Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cheering the Home Team

Boston Globe book editor David Mehegan takes a good look at the forthcoming publication of The Children of Hurin, a Tolkien manuscript sewn together and completed by his son. We claim David as One of Ours because his mother used to be the Horn Book's circulation manager.

And former editor in chief Anita Silvey (after Ethel and before me) is getting a good discussion on Childlit for her article in the latest School Library Journal about the current state of YA literature, more precisely, YA reading: "Of one thing I’m certain: instead of craving realistic stories about people like themselves, today’s teens are crazy about characters (and scenarios) that have little in common with their own everyday lives." She's right that teens are turning away from the realistic "problem" fiction that we think of as the core of YA lit in favor of fantasy and other genre fiction, but I question whether teens ever read realistic fiction because they identified with it: it wasn't potheads who made Go Ask Alice a success, it was junior high girls looking for vicarious thrills. (I think the same appeal is what gets kids into the Gossip Girl genre, too.)

But while Anita is thrilled that kids are broadening their horizons, I have to ask if she would still feel the same way if she were back in the Horn Book trenches, ducking for cover whenever another book cart stuffed with new fat fantasy trilogies comes barreling back to the editor's office!

P.S. I'm with Blogger spellcheck when it suggests replacing "trilogies" with "trellises."

17 comments:

Lynn said...

I would also add to the conversation a question; just how "realistic" is the current "realistic fiction?" I have been reading a bit more of YA fiction as of late and there seems to be a hard core realistic fiction and fluffy realistic fiction. Two very wide ends of the spectrum with not so much in the middle. Could it be that YA readers are reading for enjoyment as opposed to identifying with a character or circumstance?

Thanks for the links to both articles, our October SLJ edition has not yet arrived and the Silvey article was interesting. I must admit to wondering about the “new” Tolkien book being compiled from his notes. Will readers be disappointed?

Anonymous said...

years before Paolini et al surfaced, slush pile readers at juvenile houses were seeing many enormous unsolicited fantasy mss. from teenage boys (never from girls). one read them with admiration for the authors' industry and persistence (this was in the days before computers or xeroxes) not to mention the postage involved, and declined them with a nice letter which said in effect keep reading etc etc.

Until HARRY pOTTER, no one apparently recognized that these boys were writing their books because nothing like what they wanted was being published. now that the flood is upon us, I wonder what the present generation of those boys are writing? maybe there is a clue for editors in the slush pile

Jane said...

Roger--you are coming parlously close to trashing an entire genre, which I don't think you mean to do. Yeah--there's a lot of bad fantasy out there right now, but there's still a lot of good stuff, too. And we count on smart reviewers to do some of the grunt work finding it for us.

Jane

Andy Laties said...

As to post-mortem Tolkien -- and this article's broader questions about publication of material authors' might have intended not to publish -- don't forget Franz Kafka. What a wonderful thing that his unfinished novels, which were supposed to have been burnt by his executor Max Brod, were instead published. Sure, it turned out the Brod organized the chapters in "The Castle" quite oddly. Subsequent editors have picked it apart and pasted it back together. When I read the book in the 70s, I enjoyed the alternate versions of the various paragraphs, in the back of the book, just as much as the versions Brod had chosen to put up in front as the "preferred" variations.

The point was that Kafka's work was a form or poetry.

J.R.R. Tolkien is fun in part because he was a linguist. Let the world decide whether the stuff that's still unpublished is fun, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. I think it's just fine for Christopher to stitch HURIN together, as long as the original fragmented material is preserved for study.

shahairyzade said...

I agree with Jane. In fact, your comments of the last few months show a fairly strong prejudice against fantasy. Whether this is because the volume of fantasy coming out these days has made you weary of the genre or because you never really liked it all that much, I don't know. But I find it a little disturbing. I hope this isn't representative of the Horn Book's general attitude towards fantasy.

rindambyers said...

Secretly, as a reader, I have often wondered just WHY a really good realistic story is SO hard to find now at any age level...my ideal new book to discover and read would be a realistic middle-grade novel about ordinary children with ordinary lives that was TRULY hilarious and with every word an interesting one...

I don't know how "realistic" Tom Sawyer as a whole is, in literary circles,, but you know those two chapters about whitewashing the fence and winning the Bible in Sunday school come awfully close to illustrating precisely what I mean here..how that author turns such ordinary, boring incidents into such fun I will never quite comprehend...

Monica Edinger said...

Roger, I've got your back.

