Could You Point Me To the Real Literature Shelf?

Like most young-adult fiction writers I know, I spent a good deal of last week thinking about a certain Slate article that claims adults should be embarrassed for reading YA fiction. Hereto that article shall be known as It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked.

Many writers and readers have already pointed out the flaws in the piece, for instance, that the author makes sweeping generalizations about the YA genre. Or that genre-shaming is frequently aimed at books for women and children. (And, for that matter, written by women.) That adults can benefit from reading about teen-age experiences. That marketing, rather than quality, defines what is or isn’t YA. And, of course, that no one should be telling anyone what to read.

And then there’s my favorite response to the idea that adults should be embarrassed by what they read:


It’s not like we haven’t had this dust up before. I can recall at least one heavily publicized tirade against YA books, and chick lit has been getting genre-shamed since Bridget Jones first cracked open her diary. Every few years, someone climbs upon the literary high horse and decrees that we should be reading Real Literature, not Crap.

Of course, what is and isn’t Real Literature is anybody’s guess.

There’s no Real Literature shelf in a bookstore. Believe me, I’ve looked. As a writing graduate student, I was encouraged to read Real Literature. Assigned readings included classic novels and contemporary critical darlings like Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. There didn’t seem to be room for the books I loved and wanted to emulate – Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance. Or any of the women’s fiction that was racking up sales at local Barnes & Noble. I read both the Real Literature and the commercial entertainment. I’ll admit that sometimes the distinction between the two categories was obvious, but most of the time it wasn’t.

I’m no more the wiser when it comes to the YA / Real Literature divide. Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, emotional book with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. Despite her age, or the fact that it’s a coming of age story, you’ll find it on the fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble. Why? Is it the page count? The typography? It *is* kind of small print, honestly, but shouldn’t that mean it’s better for younger eyes?

It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked claims the differentiation between YA and Real Literature lies in the pleasure of reading, the satisfying ending, relatable protagonists. All of these are qualities of the “inferior” young adult novel. They are also the qualities of the not-YA Tell The Wolves I’m Home.

It would be fascinating to go behind the scenes of the publishing houses and get the editors and marketers to explain the distinctions they use to categorize books. I’d love to know why one book ended up in one part of the bookstore while a similar book is in another. But I fear that the answers would be so widely varied so full of caveats and exceptions that the answer would be just as murky as it is now.

Which makes me wonder: why have them at all?

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople -- North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople — North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

My local independent bookstore, BookPeople, has a large, well curated Teen book section. I’ve been browsing it for years and have watched it grow and change. The teen section is not only stocked with books that are arbitrarily designated by the publisher as Teen or Young Adult. Within it you can find 1984, The House on Mango Street, The Life of Pi, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are cross-shelved in both the teen section and graphic novel section. And it isn’t just that books are cross-shelved into the teen section. As I was browsing the fiction shelves I was pleased to spot a face-out stack of The Book Thief.

Anytime there’s another war of words over which books one should or should not read, I think of BookPeople and how we’d all be much better off if books weren’t judged by what section of the bookstore they’re shelved in. I’m not so radical as to suggest that we do away with labels completely. They’re handy for describing what you like (or what you write, for us writer types) and bookstores would be chaos without them. But many, many books cannot be neatly pigeonholed into just one category. We frequently talk about books that have cross-over appeal — books that appeal to readers of multiple genres. What harm is there in cross-shelving a book in both General Fiction and Teen if it would appeal to both audiences? When books “cross over,” let them actually cross the bookstore.

And then wouldn’t it be interesting if readers like the author of It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Linked got the opportunity to browse those mixed up shelves? She might pick up a book, read the description, and find out it is the critically lauded, experimental piece of Real Literature that she’s always dreamed of reading.

And it might be YA.

End of the Year Reading Recap

At the end of the year it seems only natural to recap and recommend books I’ve read over the year. Looking over my goodreads list, two things struck me about it. First: wow, I read a lot of books. Second: I liked a lot of books too. I think I doled out more five stars this year than any before. There are a lot of great books out there.

