Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Diversity of Literature at AWP

There’s a major focus on diversity in literature at the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference. For, example, here’s a list of workshops/panels/readings from the most recent conference in Chicago:

(Sorry, I can't face all the quotation marks, so I'm leaving them out.)

Speaking Of and To Others: Beyond the Western Apostrophe in Intertribal Poetry; Art and Politics in Publishing the Literature of Writers from the African Diaspora; Black Literature: Expanding the Conversations on Race, Identity, History and Genre; Prison Poets: Teaching Behind the Razor Wire; So-Lez-Bo: Southern Lesbian Poets Writing Out Loud; Breach: Emerging U.S. Latino and Latina Poetry; The Sister Art(s): Toward a Feminist Ekphrasis; Jewish Poetry vs. Poetry by Jews; New Jewish Fiction: Behond the Holocaust: Writing about Disability Across the Genres: Hip-hop and the Future of the Black Writer, Revising Modernisms: Innovative Latino Writing in the 21st Century, Gay Regionalism through the Eyes of Appalachia, Writing Class/Writing Gender, Something to Declare? Writers Discuss America’s Internal Border, Lyric Selves and Global Imperatives: Toward a Poetics and Ethics of Encounter, Post-Racial Writing, Inclined to Speak: Arab American Poets Reading, Las Mocosas: A Reading by Macondista Snot-Noses, Builder of Positive Reality: Young, Gifted, and Black: A Reading from Chicago State University’s MFA Program, A Conversation with Haki R. Madhubuti, Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Poets and the Inherited Present, Invisible Lesbian Literature, Forming RinShout: A Place for Black Literature, Changing Narratives in African American Poetry, Invisible Margins—Queer Jewish Poets on Writing Identity, After Magical Realism: New Adventure in U.S. Latino Literature, Windy City Queer: Writing Out from the Midwest, Passing: The Writer’s Skin & the Authentic Self, New Poetry from Chile, Cuba and Mexico: A Reading, Women of a Certain Age: Reprise, The Country they Come From: Polish-American Writers Read about the Midwest and Poland, Archipelagos of Dust, Habitations of Language: Reiterating Landscape, History, and Origin at the Threshold of a New Century...

And, my personal favorite: Viva Tony Soprano. In which. “Members of VCFA’s fiction faculty examine[d] subversive techniques including non-resolution and abrupt shifts in current short-story endings, and broaden[ed] the context by considering Chekhov’s legacy as well as stories from non-Western traditions.”

Before I go on, let just confirm that I am for the acknowledgement and celebration of diversity in literature! Totally! Viva AWP’s commitment for letting these voices be heard!

But was there diversity of literature at the AWP Conference?

Sadly, not. Whether the workshops/panels/readings reflected the lives and ideas of plain old western culture writers or those of other cultures, they focused almost entirely on poetry, fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction and literary nonfiction.

Young adult fiction did get its foot in the door this year, thanks to “Writing the Literary Young Adult Novel,” organized by Andrew Scott—and that was a good thing. I was happy as a clam to be asked to be on it, along with fellow YA authors Margaret McMullan and R.A. Nelson—and somewhat bemused as our intimidatingly large conference room filled up writers interested in this genre. (On Saturday! At 9 a.m.! Who’d have thought?)

Most of those who attended the panel were young—well, young to me. (Most everybody seems young to me these days.) And it’s probably fair to assume that most were fairly recent MFA grads, MFA students or undergraduates studying creative writing—with the goal of becoming literary writers someday. It’s probably also fair to assume that very, very few of them had had the opportunity to take a college class in YA literature and/or writing for young adults. Some were probably readers of YA literature, but I’d guess that they weren’t widely read in the genre.

So what were they doing there? Here's my guess:

1) Andrew wisely included the word “literary” in the panel’s title:-)
2) They were considering writing a YA because they think that market is easier to break into than the market for contemporary novels for adults—which somewhat true, assuming you’ve written a good novel.
3) They were considering writing a YA because they think there’s more money to be made as a literary YA writer than as a literary writer of contemporary fiction for adults—which could be true, if they’re lucky.
4) They were considering writing a YA novel, but didn’t really know what makes a novel a YA instead of just…a novel—which is a question I have yet to answer satisfactorily for myself.
5) They believe writing YA fiction is easier and faster than writing contemporary fiction for adults, a short track to publishing—which I know is absolutely, totally, unequivocally wrong.

