One of the programs I attended at Midwinter last weekend was the ALA/ERT Booklist Author Forum Literary Fiction Panel, moderated by Brad Hooper of Booklist, featuring authors Susan Vreeland, David Levithan, Stewart O’Nan, and Armistead Maupin.
I always enjoy the Friday Booklist Forums at ALA Conferences. This time I was particularly interested because Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is an all-time favorite. (I have tried booktalking it for teen readers, with little success. However, I have a couple 10th graders avidly making their way through Tracy Chevalier’s books at the moment, and I plan to suggest this one next. Stay tuned.)
Thanks to Brad Hooper’s expert moderation (he really is a master), the program turned into much more than a chance to hear about each author’s latest (or upcoming) book.
Susan Vreeland was the first to be questioned, and the first to address the topic of the day: Is there a distinction between popular and literary fiction? Vreeland responded that she enjoys books that are character-centered, complex, multi-layered and literate.
Hooper also asked why the historical fiction genre is so popular today. Vreeland answered that historical fiction used to be about kings and queens. Now it is about common man, about all kinds of people and how they experienced a particular time in history. It gives a voice to the inner person. (Her new book is Clara and Mr. Tiffany, published by Random House earlier this week.)
David Levithan was up next. He made it clear that he hates the distinction between literary and popular; the hope is that all writing is both literary and popular. He does not believe that readers make a distinction.
Interestingly, Levithan also stated that he finds no difference between writing for adults and writing for young adults. Adults read his YA fiction; YAs will read his adult fiction. Oh, yes! His new book, The Lover’s Dictionary is his first for the adult market. It was published at the beginning of January by Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Stewart O’Nan reminded the audience that many writers who were popular in their day are now considered literary. Shakespeare, for example. He also posited that the “literary” label is sometimes determined by the marketplace. (His upcoming novel, Emily, Alone, a sequel to Songs for the Missing, will be published in March by Viking.)
Armistead Maupin began by relating a truth that Christopher Isherwood once shared with him – “Don’t let anybody ever tell you that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive.” He believes that commercial, popular, and literary are marketing terms, that a story is a story. It was obvious that he loves telling stories, and could not care less if his books are considered literary or not. What an entertaining man! (His most recent book, Mary Ann in Autumn, was published by Harper in November.)
David Levithan later mentioned his joy in the fact that the “gatekeepers” of the YA marketplace (i.e. librarians) afford him the luxury of taking risks. He is able to publish books that might not have obvious commercial potential because the gatekeepers respect quality.
Overall, a fascinating hour. Personally, I believe that readers do make a distinction between literary and popular fiction. Even young readers can be snobs (wonderfully so) about the merits of the books they choose to read. Maybe it is length, or how “serious” a cover might appear, but teens take great pride in tackling something substantial, just as they sometimes request books to read “just for fun.”
In the end, all of the authors seemed to come around to the conclusion that storytelling, and being a good storyteller, is everything.
Agreed. So often a good story is exactly what a teen reader responds to in an adult book. Really, do our teen readers care if a book is published for them directly, or for an adult audience?
Whew! If you made it through all of that, please stick around a little longer for today’s review. I chose Salvation City because it is a good option for teens who notice writing, who appreciate the beauty of a seamless narrative. It will also be enjoyed for its story by those who read for plot and character.
Literary? Popular? Both.
Adult/High School–Cole is living the life of a typical young teen when a devastating flu pandemic hits the United States. He spends time in an orphanage before being taken in by PW, a fundamentalist Christian preacher, and his wife Tracy. They live in Salvation City, rural Indiana, not far geographically from the town to which his parents had recently moved them from Chicago. It might as well be on a different planet. Cole was very, very sick during the worst of the pandemic, and the flu affected his memory. Because he narrates his own story, readers are never entirely sure what happened. They know his parents died. They learn that cities were especially hard-hit, and that whole communities were wiped out. Now the country is rebuilding, and Cole is trying to find his place in a new world. Cole begins as a scared boy with no control over his circumstances. He transforms into an older teenager who makes his own decisions, who can picture his future, and has the patience to bide his time in order to achieve it. He ponders the nature of heroism and deals with survivor’s guilt. Nunez presents Cole’s voice in spare, straight-forward prose. This is a quiet book that calmly takes readers through Cole’s horrifying experiences. It is not overtly emotional or sentimental, yet gives readers a deep sense of Cole’s feelings as he himself recognizes them: his confusion, his fears and, eventually, his hopes.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City