Are You Sure?
Today’s New York Times brings word that members of the Schultz family are not happy with a new biography of Charles — the creator of Peanuts. ("Biography of ‘Peanuts’ Creator Stirs Family" is the headline). Apparently author Charles Michaelis described a darker, more troubled, more unhappy man than members of his family recall. The reporter who wrote the piece mentions Janet Malcom — a frequent New Yorker contributor who brings a sophisticated knowledge of psychology to her pieces. Malcolm had once famouly talked about how a reporter is a betrayer — trying to gain the confidence of her subject not as a friend, but in order to dissect him or her in print. In the current New York Review of Books, a new work of Malcolm’s gets a rave review, and it, too, centers on how biography is an interplay between the subject, the author, and even all of the sources about the author. The result is not so much "truth" as efforts at truth, framed by all of our slippery subjectivities.
The question for us, then, is how we apply this to books for younger readers? Traditionally the assumption has been that readers first need a basic pathway of clear fact and engaging narrative. A reader gets started by learning that Teddy Roosevelt was a dynamic personality who loved animals, played with his kids, and was a lively President who symbolized the Turn of the Century moment of energy and progress. Only later on will a middle grade or high school reader need to consider his views on race, on woman, and have to weigh out how that changes our image of him, and his time. Fair enough. But, as I mentioned in the post about Monster and the unreliable narrator, why is it that in our YA and even middle grade fiction we are so accepting of multiple points of view, of a narrator who is not trustworthy, of the slippery nature of truth without even raising those questions about nonfiction? To put it a different way, why do we confine psychology to fiction?
The great treat of reading Janet Malcolm’s work is that her relentless intelligence is omnidirectional — she examines her subject, her sources, her self. Her writing is clear, easy to follow, and not solipsistic. How about this, readers, lets play pretend, alternate history: how would any of you write a YA biography in a Malcolmesque way? Take a person you like, you dislike, you would like kids to emulate, you want to warn kids against, then how would you tell the life of that person while also keeping track of your stake in the storytelling, your own envy, or yearning to be like, or dreams of glory that are tied up in why you want to talk about that person? Ideas?