Monday, January 26, 2009

Young Adults?

Forgive me for being lax on my postings, but things have been ridiculously busy. Still, no excuses.

I am currently exploring the world of Young Adult Literature, otherwise known as YA. I'll be doing several postings on the topic, but for now, I want some of your thoughts.

I have just completed a book by John Green called Looking For Alaska. The book recently won the ALA's Michael Printz Award for young adult literature. The story follows a group of teens in a private school in Alabama. Along with the usual angst one would expect, the story flows. Green is a fine author, he has a way with dialogue, his plotting is spot on, and his use of the language is at times utilitarian and at times poetic, and he knows when to turn on the poetry.

Ah...I're waiting for the but. Okay...

But I have a problem with some aspects of the content as it regards YA literature. I do believe this book is marketed for those fifteen and up. The characters in the text smoke cigarettes, secret away alcohol, regularly exchange obscenities, and at one point the main character has oral sex performed upon him.

Now, I have thought long and hard about this and although I love the book, I am not sure it is appropriate to be taught in a school district, or that it is appropriate as a Young Adult novel. On the other hand, I think that its themes of friendship and accepting responsibility are wonderfully done. And certainly there are many fifteen-year-olds who would be fine reading this.

Some people are going to say: "Stewart, it's not like fifteen-year-olds don't smoke, drink, swear, and have sex."

I agree. And I am obviously struggling with this, or else I wouldn't be posting on it. However, let me relate this anecdote:

I once had a discussion with a young man about rap. He was listening to some rather offensive material. We went back and forth about the virtue of rap from an artistic point of view. He finally defended rap by stating: "Rap is real. It's about what's really happening."

"Defecation's real, too," I responded. "But I really don't want to hear a song about it."

Or do I? Donovan once sang a ditty called "The Intergalactic Laxative".

The point I was trying to make to him was that while we can write about life, or take a picture of something, what makes it worthwhile, in my opinion, is when we show the essence of reality, when we reduce it to an abstract, or when it makes some sort of comment.

So, where do we stand on Young Adult literature? If a book deals with content that is questionable, should it be rewarded with an award from the ALA? Or should we say: "Life is hard and kids need to know about and read about. They already live it." Or should we re-examine our approach? Are we reinforcing negative behaviors by giving it an indeliberate seal of approval ?

Lastly, I recommend Looking For Alaska. It is a finely crafted effort and John Green should be commended.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's Your Best Book?

What was your "Best Book"? An absurd question. And yet, in an online class I am taking on children's literature, I had to consider that question.

So...what is a "best book"?

In my mind it is a book which is influential or somehow transformative.

“Best” is a book that resonates, allowing you to forge a connection that will travel with you through life. I could easily mention A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle. Or perhaps The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

But let me instead talk about a book that became my “Best Book” because I knew it wasn’t my “Best Book.”

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key was one of those titles that the Detroit public schools sold once a year through a Scholastic Reading program. As a ten-year-old, I recall being drawn to the fantasy of it. This wasn’t a fairy tale, nor did it address its fantasy element in a condescending way. It treated its subject with respect and in turn respected its reader.

The story, the journey of a boy from another planet who somehow drops through a dimensional gate to land in our world, fired my imagination. It’s the sort of tale that makes you pause on the front porch as the summer’s evening draws around you, and stare at the stars to consider the possibilities.

But the Forgotten Door was a safe book. It was one of those titles the adult world gives children with a pat on the head. It was predictable and delivered the positive message one expected to find in a school library.

However, I heard something else.

“Keep reading kid,” it said. “If you like this, you should see what’s on some of those shelves you can’t reach. Or they won’t let you reach. Nudge. Nudge.”

You see? The Forgotten Door itself wasn’t a “Best Book”, but instead a guidepost. It pointed me to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It guided me to the works of Heinlein, Bloch, Matheson, Tolkein, and Asimov.

I could mention numerous other titles that were more stimulating, thought-provoking and memorable, but The Forgotten Door , although I felt at the time that it wasn’t anything special, gave me that peek and welcomed me into a community. Bradbury would become my grandfather. Asimov, my uncle. Vonnegut? The next-door neighbor who partied all night long and kept the rest of us awake. Lovecraft lived in the house at the end of the block and warned everyone away with closed blinds and crabgrass lawn.

I didn’t think about sharing that community with friends. Most of them seldom read and anyway, a ten-year-old needs something to claim his own. Books were power.

In the fifth grade, reading The Forgotten Door, joining that community, enjoying the secretiveness and excitement it offered, I decided one more thing. I recall closing the book and thinking: “I can do that.”

I can write. I can tell stories, too. For some reason, The Forgotten Door helped me recognize writing as a person’s creative expression.

I knew I wanted to write, not because the book was special ( I clearly remember feeling it was okay, but not great), but because I suddenly understood what writing represented.

At ten, someone would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A writer.” I would answer.

Some things don’t change. Or shouldn’t.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Cheer Up, Brian

"You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing. What have you lost?" Nothing!"--Life of Brian.

The economy is in free-fall. And what does this mean for writers? 

According to PRLOG.ORG:" Net sales of books in April fell 3.5 percent to $472.7 million, based on data from 79 publishers as reported to the Association of American Publishers." This is from 2007. A more recent release directly from the AAP website cited that books sold in October alone of this year decreased by 20.1 percent at $644.5 million and were down by 3.4 percent for the year.

These sorts of statistics have shaken the publishing houses large and small. According to the New York Times:  Random House is undergoing a major reorganization.  In October of last year Doubleday laid off ten percent of its staff.

