December 18, 2010
I write Young Adult fiction. So does M.T. Anderson. The difference between us is that I am me, and he is one of the two or three best writers in the genre, with a large and ridiculously diverse stable of titles. Thirsty long predates the cross-platform vampire onslaught with more wit, style, and weirdness than all of Twilight-iana combined. In a sane and just world, where Anderson took daily baths in royalties cash, his butler would have refused this interview outright. (Also, this is not an interview). Feed envisions an ad-slang dystopia that’s equal parts sly satire, A Clockwork Orange, and a Vinyard Vines catalog. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a two-part novel of immense scope and sheer intellectual urgency, written in a mix of crystalline prose and Revolutionary War-era argot. There’s no way it should work on any level, and yet it does, setting an impossibly high standard within YA and without, while investigating notions of individuality, altered history, slavery, classical education, fecal heft, and the evolution of language.
Also, it won the National Book Award.
In an effort to avoid the trappings (read: dullness) of your typical interview structure, we more or less had a free-ranging discussion with no prepared questions. Did it work? Who knows?
Sean Beaudoin: Salman Rushdie’s YA novel Luka and the Fire of Life was just released. He said he “wanted to write a story that demolishes the boundary between adult and children’s literature.” Does that boundary exist anymore? And if so, do you think his statement reads as brave or presumptuous?
M.T. Anderson: I’m inclined to give the man the benefit of the doubt – considering that he spent the late 80’s hiding in a wienie shack in Van Nuys. I’m sure Luka will be a wonderful book, and, having read his own explanation of why he wrote it, it’s hard not to sympathize with him as he writes of his mortality.
The question is, does he really believe that he’s the first to undertake heroically the demolition of this literary boundary? And what, precisely, does he mean, respectively, by books for children or books for adults? He himself ornaments the terms with the scare-quotes. Is he forgetting Lewis Carroll, who he mentions? Or Stevenson’s swashbucklers? Or Yann Martel? Or much of science fiction? Or, to really throw the doors open wide, V.C. Andrews? (What twelve year old will ever forget the tar, the arsenical donuts, the blocked toilet a-roil with siblings’ shit?) Each of these authors traverses the ghetto streets from children’s lit to stuff for adults down different byways and hidden alleys.
He may not think he’s the first, but he certainly seems to think he’s the man to wield the hammer. And he’s probably right. You and I can stand on the sidelines and cheer, our ball peens safely holstered.
Regardless of Rushdie’s sense in this passage, it’s a great way to start our discussion, because the relation between “literary fiction” and genre fiction – be it kidlit, sci-fi, whodunits, or porn – in fact often plays out in a mildly (very mildly) post-colonial fashion. That is to say, those who write “literary fiction” – a genre that appears to be no genre at all – a genre unmarked and self-evident to its readers – a genre where the clichés and weary tropes are invisible, or taken as signs of quality – they can survey the generic ghettos below them and around them – shanty neighborhoods where men in spacesuits labor up rickety staircases, or friendly hedgehogs hang out their laundry with clothespins in their teeth. It is for those “literary” writers to judge, to deny entry, to admit, to explain to the rest of us readers and writers what we lack, how we might improve. The fact that many more millions of readers are deeply moved each day by supermarket-spinner romance writers we’ve never heard of than will ever read (for instance) The Wapshot Chronicle only damns the romance writer more. Every once in a while, a genre writer will receive the kiss of benediction, and will suffer an apotheosis, mounted up and whisked to heaven surrounded by bunny-rabbit putti or saucer-ships. Suddenly Thomas Pynchon is not a science fiction writer and John LeCarre is not a writer of spy thrillers. So long as they are snatched early enough in their career, they are unstained with the taint of genre. (To suggest John LeCarre is a writer of spy thrillers seems like a denigration.) And, at the same time, by hauling up and resituating many of each genre’s most promising practitioners (by shifting them in Barnes and Noble from the genre shelf to the unmarked “Fiction” section) the “literary” world assures the continued impoverishment of spy fiction or sci-fi.
So there’s me being cranky. What about you? Cranky? As someone who has written a book that partakes of two genres – teen fiction and noir – do you feel shunted off doubly into the corner? Or invited to two parties at once?
Cranky? Yes, certainly. Although my shawl-and-rocking chair orneriness reaches beyond the injustices of literature and chain store shelving practices. For the most part, I have a hard time being annoyed with a certain amount of condescension, even from those who ask when I’m going to “write a real book,” because I’m sure back in my sweaty V.C. Andrews-reading days, I too was nurturing the tendency to shit on anything that didn’t have the Manhattan imprimatur of serious fiction, an attitude that took me at least another decade to jettison.
I do think it’s sort of popular at the moment, among both those cowering in wienie shacks and wandering out in the open, to say things along the lines of “there are increasingly fewer walls between genres,” but I have the feeling the genre battlements are as manned as ever, despite the quote’s success in making us feel as if we’re evolving. The fact that numerous “literary” writers are now penning YA novels seems to speak more to the quality of YA in general than a Stonewall-esque change in attitude. To answer your question, I do feel at a disadvantage having written something that straddles marketing niches. You Killed Wesley Payne, whatever its faults or merits, requires a subversion of expectations, which is not always a friend of the impulse buy.
