Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Want to See More In Fiction

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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July 23: Settings I’d Like to See More Of (Or At All)

I expanded it from settings to settings/characters/plots.

  1. brown map on map

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    Africa- It’s an entire continent with very little mainstream representation. Yes there are a number of notable African writers (Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadine Gordimer, Ben Okri) but that’s fairly recent. Prior to 50 or 60 years ago, most people would be hard pressed to name more than one notable African writer.  But Africa has a varied, rich history worth exploring in fiction. Historical fiction tends to go for a lot of European history, some eras of American history, and a bit of Asian history but very little in the way of African history

  2. map atlas south america

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    South America- Again most of the notable South American writers that I can think of are 20th Century authors (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende,  Jorge Luis Borges) but again, it’s an entire continent that’s been around just as long as any of the other continents out there that get more representation. It’s history is just as rich.

  3. holidays car travel adventure

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    Asia- I can actually  think of more Asian writers and books than I can African and South American. But again those are all mid 20th century and later.  But we have so much historical fiction  set in Europe. Let’s think a little bit broader!

  4. people at theater

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    Theater- This is probably my inner theater geek talking but I love a good theatrical setting. I love onstage drama. I love backstage drama. Plus it works for almost any genre.

  5. selective focus photo of gray metal folding walker

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    Characters with disabilities, chronic illnesses and health conditions that are not the focus on the story. I want to see characters dealing with this these and trying to solve mysteries, find true love, break a curse, and accomplish all kinds of other fictional tasks. How do they balance their condition with what needs to be done? It seems like most books about people with disabilities are about their disabilities. That’s fine but I’d like to see more about characters who are involved with other things in spite of having health related issues.

  6. photo of woman wearing yellow top

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    New adult expanding in terms of genre. Yes it’s nice that there’s a lot of New Adult Contemporary Romance. But why not expand that? Have new adult characters casting spells or solving mysteries or whatever? YA is sooo broad these days. We often see YA characters behaving like NA, so why not just broaden the genre?

  7. architecture bird s eye view blue sky buildings

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    Small town settings. It’s weird that I’m such a city girl in real life, but I love a good small town setting in fiction. I love it when a town comes to feel like a character in itself and I’d love some more great small town fiction.

  8. smiling man and woman wearing jackets

    Photo by Tristan Le on Pexels.com

    Adult characters who aren’t in their late 20’s- Early 30’s. This ties into new adult but also older adults. Why are so many books about characters who are about 29 years old. Yes some can be, but interesting things happen in people’s lives at various ages. Why not write about some 40 or 50 somethings?

Book Thoughts: Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

41gsbp8s2vl._ac_ul436_I’m hesitant to call this a “review” because I don’t usually post reviews on my blog. But I recently read this book and found it fairly interesting. When I looked on goodreads and amazon I saw that it had earned a lot of negative reviews. So I suppose that what I’m doing is laying out the reasons that I disagreed with those reviewers and found this book to be worth reading.

For the first third of the book I felt like I was reading a YA dystopia in the vein of Divergent,  Delirium, Matched, etc. The heroine, Adriane, is graduating from high school sometime in the 2040s (or thereabouts). The United States is now the North American States and is controlled by one political party. While lip service is paid to democracy it’s an autocratic state that’s downright Big Brother-ish. Adriane is her high school’s valedictorian and her speech asks questions of the audience that the state claims are subversive and treasonous. Adriane is sentenced to Exile. For four years she will be sent to Zone 9, otherwise known as Wainscotta Falls, Wisconsin circa 1959. She will live on a state university campus as student Mary Ellen Enright. She’s not allowed to tell anyone her real identity, she’s not allowed to leave a 10 mile radius from campus.

But once the plot is set up Oates diverges from the YA formula significantly. Because this isn’t really a YA book and I think that’s where a lot of other readers run into problems. I think the reader of Hazards of Time Travel is not expected to read it from a teenage point of view. We’re supposed to recognize that Adriane/Mary Ellen is naive and immature. When she falls in pure insta-love with Dr. Ira Wolfman, a young Assistant Professor and fellow Exile, we’re supposed to roll our eyes and cringe a bit. In fact I think the reason that it mimics the YA genre so closely at times is that we’re supposed to question our desire to classify and categorize.