Since I am rubbish at book reviews you won’t really find any here. What you will find is a list of a few of my favorites and me gushing about why I liked them. Some of these books I connect with on a very personal level. They may be brilliantly written, complexly plotted, and have a million other qualities going for them, but in the end I just liked it.

So here we go…


Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly — I just finished this book, so it’s still fresh in my mind. This is definitely one of my favorite books of 2010. The writing is simply gorgeous. The characters are so very real and different. I was completely engrossed in the story within a matter of paragraphs. But I think part of what continues to draw me to this book is that I get Drea. Drea, the main character, has a number of issues that may or may not be Asperger Syndrome, anxiety, or ADHD. She’s never fit in and she doesn’t get the unspoken social rules everyone seems to abide by. Kelly conveys that so marvelously that Drea doesn’t come across as someone with issues, but as someone who exists inside all of us.

The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti — Deb Caletti is an author I probably should have discovered years ago instead of just this year, but I’m so glad that I did. This was my first and, like many things, you never forget your first. It started me off down a path of reading The Six Rules of Maybe, Honey Baby Sweetheart, and The Nature of Jade, all of which I loved, but none quite as much as Secret Life.

Honorable mentions:
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
Struts and Frets by Jon Skovron


The Help by Kathryn Stockett — I lost three days to this book when it was assigned as a book group book. I started it one night and simply could not put it down until I’d finished it. Three voices tell the story of life in 1960s Mississippi. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of multi-voice books, but this one completely won me over because each one was so different and offered such a unique perspective on the story. If you have a mother or aunt that you are still in need of a gift store, check out The Help. I hear the audio books are amazing as well.

Room by Emma Donoghue — Warning: this book might not be for the faint of heart. I discovered it after its Booker nomination and was intrigued by the premise. The book is told from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, who has spent his entire life confined with his mother to one room. Jack’s voice is eerily realistic and through it, Donoghue manages to convey not only a terrifying tale, but emotional truths about growing up and loosing one’s childhood innocence.

Honorable Mentions:
The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley
We Agreed To Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood


The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook — As a fan of the new series of Doctor Who, I may be a bit biased about how awesome this book is, but prejudice aside, the book is a fascinating look at the writing process behind a major television show. There’s a lot here for fiction writers as well. The book is the collected email correspondence between Cook and Davies and essentially begins with Cook asking Davies how he gets his ideas. In the 700 pages that follow, the question is answered and then some. Davies speaks frankly about his writing process and you watch as drafts of stories get revised, thrown out, rewritten, and finally produced.

Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn — This is, perhaps, the most important book I read in 2010. It started out as a book group pick (and one I wasn’t particularly excited about) and it turned into a book I wanted to get for everyone on my shopping list this Christmas. It’s a tough read as it contains many awful stories the oppression of girls and women in the developing world. Where Half the Sky differs from other nonfiction issue books is that it not only offers hope, it offers a solution. While similar books present solutions in the form of “the government should…” or “if world leaders would…”, Half the Sky puts solutions in your hands. It list grassroots organizations and micro finance opportunities that are directly working with the women in developing countries. I have never felt so empowered after reading a book like this.

Honorable Mentions:
On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family against the Grain by Debra Monroe
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Rendell

Peaches, books, and three Girl Scout bites

Well, I didn’t get to spend as much time at the Texas Book Festival as I would have liked. I made it to the festival on Saturday afternoon and caught a bit of Scott Westerfeld‘s panel before running over to the cooking tent to meet up with a friend for Deborah Madison’s presentation. For those that are interested in such things, Deborah Madison is the author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Seasonal Fruit Desserts, the latter of which I picked up at the festival after Madison said she wanted to write a dessert cookbook that anyone could use. I’m an easy sell like that. Besides, after staring at that gorgeous tart on the cover for an hour, I was completely under its spell.

