Sunday, May 3, 2009

Colson Whitehead

I have mixed feelings about Colson Whitehead's newest book, Sag Harbor.  When I heard him read a section and speak about his life as an author I was hooked. I loved his blend of sarcasm and sentimentality, but when I asked about the marketing of the book, whether it would be YA or A, he got huffy. He had no idea who I was or why I was asking and probably didn't even realize the New School, where he was speaking, had an MFA in Writing for Children, but he went right ahead and said something about how he wouldn't let it be classified as Young Adult because it clearly isn't for young adults and it felt like he was saying God help him if it was sold as such. Um, right, a coming of age story about a teenage boy, written in the first person, could never be considered Young Adult. Please. Get over yourself.  

The article in the New York Times addresses the issue of audience, but in terms of race, not age. But the whole thrust of this article seems to support the idea that it is precisely the young people, the next generation, that would benefit from reading this book and seeing a representation of the "post-black identity" in action.  I hope that this book finds its way into the hands of teens, despite the authors intentions. 


  1. what an idiot. He is missing out on a wonderful new audience opportunity. I wish people would just stop with this stupid YA lit stigma.


  2. And this article:
    basically shows that it took him three novels to learn how to write a quality Young Adult book!

  3. Wow I can't believe he said that!

  4. @brokeassproduc

    Whitehead is most definitely not an idiot. Imagine you right a book, make a movie, or a another piece of art. You have some clear ideas of what you are going for, and who your target audience is. Then you have people that probably have never read any of your work categorize is based on a synopsis or one reading.


    The narrator is an adult looking back at the things that shaped him. If the is a categorize for the novel its "Literary fiction" not Young Adult, or African American.

    "What I'm saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again. -Whitehead-"

  5. "Right" means "correct" and "write" means "to make sentences." FYI.

    Sutebia--you probably don't know a whole lot about what "Young Adult" means, do you? Catcher in the Rye, for example, would be considered "Young Adult" today. I think the problem here is not that your best friend Mr. Whitehead thought his book shouldn't be categorized as young adult, but that he fumed at the very thought. "Heaven forefend!" and what have you. It's this lack of respect for and utter pretension toward an incredibly valuable literary category--no less valuable, I might add, than your so-called literary fiction--that makes him an idiot. Not in the general sense, but in the, "I'm too full of my fucking self" sense.

  6. Benjamin Andrew Moore,
    How can you point to Catcher in the Rye, say that it would be considered Young Adult today, and see that as a persuasive defense of the categorization of books? When did marketing become so indispensable to the appreciation of literature that readers themselves would fume at authors who balk at the application of labels? And label that, sneeringly, as pretension?

    Whitehead's account at contradicts that given here, which reads (even without that contradiction) as glib, unfair and untrustworthy. What Whitehead had to say also offered something valuable to all the blather about genre, which I find missing here in this thicket of outrage.

  7. Uh, because it's by and large purchased and read by young adults today and has been for the past fifty years? Far, far, far, far more than adults. Categorization, to me, depends solely upon who buys the shit after it goes to print.

  8. And that is the case with Catcher in the Rye despite it not having been marketed that way, so...

    Your statement that categorization is merely descriptive of who buys a book after it goes into print is kind of irrelevant. What is under discussion is marketing. Two words that are printed on a book's cover. A section at a book store. All of which target (limit) a readership

    Not some post-publication phenomenon that occurs outside of that.

  9. No, marketing, in my opinion, is irrelevant, especially with regard to what I was saying. My only problem with what Whitehead was his scoffing at the mere possibility of "categorizing" his book as YA, as if that were beneath him, as if that were beneath his book, and beneath the whole of humanity, et cetera, and so on. You quoted me directly, not anyone else in this thread. Right? So I'm sorry, but you just plain plum misunderstood, motherfucker. If you wanted to quote somebody else and discuss the merits of marketing, or lack thereof, you should've done that. But you didn't.

    FYI, marketing this as YA would actually broaden his readership, per the annual numbers. YA sells more in general. It sells to young adults and, gasp, adult as well. But as I implied above, I'd prefer not to get into a debate about marketing when that's not what I took issue with in the first place.

    In conclusion, I'm sorry I offended your dad, Mr. Whitehead, only I'm not. I'm not sorry at all. Although the next time somebody offends him and you get all sensitive, you should probably not quote the person who offended him out of context and try to get in a meaningless debate with said person about marketing when that's not what said person was referring to in the first place.


  10. "My only problem with what Whitehead was saying..."

  11. Benjamin Andrew Moore,
    If you are not talking about marketing then you are not talking about what Whitehead said at all. Liznwyrk wrote "when I asked about the marketing of the book, whether it would be YA or A, he got huffy." Forgive me if I though we were talking about marketing.

    I didn't quote you directly or indirectly. I responded in a comment thread about a writer's objection to a certain kind of marketing. If you were not talking about marketing, you might have said so, since that is what this disagreement was about.

    It's a little silly to dismiss those who disagree with you as members of Whitehead's immediate family. I have never met him and I've not read any of his work. I cover crime for a newspaper in northern California. Here's my work blog:

    I'm also someone who sees an unhealthy loyalty to genre as an inherent characteristic of literature.

    Since I have little personal interest in this, I am not sensitive or offended. I do think that your advice not to misquote someone and debate them on a point they're not making is fair advice, and you might think at reevaluating what you wrote with that in mind.

    If you are the same Benjamin Andrew Moore whose YouTube channel I found then know that anyone who loves Leone films is no enemy of mine. Have you heard John Zorn's reinterpretations of Ennio Morricone's film music?

  12. Clarification: I'm also someone who believes it's unhealthy to treat genre as an inherent characteristic of literature.

  13. Fair enough. I do, very admittedly, become too sardonic and ridiculous when I'm arguing with people. I really wasn't dismissing you as a member of Whitehead's family so much as making a joke, though clearly a mean-spirited one.

    But I stand by one thing I said in my previous post. If Whitehead had said, "No, I don't think this should be marketed as YA," I would've been fine with that. To each his/her own. I took issue with the guy getting HUFFY, emphasis mine, about such an outlandish idea, and nothing else.

    I am that same Benjamin Andrew Moore, and I do love Sergio Leone films. I don't think I've come across John Zorn's re-interpetations of Morricone's music, but I'll check them out now. Did he even re-interpret Morricone's score from The Thing? Because that would be awesome.

  14. BAM,
    I don't have access to a recording of their conversation, so I can only credit what Whitehead has said about the subject. I have hard time crediting the above account as accurate or fair because of this: (he)said something about how he wouldn't let it be classified as Young Adult because it clearly isn't for young adults and God help him if it was sold as such."

    "Something about how" doesn't sound right to me. I do think we should be charitable with artists who don't care much to discuss the marketing of their work. I respect that.

    Whatever, the moment was between two people, and so we are all better off evaluating the ideas. But I'm not sure now I want to do that here, stuck inside someone else's argument.

    RE: The Thing. No, I don't remember any music from it on Zorn's album, the Big Gundown, but have you seen this:

    My email is in my profile. Good luck.