Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Good Work: Dovetailing your YA Story

I've been re-reading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis over breakfast this week--reading intelligent commentary on anything over breakfast ensures that, whatever else might happen in my day, even I spend the rest of my waking hours explaining comma splices to students and chasing a toddler, I've chewed on something intellectually substantial.  My mind masticates while my breakfast digests.  How's that for a stretched metaphor?

In any case, I was reading the essay "Good Work and Good Works" in which Lewis discusses the value in doing work worth doing well, and came across this quote as regards the art of literature:

When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children's story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labour successfully used to do what is intended. Do not mis-understand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

Now, I will not go so far as Lewis does here--at times he does veer toward crusty old curmudgeon ("What these kids are doing nowadays!") though often with quite good reason.  I do think that there is worthy art being produced in the literary sphere, though I also think there is quite a bit of rubbish (what Lewis calls "puddles") that's fawned over as far more "significant" than it really is.

It was, however, the bolded section that struck me as particularly interesting to my field.  I write the kind of fiction that no one will mistake for high-brow, not in where it's stocked, not in how it's discussed.  As much as I might like to believe that I inject my work with the occasional jolt of "literary" thought or artful turn of a phrase, what I write is Young Adult.  And I read quite a bit of it, too. I don't need to rehash the disparaging remarks made upon this particular genre; the criticisms of grown-ups reading "kid stuff" are numerous enough.  You need only Google.

But perhaps Lewis exonerates us.

He is not claiming that we're reading the next great novel, that we should expect earth-shattering illumination from our favorite YA books.  He is, however, telling us that the work itself may be good.  It may be a good story, well-crafted.  Note that I mean craft quite literally--as Lewis says, the writer must "season" and "dovetail" the work he labors on, quite deliberately using the metaphor of a craftsman.   

If I am to be a good writer, a good craftsman, doing good work, I must keep in mind the purpose of my work and its intended user.  For all the jeers of YA being intended "for lovesick teenage girls," there is a quite positive truth there.  Yes, YA is written with a particular audience in mind.  Good YA is written to appeal and speak particularly to that audience.  Writing to a particular group is, in fact, not easy, and does, in fact, require skill. And what of it if that audience is teenagers and those who want, for a bit, to feel a little youth in their books?  Every book is--or should--be written with an audience in mind unless it's one's personal journal.  The writer doesn't write purely for himself--he writes for others.  At least, I know that I do.  

So if you write YA, or another genre pooh-poohed as "not literary enough," take some comfort in Lewis.  If you know your audience, if you craft your work, if you season and dovetail and test your sentences with the same care a carpenter makes a hope chest meant to last generations--you're doing good work.  And if you're reading good work, don't be ashamed of appreciating craftsmanship, even if it's made of the simple pine of a genre novel instead of the mahogany of a literary work.

And if you are using mahogany, don't forget the great responsibility placed on anyone fiddling with such rare and costly material.