The panel also included several local organic growers who spoke about the challenges of organic farming. Perhaps the most interesting (for me anyway) was the fact that the mass production of food has changed the collective palete. Madison cited research that revealed that to the majority of people under 35, the idea of a soft, juicy peach is repulsive. That blows my mind. Even more mind blowing is the fact that this is the new standard for commercial peaches. If the consumer wants a firm, dry peach, the industry will give it to them.  (And apologies for being all vaguey about this, but I wasn’t taking notes and now I’m paraphrasing and my GoogleFu is not strong today.) And makes me very sad, but you know what?I think there’s hope.

My mom, bless her, was (and still is not) a fan of cooking. As such, my childhood palate was pretty much defined by Hamburger Helper and canned green beans. For years I thought green beans were disgusting. But when I got interested in food and cooking my own, I began to acquire a more diverse palate. I wanted to learn more about what food was supposed to taste like. I’m in my thirties now and, while I can’t shop at the farmer’s market as much as I’d like, I’m a much more conscious eater and cook.

There’s a lot of debate these days about the quality of young adult fiction and whether the current titles are encouraging teens to read more but also setting lower standards or limiting their palate for literature, if you will. This is not a new debate by any means. During my MFA program I constantly heard complaints about the “trash” kids and adults were reading. Any mention of John Grisham or the Harry Potter series was met with groans and scowls.  My peers worried that if people develop a palate for commercial fiction, literary fiction would “die” and then who would be there to preserve the “good” writing?  And while I recognize it’s totally snobby and elitist, I can’t side-eye it too much since during my single years one of my dealbreakers was anyone that thought The DaVinci Code was the Best Book Ever. You say hypocrite, I say, it’s complicated. It’s… a peach.

One one hand, yes, anything that sparks an interest in reading and books is great. Say what you will about Twilight or Harry Potter, but I know several people that got interested in reading again because of those books and then went on to read The Hunger Games trilogy and other books. Books they may never have sought out if something hadn’t happened to spark their interest in reading. What I find problematic are that some readers never explore new kinds of writing. They find something that they’re comfortable with and that they like and they don’t try anything else. Much like that soft, juicy peach, the idea of experimental literature or short stories or poetry is alien to them.

Despite my mother’s aversion to cooking, she did instill curiosity in me. If she (or, more likely, someone else) put something in front of me that I was skeptical of, she insisted I take three bites. “Three Girl Scout bites” she called it, though I have no idea how Girl Scouts figure in there. Anyway, if after three bites, I still didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it. Now, I was a kid, I learned quickly how to exploit the hell out of this, but that’s not really the point. The point is that I tried something. And I made some interesting discoveries because of it. Fried okra, for example, rocks. And fresh green beans are superior to the canned variety and easy to cook, too. And the discoveries continue to come. Just recently I’ve discovered I love vegetarian cooking – that it’s not all about cheese and tofu.

I’ve made similar discoveries with reading too. In fact, I am where I am today because during one trip to the bookstore I decided to bypass the literary fiction and check out the YA section. I picked up Sarah Dessen’s Someone Like You and was hooked. A couple of years ago, a friend suggested I check out Scott Pilgrim and after some hemming and hawing about manga, I read it and fell in love. This is how diverse palates are made. By not dismissing anything without trying it.

I admit that when I heard that thing about the peaches, I was shocked, appalled, and a little grossed out. When I went to the grocery store yesterday, I may have actually scowled at the peaches. But I refuse to believe all hope is lost – for the peaches or for readers. As long as there are farmers markets, there will be a soft, juicy peaches. And as long as there are readers trying and recommending new books, there will be diversity in the bookstores. Hey, if I can grow up on a palate of hamburger helper with a side of Sweet Valley High and turn into a foodie and a voracious reader, then there’s hope right?

Linkage: On Chick Lit

(As in the genre, not the username.)

I tend to get a little prickly when people dismiss books as being chick lit. For example, “Oh I’m not reading anything special, just some chick lit” or (from a guy) “I’m not going to read that, it’s chick lit.” It annoys me but I’ve never been able to articulate why it annoys me. When I’ve tried, it has turned into a thousand word rant on literary elitism and that damn MFA program. These sorts of outbursts are better left off the blog.

