Kids come into the bookstore all the time with requests, usually a specific author or the title of a series. There’s a lot of word-of-mouth with kids books that the adult book world would kill for. For some books, it’s almost as if a title cycles through a particular season. One kid in the third grade “discovers” Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series perhaps thinking he’s the first kid that ever actually read these books, his friends check them out of the library, and the third wave forces their parents to the store to buy the books because the library copies are always checked out. Two weeks of kids buying what’s on the shelf, or forcing their parents to order missing titles, and then just as quickly the fad has passed and it’s onto something else.
If I hadn’t been stumped over an essay topic this past week I might not have made a similarly obvious discovery of my own. I was thinking about some of the titles I’ve been reading lately, and their authors, while examining the use of voice. It was a very simple conversation I was having with myself — first person, third person, narrative, and dialog — and then I made a list and started matching up titles, authors and voices. Any time you start making lists you start to see things, patterns and trends. What did this list say about my choice of reading this month? What does it say about the characters I’m drawn to?
What does it say about popular versus literary? Yeah, suddenly that’s staring me in the face. Like I’m in third grade thinking I’m the first to ponder this brilliant thought.
I’m being a bit vague, but for a reason. First, I haven’t really given this theory of mine a true stink test yet — it’s only a theory based on a random sampling of things that have interested me that I’ve read. Second is a little more tricky.
See, I know this writer — well, “know” is relative, but just roll with it. They’re a very respected writer, many books published, often cited to me by others who consider this person a sort of paragon of style and substance. (No, it’s not my advisor’s books either.) I read their books and can see why they are recommended; every lesson in writing is clearly, plainly, perfectly laid out. The story jumps from the first line, the dialog sparks, narrative flows and characters feel. It’s everything I’m supposed to aspire to as a writer.
It’s a book no kid would read without being forced, by a librarian or teacher, someone who would have to sell them on it. It’s a book no kid would “discover” on his or her own, no word-of-mouth for this book exists. Not only is this writer’s name never on the lips of any kid looking for a book, if I were to mention their name they would look at me as if I’d started speaking in Esperanto to them.
Daily you can see the giant holes on the shelves in bookstores and libraries where the popular books are normally kept. These are the books that make the rounds, that are read and become part of the shared culture for generations of readers. They are the series with characters, or the authors who know how to deliver what kids want. No one would ever confuse these books for literature, yet somehow these books are considered lesser than those held up to aspiring writers as paragons of literary virtue.
Why is that?
I’ve got this book in my hand and all I can think while I’m reading it is “This is so well written, it’s no wonder it’s used as an example for writing students.” At the same time, whenever I take a break to consider the craft of the book I think “Who the hell is this book written for?” There should be no doubt who the intended audience is, but the fact that I ask sends up the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. I can see the structure, the armature, the finer points of craft, but has the machinery made the book too sterile for a young reader? Should this magnificent arrangement of character development, motivation, and feelings trump the enjoyment of reading?
I’ve always thought that my ideal audience, the person I’m writing for, is me. Not the adult me but the me that would be the same age as the main character of my stories. It isn’t purely a question of my younger self wanting all action and no emotion, but this sense that… all I can think of right now is a cooking analogy. I would rather be a baker of cakes people loved to eat than a decorator of cakes that looked good, tasted too “clean,” and were prohibitively expensive.
This is it, isn’t it? This is where the road diverges in the yellow wood. Or, as a more contemporary wordsmith once said, I’m standing in the middle of life with my pants behind me.