Spit Take

From John Clute’s review of Greg Frost’s Shadowbridge* (which I absolutely can’t wait to read; I adored Fitcher’s Brides):

The second section of Shadowbridge is a thoroughly routine Young Adult novella, a hugely distended tale within the network of tales that makes up the book, 90 pages long, as benumbing for an adult to read as almost any story written for the Young Adult market, whose products are about as close to genuine fiction as megachurches are to monasteries where silence is observed.

Wha, huh? You cannot imagine how funny this is after spending nine days attending about 16 lectures discussing the complexities of writing children’s and YA literature…

*See some excerpts from the generally glowing reviews it’s getting at his site.

31 thoughts on “Spit Take”

  1. I’d decided Clute’s reviews weren’t worth reading after his review of The Plot Against America. Thanks for confirming the rightness of my decision.

  2. I’d decided Clute’s reviews weren’t worth reading after his review of The Plot Against America. Thanks for confirming the rightness of my decision.

  3. Yeah, I mostly don’t read them… in fact, I didn’t read this. Someone sent me the offending excerpt.
    There is an entertainment value in things like this though.

  4. Or it could be that, you know, he’s formed an opinion based on the YA he’s read. It’s not like he doesn’t review the stuff. Disagree with him all you like, but implying, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that he’d be so childish as to be jealous of authors earning money is a cheap shot.

  5. Whether or not I agree with him, I certainly think there is value in entertaining and understanding his opinion, recognizing its existence, etc. Mr. Clute is a fundamentally smart man, and seems to be expressing something rather complex about his feelings in regard to YA Literature that isn’t merely dismissing. I cannot think of any subdivision of literature that isn’t mostly dreck, including fiction marketed at teens. The fact that, as aficionados, we concentrate on–and reinforce the existence of–the cream of the crop, well, that only changes our own feelings of this body of work as a whole. Someone who hasn’t spent a similar effort constructing such filters probably experiences something totally different.
    It is a near Godwinization at this point to mention that this is ironic when considered against similar types of filterless misunderstanding with regard to Mr. Clute’s own beloved genre by schools even more ensconced in the literary mainstream. So I won’t bring it up.

  6. I think Clute’s often excellent when he’s reviewing books that he likes, or even books that he dislikes for interesting reasons. When he dislikes a book for more ordinary reasons (“didn’t grab me, alas”), he’s less helpful.
    Graham, I particularly had in mind the M. John Harrison worldbuilding post Niall linked to from a few weeks back, in which he condemns all reader-writer-text relationships other than his preferred one, and stops just short of blaming global warming on Tolkien. Also Clute’s “Fantastika in the World Storm” from last September.

  7. When has Harrison been anything other than cranky? That worldbuilding post could have been published at any point in his career and is just a continuum of forty years of critical thought. Obviously he thinks his view is the correct one and why shouldn’t he say that on his own blog?
    And, returning to the original quote, is it that controversial to suggest that a lot of YA is benumbing for an adult reader? Are we really just quibbling over the exact ratio: is it “a lot” or “almost all”?

  8. I think it’s controversial to suggest that YA is disproportionately benumbing for an adult reader. Plenty of grown-up fiction is plenty benumbing.

  9. I never said he didn’t have the right to say anything, but I also have a right to point out that I think it’s ridiculous.
    And while I agree that Clute’s a smart guy whose opinion probably has nothing to do with money — and also that it is extremely ironic when genre people smack children’s writing of any kind as innately not litrachure — I seriously doubt, Niall, that he’s read anywhere like enough YA to make such a charge. Basing your opinion on “your perception” or a couple dozen random novels is shaky ground for a serious critic. It also seems dangerously close to letting your own taste rule your judgment of what’s worthwhile or not.
    I personally think it is ridiculous to pretend that the assertion that “almost any story written for the Young Adult market” has much to do with books like Gossip Girl. What would be the point of that? I don’t think he’s saying that Greg Frost has written an It Club novella, so that comparison wouldn’t mean anything in this context. So, it’s either a sloppy assertion or he’s not talking about the majority of any field’s crap. Also, what adults? I’m guessing what any of us find benumbing would vary widely from what the typical Dan Brown or Oprah’s Book Club reader (aka a major portion of the adult readership) finds benumbing… so maybe it’s an inherently sloppy point however you look at it.
    (For the record, I also disagree with the assertion in his review of Chris Barzak’s novel that most YA is about “escaping being YA” — or something similar, I didn’t look it up again to quote — although the derision for YA books was happily not as apparent in that review. I think many YA books are about identity, which is not the same thing.)
    As someone who reads a vast amount of YA — and has certainly read a decent number of the best books published in the field over the past couple of years — I can tell you that adults would and DO like these books. I’m a demanding reader and do not feel I’m being benumbed or taking a step down in quality when I read them. I defy anyone to tell me that Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet isn’t as complicated as any fantasy novel for adults that’s come out in the same period. Or Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Or a whole bunch of others. In fact, I suspect many adult readers — since that has to be the adults we’re talking about, right? — would love the tightness and focus and immediacy of good YA novels.

