Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The audience is not an abstraction.

I’m a bit torn about whether to write any more about the infamous Cox Gurdon WSJ piece, but there is a strain in her argument that offends me (and I think should offend and trouble many authors and fellow editors), and I don’t see enough rebuttal amidst the #yasaves.

In the original piece, she wrote:

Veteran children's bookseller Jewell Stoddard traces part of the problem to aesthetic coarseness in some younger publishers, editors and writers who, she says, "are used to videogames and TV and really violent movies and they love that stuff. So they think that every 12-year-old is going to love that stuff and not be affected by it. And I don't think that's possible."

And in the more-maddening NPR interview (yes, it actually spiked my blood pressure more than the article), she said:

People who write books for children and people who sell books to children understand those children in the abstract. But parents of those children love them very specifically and know them very well and care a great deal about what is in their hearts and what the wallpaper is in their minds.

The first excerpt can be dismissed as a writer amplifying a quote that never should have been repeated. (Jewell Stoddard, I will work a week in your store for free if you can produce any evidence to support this incredibly sweeping generalization.)

The second, though, is just bizarre. I’m trying very hard not to read it as a mother of five implying that people who make books don’t know anything about specific children (even though it sounded that way to me when I first heard it). In any case, I don’t know of any successful YA author whose audience is an abstraction. That’s just not how good fiction works ever in any genre, either for writers or for people who work on books. Just one example off the top of my head:

For my father, whom I miss every day. And for my son, who I hope will know a little of his grandfather through me.

This is Steve Brezenoff’s dedication to his The Absolute Value of –1. A quick survey of YA novels will find many similar dedications.

For my part, the three-year-old on the right is a very unabstract entity in my imagination when I work on certain books.

I’m not suggesting that you have to be a parent to imagine children or a child reader in detail. Far from it. Parenthood is not a prerequisite to a specific, emotional, and intellectual connection to children.

For the YA novels I have the pleasure of editing, I find my personal imaginative bleachers filled with, among others, 12 year-old-me who read The Sun Also Rises much too soon because my 1990 junior high library wasn’t meeting my needs (I badly needed The Marbury Lens or Inexcusable) and by the contemporary teens I go out of my way to meet at every opportunity (particularly the members of the inimitable Teens Know Best reading group).

Maybe people who write insurance forms can afford to imagine abstractions (though I hope not); authors and editors, not so much.