However, one of my favorite authors briefly tackled the subject on her blog and I think she summed it up very nicely:

. . . I did an interview the other day where I was asked what I thought of the label “chick lit” and how it’s applied to my books. It’s an interesting question. The truth is, I feel like the label “chick lit” is kind of lazy. It’s a way of grouping any book about a woman which has NOT been classified by the Powers That Be as Literary into one incredibly vast category. Personally, I love books about women, Literary and not, and I’ve read enough to them to know that one word cannot possibly define everything that is out there. Is Jennifer Weiner the same as Meg Cabot who is the same as Suzanne Finnamore who is the same as Jennifer Belle? No, no, no and no. It’s like saying that all YA books are the same because they are about teenagers. I think, personally, that it’s up to you as a reader to define what a book is to you. It’s different for everyone. Which is a great thing, and really what reading is all about, anyway.

Via Sarah Dessen.

Linkage: What Makes Bad Fiction

Ward Six writer J. Robert Lennon recently posted a list of what makes fiction bad (in his opinion) and invited others to share their complaints. I tried coming up with my own list of complaints, but could only think of one:

Fiction that puts artiface or style over the story. There’s a book I started reading recently that had an unusual narrator. That part didn’t bother me, but this narrator was frequently interrupted by vague poetic observations that were usually written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. These observations were so intrusive, they kept pulling me out of the world of the story and reminding me that the author was trying something very clever. I hate that. I like to be lost in a story. I like to forget that a novel even has an author, so if the story is mainly a conduit for the style (instead of vice versa) it’s going to leave me cold.

Anyway, I encourage both readers and writers to check out the original list and the discussion that follows. I think we can all benefit from being able to talk about why we don’t like a novel or story instead of simply saying that we didn’t like it.

The Freshman Fifteen

I am fifteen again today. Seriously. I have regressed into a slouchy, pimply-faced adolescent all because of a box of books. And I am loving it.

A few weeks ago I noticed that the Sweet Valley High books are being updated. Now, the Sweet Valley High books didn’t do much for me. My high school experience did not involve being pursued by beautiful boys and wondering if I would get a Fiat for my birthday. I was home more Friday nights than not and so I couldn’t really relate to the Wakefield twins and their glamorous lives.

My teen series of choice were the Freshman Dorm books by Linda A. Cooney (or the several writers that were Linda A. Cooney). The series has the usual soap-operatic dramas (will Faith stay with her high school boyfriend or find a new love? What secret is party girl Winnie keeping from her friends?) but was also based in a down-to-earth view of college life. Or so I thought at the time.

When I heard about the reissue of the Sweet Valley books, I got a pang for my own brain candy and two weeks and a couple of eBay searches later and the Freshman 15 was at my doorstep – the first fifteen books of the Freshman Dorm series.

Ah the memories… I was totally enamored with college life when I read these. The U of S campus seemed so glamorous. There was a lake on the campus! There was an artsy dorm and a jock dorm! People fit so neatly into their categories (with the exception of Melissa, Winnie’s jock roommate, who accidentally gets placed in the party dorm — oooh drama!). People even dressed according to their major. KC, the finance major, is always in a blazer and knee-length skirt.. Kimberly the dance major makes her first appearance in (wait for it. . .) a leotard and tights!

I spent this weekend reading the first of the series and giggling with glee over all the drama that ensues during the first week of college. Forget the Sweet Valley High and the Gossip Girls, this is a series that needs to be brought back. The books ahead promise secrets! lies! betrayal! flames! weddings! more betrayal! Okay, so realistic it is not, but the reading is such fun brain candy.

If there’s anyone out there in the blogisphere who knows of a planned Freshman Dorm comeback, I am your Linda A Cooney.

In Search of Steinbeck

I have a feeling that if I had read Travels with Charley back in high school instead of The Grapes of Wrath or even Of Mice and Men, I would have actually liked Steinbeck rather than merely appreciated him.

