Who's Up for a Labor Day Rant?

I've read a few articles lately and been involved in a few conversations that have gotten me thinking about the topic of audience age. And then, the other day, a wonderful conversation about writing, readership, the "intended audience," etc. erupted on the blog of Sarah Prineas, the author of The Magic Thief. The conversation is here, and here are some of my favorite quotes:

"As Gorky once said, 'Writing for children is the same as writing for adults, only better.'"

"My all-time favorite writing quote is this one by Madeleine L'Engle: 'You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.'"

Like Prineas, I don't have a rant in me about people who think it's easier to write for kids. I also don't have a rant about people who think that writers "for adults" are somehow objectively better or more serious than writers "for children." I know too deeply that that is wrong to be able to get worked up about it (okay, I get worked up about it sometimes, but only when I'm cranky and haven't eaten breakfast yet). People love to stick books in categories -- often books they've never even read -- and then rank the categories based on vast and inaccurate assumptions. Back when I used to google my book in search of reviews, I found a reviewer of the North American, Harcourt Graceling (which is being published as YA) who, after the requisite "the only other YA I've read is Harry Potter," basically said, "I think this book should have been published for adults, not teens." Later, I found a reviewer of the British, Gollancz Graceling (which is being published as adult) who basically said, "I think this book should be published for teens, not adults." Whatever. Knock yourselves out, people. Categories are necessary for publishers, libraries, and bookstores to function smoothly, but beyond that, they are crap. I don't write my books for an audience of a particular age. I write them for me, and by extension, for readers who are like me. And by me, I mean the timeless me. I have been 13 and I have been 31, and both the teen me and the thirties me like books published across all genres and for all age levels, and I know I am not the only person on earth who is like that. Any book can be for anyone and every reading experience is new and unique.

Ahem. As you can see, I don't have a rant in me about this particular topic.

However, there is something I do have a rant in me about, and it's closely related to this particular topic -- and it's related to both those reviews of Graceling I mention above. Because I know from the context what both of them meant. The first one meant, "Teens shouldn't read books like Graceling because we need to protect teens from mature topics like sexuality and nontraditional relationships." The second one meant, "This book isn't quite deep or complicated or dark enough -- this book isn't mature enough -- to be marketed for adults."

Listen, person, if you think my book isn't deep or complicated or dark and would be a better book if it were, that's fine. Maybe you're right. But blame me. It's the way it is because of my failings -- because of me, the writer -- not because of my appropriate audience. STOP CONDESCENDING TO YOUNG PEOPLE.

This is where my rant is: the condescension to young people that is the basis of all of those belittling attitudes toward children's writers. Writing for children is inferior to writing for adults because children are less smart, less sophisticated, less discriminating than adults. Putting aside how magnificent so much literature marketed as "children's literature" is -- do people really not remember what it was like to be young? And do people really think grown-ups are smarter? (Ever read the news?) Do people not realize that the readers with the best bullshit censors are the young readers? And the attitude of "material inappropriate for young people" just makes me want to jump screaming out of my skin. Um? YOUNG PEOPLE LIVE IN THIS WORLD. Not only do they see the terrible things that happen, but they are involved in the terrible things that happen. Not only do they see the "mature" things that happen, but they are involved in the mature things that happen. What is it that you imagine you're protecting them from? Might it not help them to cope with the complications of life to read it expressed somehow in art? And okay, so it's usually true that older people have more bills to pay. But I just don't buy into that "adults have greater responsibility" thing. Maybe when I was fifteen I didn't know about car insurance or retirement planning and I wasn't paying my own way. But hell, I had very real responsibility -- as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, as a student, as a person in the world. So does every other young person. Don't belittle that responsibility just because it doesn't come attached to great earning potential. No, I didn't have as much experience as I do now, nor had I developed certain kinds of empathy. Sure, in many ways I was immature, I was self-centered (as I'm sure my parents could attest!). But life was coming at me just like it comes at an adult, it was coming at me just as fast and hard. It was deep and complicated and dark. And I was as smart as I am now. And not only was I capable of reading things that were dark and deep and complicated; I needed darkness and depth and complication in what I was reading. I needed it to grow and mature. We all do, whatever our ages. STOP CONDESCENDING TO YOUNG PEOPLE. The only certain difference between any particular young person and any particular old person is a number.

That is all.


Anonymous said…
I can say this, because you *know* I completely agree with you about everything you say, about people condescending to children, about people thinking children don't deserve the good books or can't handle scary issues or high-quality literature. But at the same time, it also gets on my nerves when people among the good guys, people on our side, say, "and books are just books, they don't have an implied readership of age, everyone should just read what is good!"

Because that is naïve about how books are made available to and mediated for children and young teens. The fact is that teachers and librarians (and parents!), whose job it is to funnel young readers towards books they will appreciate, don't have time to read every book out there. A publisher or a reviewer slapping an age range -- "13-15" is what I would put on your book if I reviewed it -- on a book doesn't mean that kids younger than 13 must be allowed to read the book, and doesn't mean that 17 year olds or 47-year-olds won't enjoy it. It's just a guideline to help adults have a general idea of what kids, at what reading level, might find the book enjoyable and rich. Some 10 year olds are going to be reading at a level and individual teacher knows is usually described as a 13-year-old reading level; some 16 year olds are going to be reading at a level a parent knows is usually described as a 10-year-old reading level. For those readers, the adult mediators will adjust their guidelines appropriately.

