That Old Publishing Pendulum

All I want to do is knit and watch Antonioni movies today. I’ve been on an Italian kick lately, a bunch of Fellini crawling in through my eyeholes and scratching a deep dream-urge or two in my visual cortex. Antonioni is a natural next step, but I’ve got work to do. I managed to catch up on NaNo wordcount, and those copyedits aren’t getting any fresher.

*time passes*

I wandered away to do some website setup, was balked several times, and finally threw my hands up in despair. I’ve a run to get in this morning too, though as soon as I step out the door I’m sure a torrential downpour will appear. The only question is whether or not to take Miss B with me. On the one hand, it will tire her out. On the other hand, a soaked and enthusiastic dog climbing all over me all day.

Choices, choices. What I’m really doing is resisting finishing Reader’s Shadow.

Part of my foot-dragging is the fact that any book with a teenage girl as a protagonist is viewed as “girly YA” unless it’s written by a Franzenesque white dude. (Then it’s regarded as “Serious” and “Literary.”) Which drives me to a type of jaw-clenched irritation bordering on actual vexation. It’s not that I dislike YA as a genre, or that I don’t want to write those stories. The trouble lies with the marketing and packaging. I had to push back so, so hard against pressure from publishers to water and dumb down teenage characters, the entire experience left an awful lingering taste. Kids swear, kids think about adult subjects, kids are far smarter than our society can admit. The pathological worship of pliable female youth in our culture is a mess of malignancy, and like all cancers, it does its best to eat up anything around it. Getting sucked into that black hole, having to fight against its pull, is difficult and draining on a daily basis. When you add having to fight for your work, for characters you believe in, it can wear you down to threadbare right quickly.

That’s a big reason why I don’t want to “publish YA.” It’s not the fans or the stories, both of which I love. It’s the uphill battle against marketing committees who want me to dumb down, water down, filter, bullshit the story. Even a whiff of that bullshit will turn readers off; their noses are extremely sensitive. After tearing one’s heart and guts out to write a novel, having to go into battle daily against the drip-drip-drip of “couldn’t you just change this one little thing? then this other little thing? oh, and this tiny thing? oh, and this?” can drive one to a cyanide well.

“You can’t have them drink. You can’t have them swear. What will the Bible Belt mothers think? If even one of those biddies complains we get scared. You can’t have teenagers acting like teenagers! We’ll lose sales!”

There are dedicated, fantastic people working in YA. But the pressure from bean-counters and marketing–even if those bean-counters and marketing folks are dedicated and personally quite winning–wears away at the edges until, if you’re not careful, you end up with pablum reeking of aforesaid bullshit. It’s more of an institutional culture than an individual failing, and it dragged at my keel until I sank. I’m sure it didn’t help that I was writing YA under terrific pressure in my personal life as well. (It was painful, let’s just leave it at that.)

So, writing teenage protagonists right now reminds me of all that. My faithful agent, to her credit, keeps trying with the YAs I write just for her, but my unwillingness to blunt any of the sharp edges means it’s a matter of finding exactly the right editor at exactly the right house, and that takes time. She believes in the books; I’m endlessly grateful for that.

But I doubt I’ll ever do trad publishing with YAs again. Or even self-pub, with the current one I’m working on and Harmony, which is out on sub now. “The problem is,” I remarked to said faithful agent, “they’re not ‘young adult.’ They’re books that just happen to have teenage protagonists, that’s all. ‘Young adult’ has become a somewhat ossified designation.”

She insists they have a very teenage voice–either a testament to skill or a mark of how I manage to vanish so the characters’ broadcast comes through–and wants to see them out in the world. I can’t fault her for that. I’m the biggest obstacle to getting them out, because I’m so gun-shy. I’m also extremely conscious it’s a luxury, to be able to wait, to hold out, to have the time to do so. I’m grateful for it.

Nothing in publishing lasts forever. The pendulum will swing again, I’m sure.

But in the meantime, I wait, and write these things for my darling agent, and tear my heart out for characters who won’t see the light of day until the swinging starts.

It’s enough.

  • I love your young adults. BTW, I read YA. Not all YA, but I read some great fiction labeled as YA. My introduction was Holly Black. She is an author who writes authentic YA characters like yourself. You should self publish. Maybe the problem is YA and NA labels. I have been reading adult fiction since age 10. Especially in the romance genre, the heroine were often teens, but no one called it YA. A good book was a good book. What I would like to see is a OAF (Old As Fuck) label, because how often do you see older characters in genre fiction. I would definitely buy a book about a kickass 50 something.