Monday, May 04, 2009

"Category Failure"

On the blog A Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin', blogger liznwyrk noted that at a reading of his new novel Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead, right, got "huffy" when asked if his book would be considered YA (young adult). I guess this blogger took offense to his dismissal of this label, being herself an aspiring author of children's books.

Ever his ear to the ground, Edward Champion allowed Whitehead to respond to having his name dragged through the mud a little bit, over at Reluctant Habits. Champion notes,
Sherman Alexie and China Mieville have both written specifically for a YA crowd. And it might also be argued that David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could swing both ways as a YA and an adult title. If Whitehead had indeed said these things, it seemed counterintuitive to reduce his novel’s possible audience.
And then he lets Whitehead explain why, as he says, "labels bug me":
But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. What I’m saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again.

I don't know if this is all an author can do in this day and age, but at the same time, I appreciate Whitehead's larger point, that he's a writer so he wants to write, not decide on marketing and argue with people about where it ends up in the bookstore and do all this other stuff. Authors need advocates whom they can trust - ideally their editors, but as editing jobs disappear (trust me) and publishing houses put more money behind marketing, an author might not know whom to trust. This is another place where agents can step in and do something more than just sell books to editors.

But the problem is bigger than that. The internet is built on categories, and yet the system is incredibly fallible - lest we forget the #amazonfail debacle of 2009. Books don't fit into categories in the old bricks and mortar stores, so what happens when they are largely sought out on the world wide web? How will they be found - this is the question for publishers right now.

To bring it back to this book, though, this Sag Harbor. Let me start by saying that I don't read a ton of fiction. I like to mix it up, but I'm unreliable: I may read something quite literary one minute, such as Nabakov, and then go to something very commercial, such as Dashiell Hammett, and then leave for non-fiction. Having said that, I have read Sherman Alexie and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident..., and while I enjoyed these books, they were rather simple. I've been in editorial meetings where people discuss how to get a novel to a YA audience without keeping adults away, but isn't this sneakily dumbing down our fiction? Is this some way to get adults reading books at a teenager's reading level without realizing it, so they pat themselves on the back for finishing a novel that a 13 year old could finish just as easily?

Everyone has their own reading level but I don't want this trend to hurt more difficult fiction.

I'm currently reading Chris Albani's Graceland. Now I earned a Master's in Comparative Literature focusing on African literature so I was pleased to see this book score such accolades, with a Nigerian author: a Today Show pick, one of the best books of they year according to the L.A. Times. But I gotta be honest and say, it's simple. It's YA-ish. And quite frankly, Sag Harbor looks like it may suffer from the same problem, though I greatly respect Whitehead and really enjoyed John Henry Days.

I should look into who has written more about the YA trend, which I first heard about in reference to Yann Martel's Life of Pi when I worked at a bookstore. Rumor was they were going to rejacket an edition to make it more YA friendly and catalog it with that categorization while maintaining the old jacket in the regular fiction section for adults. That was probably 2003?

And now where are we?

1 comment:

liznwyrk said...

Follow Up:

# 1 http://alilsumpinsumpin.blogspot.com/2009/05/follow-up-colson-whitehead.html

#2
http://alilsumpinsumpin.blogspot.com/2009/09/whitehead-revisited.html

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