The future, in this book, is chilling and based on total lockstep social control. The past of the 1950’s is also repressive in its sexism, racism, and Cold War paranoia. Oates draws parallels between the Cold War era and post 9/11 paranoia. She also looks at the rise of fascism, and the role of the self, and nature vs. nurture. It actually becomes rather heavy in the middle as an isolated Adriane/Mary Ellen explores these issues in her psychology class, and uses her knowledge of the future to complicate the questions.

The book ends somewhere ambiguous. We’re never told if the time travel really took place, or if it was all a dream, or if Adriane/Mary Ellen will stay where she is or return to the future. It’s unsettling. We’re left wondering if it’s a happy ending or a chilling one.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. I would actually suggest that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with one or two of Oates previous works before reading this one. I think an understanding of how she sometimes plays with genre is helpful in understanding what she was doing with this book. But also, I would hesitate to recommend it to people who like to know exactly what’s happening all the time. I think that expecting and appreciating ambiguity is important here.

Why I Write What I Write

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When I first wrote Beautiful, it was more of a personal challenge than anything I thought that I’d someday publish. At the time I wasn’t really thinking about what writing it would do for my writing “career” and what kind of impression that I’d make by writing it. A lot went into my decision to publish this book (explaining all that is a whole nother post…) but one question that I didn’t anticipate asking was “do I want this to be what I write?”

I’ve wanted to write books pretty much since I learned how to read them. At some point, I figured that anything I wrote would be deep and literary. I’ve definitely tried to write what people would call “literary fiction” but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as fantasy does. Still, the snob in me questioned whether I was comfortable being known as an author of “genre fiction.” What if I wanted to write great literature one day and couldn’t because I’d been branded a fantasy writer? (as if that were the only thing keeping me from producing the Great American Novel!) I worried about the stigma that fantasy carries also.  And YA. And fairy tale retellings. Especially those based on Beauty and the Beast (perhaps the most popular retold tale).

So what changed? Nothing really. I just stopped caring. Maybe I just got more mature. I write what comes naturally. I write when and where I feel like I have something to say. If I want to change genres, I will. If other people don’t like it, they’re free to not read my work. If people think I’m less intelligent or creative because I write YA or fantasy, they’re wrong. It’s not easy. Same with people who have a negative opinion of me creatively because I retell (I think “reimagine” is a better word here) fairy tales.

That’s not to say I don’t worry about what people think about what I write. I do. I worry that they won’t think it’s good. I worry that they won’t enjoy it, or they’ll feel cheated somehow. Part of my publishing journey is overcoming that fear. My hope is that readers will have a few hours of enjoyment with my work. A few hours of escape from their problems. Maybe they’ll find something in it that they connect with. Maybe they’ll think about something a bit differently. But really if they enjoy it, I’ll be happy. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see whether or not I’ve hit the mark there.

Is This Book For Me? Reading Outside Your Demo

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The Adult Reading YA Controversy

It’s no secret that people who aren’t teens read books marketed as YA. According to a 2012 Publishers Weekly study, 55% of YA books are bought by adults. Yes, they could be buying books for their kids. But the largest group of YA buyers, 28% of those buyers are between the ages of 30 and 44. Is it possible for a thirty-something to have a teenage child? Yes. Is it likely? Not according to recent data which shows that in the US the average age of a first-time mother is 26. Around other parts of the YA buying world, it’s closer to 30. Meaning that people in the 30-44-year-old range are more likely to have a young child than a teen.

So let’s assume that adults are buying YA for themselves and reading it. Is that good? Should they be embarrassed? Opinions differ. In 2014, Ruth Graham wrote for Slate that “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” Her reasoning for this opinion is ” It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”  That’s a big assumption to make. Unless the author of the books writes a forward demanding readers do just that, it’s not possible to be sure that that was the intention. Do some adults read these books from the perspective of a teenager? Perhaps. Do some read it from the perspective of someone who was in that frame of mind once but isn’t any longer? That’s equally likely. I imagine that for most people it’s a combination of the two. I usually fall somewhere along that spectrum, but in different places depending on the book.