  10. I would certainly suggest that How I Live Now is nowhere near as complicated or, more fundamentally, honest as a novel for adults. I’m sure it reads much better if you are twelve. It’s true that there is an irony in this, though, because most SF reads much better if you are twelve too.

  11. Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one, Martin. And I think it’s actually crazy for you to make such an assertion comparing it to a “novel for adults” — what novel for adults? As if the novel for adults is in and of itself something special.
    Rosoff’s is an excellent novel (period, not “novel for children”), in my opinion, and in lots of others. You disagree, which is fine. I could be persnickety and cite all the critics who would agree with me, but that doesn’t change your position (it does weaken it a bit, though). (And, to be fair, there are critics who didn’t care for that book either.) I note you’re not disagreeing about Elizabeth Knox, which probably just means you haven’t read those books.

  12. a p.s. (and then I’m out for the rest of the day, I’m afraid, traveling):
    Suggesting that the novel for adults or the novel for children holds any innate honesty or dishonesty is ludicrous.

  13. No, I haven’t read Dreamhunter Duet, there are a great many books I haven’t read. You were suggesting some specific examples of YA books that are incontrovertably as good as good adult novels and challenging anyone to disagree. I was just rising to that challenge. I am aware of the many critics who highly regard Rosoff’s novel, indeed this was why I bought it. I don’t think this weakens my position and as you say sensible people can disagree on the relative merits of a book.
    Talking in general terms about YA versus adult is difficult and perhaps even pointless. There is, of course, no reason why a novel for children must be inately dishonest or a novel for adults inately honest. However, it seems to me that in this specific instance Rosoff brings a lack of honesty to Daisy’s situation and I believe this is because of the audience she is writing for. I think you could compare and contrast Ian McEwan’s depiction of a similar situation in The Cement Garden.
    I like to read YA and I like to read SF but neither regularly approach the levels of mainstream literary fiction. I’m not even sure there is any reason why YA should. So whilst Clute is being typically overbearing I don’t see it as a particular wild or unsupportable view.

  14. Martin, again, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree (though I suspect we aren’t actually that far apart on the topic from this response), especially about Rosoff’s novel. I think the honesty of Daisy’s voice and her perceptions of the situations counteract what you’re complaining about. In fact, one of the things I love about that novel is that Rosoff resists ever letting us know completely empirically what has been happening — Daisy is an unreliable narrator, and not to be believed on some details. Rosoff sticks with that, because she has to for the integrity of her point of view choice, and it worked for this reader. I’m definitely not of the opinion it’s a perfect novel, but I do think it’s a very, very good one.
    I was purely responding — I’ll admit in kneejerk fashion! — to the part of your comment that compared the book to any generic adult novel, saying it was less honest, as if that is an innate quality such novels possess. It seems clear that wasn’t what you actually meant. Mea culpa.
    And now, off to catch planes and such.

  15. Hmmm. Let’s just do a little sanding and polishing and see if we can settle this to everybody’s satisfaction:
    The second section of Shadowbridge is a thoroughly routine fantasy novella, a hugely distended tale within the network of tales that makes up the book, 90 pages long, as benumbing for an aficionado of literary mainstream fiction to read as almost any story written for the science fiction and fantasy market, whose products are about as close to genuine fiction as megachurches are to monasteries where silence is observed.
    There! That’s better.

  16. What makes The Cement Garden adult rather than YA, apart from marketing?
    My only complaint about most of the YA I’ve read is the lack of attention to the concerns of people over 25. Of course, this is also a valid criticism of the great majority of the adult genre novels I’ve read, including several where the protagonists’ ages were in triple digits.

