Writing matters

It’s been my great privilege to spend the last few days at the Reading Matters conference on literature for children and young people, here in Melbourne. I was working, in my day job – hanging out up the back, tweeting and doing other web stuff.

But here are some thoughts of my own, nothing to do with my work persona (@SLVLearn).

There was, inevitably, some reference to the recent debate about the male-focused definition of “literary fiction” in this country and elsewhere that often excludes women writers and their work, and the response from some women writers and publishers to establish A Prize of Our Own (a title, by the way, that I adore, though I’m not quite sure what Woolf would actually make of it).

It’s allied to criticisms of the focus on literary fiction generally at the expense of other writing, including genre fiction, as it’s only on rare occasions that a Wolf Hall or a Temple will take out the big prizes and attract the same number of column inches in the book supplements of our major newspapers.

And of course, we’re still at the point where writers for young adults or children are seen as being somehow less serious and less literary than writers for adults.

At the same time, I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin’s essay on ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, and thinking about male and female narrative traditions. I’ve posted elsewhere on that.

Bringing those threads together, I wondered whether or not we’re seeing a similar gulf develop in YA and children’s literature between YA literary fiction, and genre fiction or fiction for younger readers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to draw a parallel between the tedious middle-aged public-school male narrative* that usually exemplifies literary fiction generally, and its YA equivalent. There is no similarity in terms of writing, theme, intent and worldview.

Literary YA fiction most often (but not always) involves urban contemporary stories: quite often about young people in difficult and even harrowing situations. It also, happily, features beautiful and inventive writing.

And many of the titles you’d categorise as YA literary fiction are by women. We are blessed to have amongst us women who can write books like This is Shyness, Raw Blue, The Red Shoe, Stolen and Graffiti Moon. These are books that change lives, change minds, and there is nothing more precious.

But I’d hate to see the industry around these authors project onto their books the same values and mythologies that have limited women writing in other spheres, and other genres, or to privilege YA literary fiction above genre writing for young adults, or above writing for younger age groups.

We know from the work of Ursula Dubosarsky, for example, that YA books can be as fine as any published in this country (or elsewhere, for that matter), and that writing about events in the past can offer extraordinary imagery and insight.

We also know that gifted writers can write across genres and age groups, according the the demands of their story.

As Jane Burke said during the conference, the definition of YA is largely to do with the age of the protagonist: the writing must only be about truth and story and character – not markets. Nor, I suggest, genre labels.

Just as YA and children’s literature struggle to be acknowledged as equivalent to literature for other audiences, here’s hoping that good writing will always be valued by those who think about, talk about, read and write books for children and young adults – no matter what other labels we might apply to it.

[* Later qualification: Obviously, I’m not suggesting that all fiction written by middle-aged men is tedious! David Malouf, for example, can win any prize going, as far as I’m concerned. I had in mind a certain strain of fiction produced by some members of a generation of British and US authors, in particular.]

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