Graham also asserts that  “mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all” OK. Is that to say that teens can’t find satisfaction in ambiguity? Or that YA only features “likable” characters? I’d say no. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, for example, is told from the perspective of an accused rapist. The main character is not a textbook villain though. He doesn’t understand that what he did actually qualifies as rape. I imagine most readers of the book condemn his actions and believe that he should face consequences for them. Yet some might feel sympathy for a teenage boy, caught up in a situation he doesn’t completely understand. That doesn’t condone what he did at all. It simply complicates the reader’s feelings about what happens in the book. Different readers might close the book and have different opinions about what consequences the character should face. Or look at a more classic example. In The Outsiders, one character has a tragic ending that is framed as the lesser of two evils. The other survives and offers a vision of his life that involves making the right decision. Is this an optimistic ending? Pessimistic? It depends on which the reader feels a stronger emotional connection to.

After Graham’s article came out, a lot of YA readers and writers refuted it. In doing so many tackled that question of what “literature” is. But I am more curious right now about what categories such as “children”, “middle grade”, “YA”, and New Adult” actually mean.

Author Kate Axelrod wrote an essay about her novel, intended for adults, being marketed as YA. The Law of Loving Others is a novel about the toll that mental illness takes on a family. Because it featured a teen protagonist, most editors wanted to market it as YA. Axelrod resisted but eventually decided to sell the book to Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. The novel was eventually published in 2015 and didn’t attract much critical attention. That translated to lackluster sales. According to most readers and reviewers, the book wasn’t really a YA novel. It was an adult novel featuring teen characters. Adults who didn’t gravitate toward YA weren’t interested. Why?

And what makes something “not YA”? After all, there are many books that are successfully marketed to a YA audience that deal with dark, complicated themes including mental illness, suicide, violence, racism, drugs, and abuse. Look at the success of novels like 13 Reasons Why or The Hate U Give. These have achieved a crossover success with both adult and teen readers. Why were they able to do so, while Axelrod’s novel wasn’t? I could see JD Salinger or Harper Lee being told that The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird needed to be marketed as YA, using the same logic.

Also, why wasn’t Axelrod’s novel able to be marketed as adult fiction? A lot of contemporary adult fiction features teenage protagonists. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep was successfully marketed to an adult audience in spite of the fact that it was a coming of age story that took place at a New England prep school. Donna Tartt is consistently referred to as a writer of adult, literary fiction. However, her debut, The Secret History was set in college, and featured characters that were students. Her follow up, The Little Friend, features a twelve-year-old protagonist, and her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch follows the main character from the age of thirteen through his early adulthood.

What’s the takeaway? Should we ignore all of these categories completely? Would that help people find books that resonate with them, or would it simply overwhelm them? People like to classify and categorize. It serves several purposes. Without these categories, choices can be too much. Imagine walking into a bookstore that was just organized by authors name. Fiction, nonfiction, children’s books etc were all jumbled up. A lot of people might just get frustrated and walk out. These categories also help draw in readers. Someone who reads a middle-grade book that s/he just loves may be more likely to seek out other books marketed to that audience, regardless of their age.

Is Children Reading YA A Problem?

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It’s also tricky when considering younger readers because not all content is appropriate for children of all ages. Childhood is a period of significant growth and development. The changes that one undergoes between the ages of 8 and 18 are enormous, whereas someone who is 50 may still be much the same ten years later. As a result it’s hard to tell what’s appropriate for whom.

Even within YA, there is a lot of variation. Traditionally, YA is aimed at a 13-18-year-old readership. While an 18-year-old might be ready for something like Judy Blume’s Forever, it might not be appropriate for every 13 year old. Having a single category that covers an age range in which a lot of maturing happens is tricky.

Or look at Middle Grade which is aimed at an 8-12-year-old readership. An 8-year-old might be a bit young for some darker/scarier MG books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Girl Who Could Fly,  but a 12-year-old might find that same content exciting, suspenseful and compelling.

There’s no easy way for parents and educators to know if a certain book is appropriate for a certain child. Especially since no two children are alike. One 12 year old might be ready for YA while another one might be comfortably reading MG. For that reason, I think it’s essential that parents and teachers know their children and have at least some familiarity with the books in question.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you like reading books that are “for” a demographic into which you don’t fit?