  17. I don’t like to read stories from the point of view of teenagers. Does that mean I should be stoned to death? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s Stephen King or someone regularly published as YA. I am not interested in the angst of teenagers, for the most part. I want to read about adults. What I find annoying is that if you express something like that, you’re generally treated by the evangelicals of YA as attacking them or as if you’re somehow crippled. I really resent that and I think YA critics and authors have to rein in the rhetoric. YA is, at the end of the day, aimed at YA. Some are also of interest to adults, but not most of it. I’m posting anonymously because I really don’t want the blowback associated with expressing, honestly, my reading preferences.

  18. ‘nine days attending about 16 lectures discussing the complexities of writing children’s and YA literature’
    Now that sounds VERY interesting, and did you get any insight into identifying what age group YA fiction is aimed at?
    Of course I consider myself YA, but that’s a maturity issue. I am just lucky that I live a schoolboys dream, a few of them actually.
    I am learning (slowly) that the likes of Mr Clute’s review, is not really for the casual reader, most definitely not for a YA person, er whoever they really are, not for Teenagers, well they’d lose attention by the perceived long windedness, probably be lashing through the actual novel at this stage, or thinking about something they shouldn’t, and probably not for people who want simple feedback into whether a book is worth picking up to enjoy.
    “Exemplum.” Quite.
    Is that a magic spell for a piece of fruit or something…
    Not that kids aren’t ferociously intelligent and continually underestimated, they are, I am always in awe at their ingenuity and capability to comprehend, but like me, they get bored.
    He spoils this story, and offers a very in-depth and critical analysis of the book – the people who like this, read Clute’s reviews.
    This is fine of course, BUT publishers and authors probably are not so objective.
    Of course, I could be all really wrong, and Mr. C might have some young idolizing following.
    The Cult of Clute.
    perhaps not. But I am sure it could be arranged.
    Sorry I’ve just soiled your blog.

  19. Gwenda, that wasn’t me!
    Hey, anonymous person, I don’t know what stoning you’re talking about. I don’t read a lot of YA and I’ll go farther than you–I don’t like teenagers in real life, much less fiction! The people closest to me in all the world number a bunch of YA writers among ’em, including, of course, my wife, and I’m pretty sure they know that my tastes run other directions.
    But they also know, I think, that we’re talking about my tastes, and that I possess the critical acumen, the breadth of mind, and the goodwill to recognize and celebrate good work even when I don’t necessarily share the worldview of the characters or of the supposed target audience for that work. This is what allows me to read stories about anything and anybody besides white, middle-classed, middling educated, middle-aged bicycle obsessives.
    Lighten up.

  20. Just a clarification for Niall: my cynical money comment was in response to Justine’s “what it is that makes some of the old guard so very cranky about the current YA explosion?” and not in response to Gwenda’s “what’s up with Clute”.
    While I’m certain that a lot of the grumbling I’ve heard from authors, especially genre authors, about YA folks is actually rooted in monetary jealousy–indeed sometimes that’s been an explicit part of the complaint–I don’t think that would apply to critics.

  21. I’m really late on all this (out of town I’m afraid) but I think there are several issues that seem to have been overlooked. First, YA fiction (good, bad and otherwise) is written for teenage readers. That does not – and never should – mean it is simplistic in any way shape or form. However, teenagers generally have different questions/concerns/thoughts about life than adults. In other words, while we all (regardless of age) might enjoy the fantasy of “Lord of the Rings” it is doubtful that we would react the same way to books set in real life. Teenagers seek one thing in a book, adult readers another. I often find myself reacting to a YA book as an adult (Ellen Emerson White’s “Long May She Reign is a recent example of this) only to reconsider on second thought how it would be receved in a different fashion by a teenager and that I JUST MIGHT BE WRONG. (In this case I had an issue with the love interest – I thought he was an idiot. Then I realized how much he was like the guy I loved in college – so entirely appropriate for a teenage girl to love but not perhaps for a 39 year old woman to like. I was wrong to put my adult expectations on a teen character.)
    But really, the major point here is that it is entirely incorrect for anyone, ever, to make broad sweeping generalizations about books for any age group or genre. Any reviewer (and I don’t care who it is) loses credibility when they write a statement like Mr. Clute has here. He has not read – no one has read – the hundreds of thousands of YA titles necessary to make that kind of statement. Or even 10,000 YA titles – or even 1,000. He would have had to read titles from all genres of YA fiction and he would have had to read them across a broad spectrum of years. We all know he has not done that and it is because of this that I feel he shown himself to be a poor reviewer in this instance.
    He fired a shot that he had no qualification to make, and it was entirely inappropriate in his position as a reviewer, period.
    It is pointless to ask the question of whether or not YA fiction is as good as adult fiction. Quite simply, some of it is and some of it isn’t. Just as some ADULT fiction is as good as YA fiction, and some of that most certainly is not. And I mean adult literature – not genre fiction. I read both and I read a lot of it and at the end of the day, what I like might not be what you like, but I don’t base my decision on the age of the intended reader; I like good, well written books.
    Mr. Clute took a cheap unnecessary shot here and anyone who continues to argue the point that YA is not as good as adult is doing the same thing. Neither is better, some are good and some are bad. You might not like some books I like and I might not like some you enjoy. But don’t tell me every single book in any literary category or genre is inferior merely by being placed in that category.
    And if you need proof, go see what Sherman Alexie wrote to win the NBA. It’s just good writing, plain and simple. The fact that it resonates so well with teen and adult readers is a bonus, but as it is a YA novel I think it clearly refutes what Mr. Clute is suggesting.
    I’m just disappointed that he was arrogant enough to make that statement in the first place.