But as we both seem to be saying, the things that straddle different genres are often the particularly exciting projects – great to read, if difficult to work on.
Writing is hard. And pain don’t hurt. Producing even the clumsiest, most turgid novel is usually the equivalent of giving birth in a covered wagon three days after the midwife was carried off by Apaches. So, you know, a good novel in any genre is a triumph over the continuum of mediocrity and should be celebrated in equal measure, in any section of the bookstore. It’s easy and almost reflexive to hate the success of zombies or Da Vinci, but so many “literary” novels I read seem just as derivative or cynical. So, where do you think this almost universal authorial compulsion to constantly compare dicks comes from?
You know Hemingway and Fitzgerald literally compared dicks? Hemingway, being – if not having – the bigger dick, tells the story in A Moveable Feast.
Fitzgerald confided over lunch that Zelda had told him he was too small to satisfy her. He pleaded (says Hemingway) positively pleaded for help with the problem. Papa H. took him into the bathroom and they ran a scan of the equipment. Hemingway, needless to say, had some sage advice. “‘You’re perfectly fine,’ I said. ‘ You are OK. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.” And furthermore: “‘It is not basically a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle.’ I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.”
Talk about the running of the bull.
While clearly the moral of this story is that you should never, ever ask a man who’s grown a mustache questions about your penis size, it’s also instructive in that the two of them, for reference, see whether they measure up by comparing themselves with the classical canon. I mean that literally: The kanon was originally a statue by Polyclitus that showed, supposedly, the perfect human proportions. In the same way, the idea is that we as writers are supposed to somehow match ourselves up to the canon, and to check our own growth – in repose, and in the size that we become – against Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
In our post-modern era, this use of the canon has become profoundly destabilized. It’s a fascinating moment. The collapse of book reviewing, for example, means that I really don’t think we have this view any more that there are Olympian observers who are right in damning or praising. The role of the reviewer really has become to characterize a work, rather than to judge it – since the myth of authority has taken such a blow as our newspapers and their book sections fold.
I can no longer claim to know exactly how to appraise fiction. In some ways, I think that’s very exciting.
Your argument makes me want to rub on some eye-black, grab a torch, and storm the castle of Lowered Expectations. Not to mention the moat of Not Hurting Anyone’s Feelings. The obverse of the impulse for two authors to literally (or literarily) talk junk in the bathroom, is for one of them to stand in front of a series of whistle stop crowds and spit-wax their mustache with a denunciation of all shit prose, not just the dangle to their left. Since this sort of thing almost never happens in public anymore, let alone on Sunday after Sunday of tepid and formulaic book reviews, an intellectual broadside against The Chaff That Is Deemed Acceptable would be exhilarating to behold. One author of Upper West Side apartment novels slamming another author of Lower East Side apartment novels over Madeira and cheese cubes would be meaningless in the face of a larger proclamation. And maybe some form of ruthless objective judgment going viral is the best way to distract the endless autopsies on publishing’s corpse. Either way, the absence of a collective set of lit-onions, the willingness to say some books SUCK, and THESE are those books, is an incalculable failing of the industry. Or the species.
I guess, when it comes down to it, it seems to me there are two separate elements that go on in judgments of literary quality. The first, and less reliable, is the fact that the “literary” is also a genre with its own rules and its own boundaries. It defines itself by a clean and antiseptic absence of genre elements. But the “literature” genre also has its tropes, as I said above – the epiphany, the neighborhood bar, the fragile marriage, whatever. If you set a novel in New York, describe upper middle class people feeling vaguely sad, and ensure that not much happens, the book is literary. Such books have the appearance of literary centrality to certain reviewers, especially those who write for New York publications read by upper middle class people feeling vaguely sad. But in fact, quality here is somewhat beside the point – we’re really talking about genre conventions, and many of these books would be far more moving and effective with the addition of a finely-crafted alien abduction, or, for god’s sake, a murder in that chef’s kitchen.
Of course, there is obviously a huge body of fiction that doesn’t include any so-called “genre” elements but is still gorgeous, disturbing, and moving. But there is also the ballast that gets a “literary” pass because it uses the same set of realist conventions but is too bland to offend.
More legitimately, perhaps quality can be judged by the tension in a work between surprise and cohesion. You want a novel to twist and to turn in ways you don’t expect (whether that means a beautifully turned phrase or a plot that pulls away from what you know); but on the other hand, some jolts seem accidentally ludicrous, abrupt, or clumsy. But that’s the problem: We all have different tolerances, different expectations, a different “canon” to which we’re measuring the proportions of these works. (Coloring books? Gossip Girl? Gertrude Stein?)
So help me: Is all pursuit of objective judgment dead? Should we really swallow stale, thin narrative as if it were the rich bouillabaisse of Moby Dick? Do we have to all applaud at the Emperor’s new clothes as he primps in front of us, declaring the genius of his see-through culottes?
