The fight of the genres


My sister and Ally Carter. I’m invisibly standing on the other side.

On Friday, I went to Ally Carter’s book signing with my sister. During the Q&A session someone asked her why it is that books for young adults are better than books for adults. “I pick up my daughter’s books,” she said, “and they’re more interesting than my own.”

Now, a few minutes before this question, someone had asked what advice Carter had for people who wanted to be writers, and her answer agreed 100% with mine, and was, I admit, fairly predictable to a writer: Read lots and write lots. (I think sometimes people think there’s some secret, since they keep asking, but really it comes down to this.)

Anyway, after hearing this answer, I was sort of nodding along, and I’ll admit to feeling a bit superior that we had this writing thing, at least, in common. But Carter’s answer to the question about YA vs. adult literature took me completely by surprise. Namely, she agreed.

I’m used to having people make fun of me, a writer of “serious” adult fiction, when I confess that I read—and enjoy—a lot of young adult writing, including, in this case, Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (in a nut shell: a series about an all-girls spy school). I’ve defended YA and other genre literature, and worked hard to stop referring to anything I enjoy as a “guilty pleasure,” as if it somehow means less. I was not, however, prepared to hear that tossed at literary fiction by the genres, however (and please note, I’m using these terms because they’re common, not because I necessarily agree with them).

My immediate thought was that, if there are people who think YA is far superior to adult fiction, they aren’t reading the right books. If the comparison is 50 Shades of Grey, okay, sure, we can talk about one being better written (and I think few people would argue), but to toss a whole genre aside?

I had to leave the signing shortly after this question since I had a soccer game to get to, and I left feeling frustrated. There’s so much competition between the genres, so much nastiness and name calling, and while Carter was very polite in her response, I never expected an author to take on a genre not her own in such a public place. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not angry, just a bit sad. And Ally Carter was funny and outgoing and she clearly loves her job and her fans. Still, I wanted to respond.

So here, for Ally Carter and the woman at the bookstore, are five books of grownup fiction (and I limited myself to novels written within the past five years) that I think absolutely rock:

The case of the missing modern literature

While at work today, I had to look up the Common Core State Standards. For those that don’t know (I wouldn’t, if I didn’t have the job I do), they are pretty much what they sound like—common education standards designed to be used across the states (see the specific standards here). According to the website, the standards

define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.

They are supposed to be a framework that teachers work within—flexible, and all that. But if you’re like me, you wonder if a national guidance standard doesn’t soon become, well, a requirement. It was this feeling that resulted in my complete and total dismay after seeing the list of exemplar English Language Arts texts (PDF).

I jumped immediately to page 101 in the PDF since I figured I’d be most familiar with the high school texts. And I was right, in a way. I’ve heard of almost everything on the list, because it’s all so predictable. Almost nothing published within the past 30 years, and I think I only counted 2 novels from the past 20 (The Book Thief and The Namesake). I asked one of my coworkers about it (she taught language arts not too many years gone) and she said it’s an example of the pendulum swinging the other way, that in the past fifteen or twenty years (I made that number up; she only said recently, but included the time of my high school education in “recent”) the push had been toward modern literature and that this had created a sort of backlash. People kept wondering why students (why their children) weren’t being exposed to the “classics.”

Now, I don’t know about my readers, but this surprised me. I can’t recall reading a single modern work during my K-12 education. The only thing I can really think of is when I read Homecoming (1981) in sixth grade, which would have been about 15 years after it was published. Other than that, it was classics all the way. Catch-22, Brave New World, 1984, Shakespeare, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Doll’s House, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Antigone, etc. As for poetry and short stories, I don’t think we read anything written after World War II, with most of the work pre-1900s. When I got to graduate school, I was shocked that so many of my peers were so familiar with modern writers, though that seems silly to me now.

My coworker tells me my school might have been an exception.

While advancing through my pre-college education, I had mostly good things to say about it. I enjoyed reading the classics, because I thought that was what book lovers were supposed to do (never mind that even I could tell that most of my enjoyment for these works was feigned, with a few exceptions, of course). When I got the AP English reading list, I set a goal to read through the whole of it (I never did get very far). But now I wonder why we don’t have a more balanced curriculum for our students, why we aren’t exposing them to writers with whom they can still interact: send letters to, have a book signed, eagerly await a new release. Surely there is value to be found in older work as well, but to ignore an entire generation of readers seems to me like we are failing our students, depriving them of the stories set in a world they can recognize, written in language they don’t have to translate. These are books their friends might pick up, their parents. Why should school literature feel like a genre of its own?

My literary double life

I’m coming clean. I have a literary double identity. In some crowds I’m the high-literature loving MFA grad. I put books by prestigious authors on my shelves (the types of authors that might go on MFA thesis or class book lists, not those that necessarily sell gazillions of copies). In this life I balance my reading load, trying to fit in fiction (both short stories and novels) and nonfiction, and I’m even working myself up to some poetry. I subscribe to literary journals (though I’ve let most subscriptions lapse due to budgetary issues; I should amend this). I write book review. It’s in this life that I’m working on my book.

In my other literary life I inhale Wheel of Time books, various YA novels. I listen to Harry Potter on audio book (every night before bed; it’s helped with my insomnia and also keeps me distracted when I’m in bed recovering from a headache). It’s this side of my literary character that recently drove me to dig through the boxes of books in my basement to pull out a Clan of the Cave Bear book and the two books in the Island of the Blue Dolphins series thing.This side of me wants to write a YA book some day and is tossing ideas around in the back of my head. Heck, I’ve even been known to write some fan fiction.

Now don’t get me wrong here. One of these isn’t the real me while the other is a front. I love it all. I love a good, tough read as much as a quick lighter one (and I’ve been known to walk around the house, talking to myself as I analyze both). I love the time I spend working on my book (even if it is hard as all hell), and so far I’m really enjoying exploring the new (to me) genre of book reviews. When I got the new issue of Willow Springs last week I devoured it, then tore through 600 pages of YA the next day.

But I can’t help feeling, as I switch back and forth, that I’m somehow doing something wrong. You see, I don’t know many (any?) people like me. I know genre lovers who will pick up the occasional “meatier” book, and I know literary fiction readers who will read genre from time to time, but I have yet to meet someone who feels like he or she is being torn both ways. It’s as if, when I’m reading one, I can’t wait to finish so I can get back to the other. There really just aren’t enough hours in the day for my reading apparently.

Maybe what I should do is look at this as an opportunity. I may be just one person, but maybe I can bring about a bit of change. Maybe I can get the literary fiction people to enjoy and find real worth in more genre work, and maybe I can get genre readers to turn more of their attention to those books by small presses, those books that I have to order specially from the bookstore. I’m just one person, but I figure there have to be more people like me out there, and even if there aren’t, hey—one is still better than none.

In the meantime, I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog (in translation from the original French, definitely literary fiction). At the top of my figurative to-read stack I’ve got a few YA books, three adult fantasy novels (two of which I’ve borrowed and should really get to soon), a nonfiction reportage-type book, and two books of short stories. Then there’s the novel I’ll be reviewing when it’s published in April (unless I can get an ARC sooner). And the question I always ask myself is: What on earth am I going to read next?