According to an article in Salon: "Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher [ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt](actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees. Layoffs were also announced at Simon & Schuster, Thomas Nelson, and Macmillan.

Magazines? With advertising dropping ten percent and with the internet drawing away from the printed word, seems look grim. Media Life recently had an ominous article on what 2009 holds for the industry.

Meredith, publisher of thirteen magazines such as "Ladies Home Journal" and "Better Homes and Gardens", has perhaps given us a preview, reporting a 44 percent drop in net income for the quarter ending Sept. 30 from the same period a year earlier. It dismissed seven percent of its workforce and began downsizing.  

Depressed yet? What does this mean to people seeking publishing? Do we stand a chance?

I think the answer is "Yes."  Well, sort of.

With so many of the big houses having so much to lose as they invest in marketing larger titles and committing to broader distribution, I think small presses have an edge in some ways.  The returns for some of these companies may not be as large, but neither are the risks. And small presses are able to work with writers that the big houses necessarily pass on.

With so much advertising revenue moving to the web, so too have the magazines. People will argue that no one wants to sit at a computer and read. Yet look at the sales of Amazon's Kindle. Ebooks have exploded. Electronic books mean virtually no investment in maintaining an inventory and distribution is as simple as clicking a download from a server.  

A "must read" article from The Independent suggests that instead of despairing, aspiring writers should seek these times of economic darkness as an opportunity. Author Boyd Tonkin wrote: 

"Where could the silver lining lurk? Might the flight of big – or even middling – money from literary publishing prompt a quest for bolder choices and wider horizons from authors who know that their finely-finessed debut now stands no chance of reaching the Richard-and-Judy sofa or the Waterstone's front table? If slimmer cheques and smaller expectations force some novelists to give up altogether, surely they might inspire others to thumb their noses at a deep-frozen marketplace and go – as it were – for broke."

I think Tonkin is correct, at least in his view that for those who have imagination and creativity, there are rewarding avenues to follow to literary success. People should be exploring every avenue possible. For me, I'm continuing my current path of seeking publishing through small press and online magazines. Maybe I'll try something with podcasting and perhaps try to market something of my own through the net. 

Sit back and fret...and fail. This is the time to step up and be bold. This is when we writers need to change our paradigm and start seeking new avenues to finding our way into print, electronic or otherwise. Or into other medium altogether.

Let me close with a story I remember from a reading of Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"

Two battleships were at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather. The captain of the lead battleship was on watch as night fell. They were traveling through patchy fog that made visibility poor. Then, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “Light, bearing on the starboard bow.”

“Is it steady or moving astern?” the captain called out.

“Steady, Captain,” came the answer, confirming that they were on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.

The captain called to the signalman, “Signal that ship, tell them we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.”

“I’m a seaman second class,” came the reply, “You had better change course 20 degrees.”

The captain was furious. He spat out, “Send this message: I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.”

Back came the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.”

The battleship changed course.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

He Almost Made Sense

Chuck Zaglanis, Rick Moore, and I were sitting around talking about writing. Rick looked at me with his soulful eyes (he keeps them in a breast pocket) and said: "You can tell me how to correct a golf swing over and over, but ultimately the player is the one who has to make the transformation."  Chuck stopped me from throwing coffee at Rick, but I had to admit, it got me thinking.

I have been a member of writer groups and have given feedback to numerous people. A few even talk to me after. But perhaps the issue isn't just a matter of looking at mechanics, but looking at the person and asking the person to examine how they do something. Writing is, after all, an internal voyage. We can criticise and critique the final result, but its the process where the magic happens.

So, is there an element that's missing in critiquing? Of course going to that level of personal transformation is something beyond the relationship most possess with the person whose work they are reading, and the depth of involvement required is beyond what most people are willing to give or receive.

It sounds all too zen, doesn't it. Still, at some level I think I agree. No one changes unless they have to. Telling someone to work on economy in style or theme is meaningless; the person has to make that discovery and internalize it. Someone might be ready for feedback, but others will keep writing, continuing to struggle with the same issues over and over again.

As a teacher, I immediate considered the educational issues with Rick's assertion. If we take his premise and apply it to students struggling through school, then we have to stop and look at the student and seek transformation through the individual and through the family. Again, something that most are not willing to do. If I told a mother "I think you should work with your son to examine those elements in his life that are blocking him from studying and dedicating  himself to the lesson", she would point a finger at me and say: "Be a teacher and teach. If I want psychiactric advice I'll hire a shrink."

So the transformation for many students doesn't occur until later in life, and by then look at how much they've missed. Think about how many people feel they really started learning "after" they left school. As I've said before, school is a small portion of life's experience. Mostly, school only teaches a person how to learn. The bulk of the learning comes afterward, and in many cases, only when the person really feels the need to apply himself or herself to a desired discipline.

I'll end here.  I'm going to go think about this some more, and maybe write an article...sell it somewhere. Pretend I have some insight. I just wanted to free associate and think out loud. Okay. I invite your own interpretations on Rick's statements. I'm going to get asprin.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Happy New Year to all.

I don't have time to post now, but I had to offer this up for amusement. Some of you may have heard the controversy generated by Chip Saltsman, the Republican Senator from Tennessee. He apparently handed out a cd to members of the Republican National Committee featuring a song called "Barrack The Magic Negro".

Now, I'm not going to go political here and attack or defend this man. I just wanted to point out something...watching him on television, all I could think was : "Giggity, giggity, giggity." Saltsman is a dead ringer for Family Guy's Glenn Quagmire. For those who have never seen the show, Quagmire is a sexually obssessed pervert. Gotta love him.

So...any other living cartoon characters out there?