Well, I was just reading about an interesting study that concluded taste was mostly a matter of genetics and social position. It suggested that what we think of as a lifetime’s individualized accretion of knowledge–and the hard-earned ability to discern between quality and populism–is really a matter of our subconscious need to lord over the economic strata below us. In other words, if the neighbor making twenty-thousand less than you loves Wanted Dead or Alive, you’ll suddenly loathe the pedestrian fretboard stylings of Ritchie Sambora, unable to boot your computer fast enough to download the next band up the complexity ladder.
But wouldn’t it be a crushing blow to find out your (my) love of The Velvet Underground has nothing to do with odd intervals, transgressive lyrics, or inspired viola-abuse–and everything to do with an embedded chemical elitism? I know I’m playing devil’s advocate, especially by using an annoying cliché like devil’s advocate, but perhaps it would be good to start by defining where the nexus of accessibility, entertainment, sales, and literature lies (or lies to us.)
I’m not sure I believe that there’s a direct correlation between elevated social class and artistic complexity. Before a flight, when I slog on back through the First Class cabin of a plane in that familiar economy-class walk of shame, I’m not sure that most of the people sitting in those massive pleather seats with noise-reduction headphones are bobbing their heads to the All-Schoenberg station. No, the rich are listening to Miley Cyrus like the rest of us, because for them, it is a party in the U.S.A.
Except that the rich do go to the opera, even if they hate it, to prove some sort of point. And despite their internal yearning for The Ring Cycle to end as fast as possible so they can race home and down gin and tonics while cruising Miley Cyrus websites, they’re still affected on some level by having Wagner seep into their cortex, and it probably does elevate their taste to some degree. Even if that means cruising Sophie Marceau websites instead. Also, I love my noise reduction headphones.
I do believe that in more complicated ways, social class does play into our taste (as Pierre Bourdieu describes), as do many other circumstances: the music your parents listened to, the stuff teachers introduced you to as a kid, ethnicity and other forms of community, etc. … This is what makes judgment so touchy right now – because we recognize now that no one is detached and located at the center. Everyone, in a sense, is peripheral to others.
The Bourdieu drop! I should have been more specific. But, yeah, I sort of love that randomness of influences, and the certainty that can fester inside it. I recently got a Google alert for a young woman’s website where she recorded the names of all the books she’d read this year. At the bottom was a smaller list of books she hadn’t bothered to finish, mostly because she thought they sucked. Next to each of those losers was the page number where she’d given up on them–112 or 89 or 71. At the very bottom of that list was You Killed Wesley Payne. And the page she’d given up on was 1. One fucking page! In a way, I think that’s the best review I’ve ever gotten. And who’s to say she’s wrong? YKWP didn’t work for her, the first sentence was a complete failure, the second paragraph a travesty, time to move on. And why not? A few years ago I read half of an extremely popular metaphysical bestseller on the balcony of a Mexican hotel. My wife had torn through it on the airplane, so when I finished the 900-page anvil of Thucydides I’d brought along (embarrassing, but true. I mean, when else am I going to have the time to tackle Big T?) I gave that bestseller a try. It was, from almost the first line, clumsy, insincere, and emotionally manipulative. So much so, that in an instant of Modelo-fueled rage, I tossed it off the balcony and into the waves below. Where, no doubt, a sea turtle immediately ate it, and then had the burning shits for a month. But, you know, I’m quite sure the author isn’t losing any sleep over my opinion. She has a vast audience of readers she speaks to, with a great deal of mutual satisfaction. And she probably sold more copies during that vacation weekend than all my books ever will, combined. So who’s right? And does it matter? With the insane number of books published each year (somewhere around 170,000), and the average number of books each American is said to read in that same span (between 1 and 5), the sheer randomness of making a sustained writer/reader connection has sort of cudgled me into the opinions are like assholes camp. Or at the very least, although I feel as capable as anyone else in pronouncing judgment on lousy books, movies, and bands, I no longer see much sport in it.
One of the great things, actually, about being a writer for children, is that the community is so welcoming and supportive. Perhaps we’re all united because of a certain sense of mission: the vital importance of writing good, interesting books for kids. Some writers for teens now even set up events and travel in groups, working together to try to cross-promote. It’s a generous response to an ugly problem – all of the noise, multifarious media, and emphasis on visibility currently. I love the warmth of my colleagues, the fact that we’re actually happy to see each other at conferences, parties, and readings – regardless of our aesthetic differences.
Of course, there are a few pains in the ass, but that only makes things more entertaining for the rest of the industry, snuggly as it is. Without a pain in the ass, who’d ever sit up straight and take notice of the world around them?
You’re talking about me, aren’t you? About that time I got up on a table at BEA and pissed on a stack of zombie debutante novels. Can’t you just leave that incident alone?
You mean the launch party for Her Hand in Marriage – And Wrist for Lunch? Yeah. That was an interesting moment in critical judgment.
Actually, I’m talking about the sequel, Tell Portia I’ll Have the Neck-Steak with Fries.
Man, I can’t believe we’re at the end here. There’s so much I wanted to ask you about, and we hardly got to any of it.
It’s been a pleasure! Looking forward to seeing where you go next. Fictionally, I mean. I know more generally, the answer is “Sea-Tac.” Thanks for asking me to talk!