Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Entry-level

I was going to say something else -- actually I was going to go do something else entirely -- when scalzi sidetracked me. He said (of two of his published novels, when someone was saying they were wondering when he'd do something ambitious):

Both books are also ambitious in these sense they aim to be accessible to people who don't regularly read science fiction as well as those who do (as does The Android's Dream, which is upcoming). The mechanics of such a task -- keeping the book open enough so that people who don't read SF can follow it, while not insulting the intelligence and expectations of those who do regularly read SF -- aren't exactly simple, even if the end result is a light, fast and fun read. I don't want to overstate the case, mind you; I'm not doing brain surgery, here. On the other hand, just because it looks simple doesn't mean it is. Finding the right balance to make both Cory Doctorow and my mother-in-law happy readers is a tricky thing.

YES.

scalzi's work is not explicitly for a young adult audience, but you get this a lot if you tell people you write for kids or for teenagers: they assume that the process must be easier just because the people involved are younger. sdn has talked about people acting like she plays in the sandbox all day because she edits YAs, and the fakey-smiley response is often like that.

And I've never taught physics grad students, and I've never written a doctoral-level monograph in history; but I would bet you good money that at least some of the difficulties in doing those things are not greater than the difficulties in teaching freshman physics lab or writing a history text for fourth through sixth graders but rather are different difficulties. Don't believe me? You can go ahead and explain pogroms to a 9-year-old audience in words they understand, that will get the concept across with due gravity but without scaring the kid so badly that they have nightmares for weeks about man's inhumanity to man. Also perform this task in less than 200 words, and also make sure that the words you choose will not offend parents, teachers, librarians, etc. either by their explicit nature or by their coy omissions. And remember that yours may be the very last reference to the subject they see until they take a history course in college, if ever. See what an easy romp that is -- why, it must be! It is for the sweet little childrens!

I've run into people who were acting like scalzi's work is either obviously superior or obviously inferior to people who are making less of a deliberate attempt to appeal to readers outside the genre, and I think both are wrong. The world has room for both. That factor does not create a total ordering. Different books are good for different things, for different people, at different times. Hitting more than one of those things is good indeed -- Cory Doctorow and scalzi's mother-in-law -- but it's okay to write for one or the other.

Which brings me around to one of the books I read last week: Francine Prose's After. After is about high school students after a nearby school shooting, and how the school gradually takes their rights away. The main character is fairly explicitly what I would call "average-appealing": he's slightly better than average in his studies, his sports, and his looks, but not so much better at any of them as to stand out. After is very carefully crafted for average kids to see themselves in the protagonist and his struggles, and to think about their own attitudes towards civil rights/civil liberties.

Which is well and good in its way -- the average high school kid should think about that stuff. We'll all be better off for it if they do. But it turns out that it's not particularly easy to keep a character totally average and still have him deal with a dystopian scenario successfully. Rather than easing her protagonist into outstanding behavior -- perhaps in a way that kids could imagine themselves doing, becoming heroes in extraordinary circumstances -- she kept him resolutely average, and everything else in the book suffered with that decision. The dire consequences stayed petty, and he didn't figure out things that were screamingly obvious, and I think in some senses it undermined what she was trying to show: oh noes, people could impose a curfew on high school students? What a dreadful use of brain-controlling e-mail! What a scary dystopia!

So appealing to that average is worth doing, sure, but easy? No, clearly not; Prose is a good writer and still didn't manage it at all -- the book fell apart if you poked it with the smallest stick, and I don't know that it was much more satisfying to the intended average reader, either. And maybe it was self-consciousness about her audience that did her in, and maybe it was something else entirely. I think that someone who is writing for adults has a bit of a different challenge, because most adults don't have their reading material thrust upon them , and the average adult just doesn't read much. So when you aim for the average reader, that's very different from aiming for the average person. I'm not willing to give up on the average person, but sometimes reading books meant for them is a slog, too, and while I might think of doing "gateway drug" books at some point, for the average reader who didn't know much about [insert favored subgenre here], but I'm not sure I could do average person books myself. I'm not sure I have the patience. I respect Prose for trying -- but I'm a lot more interested in scalzi's books aimed at people who are not the average SF reader but also can be counted on to think things through a bit.

Ah well; I'm told one can't do everything, so that'll just be one of the things I don't do.
Tags: bookses precious, full of theories, kids these days
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