The panel was lively, honest, practical—and fun. We set up, boys on one side of the podium, girls on the other—just like high school and talked about a variety of topics related to YA literature, including how we ended up being YA authors (by “accident” in each case); the no-holds-barred spirit of YA literature these days; the importance of writing from the forever-a-teenager place in ourselves as opposed to writing as a way of telling teenagers what we think they need to know, and how the process of writing a good YA novel is as complex, frustrating and joyful as writing any good novel. (Maybe harder, since teenage readers have considerably better crap detectors than most adult readers I know.)

We talked about the pros and cons of publishing in the YA market—among the con’s, the persistent notion that those who write for children and young adults are lesser writers because they write for young people. (A kind of corollary to the old “Those who can’t do, teach.” I.E. Those who can’t write, write for kids.) We talked about real, negative effect of this wide-spread prejudice, which is to put us at the margins of what academics consider to be literature.

Heck, we’re at the margins of literary writing on a good day. Usually, we’re not there at all. To show you what I mean, here’s a story I avoid telling because I’m afraid people will think it’s a sour grape thing and/or that I’m being defensive about being a YA author. (And because my mother pounded it into me: Never, Never, Never Brag. Never. Ever.) But I told it at AWP because it illustrates something that I think aspiring YA writers need to know, especially if they hope for an academic career.

In 2006 I had the great good fortune to win the PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Fellowship for Working Writers. (Awarded to “…an author of children's or young-adult fiction, the Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership. As a result, an author's books may not have achieved the sales that would allow the writer to support him or herself solely from writing. The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career, when monetary support is particularly needed to complete a book-length work-in-progress.)

It was the single most gratifying thing that ever happened to me as a writer. It came at a time when I was feeling particularly discouraged about my work in the world. It was a PEN Award, and in the world of literature it just doesn’t get any better than that. I felt so honored to share the stage at Lincoln Center with Philip Roth and other award-winners on the evening the awards were given. Winning the fellowship also created interest in my novel Everything You Want, which was published by Flux in 2008.

When I got the issue of Poets & Writers Magazine that came out after the awards ceremony, I turned turned to the immediately awards page, looking forward to finding my name among that year’s PEN award recipients…

But guess what?

There was no mention of the Phyllis Naylor Fellowship. At all.

Maybe it was just an oversight by PEN or Poets & Writers. I like to think it was. But I couldn’t (and still can’t) help wondering if it was the only award left off the list of awards given that year because it was because it was an award for children’s writing. Honestly, I don’t care that much about the recognition. I learned long that getting or not getting literary awards means a considerably less than what most people think. Some of the best writers I know (in every genre) have never gotten a single one.

Nonetheless, I believe that AWP and other organizations who do the good and challenging work of supporting literature and literary writers ought to open the door wide and recognize that those of us who write literature for children and young adults are doing work that matters, too.

And while they're at it, why not let the writers literary mysteries to come in on our heels? There are plenty of (secretly) obsessive mystery readers in the AWP ranks—and more than a few who’ve tried their hand at writing mysteries (secretly or not), as well.

If you’re one of them, but you’re afraid (not without reason) that you’ll risk your literary credibility proposing an AWP panel on mystery-writing for next year, consider how cleverly the description of Viva Tony Soprano hedged its literary bets by “…considering Chekhov’s legacy as well as stories from non-Western traditions.” (As opposed to admitting that the panel members were Sopranos addicts.)

Use it as a model. Plop Henry James in your proposal, maybe Graham Green. Mention the literary conventions of mystery-writing in...Zimbabwe. Wherever. But if the panel is accepted and if you really are worried about what people will think, for God's sake, do not lose control once the conversation starts and admit what we all know is real reason we love mysteries and can’t put them down: they tell a damn good story. Do not let on that, deep, deep down, you are so hungry for that.

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