Now part of my Steinbeck indifference was definitely my teenage attitude. At 15 there were other things I’d much rather have been doing than reading novels about the great depression. Also, I had that “what does this have to do with me” attitude I saw so frequently while trying to teach my college freshmen literature from the Vietnam War.

But the other half of the problem was that I was exposed to those two books by a teacher who taught these novels as The Greatest Literary Masterpieces Ever. Great Literary Masterpieces have themes and symbols and, like vegetables, are consumed for (intellectual) nutrition and not for enjoyment. The image of Steinbeck that I took away from that class one of a Very Important American Author, sitting behind a grand oak desk, pondering which Important Theme to tackle next.

Reading Travels with Charley showed me that my imagination was grossly mistaken. In place of the grand desk was a pickup truck and trailer and a poodle named Charley. Steinbeck ponders road maps instead of Important Themes and I was pleased to note that while he has me licked in literary masterpieces, my directional sense is far superior to his. Also, Steinbeck is funny. Really funny. And he uses his wit and dry humor to provide a commentary on American life that is still accurate today.

I have a new appreciation for Steinbeck now. He’s still an Important American Author, but one that shares philosophy with his poodle in the same way that I sometimes serenade my cats with Meatloaf songs. Okay, maybe not the same thing, but the point is, the memoir humanizes Steinbeck and makes him assessable. It’s a shame I didn’t read this sooner.

Things I Should Have Read in Grad School

Sometimes you’ve just got to surrender to the season. I’m a writer in need of a strict routine and when it gets broken or interrupted, I’m pretty much useless. So for the next few weeks I’m switching my focus to reading and studying other writers, namely writers that I probably should have read years ago.

Since I started reading books about writing, I’ve realized how much of my cannon is sadly lacking. I’m still not sure how I made it through a three-year MFA program without reading “The Dead” or D.H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck or Moby Dick for that matter. Every time someone sends me a 100 Greatest Books Ever meme I feel like someone should revoke my MFA.

Well, no more. Over the holidays I plan to not only do some fun reading (The Uses of Enchantment and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) but to beat my way through the list of books on my “I should read this” list.

Today was all about Flannery O’Connor: “Geranium,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The River,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation,” and “Judgment Day.”

I don’t think you can make it through a college freshman composition course without reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People,” but the rest of her stories are usually left for more avid readers, O’Connor fans, or literature majors. It’s a shame, but it’s not hard to figure out why. O’Connor’s stories are not for the faint of heart. The characters are sympathetic, but difficult to like. I read a passage from “Revelations” to Hubs, who promptly retorted (about the character), “Wow, what a bitch.” Exactly! And yet, still sympathetic. It’s a mystery to me.

I’ll leave the analysis and the academic review of these stories for the more skilled. The things I took away from them were probably not revelations to anyone but me. Anyway, I was struck by the language O’Connor used to create these worlds and characters. In “The Geranium” she writes, “People boiled out of the trains and up steps and over onto the streets. They rolled off the street and down the steps and into trains – black and white and yellow all mixed up like vegetables in a soup. Everything was boiling.” That paragraph stayed with me, not just for it’s electricity, but because it’s a great (and obvious) example of using an image to depict a character’s point of view. I was overwhelmed just reading that paragraph, which is how I would expect the protagonist (an elderly man from the country) to react to the New York City subways as well.

I also admire O’Connor’s willingness to create ugly characters. Most of these stories dealt with a character with some physical abnormality. Those that are more intact physically are at least overweight or “plain.” This is something I struggle with in my writing. I’m usually a little afraid to create an ugly character and in the all the workshops I attended, I recall only one story where a character was homely and that definitely wasn’t the protagonist. I think we aspiring writers could all take a lesson from this and try creating a protagonist that is at least a little ugly. (Hmm… I sense a writing exercise here.)

There’s so much more to take away from Connor’s short stories. I’m glad I finally branched out beyond the usual stories. I’m sure I’ll be returning to these stories for years to come to learn how to handle character, structure, place and so much more.