I’m delighted that fantasy, my favorite genre, is getting a lot more attention, but for those who don’t like it in the first place, these trilogy doorstops aren’t doing anything to change their minds. They are too often derivative, full of tropes (talking animals, fantastical creatures, magic, folkloric landscapes) that are easily parodied and simplistically associated with the genre by those who dislike it, and tedious reads. It is frustrating because I want fantasy to get more respect, but don’t see how a glut of mediocrity is going to help the cause.

Roger Sutton said...

I wasn't speaking at all about the quality of current fantasy, only about the increased workload. But since you've asked . . . .

While the post-Harry and -Pullman fantasy boom has indeed brought us some amazing books, it has also engendered an enormous amount of dreck. (Not just bad fantasy, but novels in all genres that are simply too long for their own good.) Fantasy dreck has a long history--think of Howard's Conan books--but now that it is center stage, books that would have been once published in paperback for an established fan base are now demanding review attention. It's like trying to review Harlequin romances that are incidently very, very long.

I am not a big reader of high fantasy; my favorites are the ones that maintain an intriguing relationship with the world we know: Pullman, Cooper, a lot of time-shift stories and I'm crazy about the forthcoming The New Policeman by Kate Thompson. But the Horn Book employs several first-rate fantasy reviewers who I hope give all variants of the genre a fair shake.

schubies said...

Ah, The New Policeman! I've just read it and think it's completely brilliant. Can't wait to discuss it. I play Irish music, and I loved the way Thompson integrated musical themes into her witty exploration of time and the world of faery.

Lynn said...

I was compelled to come back and see where the conversation would go with this post. Interesting how we all read the same thing and get something different out of it.

I didn't think there was any genre bashing. Maybe it was because just that afternoon I'd perused a book cart (at lunch) with several large juvenile fantasy books waiting to be cataloged, or maybe because I am not a big fantasy fan myself. With that said, I have recently read and enjoyed Horns and Wrinkles and Troll Bridge: A Rock 'N Roll Fairy Tale and do love Harry.

eisha said...

I'm a Children's/YA librarian at a public branch in the lower-income end of town. Our teens are much more likely to ask for the "hard" realistic fiction by Walter Dean Myers, Patricia McCormick, Paul Volponi, Sharon Flake, and Sharon Draper, or even the "fluffy" realistic fiction by Ann Brashares, than for fantasy, so this article really surprised me. I'd say the "problem" fiction still has an audience, but I wonder if the audiences for different genres are divided by cultural/economic lines?

Melinda said...

Man, I knew I should have signed up to get The New Policeman. (Got Walter Dean Myers instead, so what the hey.) But I'm always a sucker for a fantasy novel written around music. My sticking point is, why is it always Irish or folk music? I think it would be cool to write a fantasy novel wherein electric blues is the source of the magic. But it would be a drag trying to find a place to plug in the amplifier. Even acoustic blues would be cool. I mean, right off the bat you have Satan at the crossroads.

Hmm!

When I was younger, I hated realistic novels. They seemed to me derivative and depressing, and it also bothered me how nicely everything was tied up in the end, because that's not how it works in the real world. Fantasy was a heck of a lot more fun with all that adventure and mayhem. So I was an escapist. Sue me. Today's young readers probably are, to some extent, too. I don't blame them.

Melinda said...

Perhaps if all fantasy writers were required to read "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" by Diana Wynne Jones this would help clear out a little of the dreck.

Misrule said...

Just wanted to chime in and say I definitely read (and reread and reread) Go Ask Alice as a type of fantasy. The world of that book couldn't have been more dissimilar to my own life, and it was vastly more exotic and unreachable to me than the fantasy novels of my childhood. I could imagine myself into Narnia very easily, but Alice's world? Impossible.

Megan said...

"Realism" has always troubled me as a descriptor for YA fiction. I think its use is one reason that censorious adults get their hackles up about YA books that deal with sex, drugs, rock and roll... "This isn't(or shouldn't be) the reality of teenage life" is their common cry. But like all readers, teens read for entertainment, pleasure, escape...not just to see a portrait of their own reality. Perhaps using terms from performing arts would work better: YA novels described as dramas or comedies.

sdn said...

thank you to melinda:

Perhaps if all fantasy writers were required to read "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" by Diana Wynne Jones this would help clear out a little of the dreck.

because i've just reissued this into firebird -- new design, new material, new map. dwj calls this the definitive edition.

in other news, i read go ask alice at age 11, and went out the next day and bought a bunch of heroin. so i guess it backfired.

Melinda said...

Yes, I saw that. (I had to Google Diana's name because I kept wanting to spell it with two n's.) Exellent move!

Slip an ad for TGFL in with your rejection letters. Heh heh heh. Go right for the audience that needs it.

P.S. Just say no!