Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Songs of Innocence & Experience

Partly in a response to an OUP blog post by Bob Eaglestone, Adam Roberts gives the Man Booker shortlist a dressing down for failing to valorise YA fiction, and also tending to overlook SF and crime. Actually it's way more interesting than that summary suggests.
"Really what I want to think-aloud-about is childhood. This, you’ve guessed it, is my third big thing. Not childhood as a biological category, which of course has always been with us; but childhood as a new cultural idiom. By this I mean more than that the concept of the ‘teenager’ was invented in the 50s (although I think that’s broadly true). I mean the way that concept has mushroomed into this defining feature of a vast amount of cultural production. It's not just that there is now this new thing, a transition period from being 10-or-so to being ‘grown up’; and it's not just the way that this transition has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 48 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’). It's that this category now determines almost all contemporary cultural production."  
Sibilant Frictives: On YA.
response from Nina Allan focuses on Roberts' conspicuously dodgy The Clash--Twilight analogy. I have consulted the big authoritative list of which bands are which books and all I can say is that yes, that is not accurate.
"[...] most of the most popular YA series are – like the manufactured pop that dates even as you download it – anodyne and half baked even in cultural terms, let alone in literary terms. [...] Let me make myself clear: it is not YA as such that I’m objecting to (much though I personally dislike the rather pointless label that has been slapped on it) but Adam’s (devil’s advocate? can he really be serious?) insistence on the lowest common denominator, on his confusion here of the popular with the excellent or culturally significant." 
The Spider's House: On YA.
I do think that, in order to make an incisive and complex case for why YA is really pretty interesting right now, it's necessary to wrestle with market populism. But I also agree that Roberts' blog post doesn't quite pin it down or shake it off for long enough to be able to make that case forcefully.
"Of these I’d like to make the case for Pullman as the most significant, because he’s the best writer of the lot—but though I’d like to make the case, I can’t, really. Because Potter and Twilight were just orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not just that vast numbers of children read them. Vast numbers did; but so did vast numbers of adults. These books have had a much larger cultural impact than all the Man Booker shortlisted novels over the same period combined; and they have done so for reasons that speak to crucial concerns of the moment."
Sibilant Frictives: On YA. 
Another response, by Martin McGrath, makes comparisons with Jonathan Frazen's pervasively ridiculed article, cosplaying Karl Kraus to critique our "insatiable technoconsumerism".
"It is the likes of Austen and Dickens and Carroll who prosper over the longer term, not their more artistically praised contemporaries. This is not, as some have suggested in the comments on Adam Roberts’ post, about advocating a race to the bottom. The simply populist doesn’t necessarily survive any better than the deliberately obscurantist. Edward Bulwer-Lyttle, though selling by the bucket load in his day, is now remembered (if he is remembered) for the competition bearing his name [...] I sense that a writer like Jeffrey Archer (who, Wikipedia reckons, may have sold up to 250 million books in his career) is being forgotten even as he continues to write." 
Welcome to my World: Which Culture? Roberts vs. Franzen ... sort of
See also e.g. You Wouldn't Like Jonathan Franzen When He's Angry. So can we discover what part of YA speaks to the crucial concerns of the moment, without becoming too distracted by how whatever it is is implicated in YA's popularity or its survival?

In a not-quite-finished review of Cory Doctorow's YA novel Pirate Cinema I'm trying to make a suggestion about that: perhaps YA is peculiarly invested in communicative simplicity as such? And perhaps what it mostly speaks to is anomie, or some distinct phase or transformation of anomie? I think this might be a fruitful line, especially insofar as it (a) reserves a big role for addictive and overwhelming passion, as a tremendously clarifying force, and (b) reserves a big role for popularity, since what counts as familiar or unfamiliar can be contested by a widely read and/or influential work.

See also Jonathan McCalmont's 2008 article on SF & YA, "A Virus with Space Shoes: SF, YA, all that"; his more recent "How to Fix (Discussion of) The Hugo Awards"; also Adam Roberts' Booker commentary in 2009, fighting SF's coroner; his 2001 "Man Booker Prize: Crunching the Numbers"; also Are You Down With the Kids?carefuck your age: academia is the greatest fandom on earth; also Patrick Nielson Hayden's "Regarding a YA category for the Hugo awards";  Farah Mendlesohn's recent "Why I am currently agnostic re the YA [Hugo] Award."

"The blue carpet underfoot was embroiled with the CyberTech Defence Systems insignia every five meters or so."
Adam Roberts' recent post finding the most amusingly badly-written bits of R S Johnson's The Genesis Project: the Children of CS-13 (2011) makes a good comparison: "the lesson is that many readers couldn't recognise good writing if it walked up and embroiled them on the arse." There is quite possibly some sock puppetry afoot, or foot puppetry asock, in the reviews section of Genesis. But if this book is anything like the work of, say, Dan Brown, or a lot of John Grisham, then perhaps its badness is as much an effect of the reader's incompetence as it is of the author's. A literary critic, after all, should be able to shapeshift to become all the kinds of reader demanded by the text (and more besides). But how many critics have the reader-who-enjoys-The Genesis Project in their morph repertoire? What does it feel like to enjoy this book? What does it feel like not to notice the inadvertent wordplay, the crazycam shifts of perspective, the disintegration of description into faulty syllogisms, the dead metaphors coming lurchingly to life, the unnecessary poetry, the howlingly indecorous diction? If these things swim out of focus, what swims into focus?

Also on literary "badness," and whether or not it is bad, check out Travis Tea's Atlantis Nights (PDF); also Keston Sutherland's 2001 article on bathos in poetry. "Every feature of language identified by Pope as bathetic, is now a defining and admired feature of our poetry. What more can we ask for?"

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