Thursday, May 7, 2009

Follow Up- Colson Whitehead

So, it seems as though my post stirred up quite a bit of discussion. I like this idea. I like that people are thinking and talking about what it means to be categorized. And I am very impressed that Colson Whitehead himself got involved in the discussion. Thanks! You can read his words at the bottom of this post.

I am currently taking a class with Laurie Sheck who has just published a text called A Monster's Notes that her publishers are calling a novel and she insists is not a novel- she believes there is no accurate category for what she has written. As a result we have been studying many texts this semester that similarly straggle or merge genres, and yes, the conversations can be exhausting and often seem futile, but I think what ultimately matters is how the label can effect readers expectations. 

As someone who is writing Young Adult literature I am often made aware of the snobbish hierarchy of the book world.  I think in my question to Whitehead at the New School reading I was excited that his book might be doubly marketed/categorized and that his readership could be expanded in that way and was put off when that enthusiasm was not immediately reciprocated. I do realize, however, that an author has little to no say in how their book is labeled, marketed, reviewed, and shelved. And that this can lead to frustrations with the very subject. But with the world of publishing being what it is, it is naive to ignore or purposefully avoid issues of categorization. Issues of marketing are really issues of getting the book into readers hands- which clearly is important to all authors, except maybe Emily Dickinson.

Colson Whitehead Responds to YA “Controversy”
Written by Edward Champion
Posted on May 4, 2009
Filed Under Whitehead, Colson, YA

The blog A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’ recently posted an item from an appearance that Colson Whitehead made at The New School. At the event, Whitehead was reportedly asked about whether his latest novel, Sag Harbor, could be classified as YA. And it was reported that he got “huffy” about the issue. This surprised me, because Sherman Alexie and China Mieville have both written specifically for a YA crowd. And it might also be argued that David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could swing both ways as a YA and an adult title. If Whitehead had indeed said these things, it seemed counterintuitive to reduce his novel’s possible audience.
Curious about Whitehead’s side of the story, I contacted him by email and he responded to my questions quite quickly. Here is his answer:

Thanks for letting me address this “controversy.”

I remember the exchange. Do you have a transcript of it? Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t do “huffy,” but I do roll my eyes in exasperation, as I will when asked at a writers conference about “how will it be marketed?” I’ll talk about writing, how I got started, my work process, what have you, but marketing is boring and not what a writer should be asking about. Write the book. Make it the best book you can make it. All the other stuff is crap. So if I seemed “huffy,” that’s the reason: I’d rather talk about the work. I’m not hawking Flowbees here. I don’t “target” my work to a “demographic.”

Labels bug me. My first ideal reader was a teenage version of myself; someone who might randomly come across my book and be changed by it, the way I was changed by so many books in that key time. Then I started publishing, and the people who came to see me read were so varied – old, young, black, white, redheaded, balding, etc. – that it seemed dumb to have a mental picture of my ideal reader. It’s a blessing if anyone reads your book at all. But if she or he is a “Young Adult,” great. With braces & a bad slouch, even better.

If I had my way, there wouldn’t be any categories at all. For me, it’s all just “writing.” Is The Colossus of New York non-fiction? Not strictly, but it has to go somewhere in the bookstore, and if it’s in Essays or in the About New York section, I don’t care. I’m just glad that it’s getting out there. But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. 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.

I’m publishing in the age of the web. You don’t have to go far to find that I’m not a snob about genres, and go out of my way to say that I came to writing by loving comic books and Stephen King, because that’s how it happened and you should read what you want to read, and not what someone else thinks is proper for you to read. Frankly, I don’t really know what YA is. Does that mean it features kids or teenagers and is only intended for kids and teenagers? I’m sort of out of the loop about these turf battles. They seem kinda dumb. If it’s a good story, I don’t care what section I find it in.

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