  22. What makes The Cement Garden adult rather than YA, apart from marketing?
    Er, the same thing that makes all adult fiction adult fiction rather than YA: it was written for adults, not children. Or am I missing your point, David?

  23. Martin, strangely, that reasoning never even occurred to me — maybe because as a good postmodernist I tend not to put a lot of weight on authorial intention in any case, but. 🙂
    Some people would say that what makes YA fiction YA is that it’s about YAs, and on those grounds Cement Garden certainly qualifies, right?
    On the question of authorial intent, though: Ender’s Game — for example — was written for an adult audience, but was later reissued as part of Tor’s YA Starscape line, and AFAIK is still available in both YA and adult editions — is the YA edition false advertising?
    I don’t know enough about the broader YA market to know whether CG could be sold as YA today or not — certainly it would draw a lot of fire from conservatives — but I don’t see any reason it would be inherently inaccessible to a YA audience. Or any reason an “intended-for-children” YA novel need inherently lack CG’s depth or complexity. A younger reader might not get everything out of it an adult would, but that’s probably true of Philip Pullman and even J.K. Rowling.

  24. Er, the same thing that makes all adult fiction adult fiction rather than YA: it was written for adults, not children.
    Not that I’m trying to make trouble or anything. There’s another McEwan book called The Child in Time. In which the main character writes a book for adults, and his publisher tells him it’s a children’s book and publishes it as such. Authorial intent, it would seem, doesn’t always come into it.
    And, as David notes, books originally published as adult books can get republished as YA books. The example which comes immediately to my mind is David Eddings.

  25. Yeah, I’m not so sure the definition of YA as books written for the young adult audience holds up. There are many fine writers who are published for that market who claim they do not write their books for that audience necessarily. I would submit something more along the lines of books that hold enough appeal for teenagers that they are published in that market.
    Some people will say that anything with a young protag is YA — I tend to think it’s more a question of the immediacy with which the story is told. Though even this is not always true.
    Of course, Clute specified stories written for the YA market, which does mean he’s talking about those that are, not all the books that have been republished as YA now, or which really could be published for either market, etc.

  26. Some people would say that what makes YA fiction YA is that it’s about YAs, and on those grounds Cement Garden certainly qualifies, right?
    Indeed, and that has always struck me as a bloody stupid way of describing YA. If we just say YA is “books with YA protagonists” then we are saying something that is uninteresting and pointless. What is gained by describing Romeo and Juliet as YA Fiction?
    I would suggest there is a difference between author intended audience and publisher intended audience. So no, Ender’s Game isn’t a YA but it perfectly acceptable to market it as such. Harry Potter isn’t adult fiction but it is perfectly acceptable to market it as such. These are commercial choices unrelated to the books themselves.
    I’m actually quite happy to accept authorial intent is irrelevent but that just means that YA doesn’t exist. And I’m quite happy with the idea YA doesn’t exist because it always struck me as a problematic term.
    However I do think there are books written for children and books written for adults and you probably switch from one to the other at about the age of 12. I think I read The Cement Garden when I was about 15 – I’d seen the film the year earlier – but that doesn’t make it a YA novel.

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