Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I doubt my readers will believe me when I say…

I am going to – for the first time ever! – get on board (rimshot) with this whole YA Highway Roadtrip Wednesday business. Finding a community – that's what growing up is about, right?

Well. Today's prompt was broad, about questions relating to writing and publishing, and so I suppose what I have been thinking about most in these last few weeks is, what kind of role is there for unreliable narrators in YA fiction these days? 

I don't think it's any secret that I breathe and bleed Russian lit, when I am not writing my YA/MG stuff, and that is a canon replete with unreliable narrators.
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, one of my favorite examples of unreliable narrator.

The POVs are inconsistent and impossible (to quote one reviewer, they are "less who-dunits as they are who-wrote-its"), and all the more so when the narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks to his readers: that's when you know that nothing is going to be predictable, that the story is not just fictional but unreal, that you can't jump into it and pretend it is real life, because it just CAN'T be. Russian lit is escapism for a society that has to prove they're not doing any escaping at all.

So what about today's (especially American) YA? I love an unreliable narrator, and I would love to write my Russian farce redux with one – I already have the intro laid out:
Noble’s – ah, Noble’s. I myself have spent no little time there, and can personally vouch for the excellence of the service, the quality of the appointment, and the delicacy of the food: in all respects, Noble’s is, indeed, a fine establishment. But you, my dear readers, will perhaps not believe me – you will perhaps not recognize my opinion as authority. And little you should.
But I just don't feel like this kind of unreliable narrator lands in today's market – not even from a publishing standpoint, but just from one of readers' interest: I feel like why YA works is that it offers worlds that ARE just about real enough to escape into. We don't want a narrator that proves to us we can't.

Or do we? I am sure there are examples out there of unreliable YAs that just aren't springing to mind.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Speaking of marginalia…

There was a lovely look at the role of marginalia in paperbound books today in the NYT, which continues my discussion from yesterday on the role of the reader as participant and not just observer in a text:
"Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation."
I am not at all a part of the Russian-order, monologic school of reading and learning.  I adore used books, and borrowed books; I love engaging with previous readers and the author (himself, too, technically a previous reader) when diving into a new book, and I leave my own dogears and underscoring and marginal exclamations in for the next reader – even if that next reader is me, a few years down the road.

There is so much to learn from how others engage with material, much of which is related to the sensory, tactile experience of holding a book and seeing grease smudges and fingernail scoring and little rips in the pages that can't be replicated in the digital form.  I have nothing but positive thoughts for ebooks and the possibilities digital publishing affords, but I can't imagine a world without marginalia, and without a conversation between readers over time.  In this way, I absolutely agree with one of the voices in the article:
"David Spadafora, president of the Newberry, said marginalia enriched a book, as readers infer other meanings, and lends it historical context. “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object,” he said. As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, “the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object.”"
My own experience with marginalia is rich, and funny, and dear, but one incident stands out in recent memory: reading the Dostoevsky novella, Notes from the Underground, I came across a note I had taken down in undergrad, in response to the Underground Man's comment, "Haven't you noticed that the most refined bloodshedders are almost always the most civilized gentlemen to whom all these Attila the Huns and Stenka Razins are scarcely fit to hold a candle[…]?"

My advisor was Finnish and crazy, and apparently had this to add to the discussion:
The huns… not a pleasant people.
I about died laughing when I found it during this second reading.  Even Dostoevsky can be funny, with marginalia kept in tact.

So any other marginal anecdotes out there? Am I in the minority, loving to mark up books and to read others' vandalism?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Conversation with abstraction

Today, with no warning at all, was a poetry day.

That is rare. I'm not a poetry kind of girl. I mean, I don't hate it – I just don't seek it out. I'm not good at sitting with something brief and complex and mulling it over. Give me bricks of prose, that's what I want.

But today I ended up reading Ally Condie's Matched, which revolved around both the importance of poetry AND the importance of memorization and internalization. I also ended up discussing several canon Russian poems about St. Petersburg, one of which just begs to be memorized and recited. And then I remembered snatches of t.s. eliot, and snatches of Pushkin, and there I was: inside a poetry day.

Now Russia – Russia asks something different of its literate public than does America. Poetry in Russia is the be all and end all of creative expression. Poetry is king, as is rote memorization.

Bakhtin, who I have mentioned before, saw the world in binaries, and one of the binaries he focused most heavily on was of monologic versus dialogic reading.

The first is what the Russian education system is predicated on: that the text is king, and there is only one interpretation valid – nothing is read between the lines. This is a system that values rote memorization, and dramatic recitation. Studying Russian actually involves a dedicated course on intonation patterns, and a person can "read poetry" as an artistic, creative hobby. No joke.

The American system is not like this. Ours is more dialogic, it is a conversation with the text – both in poetry and in prose. Interpretation does not depend so much on the author's intention as it does on the reader's state of mind, and does not need to be universal. We are rarely asked to memorize anything.

