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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The art of writing

A little Thanksgiving disgestif, as I mull over a lot of threads we’ve got going on…all of them circling around the idea of what makes a Newbery book.

I’m no personal fan of Philip Roth.  But I’ve been appreciating what he has to say about his retirement.  In Sunday’s NYTimes he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

I know that the process of writing is different for every author.  But no excellent writing comes without struggle, and it’s helpful to hear from a celebrated writer just how wearing that struggle can be.  Celebrating distinguished literature honors that struggle.  A fine work of literature exists alive and separate from the author–it joins the reader as part of each one’s own memory–and the struggle is not a part of that, and not visible.  The struggle is only the auhtor’s…and an award should be what makes it worth it.

If I can see the author’s struggle in a work, then it’s probably not distinguished.  If I can see that the author didn’t struggle: it’s certainly not.  You can see either when you can see the author in front of their text.  When they tell rather than show.  When a works’ purposefullness is more apparent than its story.   This doesn’t mean a work is bad…but it may mean it doesn’t need an award.

I’ve been spending time at a local art gallery drinking in the works of William Harsh. A review of the exhibit compared his early work to his later work, saying…more or less…that while in his earlier surrealist-influenced work you could identify all the elements and name them, and place them…  in his last works, nothing is identifiable as of-this-world, … “yet everything looks as tangible as a doorknob.”  There is something in these later works that makes the totally foreign and unidentifiable seem living, real, believable.  They achieve “liftoff” in a way the earlier ones didn’t quite.

This is what some of the best writing out there can do, too.  We have to muddle our way through a lot of really good work, hold each up against the other, try calling it distinguished, disagree, find something better…in order to identify the best out there.    I always hope, in the end, that the medals go to works that truly achieve “liftoff.”    Our job (most of us) is one of connecting readers with great books, medal or not.   Though the Newbery award is certainly for those readers,  in my mind, it’s more important that it’s for the writers/creators: awarding them for the struggle, so that they’ll continue, and so that others have a standard to shoot for.

Now, Roth’s retirement coverage was clearly engineered, but when a Newbery-winning author gets their retirement covered on the front page of the NYTimes, we’ll know we’re doing right by the award.  Who would you most like to see there?  Not forcing them into retirement…just wishing them the honor.  I’m going to toss it out there for Russell Freedman, though he doesn’t seem to me to be the retiring type.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Eric says:

    EL Konigsburg.

  2. fairrosa says:

    Nina, thank you so much for a thoughtful post. I especially appreciate this, “If I can see the author’s struggle in a work, then it’s probably not distinguished. If I can see that the author didn’t struggle: it’s certainly not.”

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, thanks for reminding us that the Newbery Medal is technically not given to a book, but rather to an author for a book he/she has written. We often use this interchangeably, but it’s an important distinction to make. We often view the Newbery Medal as kind of a matchmaking tool for young readers and books, and while it can absolutely be that, that’s not its intended purpose.

    Roxanne, I also really enjoyed reading your response to Nina on your own blog. I do think that style is one of the qualities that helps books not only resonate with readers, but helps a book stand up to multiple readings. I think theme is the other literary element that really delivers this, but I’m speaking of theme in a broader context than you are in your previous post on theme and didactic intent (which I happen to agree with).

  4. Sheila Welch says:

    The term “style” seems to me similar to “voice.” Beginning authors are often advised to find their own voice. It’s an elusive quality, very difficult to define. But it’s probably what draws me into a book and keeps me reading as much as an exciting plot, well developed characters, etc.

  5. Sondy says:

    Nina, thanks for this. It comes at an interesting time for me. I had lots of listening time taking my son home from the dorm and back this long weekend. I had four books to listen to that were nominated for the Cybils, and none of them worked for me, enough that I didn’t finish any of them. Now I’m trying to pin down why. Was I influenced unduly by the narrator?

    I think I can point to more specific things that keep those particular books from rising to the top, but it’s definitely a question to explore.

    Now, the Cybils are trying to also include books with strong kid appeal — so it’s a very different standard than the Newbery. And right now, we’re still frantically trying to narrow down the books we want everyone on the panel to read. But I’m exploring that classic question (What makes a good book?) in a whole new way, and I appreciate your thoughts coming right when I’m thinking about that.

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    “Style” can mean voice… but it can be harder to pin down than that. Does TEMPLE GRANDIN have a “voice”? I don’t think so…and I think it’s deliberate, and part of its style, and part of what makes it distinguished. At the same time, the two nonfiction books we included in our shortlist do have distinct “voices,” which are part of their style, but not all of it. I think of “style” as the choices the author has made in how their going to present their text…the “bones” of it, so to speak…everything hangs on these bones, and they have to be consistent with the structure, and the structure has to serve the story, and the structure should be both invisible and apparent to the reader: it should not get in the way of the reading, but it should be clear when you look for it…

  7. fairrosa says:

    As I mentioned on my recent blog post, I agree with Nina that, at least for the purpose of examining books for the Newbery, style means a lot more than “voice” — to me it can mean “the ability to find fresh turns of phrase; the dexterity in writing a sentence that paints an image vividly or conveys the internal struggle of a character without spelling blatantly out for the readers; the expert and consistent use of a particular narrative device; the talent in crafting a satisfying but not too-predictable ending; the successful employment of humor, or irony, or pathos; and many many other literary aspects that are not plot, character, setting, facts, or organization.” And Style will be the most subject area during deliberation! I am currently reading a book that definitely has a distinct style that must be attractive to some (myself) but leave someone else cold.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I take style to mean not only sentence level writing (from which voice derives), but also paragraph level writing and even chapter level writing. For example, I think the decision of Applegate and Nelson to write THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and NO CRYSTAL STAIR in very short discrete pieces of text is a stylistic choice. That doesn’t also mean that it’s not a narrative choice. I think both of those books kind of double dip when it comes to style and plot.

  9. fairrosa says:

    One example from a different year can be found in Olive’s Ocean by Henkes: the chapter of Martha’s near-drowning is very short and it is in one long sentence. It captures the brevity, the urgency, and the breathlessness of this turning point event perfectly. In a way, my not keenly aware of all this (but definitely “feeling” its impact) without a second or third close reading makes this chapter exceptionally artful and not forced. The line between artfulness (natural, fluid, organic) and contrivance (artificial, forced, overwrought) can be so thin… (and again, dependent on readers’ subjective interpretations.)

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