s just a means of classification — some people like mainstream contemporary fiction, some people like fantasy, some romance, etc. That, for me, is all “genre” is — the (I don’t know quite how to express it) *realm* and *substance* of the book, the tag that lets potential readers know in the broadest possible terms what they’re getting. This is actually a really interesting post to me, on the heels of my own rant, because my argument was against people who say something shouldn’t be *ghetto-ized* as YA if it’s “good enough” for adults to read. And here, you seem to be saying something shouldn’t be “ghetto-ized” as sci-fi if it’s actually good. To me, and I mean this fondly, that sounds like another kind of snobbery.

    Of course, I write fantasy, so I am biased, but I do think that almost every kind of book fits in a certain formula — to me, there are actually more different kinds of “formulae” under the umbrella of speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy) than under the umbrella of literary fiction. As for where YA fits into all this . . . it’s as much a genre as “literary fiction” I suppose — both are hugely broad. And I would suggest that only non-readers of sci-fi and fantasy would say that those two genres are not similarly broad.

    It’s a huge world of books — let’s not fight snobbery with more snobbery. I don’t really think you are a genre snob — but it seems the root of the argument is. . . a little. . . Well, as a fantasy writer, I am a *little* insulted by the suggestion that my books are more formulaic than. . . well, those of a non-fantasy writer. You know?

    (Please do not take offense, or think I am offended. I just have a lot of opinions on this subject too.) Cheers!

  14. Leah Says:

    I’m so with you on the proliferation of terrible “literary” fiction. I find most fiction in this category unreadable and depressing. I have been thinking about this lately because the “L” magazine (which reviewed your poetry book) just had its fiction issue and I thought every single story was bad–either boring or exploitative.

    Not every genre novel ends happily (although all romances do, of course), but I have noticed that happy endings are anathema to “literary” writers. I suppose it’s seen as the kiss of death because it’s not artistic. But it’s one of the things I love the most about YA fiction. Characters grow and change and then at the end are allowed to have some hope, even if everything’s not absolutely happy. But then, that has something to do with our culture as well because we fetishize youth.

    One other thought: the proof’s in the pudding! What are the huge, huge bestsellers? Harry Potter and now the Twilight series. Dickens (who threw in a happy ending now and then) wrote huge bestsellers … and people like Steven King who have genre-transcending ambitions are always quick to compare themselves to Dickens.

  15. laurel Says:

    Eva and Laini,

    I can absolutely see this, and won’t argue AT ALL. I will also say that I am a horrible snob myself. I AMM, for sure. I work at this, and sometimes I accept it. And Laini, you’re right– it isn’t especially productiv maybe.

    But what I mean to point out, what IS productive, is the distinction that the term should relate to content and not readership. I’m not saying formul is always BAD at all. I only mean to say that the books which fall solidly into one “genre” tend to share common traits. Fantasy books DO have fantastic elements, and romances DO have love stories, and sci-fi does have technology, other worlds, aliens. Horror DOES have scary stuff in it. These books do share certain things with one another. Just as langpo shares certain traits and historical fiction does.

    And that’s just not true of kidlit. Not at all.

  16. SarahP Says:

    Oh, and I adore your poem.

  17. SarahP Says:

    and sci-fi does have technology, other worlds, aliens.

    Not always. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example. Science fiction. SHE doesn’t think it’s sf because it doesn’t have tentacled aliens and space ships in it, but it bloody well is. Or what Jeanette Winterson is writing lately. SF all over the place. But they want to be considered literary writers and so reject the sf label for their work.

    Point is that genre’s not always so clear cut. SF and fantasy as a genre is really pushing the genre boundaries right now. Lots of writers of fantasy are using literary style and themes, and plenty of mainstream, literary writers are borrowing sf and fantasy tropes. Some of them are doing it quite cheerfully–like Michael Chabon, for example.

    Beer! Pizza!

  18. Phyrbyrd Says:

    I know this is last year’s blogpost, but I just found you when I was googling for blogs and I had to fill in the gaps on this poem and see if I could make you laugh.

    Daybreak at the abandoned mental hospital

    The flamingoes aren’t here today,
    but as the tornado rolls in,
    I glance at my tentacles
    And remember you saying once
    That if it exists, there is porn of it, no exceptions,
    On a day much like this one.
    Which means that there’s porn of washcloths and wallpaper.
    I notice for the first time that the
    feelers on the ends of my tentacles
    have grown bright purple with orange spots.
    And as I turn and walk back along the
    worn path to the Star Wars action figure manufacturer
    I see that the flamingo
    has finally come, bearing kittens.
    And I feel in need of cake.
    I notice my hands are empty.

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