This is a shame, I think. There is a lot to be said for memorization, even if we still allow for broad interpretation. Because you know what memorization gets you? A shorthand for cultural knowledge, a shorthand that lets you say a hundred more things than you are actually saying, that lets you make jokes and draw conclusions and paint pictures without having to lift a finger.

It is the ultimate show vs. tell, and would be even stronger in American literature – YA or not – if we had a more solid foundation for rote memorization in school.

I mean, just look!

It gets you Catherine Tate and David Tennant hamming it up for charity:

And it gets you adorable three-year olds reciting Billy Collins and making you swoon:

And it gets you dystopian societies wrapped up in pretty green silk dresses and carefully measured language, societies that can be dismantled by the single subversive act of memorizing and internalizing a long-forgotten poem.

In fact, it's almost making want to add eliot as an epigraph to my own WIP.  Almost.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gandalf!... a Space Gandalf.

I don't want to linger, but I was just thinking:  I love Doctor Who.  I love stories.  And re-watching Series 5, I have decided that writers are aspiring Doctors, and readers are their faithful companions.

The proof is in this "Meanwhile in the TARDIS" extra from the DVDs:

1) "I'm nine hundred and seven.  After awhile, you just can't SEE it.  I look at a star and it's just a big ball of gas, and I know how it began and I know how it ends, and I was probably there both times.  You know, after awhile, everything is just STUFF."  

I'm a writer.  After so long with one story, I just can't SEE it anymore.  Maybe my story is phenomenal (it's not, not yet), maybe my characters will blow you out of the water (well, that might be true, but I am biased), but I know how they began, and I know how they end, and I WAS there both times.  Sometimes I find myself changing passages or dialogue or (god forbid) entire plot lines, and I can't tell if it's because I need to to make the story better, or if I am just bored, because all I see is STUFF.

2) "That's the problem. You make all of time and space your backyard, and what do you end up with: a BACK YARD.  But you can see it, and when you see it, I see it."

Dear Doctor, do I love my beta readers (and future, unknowing, public readers), because when I forget what my story is, or why I thought it was worth telling in the first place, or when I had strokes of genius with dialogue, they SEE it.  And they remind me.  And then they also tell me the dozen places that are weak and need fixing, but that's beside the point.  Because, with all of time and space and imagination as my creative backyard, I can't always see it. 

And they do.

3) "And that's the only reason you took me with you?"

As the Doctor says, "There are worse reasons."

So that's me.  A writer.  A Space Gandalf.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sparkle and Bieber

So, earlier this week, in the run-up to the Super Bowl, ran a story on the "Epoch of Peripheralism" that we live in.  With a headlining picture of Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne in (what look like) Tron suits, they brought to the fore the idea that in an environment of social media and instant gratification, the importance of the Event has been lost:

"More and more it seems that we are caught up not so much in the event itself – the football game or the president's speech – but in the events around the event. The sideshows. The marginalia.
We focus on the peripherals: the sprinkles, not the ice cream; the moons, not Saturn; the sauces, not the barbecue.
In Shakespeare's day, the play was the thing. Today the play, it seems, it just one of the things."

They continue the story with a discussion of the halftime shows and commercials and players' personal stories at the Super Bowl, on how the future of big movies might like more in 90 second trailers than 100 minute films, and how Presidential speeches have value not in their content, but in the peripheral speeches surrounding them.

I recognize this feeling; I am not innocent of preferring the memory of a long-awaited concert to the concert itself (I even find myself bored in the middle of Events I've been anticipating, even when I recognize that I am enjoying it). With television, I like reading the spoiler news before shows, and I half-ruined the twist to Rory's fate in Doctor Who Season 5 by flipping through the IMDb cast listings ahead of time.

The more I get into the online culture of YA literature, both from a writing and a reading perspective, the more I wonder how this bleeds into the culture.  I haven't been on board with the fandom of a major series DURING its release (HP I anticipated privately, or in small groups of friends; Hunger Games was all released before I got to the first one), but as I have been watching 2011 debuts appear, and have seen the hype surrounding some of them, I have started to think about how they fit into the Epoch of Peripherals.

Are readers more interested in the ARC contests, in the cover unveilings, in the pre-released snippets and author interviews than they are in the eventual product? That is, after all, the trajectory NPR has noticed in football and film, and those events are not rare in the YA (and lit in general) online world. It could be the case.

But I don't think so.

I don't think so, because there is something about reading, about the PROCESS and the TIME and the joy of immersing one's self in a new world that separates the experience of reading from the experience of any other type of Event, and no matter how much outside, peripheral stuff crops up in the age of social networking and obsession of immediacy, that can only ADD to the private experience of enjoying a story.

Because in all the reviews of yet-to-be-released covers, in all the early reviews, in all the author interviews, the result from the internet hive is always the same:  Yes, but when can we READ the BOOK?

Because that's the thing: Shakespeare's play is still the thing. Everything else is just sprinkles.

Way to be, books. I knew I loved you for a reason.

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