(And of course, you always get into tricky problems with particularly strong or poor readers; you don't want to give the excellent 10-year-old reader _Tenderness_ unless you really know she will be able to handle it, and you don't want to give the slow-reading 16-year-old _Ramona the Brave_ unless you know he will appreciate it. "Reading level" is a mishmash of prose style and content, and that can be difficult. But still, it's a guideline.)

That being said, I totally agree with everything you just said. As a reviewer, I need to worry about age level. As an author, you don't need to do so.

And anybody who makes blanket statements about young adult literature despite having read nothing written in the last 10 years that isn't by JK Rowling gets a punch in the teeth from me.
Anonymous said…
Wow, my blood is totally pumping now. Well said Kristin.

Literature is an expressive learning tool. What harm could come from reading a seemingly too mature scene in a book? The reader can experience an emotion, situation, or consequence by proxy and experience is the best teacher.
Unknown said…
I agree ENTIRELY. While categories are nice, they are also bad. The recent debate on labeling books proves that. I used to like the labels--it meant that when I went into the bookstore and went to the YA aisle (I'm 26), I knew I'd be getting better fantasy than if I went to the adult aisle. I wanted fantasy that was more character driven than epic, that had more emphasis on action than sex, that dealt with themes of growing up and making big decisions than on saving the world with a prophecy or a stone or something else.

To me, categories like YA vs. adult has *always* been more about style than content. YA books tend to be quicker and shorter, and tend to have the themes and styles I listed above more than others. That was the distinction for me. You could rename the YA category Snarflulz and the adult category Booogiesuf and I'd still categorize based on style--there is a distinctness to that style.

BUT. People who categorize based on content (sex: oh, noes!) are WRONG. I know of few topics that would turn a teen off--and those topics would turn most adults off, too. A category based on style = a-ok. But a category based on content = censorship.
Kristin Cashore said…
gnomicutterance, you make a really good point -- thanks for commenting. The guidelines are necessary in the world, even if I don't tend to think about them or even like them much. And after all, it would perhaps be a little disingenuous for me to insist that categories don't mean anything, seeing as my Master's is in children's literature, not literature in general... obviously there was a specific set of lit, separate from other lit, that appealed to me particularly for some reason!

E.M., thanks! Well said on your part, too!

Beth, thanks so much for your thoughts -- what you said made sense to me (though I must admit that I've read hardly any adult fantasy, so I wouldn't have been able to express the difference between adult and YA myself. [Thanks for your thoughts on that, too.] I will say that books where the hero saves the world with an icon like a stone do bore me a little [though even as I say that, I remember a million exceptions, including some Robin McKinley and some King Arthur retellings, which I love... but of course, there's so much more to those stories than the "thing" that needs to be obtained before the world can be saved. When it's just the thing, now, that's boring]).

I am pretty that last paragraph was a desecration to accurate punctuation.
robingarretson said…
Totally unrelated to this post, did I miss something? I thought the release date was Oct. 1st, but amazon says I can buy it now! Hmmmm....well, off to buy it!
Kristin Cashore said…
Robin, it's puzzling isn't it? A gazillion friends emailed today to tell me they'd seen it in bookstores. Harcourt says that it was released from the warehouse Aug 25, and should be filtering into bookstores between then and Oct 1. I guess the early release date allows it time to get to the far-away bookstores, like in Alaska and Hawaii and Nunavut, perhaps?, in time for the pub date of Oct 1. I'll talk about it in my Thursday post. In the meantime, hey, thanks! :o)
Abby said…
Oh Kristin, how right you are...
Marcy said…
Amen, sister! I made a post recently (http://quettandil.blogspot.com/2009/12/anger-and-people-reading-skills.html) about anger with certain kinds of customers at work, and the man who inspired the post pretty much hit all my buttons in rapid succession, but a big one was when he asked about "that room back there," and on discovering that it's our children's room made an offhand comment about how "maybe I should go back there, some say I'm pretty juvenile." Sorry for the run-on sentence. I was instantly filled with a rather shocking amount of anger, and smiled nicely at him while thinking, "Yes, you're very juvenile. More than I ever was, or many kids I know."

On a different note, I remember being glad as the Harry Potter books grew longer and continued to be popular because I figured it might help people learn that kid's books do not need to be short. I don't know about most people, but I think I had more time for reading when I was young, and would have been happy to read much longer books than your average children's. Nothing against the shorter stories, those are good too, but it doesn't *have* to be short just because the readers are young.
Marcy said…
Oh, and I almost forgot a favorite applicable quote:

"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed." G.K. Chesterton
Unknown said…
Go Kristin!!!!!!!!!! I'd be lost without your book......... people say I'm dense you see.....

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